Digital transformation leader and public policy innovator Paul Shetler died on Friday in Sydney after suffering a heart attack on January 23. He was 59 years old.
Mr Shetler collapsed while in a meeting on-site at a NSW government agency while working on the design of a digital transformation project. He did not regain consciousness before passing away peacefully on Friday evening.
Mr Shetler had been surrounded by family and loved ones in those final days and hours.
His death has prompted a outpouring of shock and sadness across social media among the many people who had worked with Mr Shetler.
Always direct and sometimes controversial, Paul Shetler was a passionate believer in the power of digital technology to improve the lives of Australians. He was a fierce campaigner for governments to do better – and never missed an opportunity to call governments to account when service delivery standards fell short of citizens’ expectations.
Born in the US, but also a citizen of the United Kingdom, Mr Shetler had made Sydney his home since 2015, having been personally recruited by then communications minister Malcolm Turnbull as the founding CEO of the original Digital Transformation Office.
The former Prime Minister said on Twitter Mr Shetler was “as innovative as he was iconoclastic. A visionary in every sense,” describing his death as a great loss.
NSW Customer Service Minister Victor Dominello described Paul Shetler as “a giant not just in stature but in his thought leadership.”
“He had a clarity of vision that is rare but needed in an increasingly cluttered world,” Mr Dominello told InnovationAus. “I will miss Paul, for he always gave frank and fearless advice but did do in a gracious way. Vale Paul Shetler, your legacy will live on.”
Mr Shetler had been recruited to the Australian Government from the UK, where he had been a director at the famed Government Digital Service, at a time when the GDS was breaking new ground in digital delivery and was considered the gold standard for building public sector digital services.
Prior to joining the GDS, Mr Shetler had been chief digital officer at the UK’s Ministry of Justice.
Mr Shetler had left the Australian public service in late 2016, shortly after being moved sideways to be named the Australian Government Chief Digital Officer as part of a restructure of the Digital Transformation Office (which was re-named as the Digital Transformation Agency and shifted its focus away from delivery to become a more traditional policy agency.)
Having left the public service, Mr Shetler remained in Australia on a Distinguished Talent Visa. Although involved with a number of startups and providing advice to governments in Australia and elsewhere, his primary focus had been on AccelerateHQ, a public sector consulting and delivery company founded with close friend and former DTO colleague Catherine Thompson.
“Paul’s instinctive genius was to sense the looming issues for citizens and government in the digital world, and to explain their implications simply and incisively,” Ms Thompson told InnovationAus. “His passion was to make people’s lives better through great government services. This is why, in the difficult post-DTA period, he did not take the easy road back to the private sector or leave Australia.
“Paul was a consummate digital native, effortlessly spontaneous on social media, never offline, always curiously exploratory. His vision was unwavering and his attention unrelenting. My Health Record, encryption laws, digital identity, none of these escaped skewering and the national dialogue advanced and in some cases persisted because of him,” she said.
“He spoke from conviction, and regardless of personal cost. Honesty and plain speaking were values he wouldn’t compromise. He worked in the open.”
“Paul embodied many contradictions. He was boldly and uncompromisingly honest in the public eye, yet also private and shy. He cut an imposing figure but was oddly goofy. He’d absentmindedly forget to meet but was staunchly loyal,” Ms Thompson said.
“He was genuinely delighted by the success of others and generous with his knowledge. He never heard a tech joke that didn’t make him snort with laughter. He loved cheese, philosophy, and arguing about fonts. It is impossible to sum up a person so hugely complex.”
Former colleague and close friend Jordan Hatch, who is also in Australia as a Distinguished talent and who currently works as a senior advisor to NSW Customer Service Minister Victor Dominello, said Paul Shetler had been a great friend and a visionary leader.
“He created the space for many in Australia to get stuck into the hard problems of government reform,” Mr Hatch told InnovationAus. “Paul had an unwavering passion for delivery, an innate ability to spot the real challenges to solve, and zero tolerance for mediocrity.”
“It is now over to us all to channel Paul’s ideals on the journey to make governments fit for the digital era,” he said.
On a personal note, I met Paul Shetler in 2015 on his first day in Australia when he conducted an informal meet-and-greet with tech press in Sydney.
Paul was the subject of the lead story of the first ever newsletter published by InnovationAus, and over the years he became a much-loved friend to me, and to my wife and publisher Corrie McLeod.
He was an incredibly important part of our family, known to our kids forever now as Uncle Pavel.