Embattled Digital Transformation Agency chief executive Gavin Slater has taken an extended leave of absence from the organisation to undertake a business short-course at Harvard University. The DTA will not say when – or even if – Mr Slater will return to the role.
The timing of the study-leave, in the middle of preparations for the federal budget in May, has drawn heavy criticism from senior ranks within government.
Although the leave of absence was not unexpected, it had been kept under tight wraps before being announced to staff by email in recent days. It has nonetheless set off a round of speculation about Mr Slater’s future in the role.
An outsider has been brought into the DTA to run the agency in Mr Slater’s absence. Deputy Australian Statistician Randall Brugeaud, a former chief information officer at the Immigration department, has been appointed acting CEO, rather than responsibility passing to one of the DTA’s existing management team.
Mr Brugeaud has most recently led the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Transformation Group, leading the ABS’ $250 million service delivery make-over, having been appointed to the role in the middle of last year, but has held senior technology roles management roles inside government over a long period.
Ironically, Mr Brugeaud is also a Senior Executive Fellow of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
It is understood Mr Slater’s attendance at Harvard is a hangover from his previous role at the National Australia Bank.
According to multiple sources, the Harvard course was a contractual perk written into his NAB employment arrangement. When Mr Slater agreed to take the role as CEO at the DTA, he insisted on getting the time off to take up that study opportunity as part of his contract with the Australian Government.
A spokesperson for the DTA said “it’s privately funded and the Australian Government isn’t paying anything for his attendance at the course. This arrangement was in place before Mr Slater started in the role.”
The DTA declined to say when Mr Slater’s leave of absence would start, nor how long he planned to be away from the role. It also declined to say whether Mr Slater intended returning to the DTA.
Harvard short courses routinely take three months of intensive full-time study and students are expected to leave their work life behind to focus on the study. But the leave period might well be longer.
The leave of absence comes at a difficult time for both the DTA and Mr Slater. In addition to being the busiest time of year for agencies in the lead up to Scott Morrison’s third budget, the agency’s operations have come under the scrutiny of an extended Senate inquiry into government service delivery and its digital capabilities.
The government has also become frustrated at the slow pace of work in delivering visible improvements to citizens’ experience of government services, and are openly critical of Mr Slater’s unwillingness to better understand and work within government processes to achieve some wins.
One senior government source said that while there had been some great work in fixing the lack of governance around big ICT projects and improving procurement processes – excellent work done under Angus Taylor as responsible minister that was producing great cost savings – there remained enormous frustration at the skills gap in delivery of digital service improvement.
While it is understood Mr Slater’s plans to take a leave of absence was well understood and that government was contractually obliged to approve it, sources expressed dismay at the timing of the leave on the eve of a budget, saying it demonstrated an unwillingness to engage with the government processes to drive the DTA agenda.
“It’s like missing the end of the financial year as a CEO, or missing a reporting period. It’s pretty extraordinary,” the source said.
Mr Slater did not respond when contacted by InnovationAus.com yesterday.