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.
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.