James Riley
July 24, 2019

Searching for our digital destination

Policy

Searching for our digital destination

Martin Stewart-Weeks: Australia has done well, but needs more ambition on digital

A new book about digital transformation in government will launch next week, written by a couple of senior private sector executives and arriving at an interesting time for public sector tech in Australia.

It is less than 100 days since the re-election of the Morrison Government, the appointment of a new Government Services minister in Stuart Robert, and the re-configuring of the Department of Human Services into a new entity Services Australia.

And it is a little more than 100 days since the Berejiklian Government was re-elected in NSW – a clear leader in recent years in the delivery elements of digital – embarked on a hugely ambitious restructure of the state’s administration around digital, including the creation of the new Department of Customer Service and appointment of a Minister for Customer Service in Victor Dominello.

At the Federal level, it is still not clear how Stuart Robert intends leaving his mark on this new Government Service portfolio, or how the Digital Transformation Agency will be structured to work both within the Human Services structures and across government.

And in NSW, which has clearly flagged its intention to drive its transformation to deeper into both the machinery and policy development layers of government, everyone is watching.

Are We There Yet? The digital transformation of government and the public sector is a significant piece of work and a great contribution. Its title is somewhat cheeky.

Its authors Martin Stewart-Weeks and Simon Cooper quite explicitly do not believe we are ‘there’ and believe quite a bit more work needs to be done to even understand what ‘there’ looks like.

The authors are archetypal private sector executives, but with lengthy experience in working with governments around the world to give them a sympathetic view of the specific challenges faced by the public sector.

Are We There Yet? will be formally launched next week but is available for purchase now through Booktopia.

Martin Stewart-Weeks is well known to the Australian industry. He spent 12 years with the US communications equipment giant Cisco Systems in its public sector strategy and innovation practice. He is now an independent consultant with Public Purpose working at the intersection of government, policy, innovation and technology.

Simon Cooper is digital director with one of the big four consulting companies (the book is an enterprise independent of that employment association) based in Sydney. Originally from the UK, Mr Cooper was previously at the Home Office, where he was most recently head of Digital and Data for UK Visas & Immigration.

“The book comes from a mixture of experience and energy that we have both devoted to this space, and a certain amount of frustration about the extent to which the digital transformation project as it is playing out in government appeared to be hitting a bit of a plateau, if not stalling,” Mr Stewart-Weeks told InnovationAus.com.

“Both of us came to the conclusion that while we have made great progress over the past decade or so, but that we are not moving as far and as fast enough down the path to build a longer term outcome,” he said.

As measured against other governments around the world, Australia has done “quite well”, but a loss of momentum and a digital strategy that lacks ambition should be cause for renewing the energy and direction of transformation programs.

“Our view is that the transformation story is a story that is missing half of its narrative,” Mr Stewart-Weeks said.

“And that is that we focus intensely on the transactional and service delivery end of this conversation, and in our view we are not digging as deeply into how digital platforms and tools should open up bigger conversations about the role and performance of government,” he said.

“Sure Australia has done quite well, but … other countries are seen to be barrelling ahead and taking this conversation a bit deeper and a bit further than we are.

The Australian government digital strategy was “not as ambitious as it might have been” and was a “missed opportunity to dig a bit deeper.”

The question about Are We There Yet? Draws a flat ‘no’ – but the rationale is more nuanced, and all eyes are on Canberra to better understand how it will pivot from the current drift.

“Part of the challenge is – and we say this in our so-called manifesto where we put forward a dozen or so propositions – we need to be more ambitious about defining where ‘there’ is in the first place,” Mr Stewart-Weeks said.

“There is real interest in what this means in Canberra, given that for a lot of people there is a sense that the digital agenda at the national level has lot a bit of momentum and drive.

“And the question is, is the agenda going to pick up again in the new administration, and if so, to what effect.”

Are We There Yet? The digital transformation of government and the public sector will be launched in Sydney on June 30, but is available for sale now through Booktopia.

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