Shetler stays: DTO full steam ahead

James Riley
Editorial Director

There are noises coming from Canberra suggesting Digital Transformation Office’ CEO Paul Shetler is “gone;” that he won’t be in the role much longer. That it’s all over for him. This is the rumour.

For the Canberra bureaucrats unhappy with both Mr Shetler’s style and with the digital change message he is taking to service delivery – that is, those public servants who have not bought into the DTO program – this is wishful thinking.

Mr Shetler is not gone, and he is not going. He is the delivery guy for digital transformation across government that he was hired to be.

One year into the job, it is an achievement to have caused the level of grumpiness among overly-satisfied service delivery bureaucrats across sections of government. It shows that the message must be getting through, even if it has not been well received.

Whatever post-election changes are on the way for the DTO (and change is surely coming), will give the office more power, not less. And Mr Shetler is staying.

And for the those cranky public servants currently enjoying the colder of Canberra’s appealing ‘four seasons’ weather rotation, the DTO’s groovier-than-expected StartupLand bunker in Sydney’s Surry Hills is staying too.

In fact, the DTO has expanded its operations by taking another floor in its building, just across the road from the excellent retro hipster-ironic KB Hotel and its fabulous pub lunches.

That this digital insurgency had the gall to base itself outside of the APS confines of Canberra still annoys the mainstream public service power-elite a year later, and this is ridiculous. And hilarious.

And the fact that the DTO has become a lightning rod for the service delivery woes across government is also a bit rich. This is a small agency. Its initial program of ‘exemplar’ projects do not have the breadth or depth to attract the blame for every shortcoming.

The meatier stuff – like, or the digital dashboard, the rethink of identity or the digital marketplace – have not yet landed. And they have been given MyGov, everyone’s favourite hairball.

So where to now?

There will almost certainly be a refocusing of the DTO – this has already been outlined – and a perhaps a restructuring of the way it operates. We know this for sure because the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull made election commitments during the endless campaign that make this a certainty.

These changes will invariably give the DTO greater powers. It is not enough, it turns out, to create ‘exemplars,’ although remains a simple and core part of the strategy.

The DTO must and will be given greater power force change.

These are structural issues. The DTO is a Lilliputian agency operating in the Land of Giants. Many of the giants have reacted badly to its suggestions that there might be a better way to do things.

So here’s the thing. Malcolm Turnbull, in launching his new Digital Transformation Office, made much of the claim that it had plagiarised the work of the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS).

“The UK has done very well with Government Digital Services and yes we have, plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery and I’ve told Francis Maude the minister there (the UK’s Paymaster General at the time and the GDS architect) that he should be flattered,” the then Communications Minister Turnbull told Sky News in May last year. It was a line he used many times.

The very big difference is that the GDS had greater powers to force change than was given to the Digital Transformation Office.

The GDS had the power of veto over procurement, for example. If a department was not performing, or was producing substandard plans for the re-engineering of service delivery, the GDS had veto rights over procurement. It could stop that project in its tracks.

The DTO has had no such power. And the suggestion that it should given this very big stick to carry has intensified an ongoing turf war with Finance. How incredibly tedious.

Any suggestion that the DTO be given veto rights on Commonwealth procurement causes the Mandarins to hike their skirts over their heads and run around in circles (to paraphrase Al Swearengen, the foul-mouthed saloon owner, pimp and dope peddler from the excellent HBO series Deadwood.)

But it clearly needs to be given something. Because ‘exemplars’ only get you so far.

There is a mantra among the more advanced government digital delivery agencies that “Delivery is Strategy”. Mike Bracken from the GDS used it, and the 18F agency within the United States General Services Administration uses it.

It refers to the exemplars – that if you can deliver truly useful services quickly and at lower cost, it will demonstrate the kind of no-brainer value that other department will follow.

Well, it turns out that it helps to carry a big stick as well.

We will have to wait and see what kind of stick the DTO is to be given. But the Prime Minister made very specific commitments about improving government service delivery.

And this includes the setting of new benchmarks and KPIs for government services. To do that, it will need to give the DTO teeth.

Look at this. The DTO readied the release of the beta version of its ‘digital dashboard.’ This will provide benchmarks, accessible to the public, measuring service delivery. The government has committed to measuring cost-per-transaction, user satisfaction and completion rates.

This is making many, many people in government unhappy. Because as anyone who has tried to register a newborn for a Medicare card will tell you, these services can be terrible. And when the public is able to find out just how much that shitty transaction that took an hour out of their life cost, they will demand better.

The DTO promised to release its digital dashboard in beta form within a couple of weeks of the election’s caretaker mode provisions being lifted. And it is making good: It’s understood the dashboard will be launched in the next several days.

Don’t expect to be able to traverse the whole of government and compare the performance of different departments and different services. This is a beta. And it will become clear which department are on board with the program.

But the reporting against these KPIs must be done through the Digital Transformation Office, and the office must be given great powers of coercion. It needs that big stick. That might mean the creation of new reporting structures, and maybe a more traditional bureaucrat as the reporting Tsar. But the power must remain with the DTO.

The Prime Minister also promised a “digital roadmap” for government to be delivered by November. This has been a long time coming. I had been wondering about the delay.

Departments and agencies were supposed to have lodged their digital service plans to the DTO by late last year. At the time I had assumed some kind of composite would then be announced by government, via the DTO.

So what’s the hold-up? It turns out many (not all!) of these plans were simply poor. And that their authors don’t like being told. And so the intransigence.

There are changes coming to the way the DTO goes about its business. There has to be. But these changes must give the DTO greater powers to force change.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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