DTA fronts its big staff issue

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

The Digital Transformation Agency’s new chief executive has made bringing stability and leadership to the troubled organisation his key priority in an effort to combat the “relatively high staff turnover”.

At a senate estimates hearing, the DTA boss was also forced to back away from his claim that several staff at all levels of the agency had left due to “affiliations” with its former executives.

Former deputy Australian statistician and Immigration department chief information officer Randall Brugeaud took over as CEO in July, after Gavin Slater stepped away from the position, just 13 months into a five year contract.

The DTA has been troubled by high staff turnover in its three years of existence, with 340 staff having left the agency over an 18 month period from December 2016 to June 2018, as InnovationAus.com reported in August.

With a total workforce of 342, that figure equates to a 100 per cent turnover. But according to the DTA, many of these people were on short-term contracts, and other departures were due to machinery of government changes.

At a senate estimates hearing on Tuesday morning, Mr Brugeaud admitted that the DTA has had a “relatively high turnover” in its three years of existence, and one of his key aims as CEO was to combat this.

“One of my priorities was to immediately provide stability and leadership. Stability and leadership has been the priority to this point and I’ve been successful in maintaining that,” Mr Brugeaud told a senate estimates hearing on Tuesday morning.

“I think the culture within the DTA as I’ve observed it is quite positive, and in relation to more recent turnover since I’ve commenced in the CEO role, we have had one of our senior executives depart the organisation, which is quite extraordinary.”

“That was a decision that had been made by the executive prior to my commencement. All the other permanent DTA senior executives have remained since my appointment in July.”

The one executive to leave recently is Lesley Seebeck, who departed the DTA in late June to join the Australian National University as its first head of its new Cyber Institute.

Staff turnover at the DTA was the main discussion during the agency’s appearance at senate estimates, with senior executives defending the organisation and explaining the high rate of turnover.

“Just to be clear, more than 200 of those people who were turned over were contractors and in a lot of cases it was contractors coming to an end of their contract and they were offered another contract at the DTA, and in other cases they just came to an end of their contract,” Mr Brugeaud said.

Labor senators repeatedly asked about the turnover and raised concerns about the culture within the DTA.

Mr Brugeaud was also force to back away from a claim that some of the turnover was due to the staff being loyal to former leaders of the agency.

“There are other reasons for people departing the DTA, there are affiliations that people have with certain leadership and that often drives in any organisation changes in staffing, and we have quite a number of staff that have taken promotions and other opportunities,” he said

Mr Brugeaud initially said that this went all the way down the organisation, not just in the senior executive team, something which Labor senator Jenny McAllister questioned.

“I’m quite perturbed by your explanation that one of the reasons people leave are affiliations to leadership. That is not in the tradition of the Australian public service. In the Australian public service people serve on the basis of the skills for which they were employed,” Senator McAllister said.

The DTA boss then backtracked and said it was mainly executives that had left due to affiliations to former leaders.

“My evidence included a comment that there is an affiliation with leadership, but that is more within the senior executive ranks. I agree that it tends not to percolate down to the lowest levels of an organisation, it more relates to senior executives rather than the other staff who are more distant from the executive,” Mr Brugeaud said.

Shadow digital economy minister Ed Husic said he is concerned about the turnover rates at the DTA, and especially the departure of several senior women at the organisation.

“I have been concerned about the steady dilution of delivery capability within the DTA for some time and the evidence of turnover rates in leadership staff since the inception of the DTA, including five CEOs in just three years, just makes matters worse,” Mr Husic told InnovationAus.com.

“It’s hard to see how you can set and commit to direction for such an important agency when the senior leadership in that agency seems to be stuck in revolving door.

“And at a time where it is crucial for women to be promoted and cultivated in leadership roles, particularly in tech, it is very disappointed to note that the DTA has been unable to hold on to any of the women in the leadership team.”

The Opposition has also called on the government to reveal how much money was spent on recruitment for these senior positions.

“It will be interesting to see how much money is being spent on project delivery as opposed to building recruitment capability,” Mr Husic said.

Labor Senator Kimberley Kitching also questioned whether the DTA is a “fractionalised” workplace.

“It must be incredibly disruptive – you’d be having farewell morning teas nearly every day for more than a year,” Senator Kitching said.

A Labor-led Senate committee recent released a report on the digital delivery of government services that was scathing on the role of the DTA, saying it had been “sidelined” and “less empowered to take action”.

The DTA is currently working with the government on its response to the recommendations included in the report.

“We’re preparing plans to provide confidence to government that we’re delivering digital transformation in a responsible way. We have taken the report and we’re responding to it,” Mr Brugeaud said.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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