Digital pioneers’ mountain to climb

James Riley
Editorial Director

If you take the view that there are no such thing as a challenge, only opportunities, then it is fair to say that government’s new Digital Transformation Office has been blessed with a monumental opportunity.

Certainly the discussions at the DTO’s all-star official launch in Sydney last week were long on opportunity and short on detail. There is yet no real understanding – in any specific sense – about how this important new agency will work.

As always, the devil will be in the detail, and the detail is still being worked out. Literally, the administrative arrangements for the agency are still under negotiation.

Digital pioneers’ mountain to climb

It is understood that government will begin advertising for a Chief Executive Officer in the couple of weeks, and that the new CEO will report directly to the Minister for Communications Malcolm Turnbull.

The DTO officially comes into existence from July 1. It is currently being set up and staffed by a hand-picked clutch of senior public servants seconded from the departments of Communications, Finance and Prime Minister and Cabinet.

The interim DTO is being administered through PM&C, but still reports through Mr Turnbull portfolio responsibilities.

These are things we know. The rest is a bit of a blank canvas. Except of course, that Australia’s Digital Transformation Office borrows heavily – is in fact modelled on – the UK government’s Government Digital Service.

It also looked to the US government for inspiration, and ideologically it has borrowed substantially from the former US Government Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra (a guest speaker at the DTO launch last week.)

The UK’s GDS was set up a little over three years ago. It has its critics, but few would argue its effectiveness. It has delivered cost savings, yes, but its real benefit will be measured in the productivity gains of better government service delivery.

The GDS has been driven with a personal passion by the UK Cabinet Secretary and Paymaster General Frances Maude. Malcolm Turnbull and his staff have spent a great deal of time with the Maude’s people in developing its DTO approach. (In fact, Mr Turnbull says he wrote to the Mr Maude to note that if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, “you should be sincerely flattered.”)

So we know broadly how the DTO will work. There’s no suggestion of a centralising of IT expenditure or approvals, or a consolidation of tech projects in to a mega-agency. No, the digital transformation office is all about starting small and agile and remaining that way.

It is to be the brash, disruptive agent inside government that will drive cultural and digital change.

But there are important differences in the DTO structure, when compared to both the UK and US models that will make the challenge of cultural change much more difficult.

Frances Maude is the Paymaster General. He signs cheques. This has given him and GDS disrupters great leverage to get things done across all of government.

Mr Turnbull does not have a cheque book to use as a carrot or stick. In the Australian model, there are no procurement levers to pull, as government’s ICT procurement policy remains tightly held within the Department of Finance.

This is not a small issue. Until the administrative arrangements for the DTO are better understood, it is difficult to know how it will bring a sceptical public service with it.

And of course the DTO differs more markedly from the US experience. When Barack Obama appointed Vivek Kundra as the nation’s first CIO, he’s just won a huge mandate. Mr Kundra’s incredible shake-up of US government technology procurement and his incredibly ambitious programs like had all of the power of the Whitehouse behind him.

It is hard to see where the DTO will derive its muscle. And this is its challenge. The DTO is not trying to take over the government IT, but it is certainly ambitious enough to take over government-citizen online interaction – the digital interface. This deep focus on UX, or citizen experience, is where great gains can be made.

How the DTO will wrangle the right to vet and veto the UX designs of other departments and agencies across government remains to be seen. Nothing that has been said publicly about the DTO offers any clue, which is why we are all awaiting the release of more detail about administrative arrangements.

Eventually you would have to think that an agency like the DTO will be given veto rights over front-end citizen engagement by departments that it deems is not up to scratch. This is the point of the agency, after all.

But getting to that point is a ways off yet. The whole notion of the DTO has a great many noses out of joint already, and it hasn’t even started.

Which is fine in its early days. The agency recognises the ‘monumental opportunity’ for what it is – a monumental challenge – and will be taking sensible bite-sized pieces of opportunity at a time (and chewing like crazy.)

Call me a conspiracy theorist if you must, but it is very hard not to wonder if the DTO capabilities have been scaled back before they begin in earnest, caught up in the Canberra weirdness of the past several months.

For the record, Digital Transformation Office was announced jointly by Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull on January 23. A couple of days later, the Prime Minister Knighted the Duke of Edinburgh, which was of course followed by the very pointed leadership questions of the past several months.

It is simply beyond reckoning that the Prime Minister’s Office would allow for the kind of whole-of-government coercive and persuasive powers that had initially been envisaged for the DTO to flow through an agency reporting through Mr Turnbull.

And perhaps this is why at the DTO’s own launch, there was so little detail on offer about how it would operate, or how it would engage with industry.

The ambitions for the DTO are huge, as they should be. But this is a long game. Start small, move fast. Get some early wins. Use the power of example.

This is going to be a wild ride and will be exciting to watch. Change doesn’t come easily and rarely comes fast. But if it is not prodded and encouraged, it does not come at all.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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