Digital lipstick on a delivery pig

James Riley
Editorial Director

It’s early days, but in the absence detail let’s call it a poor imitation that flatters to deceive. ‘Lipstick on a pig’ also comes to mind. Scott Morrison’s Services Australia was flat-paddled into life via the Commonwealth’s Administrative Arrangement Orders on Wednesday and now we’re all open-mouthed and blinking.

The Prime Minister had unveiled Services Australia as part of the Cabinet reshuffle that followed the election. It is to be the federal government’s version of Service NSW, the highly successful service delivery agency set up by former Premier Barry O’Farrell eight years ago.

The administrative arrangements, which are effectively ScoMo’s marching orders to Martin Parkinson and the rest of the department secretaries, moved the Digital Transformation Agency from its independent home under the department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

The orders also changed the name of the ‘Department of Human Services’ into ‘Services Australia’.

Apart from that, the orders were a blank in relation to how Scott Morrison’s new creation would achieve its promise of bureaucratic congestion-busting, and delivering better services that make better use of technology and better integrate service delivery across portfolios. Better, better, better.

As of Wednesday night, the DTA still could not say whether it would remain as a separate agency within the portfolio, or if it would simply be subsumed into the department formerly known as DHS. This is an important detail.

It is worth noting that the Prime Minister’s congestion-busting comments made at his Cabinet announcement last Sunday were uplifting, and sent a clear signal. His instincts are good, and he is attacking the right area. There are huge benefits for citizens and for the economy in getting public sector technology humming.

There are also huge, if so far unrealised, opportunities to use not only make the $9 billion spent annually on information technology and services more efficient. And also to use this procurement heft and the government’s large pools of data as a driver for the local industry.

That outsized cost to the budget can and should be used as a key lever in industrial policy. It should be used in deliberate fashion to build Australian capability and, as a happy coincidence, to help build smart successful Australian technology companies.

If the Prime Minister was looking for somewhere the government can make a real and visible difference to citizens, his instincts are bang-on. There is much to be harvested here, and Service NSW is the right place to look for a model.

So credit should be given where credit is due.

But even though my mother always taught me to look for the similarities and not the differences – such as the name Services Australia is kinda like Service NSW – there are quite vast and important differences in structure that cannot be ignored.

Here are some top-line thoughts.

Service NSW was set up as an independent delivery agency eight years ago with its own CEO and a set of KPIs that are quite different from a government department. It was situated within the Department of Finance (a power purse-string pulling force) and had a reporting structure that included a dotted line to a powerful and credentialed Customer Service Commissioner.

As of about a month ago, Service NSW was tucked into the newly created Department of Customer Service, and expanded brief for former finance Minister Victor Dominello and one of just three whole of government departments (the others being Premier and Cabinet and the Treasury.)

In other words Service NSW, although it started small, was always at the centre in NSW. As it has built over time into the force it is today, it is worth looking at the team around it, which has grown with the experiment, to the point where the structure inside the NSW government is very different from its peers.

NSW is doing things that other government cannot do today. It has been insanely ambitious in its public administration and a time when other governments have been timid. But if they had tried to set up today’s structure eight years ago, it would not have worked. It has been built over time by a team.

The first Customer Service Commissioner is a former group executive from the banking sector. He is now secretary to the NSW Treasury. He was replaced as Customer Service Commissioner by another former banker, Glenn King who was also appointed to run the Premier’s behavioural analytics unit. Mr King has now been promoted to secretary Department of Customer Service.

The Premier Gladys Berejiklian was running the transport ministry at a time when Transport was doing some of the most interesting work inside government with data – and even with the new methodologies like hackathons and the like.

The secretary of the Department of Transport at the time was Tim Reardon, who is now secretary of Premier and Cabinet, is a dataphile like his boss.

And of course, the Treasurer Dominic Perrottet was Minister for Finance at the time Service NSW was created, with Victor Dominello innovation minister in the same portfolio driving the new agency.

In other words, all of the senior political and departmental leadership of the three powerful above-the-line departments are driving the digital and technology agenda. It is not a side issue, it is a central issue.

In the NSW government, being involved in digital and tech is good for your career. This is absolutely not the case at the federal level.

And then there is data. New South Wales has developed over several years a formidable in-house data science capability under Ian Opperman at the Data Analytics Centre, or the DAC as it is affectionately known. I say again, it is an in-house capability.

This is a powerful tool that does not exist in anything like the same way at the federal level. The DAC is an incredible tool, and one that put a turbo-charge under the state’s service delivery efforts.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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