DTO: Turnbull gets his man

James Riley
Editorial Director

You would have to hope that the newly-appointed chief executive officer of the Commonwealth’s Digital Transformation Office brings his flak jacket with him when he comes to Canberra, because he has many, many battles ahead of him.

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced this morning the appointment of the UK public service digital leader Paul Shetler as the DTO’s first chief executive. Mr Shetler was most recently director at the UK’s Government Digital Service – the agency that Mr Turnbull has so openly sought to emulate in designing Australia’s DTO.

Malcolm Turnbull has poached the right man for a difficult job

In fact, Mr Turnbull’s raiding of the GDS ranks might not win him friends in UK Government circles, but he clearly believes he has found the right man for the job.

It is probably a little unsurprising that the global executive search for the new DTO search – conducted over six months by top-shelf recruiters Russell Reynolds (as well as the internal APS mechanisms) – should end at the door of the agency, Australia most wants to copy.

So why wasn’t there an Australian available for the job? Did we really need to find a Great White Chief from faraway to, yet again, tell us how it’s done. Well, no and yes. No, there wasn’t immediately an obvious local candidate with their hand in the air, and yes we did need a Great White Chief to get the job done.

In sporting parlance, Mr Shetler is a box-ticker. And there were a lot of boxes. Finding someone with a technology background and experience in big, chunky projects. Someone who has worked on digital projects inside government, and knows how to navigate a public service mine-field. And someone who brings private sector kick-arse to the role: He has a record as a “doer” in government roles, rather than as simply another policy-type dude.

There are many, many quality people who know intellectually what needs to happen. There are only a very few who have demonstrated an ability to get it done. That requires high-energy, and high-tensile gravitas.

To be effective, the DTO must be an agency of change, doing lots of clever things and being smarter about how the services – and technology – should be delivered.

Basically this means for the entrenched power structures inside the public service, the DTO will be insufferable. It will be incredibly annoying. And that means the forecast for technology in Government is trench warfare as far as the eye can see.

The reality is that in Australia, the Digital Transformation Office faces a monumental challenge. Just finding traction amid the ‘Big Project’ mentality of the public service, and its numbing inertia. There are huge problems in technology procurement – some cultural and some institutional – that the DTO will need to push up against.

Mr Shetler pedigree suggests he gets things done and has plenty of fight. You can see his Linkedin profile here.

Changing the weird cultural mores of government procurement will be a massive challenge. The issue is not just with the public service. The systems integration giants that own whole departments – EDS, IBM, HP, Accenture etc etc – will protect their patch.

The UK’s loss is Australia’s gain. Malcolm Turnbull has poached the right man for a difficult job. He is said to have been the outstanding candidate, bringing the attitude, approach and demeanour that will give the DTO the best chance to push through inevitable resistance.

By reports, Mr Shetler brings the combination of technology expertise, inspiration and leadership to “do the transforming” at DTO, rather than design the transformation. And that’s good.

There are details to work out, of course. The senior ranks of the APS is not for the feint-hearted: He will need a powerful public service consigliere to help navigate.

It is understood a Chief Operating Officer role is envisaged, with the candidate to be selected by Mr Shetler and the secretary of the Department of Communications, Drew Clarke.

The other slightly interesting detail is where Mr Shetler will be based, once he arrives in Australia in a few weeks. The expectation of many is that it’s a no-brainer that he will have to be in Canberra. In fact, there will be outrage among some if he is not based in Canberra.

But the DTO will have a significant physical presence in both Canberra and Sydney. And there is an equally strong rationale that Mr Shetler base himself in Sydney as in the national capital.

This may become his first fight. Welcome to Australia!

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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