Shetler on DTA’s digital strategy

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

The federal government’s just-released digital transformation strategy offers no real strategy or path towards achieving its lofty aims, according to former Digital Transformation Office chief executive Paul Shetler.

The Digital Transformation Agency’s strategy document was unveiled on Wednesday by Digital Transformation Minister Michael Keenan, outlining the key goal of having every government service available digitally by 2025.

Mr Keenan said the “ambitious” plan will “set foundations for prosperity in the digital age”. But Mr Shetler, who was handpicked by former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to lead the new DTO in 2015, said it was light on detail and offered nothing new.

“I don’t think it’s a strategy. I don’t see a strategy in there. I see a bunch of aspirations and various claims but I don’t see any strategy to actually reach that point,” Mr Shetler told “Strategy is about the how, not the what, and they don’t talk about how that’s going to happen.”

“I really don’t see how they’re going to move beyond those lofty aspirations and make them real. It’s bewildering that there’s no plan to do that, and I wonder what’s happened in the last couple of years,” he said.

“Why are they doing this at the end of an administration rather than the beginning.”

Mr Shetler, who left his role two months after the DTO was restructured into the DTA in 2016, said not much had changed in the more than two years since he was in the role, with little forward movement or different thinking.

“I don’t seen any movement in this space over the last couple of years. They’ve not been able to advance this and they’re acting as if these are new things,” he said.

“Did something happen in the last couple of years to make this seem like a new thing? This is all work we’d been doing.”

A major part of the strategy was how the government planned to deal with life events such as births, marriages and deaths, making this a more streamlined approach for citizens.

Mr Keenan said this is a “big change.” But Mr Shetler said the DTO was actively working on this task three years ago before it was canned by the government.

“When I was at the DTO we were looking at this. We were looking at where the start of the user journey is, how you demarcate the start, finish and end, who governs it, who goes to estimates when something goes wrong and who has operational responsibility,” he said.

“These are real questions. We did very thorough modelling of about 13 different life events. We modelled them across federal, state and local governments.

“There’s an awful lot of leg work there to see how these things work, how people would use them, how you logically group the different bits of services with a life event. Most of that work got pretty much killed.”

Making all government services available digitally within seven years is a good goal and one that is achievable, but more detail was needed, Mr Shetler said.

“It depends on what you define as digital. If it’s just online then that’s absolutely reasonable. There’s nothing revolutionary about this, it’s all totally doable,” he said.

“It’s a question of how they do it, and what agencies or departments are going to do it. This is massively important and it’s not really spelled out how we’re going to deliver these things.”

“That’s exactly what you’d have in a strategy – we’re here, this is where we’re going to be and this is how we’re going to do it. There’s nothing in there to figure out how it is operationalised and real – that’s the real thing that struck me.”

The fact the government is now discussing these issues and looking towards the future is positive, he said, and the DTA needs to be given more support to achieve them.

“I’m glad to hear them say that they’re going to do these things, and I hope the DTA will play a leading role in this, and that there will be a beefing up of the DTA’s delivery capabilities.

“That’s the place in government where most of this stuff, most of the thinking and most of the ability to do things about it still exists. But it’s not really spelled out how it’s going to work and the DTA has been hit heavily with talent losses,” he said.

Questions have already been raised about whether the federal government has the trust of the people in delivering services online following high-profile debacles like the census, robo-debt and My Health Record rollout.

The strategy said the government will be putting privacy and security at the forefront.

“We will be ethical in how we treat your data and be clear about what we do. We believe you should have control over your data. Trust is central to how government uses data to inform its policies and programs. Australians want to know how we use their data. They want transparency and accountability in how we make decisions,” the strategy said.

But Mr Shetler said Australians are right to be questioning whether the government can be trusted to deliver these services digitally.

“There’s a real question of trust – they haven’t shown they’ve been able to do so. Where is the basic competence in government and why don’t they listen to their own people instead of forcing them to leave? Why would you, given what you know about Centrelink, the DHS and the ATO, why would you trust them with your identity?” Mr Shetler said.

The scope of the strategy is also too broad, Mr Shetler said, with the government signalled a move to “digital democracy platforms” and connecting individuals with midwives and other providers.

“Is that really the government’s job to do? Fix the things you actually have to do before solving problems you don’t have to solve. There are already people there to solve that. Why are you trying to expand the scope when you can’t do what’s already on the plate,” he said.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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