Malcolm Turnbull’s pet project, the Digital Transformation Agency, was put under intense scrutiny at the Senate Estimates last week, with revelations the organisation no longer sees itself as a disruptor, announced the exact same policy twice, and been confirmed “missing in action” on recent government technology failures.
Interim DTA chief executive Nerida O’Loughlin said she does not see the DTA’s role as a disruptor within government, but rather as an organisation that assists departments with “procurement, assurance, policy and strategy”.
“The DTO was there to be a disruptor, [to] think about things different, to go into agencies and challenge them. It was a confined role to transforming government digital services and service delivery,” Ms O’Loughlin said.
“It was quite a different role to what I see as my role, and the broader role of the organisation.”
“In the collation of the DTA we have kept that core technology user centred design delivery aspect, which was so important in the DTO, of challenging departments and agencies to think differently and change the way they develop and deliver government services.
“We still have that role but we also have an expanded role around procurement, assurance, policy and strategy.”
The Digital Transformation Office was scrapped in October last year and replaced by the renamed DTA, and its former boss Paul Shetler quickly moved on from the new organisation.
The DTO under Mr Shetler struggled to gain support from larger government departments, and the pivot signalled by Ms O’Loughlin suggests it has caved to the will of the public service Mandarins, rather than being an instrument to drive real digital change.
Shadow Minister for the Digital Economy Ed Husic said the change of focus raised questions about the effectiveness of the organisation, especially its reluctance to get intervene where there were clear tech failures in government.
“Malcolm Turnbull always used to describe the DTO as the insurgents. But now they look like they’ve become the doormats,” Mr Husic told InnovationAus.com.
“If the departments and public sector doesn’t like what the DTO is proposing they just get steamrolled. It appears the name change to DTA from DTO really marked a bigger thing, which is effectively neutering anyone who wants to revolutionise the way the government does its work.
“I get that the public service is inherently cautious and focused on delivering in their way, but there is a counter-insurgency going on with the public service towards the stuff the DTO used to do.”
This inability to effect real change could have a big impact on digital transformation in Australia, Mr Husic said.
“It just pulls the handbrake up on digital transformation and allows the natural tendency for conservatism to creep back in, and then we just go back to square one,” he said.
Estimates heard directly how the DTA has altered its focus, with its longstanding push to consolidate the Australian government’s estimated 1500 websites into the one Gov.au domain.
The DTO presented a plan as to how to approach a single government domain in 2015, and for most of 2016 worked on building the beta version of this along with its business case. But it encountered opposition from several departments, which were already working on transforming and improving their own websites.
When the DTO was replaced with the DTA in October, plans for the single government domain were quickly suspended by Ms O’Loughlin.
This restructure of the DTA last year was the direct result of an efficiency review conducted by former Telstra boss David Thodey, the Senate Estimates heard.
The review was part of a functional efficiency review of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and begun in around June last year and was finished the next month. The full review is yet to be released, and its existence was only revealed publicly during Estimates.
PM&C deputy secretary Dr Steven Kennedy would not reveal what the review found, but said the “broad thrust of the recommendations of the review are entirely consistent with the subsequent announcement around the DTA”.
During the hearing, the DTA also confirmed that it was not involved with any of the government’s recent tech controversies, including the Census, the ATO outages, or the Centrelink robo-debt debacle.
The DTA only became involved with the Centrelink issue, Ms O’Loughlin said, in January when the DHS requested it assist with “some short-term user design experience” issues related to the automated debt recovery system.
Ms O’Loughlin conceded big tech failings would result in “significant reputation bleed” for the public service.
“There is a very strong commitment by all departments and agencies to the digital transformation agenda,” she said.
“I think there are digital projects that have gone very well. Unfortunately, they of course tend to get overshadowed by the ones that fail badly.”
Speaking in Parliament, Mr Husic said the Opposition was watching all digital transformation projects in government “like hawks”.
“We have had to watch in this country, through this government, a series of digital transformation projects that have gone off the rails,” he said.
“They should have been no-brainers and should have just worked out, and they have not. The Digital Transformation Agency was not involved in digital transformation. DTA MIA – missing in action, not around when they are needed most.”
In response to Mr Husic’s comments in Parliament, a spokesperson from Assistant Minister for Digital Transformation Angus Taylor’s office said the DTA has been hitting its targets.
“Since the DTA was established in October 2016 it has focused on strategy, delivery, partnerships and assurance. The DTA has delivered a digital transformation road map, an alpha for the improved myGov, a performance dashboard, and an expanded digital marketplace,” the spokesperson said.
“In 2017 the government announced the establishment of a DIMO within the DTA, which fulfils a commitment first outlined in October 2016. This capability has been providing ongoing oversight and targeted assistance to major projects.”
During estimates Labor’s Jenny McAllister forensically questioned the DTA on how often its CEO met with Assistant Minister Taylor. In response, Ms O’Loughlin said she meets with the Minister weekly.
“It is a regular meeting, but often we have additional meetings during the week on particular subjects,” Ms O’Loughlin said.
Mr McAllister then turned her attention to how often former DTO boss Paul Shetler met with the Minister, which was taken on notice. It is an interesting query, given the difficulties the relationship between the Assistant Minister and Mr Shetler was said to have had.
“I am interested to understand what the relationship was like because there has been some quite public commentary about Mr Shetler’s departure,” Ms McAllister said.
“I am interested to understand what the nature of his relationships was within the government.”
Dr Kennedy said the pair “met regularly”.
It was also confirmed during estimates that the DTA’s Digital Investment Management Office, announced last month with much fanfare, is actually exactly the same as the Program Management Office, announced last October by Assistant Minister Taylor.