Government tech is hard. If not the DTA, then what?


The digital transformation of government has proven difficult for Australia, particularly at the federal level.

While some of the states are having some success, the federal government seems stalled, with frustration evident amongst ministers, a well-fed and buoyant consulting industry, and a weary resentment within a starved public service.

Contributing problems are easy find. They include unresolved tensions between competing purposes, the misalignment of intent, capability and funding, poor accountability amongst decision-makers and insufficient remit for tasked agencies.

Contrary to the often simplistic, optimistic, and even romantic notions of how technology is designed, developed, built, delivered, and maintained evident in public discussions, doing technology well is hard.

The experience of the Digital Transformation Agency (DTA), the body tasked with bringing about the digital transformation of government, shows how achieving that purpose lies beyond the creation of a single, under-resourced and under-powered agency.

Lesley Seebeck
Dr Lesley Seebeck on the structures needed for digital transformation in government

It’s tempting for ministers to simply throw their hands up, attribute blame, and pay a major consultancy millions of dollars hoping for a favourable outcome. But – a reminder as we enter an election – it is for elected officials to take the task of business of government and governance seriously: we cannot afford them to see it as a magic box that, alas, does not work.

To that end, it may help to consider the nature of government before considering how technology may best enable it.

Government exists to provide the conditions for the freedoms, opportunities, and the well-being of its citizens, and for their prosperity and security. That’s not achieved through some magical will bent upon the earth.

It is corporeal, with people, structures, energy, behaviours, and stuff. How it is organised, motivated, resourced, and lead determines how successful it is in its role.

The primary means of that organisation is the public service. That has fundamentally three roles: stewardship, sense-making, and shaping. In each of those, it supports the elected government of the day – and critically, for democracy to work well, it works in partnership with ministers.

If that partnership works well, ministers will have a strong interest in supporting the public service to successfully undertake the full gamut of those roles.

Stewardship reflects the need for continuity, capability, and accountability in all the functions of government.

The capability needed by the public service encompass a sensitivity to political realities, policymaking, operational management and delivery, and deep technical skills and knowledge, especially in those domains that are the remit primarily, if not solely, of the public sector.

Stewardship needs structure and order. It needs the conceptual breadth to allow for the sheer complexity of society, economy and security and an openness to change while providing for the surety and consistency needed for planning.

Stewardship helps distinguish between doing things right and doing the right thing—important for successful outcomes. Strong stewardship breeds trust amongst people: they can trust government, through its responsiveness, accountability, and transparency, to act in their interests.

Sense-making is the identification, analysis, understanding and translation of events, signals, and trends that affect Australia, its people, environment, economy, and security. Sense-making is most often associated with the intelligence collection and analysis function.

But that collection of signals, contextual analysis, dissemination, and development of policy responses extends to the social, economic, environmental conditions of Australia and its place in the world.

Sense-making relies on communication, reach, interaction, storage (memory), analysis and feedback and adaptation, and the tools that help analysts to see drivers, trends and outliers, and policymakers to prioritise and make decisions. Sense-making allows citizens to contribute to government, sending it signals about what does and doesn’t work.

Last, there is shaping. Shaping reflects the process of advice to government, the design, development, and delivery of programs – and increasingly, algorithms coupled with vast data stores – to implement government decisions in response to that advice, and the iterative adaptation of those programs in response to outcome, the changing environment or political direction.

On one axis, national security, shaping includes the military, which applies force at the direction of government to achieve political ends.

In social and economic policy and activity, shaping is more than the emaciated concept of ‘delivery’: shaping is the implementation of programs aligned with an understanding of Australia and its needs, and strategy to achieve outcomes.

In other words, shaping works when it meets the conditions of stewardship and reflects the understanding drawn from sense-making.

Such a reconceptualisation of government and public service suggests a very different approach to the digital transformation of government.

Core to stewardship, for example, is accountability and transparency to both political decision-makers and to citizens.

Sense-making emphasises the collection, management, and use of data as well as enabling interaction within government, between governments, other organisations, and individuals, and feedback loops to help understand and adjust positions.

Shaping is action on the world – and to be effective it needs to use the information and connections from sense-making aligned with the governance, accountability, and capability of stewardship.

The DTA, lacking stewardship responsibilities, at the whim of ‘delivery’ agencies, and blind to sense-making apparatus, serves none of these needs. Yet technology affects, supports, and influences government and through it, our society, economy, and security so much.

So, there is a key role for something – let’s call it a government technology authority – that undertakes especially the stewardship function, helping to guide effective, trusted, and accountable sense-making and shaping technologies and data use.

The functions of a government technology authority suited to a modern technology-dependent democracy are many. By way of example, there is the assessment of algorithms, data, and their application in government systems, drawing conclusions as to their effectiveness and potential harm.

Such an authority would need the legislative or Cabinet authority to manage – and minimise – complexity, technical debt, and data exhaust, both sources of insecurity and vulnerability, across government, including through development of a government architecture and standards.

It would also nurture a deep technical bench, engage – even integrate with – the broader technical ecosystem in Australia, and so contribute to activities such as standards development, the engineering capability for AUKUS initiatives, and support for national infrastructure initiatives.

Any new model must confront the reality of entrenched bureaucratic politics, a limited talent pool, a misaligned funding system, an extractive consulting sector, and impatient ministers.

The DTA’s experience shows that a successful government technology authority could not be simply another small agency within the pack of suspicious, better-resourced departments, jealous of their own power bases.

It would need independence, its own legislative or Cabinet remit, adequate funding guarantees, clarity of strategic purpose, and bi-partisan support.

There are few, but some, useful antecedents in the Australian system: the Office of National Assessments and the Productivity Commission, for example.

Digital technologies continue to disrupt industries, economies, nations and societies. Structures established to manage the changes wrought by those technologies, such as the DTA, fall short in part because neither the nature of change nor the needs of government were understood.

Rather than simply focusing on failure, short-term delivery and blame, we need to reconceptualise the problem at hand.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

7 Comments
  1. Digital Koolaid 3 months ago
    Reply

    The shambles that is the DTA is not really the result of it being a “single, under-resourced and under-powered agency.” It is not, and never has been competent. The lack of competence in the APS is endemic, and deliberate policy. There is no plan to create, promote, sustain or reward competence. These are not the qualities that progress an APS career; it’s the reverse. Those lacking such qualities, having gained positions of influence, actively constrain, stifle and marginalize the competent few. Nobody from that category wants their ignorance exposed by people with subject matter knowledge. Better to sprout jargon, acronyms and fashion terms at ‘management” meetings in the hope of being taken seriously when one doesn’t truly know what a “cloud” or an “API” could imaginably be. Others’ competence is frowned upon as a threat to one’s status. The DTA never had competence, failed in its core mission, attempted to reinvent itself multiple times, and shriveled into nothingness. Those reading this comment who hold that it has achieved something notable are welcome to provide details in their replies. I’m happy to be informed, because I’m one of the Australians who have paid for the DTA failure – literally – through the tax system. A previous DTA CEO even exhorted the APS to “fail fast”. Imagine, the faster they wasted taxes the better the outcome. Time for a new thought, and an end to Mr Turnbull’s ersatz imitation of the Government Digital Service in London. It failed.

  2. Adrian Turner 3 months ago
    Reply

    Excellent article, and astute. Building on this, why are we not seconding a CTO into lead this function from industry. I’d argue we need to start framing around what “fit for purpose capabilities” do we need. If S&T, incl. a digital-ready govt is needed to help drive the productivity gains Australia desperately needs, and to satisfy S&T as the most important geopolitical currency (as is showing up in AUKUS) we need to lift our game.

    • Digital Koolaid 3 months ago
      Reply

      Hi Adrian, people from industry don’t know anything about public administration. How could they? A CTO from the private sector can’t help, and will certainly fail. One does not “second” from the private sector in any case. It’s not that sort of thing. Wrong concept – no offence. Grow your own. There’s no alternative.

  3. Tim Goodwill 3 months ago
    Reply

    Amen.
    This is the most articulate treatment of this complex issue that I have read yet. And it has never been more important for the country to both secure its data, and to use it effectively. An effective model will require numerous pillars – not least among them, a coordinated legislative programme to both strengthen data security and privacy, and to simplify data sharing.

  4. Tom Worthington 3 months ago
    Reply

    From several decades doing digital transformation in and for the federal government I became skeptical of grad strategies. Government tech is something you need to learn to do, partly with formal training, and partly on the job. One thing the Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) could be tasked to do to help is extend its current low level training programs, to higher levels of expertise.

    As a career public servant I was initially trained by the ABS as a database designer, and programmer. But that was not the end of it, I received specialist training in design and project management throughout my career.
    DTA’s Canberra office is located in what I have dubbed the “Start-up Business Boomerang”. This is a strip of land between the ANU, and the center of Canberra. It is home to the Canberra Innovation network, and dozens of small startup tech companies. I suggest the DTA could fruitfully engage with this ecosystem, and use it to help train APS technologists in how to be innovative.

    More at: https://blog.highereducationwhisperer.com/2022/04/transform-government-through-training.html

    • Digital Koolaid 3 months ago
      Reply

      Hi Tom, and best wishes. The staff of small startups have nothing to offer the bureaucracy. How could they? Their “ecosystem” is filled with young ingénues led by ambitious self-promoters without pubic sector knowledge or experience. This is simply the latest version of the “private sector good – public sector bad” meme. The private sector knows as little about the public sector as the APS knows about commerce, which is exactly nothing at all. The DTA has provided a wonderful example of the APS imitating the private sector, attempting to act private sector, dressing private sector, talking what it supposes is private sector lingo and getting everything wrong. There’s really no overlap of the sectors. The APS just has to become competent at its job, which it isn’t. It’s been run into the ground for at least 25 years. You’re right about training, but that’s not a task for start-up kids. They don’t have any relevant subject matter knowledge.

  5. Ian Dennis 3 months ago
    Reply

    One of the best articles I have seen on the subject of ICT projects in Government. The only significant aspect not mentioned was the continued need to ensure that the bureaucracy includes sufficient qualified ICT professionals in senior roles, so that informed decisions are made.
    When all of the expertise is held by the vendor, the client is captured.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Related stories