The newly-elected Coalition government has a tremendous opportunity to make a few serious and fundamental changes to the Commonwealth’s structures, processes and capabilities to enable the delivery of world-class digital service.
It would mean Australians might finally enjoy the ease of use and cost savings of digital services that they have been promised by previous governments.
After three years of the Digital Transformation Agency (formerly known as the DTO and before that AGIMO) pledging repeatedly to do better and being mocked by expensive IT failures, the time for pussyfooting, goodwill and tinkering around the margins is over.
Here are five things the new government should do to provide excellent services to the people of Australia:
Centralise citizen services
Take a leaf from what the New South Wales government is doing with the newly-formed Department of Customer Service and centralise the direction, provision and measurement of citizen services in a single government department, whose minister participates in Cabinet.
This department should provide the central platforms for service delivery, such as, Service NSW in NSW or GOV.UK in the UK, along with the following responsibilities:
- Own and administer the digital service standard that services must pass before being deployed
- Own, update and enforce the whole-of-government IT strategy (which currently, inexplicably, does not exist) for procurement reform, funding reform and portfolio management
- Own and govern development and operations of any whole-of-government and cross-jurisdictional user journeys being designed (but not yet deployed) today by various state and federal offices
- Help build capability across the APS and assist agencies and departments design, build and deploy their own digital services when they do not have that capability in-house. This should only be thought of as a short-term aid
Design and build in-house
Far too often the bureaucracy lacks the basic skills to build, govern and operate the digital services that it offers to the public.
As a result, the gap between what citizen’s experience in their daily lives when they use online services and what they experience when they have to use what the government offers is clear.
There needs to be a comprehensive and long-term effort to improve this experience, with measures that can also produce very tangible short-term results as well.
Start by rolling out a national talent scheme that identifies highly-skilled, intelligent and motivated students (such as the UK’s Fast Stream) who are keen to work as technologists and designers to radically improve government services. Provide them with an accelerated career path through the APS after a three-year tour of duty in three different government departments.
Raise the average staffing level (ASL) per agency and cut contractor numbers. Agencies’ workloads are determined independently by its ASL, and in practice almost all agencies carry substantial numbers of long-term contractors, including technical and design professional, to meet their obligations. This keeps the government’s internal skills base artificially low.
Contractors earn far more than APS employees and very often are former APS employees who either terminated their contracts or had them terminated. This means the government is paying more than it needs to, while always short of in-house talent.
The government should reduce the number of contractors on its payroll and use part of the savings to increase the ASL and hold skills inside government.
Finally, the Australian Public Service Commission should review pay scales for technology and design professionals in the APS. Digital professionals are generally willing to take a pay hit for the satisfaction of delivering social good, but few are willing to take a 40 to 50 per cent cut in pay.
Central portfolio management
A central portfolio management office would operate similarly to what DTO proposed to Cabinet in 2016, but with additional powers.
This portfolio management office should report to the Minister for Customer Service and be responsible for:
- Defining and tracking in real-time the government’s portfolio of IT projects
- Stepping in and taking control of IT programs that have either gone off the rails or are not delivering and then either get them back on track through rigorous rescoping/upskilling/timeboxing or in the case of zombie programs, to kill them
- Approving any new IT program for provision of citizen services, before any business case is submitted to Treasury
- Approving any IT expenditure over a minimum threshold of $5,000,000 – IT expenditure would be evaluated for compliance with the whole-of-government IT strategy
Government has become so deskilled it depends heavily on large integrators to deliver its programs.
For government to deliver services like a modern digital company, it needs to become the integrator itself and draw on specialised expertise – or commodity software and hardware – as needed.
Unfortunately, the Commonwealth’s existing procurement processes are confusing for new vendors to understand or participate in, and difficult and slow for APS staff to use.
The existing process protects powerful incumbent vendors through what are essentially cartel-ised ’panels’ that are updated slowly. Not only does this keep the government dependent on foreign suppliers, it also makes a mockery of the government’s stated ambitions to grow a technology and design sector in Australia.
Two important initial steps the government can take to transparently bring much needed resources into government to help support the development of an Australian technology and design sector and increase value for money are:
- Update and expand the existing digital marketplace into a single whole-of-government national bazaar with standard product and services taxonomies (eg, interaction designers, product managers, disk, compute, etc) where it’s easy for buyers to compare like for like, eliminating the panel construct altogether
- Create an entity (see the UK’s Crown Commercial Services for a precedent) whose sole business is ICT procurement. Make its use mandatory for federal agencies for all activity over a prescribed threshold level (except military defence spending). Use this agency to build modern procurement policies and practices to create and manage the service platforms that will deliver them at scale
Fix funding and budgeting with an investment funding model
Government teams like to talk about how agile they are, how much they use human-centred design, how they believe in learning from what they’ve delivered so far, and iterating what they deliver based on user feedback.
Government funding tells a different story.
In practice, a business case with projected costs, benefits, features and outcomes all cast in stone is required to be approved before any work can be done. This means everything is approved before there’s any real idea about what should be built, for whom and how.
One of these things must therefore be true: either the business case is a lie, or the agile, human-centred, iterative design and delivery story is a lie. In any case the product or service lead who is responsible for the business case and delivery is made into the liar.
Perhaps as a result, that’s why there’s an obsession in government with agile ceremonies and human-centred design artefacts instead of iterative, quick delivery.
At the same time, big, one-time releases of funding for programs in practice reduces oversight and tends to make it easier for those programs to go off track, delivering nothing, and yet impossible to kill.
Government should change its funding to allow for staged release of capital. The release of funding should be managed by the portfolio team that looks across the government’s entire IT program portfolio.
The team should release small funding amounts for an initial discovery. Depending on the successful outcome from the discovery service assessment and their own priorities across government, they may decide to fund an alpha or choose not to proceed further.
A successful alpha may lead to additional funding for development of a public beta. A successful beta should yield enough information to do a proper business case, at which point funding can be released for scaling the service to full live national use.
At each step along the way, further information is available to justify additional limited funding — and at each step, funding should be ceased if it turns out there is no need for the service or to cut delivery risk.
Money released in smaller chunks and more frequently helps maintain tight control and flexibility in prioritisation that is currently lacking.
This will dramatically reduce the risk of IT program failure and allow government to mount early experiments at low cost and minimal risk.
After talking about digital in government for years now, and after all the examples we have seen of poorly delivering programs, we must do better.
Citizens and taxpayers expect government to operate at the same internet speed and quality they experience in their everyday lives.
Now is the time for a fresh new government to lead and expend the political capital to make good on promises made by previous ones to the Australian people.
Those of us who have been in the trenches stand ready to give our support.
Paul Shetler is a founder and director at design and delivery consultancy firm AccelerateHQ. He was the founding Chief Executive Officer of the original Digital Transformation Office, having been recruited from the UK’s Government Digital Service.