Husic: Mandarins are in the way

James Riley
Editorial Director

The battle inside the federal public service between forces warding off serious digital transformation and those who want to deliver 21st century systems must end, says Labor’s digital economy shadow Ed Husic.

“The time of senior public servants making sounds that they are committed to digital transformation purely for the sake of avoiding a confrontation and (then) ensuring that life isn’t breathed into digital transformation projects and not giving them the support that is required, that time is coming to an end,” Mr Husic told

Ed Husic: Public servants must rethink their approach to change in the digital era

In Australia the battle has been on display as the Coalition first let loose the Digital Transformation Office (DTO) under Paul Shetler, the energetic American who came here after extensive experience with the UK’s Government Digital Service.

By late 2016 Malcolm Turnbull’s government had rejigged the DTO into the Digital Transformation Agency and Mr Shetler subsequently resigned, having been relegated to the slot of chief digital officer inside the DTA, whereas he had been chief executive of the DTO.

Mr Shetler went public on his time with the DTO and complained of risk averse senior managers trying to stifle new projects by coming up with extreme, edge cases.

Mr Husic wants to see an end to this sort of obstruction.

“Thinking that digital transformation is a challenge to a fiefdom or thinking that it threatens some sort of power balance – that day is over,” said Mr Husic.

“Because the pervasive nature of technology platforms means they will be the cornerstone of any modern public sector outfit,” he said.

In future, Australia’s mandarins would be judged on how successful they were at rolling out good systems rather than resisting them.

“More and more the performance of senior public servants will rest on their ability to see these projects be rolled out effectively,” said Mr Husic.

Riding herd on the digital underpinnings and public interfaces of everything from the ATO to Centrelink is getting more and more high profile.

Think ABS census night fail, robo-debt calls or ATO system crashes. The problems, pitfalls and straight out stuff-ups of government digital service delivery are increasingly becoming electoral lightning rods for Joe and Jane Public.

“The political environment is a lot less forgiving of failure,” said Mr Husic, who was careful to not sheet all the blame for Federal government technology failings onto the public service, and acknowledged that building the systems of the future was a tough gig.

“It is hard for that contest to end because of the environment in which it is taking place, one that is a lot less tolerant of risk and failure whereas the agile approach embraces that you might not succeed on first blush but you just push on with the next iteration and dust yourself off,” he said, adding that it was easy for politicians to bask in the warmth of a nice big digital project and a lot harder to go through the slog of building that project.

Part of the problem is that it often takes too long for agencies to develop business cases for digital projects and upgrades.

“We have got to move quicker. Often by the end of the process the actual outcome you were seeking may have been superseded by some other development,” he said.

Another problem is our digital skills shortage and the need for the public sector to bolster its in-house digital talent.

In a speech to the “Overcoming the Challenges of Digital Transformation” conference in Canberra earlier this week, Mr Husic pointed to the need for more digital boots on the ground here and how a future Labor government might support that need.

“How do we build internal digital capability within the public service, weave it with the knowledge of external IT sources and ensure projects are delivered on time, within budget and meet public expectation?” he said.

“This is another challenge confronting digital transformation within government – but it’s also about playing a part in building the digital skills base of the broader digital economy workforce that is also being hamstrung by skills shortages.”

“This involves a serious investment in human capital – backing in quality education solutions for primary, secondary, TAFE and tertiary pathways, always being switched on to the skills that will be needed.

“Boosting the flow of ICT traineeships are an example we could look to expand,” he said.

Other skill boosting measures were creating partnerships with businesses for digital apprenticeships and reforming the skilled visa system.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

Leave a Comment

Related stories