Cath Thompson on the long road to digital trustworthiness

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James Riley

Catherine Thompson had spent a career in corporate procurement roles, among other things, before she landed in 2015 at the Digital Transformation Office.

These were heady days for digital service delivery in the federal government. The then-Communications minister Malcolm Turnbull had wrangled support for the creation of the DTO in the Abbott Government in early 2015 as a kind of internal digital disrupter.

Mr Turnbull became Prime Minister later in the year, and “government as exemplar” entered the vernacular as a foundational element of the National Innovation and Science Agenda.

Specifically, the DTO was set up to drive best-in-class digital services, and thereby provide a lift for digital capability across the economy.

In this episode of the Commercial Disco podcast, Ms Thompson dives deep into the challenges of digital service delivery in government, she discusses procurement policies to drive better delivery outcomes, and unpicks some of the recommendations of both the MyGov Review led by David Thodey, as well as the Robodebt Royal Commission.

As anyone who follows this stuff will know, it has been a wild ride. Ms Thompson had a front-row seat to the early days at the DTO, when it was at its most creative – and when it was delivery agency rather than a policy agency.

She says she was “extremely fortunate” to have been at the DTO at a time when so much new work was being done. was created, the digital dashboard of key metrics for government service delivery projects was set up, the Digital Service Standard was rolled out, the work on the digital identity program was kicked off, and Ms Thompson’s own project, the Digital Marketplace was begun.

In subsequent years, Ms Thompson set up a consulting business Hypereal – with former DTO chief executive Paul Shetler – which she continued after Mr Shetler’s untimely death in early 2020. She has worked on projects across both the federal government and the states.

In addition to consulting work, Ms Thompson has begun research for a PhD that looks at trustworthiness. Based on her work in government service delivery and the experience of robodebt, she started the PhD with a focus on trust – but it swiftly became about trustworthiness instead.

Catherine Thompson
Hypereal co-founder Catherine Thompson

“Because it is possible to trust something that is not trustworthy at all. And that’s the crux of it,” Ms Thompson told the Commercial Disco.

“Trustworthiness is a higher order construct, because [in order] to trust, you have got to make a decision: Do I or don’t I?

“And people who are in low optionality conversations – governments and citizens [who] can’t really go anywhere else – are not in a position where they can make a decision to trust or not,” she said.

“So, it’s up to the service itself to be trustworthy. And in [the case of robodebt], it actually wasn’t.”

There is plenty of meat in this conversation, and Catherine Thompson is always good fun to catch up with. The subject matter is difficult and complex and challenging, the discussion is not always optimistic, but these are foundational issues for government right now

These issues go to the heart of the citizen-government compact.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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