Shergold on digital in government

Denham Sadler
Senior Reporter

Digital transformation in Australia is currently “missing half the plot” and a “major rethink” is needed in how governments approach the issue, according to the former secretary to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet Peter Shergold.

Professor Shergold, who was Australia’s top public servant in the Howard era, has written the foreword for a new book on digital transformation in government, written by two senior Australian transformation executives.

Are We There Yet? The digital transformation of government and the public sector, by Martin Stewart-Weeks and Simon Cooper, was officially launched in Sydney on Tuesday, and comes at an interesting time for digital transformation in Australia.

In the foreward, Professor Shergold said there was too much focus currently on using digital transformation just to cut costs and save time.

“For the last 20 or 30 years we’ve construed digital transformation largely in instrumentalist and transactional terms,” he wrote. “The watchwords have been cost, speed and convenience.”

“The message has focused on making the traditional practices and processes of public administration easier to navigate, a little less clunky and confusing for the users of services and, often as a central motivation, making government much cheaper.”

“I worry that the digital government agenda has been overly influenced by the desire to save money and time, with only a cursory genuflection to how it can improve ‘consumer-directed care’, ‘cross-sectoral collaboration’, ‘citizen engagement’ and ‘public value’.”

The time is “well overdue for a major rethink about those presuppositions,” he said.

“Too often, the impression has been that the digital piece has been happening in isolation, invariably tech-led by high powered digital teams being clever and busy in their organisational enclaves,” Professor Sherhold said.

‘Meanwhile, the business of government carriers on with incremental improvement around the edges, HE SAID.

“Much less time and effort has been spent figuring out how digital shape some of the core assumptions about the context, mission and capabilities that support a ‘theory of the business’ for democratic governance.”

Digital transformation in Australia is “missing half the plot”, he said.

“There is presently a wide gulf between rhetoric and reality; there’s an awful lot of talking, but too little walking. Although there is plenty being written and said about digital transformation, there is a need for a consolidation of what we’re learning, what we’ve achieved and how we might energise and direct the next phase,” Professor Shergold said.

The book came about after the two authors met at Deloitte and began discussing the digital transformation issues Australia was facing. A short article quickly transformed into 300 pages, and the pair decided to embark on a book.

“The timing now feels perfect with the direction of the NSW government being in line with our thesis about government being about putting citizens and the indications of the Morrison government to shake up the public service itself as well as delivery through Services Australia,” Mr Cooper told

Professor Shergold said the new book helps to address the “failure to properly frame the transformation venture”.

“The manner in which digital technology is talked about simply isn’t keeping up with its gradual shift from the margins to the mainstream of public administration and government. The problem is that many government executives find themselves being asked to take a transformation when its contours and potential are poorly understood,” he said.

Are We There Yet? was launched in Sydney on June 30, and available for sale now through Booktopia.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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