Digital capability problems: Shetler

James Riley
Editorial Director

Every four weeks, more than one in eight Australians access government information and public services online. Nearly half of those users experience a problem in doing so, and a mere 16 per cent believe government is doing a good job.

That’s what the Australian Government’s former digital tsar Paul Shetler told the Senate inquiry on Digital delivery of government services in his opening statement on Wednesday.

Mr Shetler, who was recruited in 2015 by then Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull to serve as inaugural CEO of the Digital Transformation Office, said that in the course of his 14 months with the DTO – later the Digital Transformation Agency – his team experienced first-hand the challenges that have contributed to a “steady drip-drip-drip of poor government services”.

Paul Shetler: A measured performance at Senate’s inquiry into government digital service

“In my time as DTO, I saw dedicated public servants doing their best to help Australians, but often failing because of a shortage of digital skills,” Mr Shetler said.

“Instead of providing digital training to public servants, too often we’ve outsourced IT to large international technology vendors and consultants,” he said.

“Outsourcing makes the government seem smaller, but is expensive and contributes further to deskilling the public service.”

In addition to issues related to digital capability, Mr Shetler told the hearing that culture continues to hinder the delivery of digital services.

“Amazon would never ask you to deal with their packing website and then head over to their shipment site. But Australian entrepreneurs have to work through multiple different websites to get various licenses, tax numbers and other things required to start a business,” Mr Shetler said.

“We leave it for them to figure out how it all works and if they are being compliant,” he said.

A central theme in the testimony was about what the government can learn from the private sector – and that fact that government is the largest buyer of technology products and services in the country.

“Government needs to have the same kind of mindset as industry. [It] needs to understand the impact of digital on the business models we have, on the ways we can serve the public, and the ways we can rethink and reimagine our services.”

It can certainly learn a thing or two from the likes of Amazon and Netflix, he says.

“Amazon doesn’t ask you to navigate their internal bureaucracy… There’s lots of things going on, but Amazon hides that from you. They make it easy to buy something.”

Not everyone on the committee let the proposition that the a comparison between the federal government and private sector companies was a fair one.

Liberal senator James Paterson said governments and private companies were “inherently different” and quizzed Mr Shetler on how many governments were doing as well as Uber or Netflix.

Mr Shetler pointed to Estonia, which is widely regarded as a global leader in digital government services. (Case in point: e-Estonia, a coordinated governmental effort to transform the country from a state into a digital society.)

“Government should be, and I think really must be, open to practice as it evolves and to seeing what doesn’t work and what does and to be on the forefront wherever it can,” Mr Shetler said.

According to Mr Shetler, the way government builds digital products is outdated, and surprisingly often it is quite similar to how it would approach building a bridge – with lengthy documentation that requires specifications decided at the onset of the project. This approach simply doesn’t cut it for digital service delivery.

“When you want to have a digital service, you have an outcome, but you don’t know the best way of getting there,” Mr Shetler told the hearing.

He said government needs to recognise, and accommodate, that digital service delivery requires a “drip-feed approach”, which involves testing ideas, prototypes, data and constant user feedback.

Government budgets, he said, were the first of several roadblocks to this.

“Government should try to develop its own capabilities … Facebook, Amazon and other companies, they don’t outsource to IBM and Accenture, they make darn sure that they can react in real-time with an understanding of what user needs are.

“That’s how they survive, that’s how they maintain competitive advantage. It that’s speed, that ability to adapt, and that’s because they control what they do.”

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