The DTO’s giant revolving door

James Riley
Editorial Director

To the casual observer, the Digital Transformation Office looks like it has become a high-powered revolving door. Lots of people, lots of churn.

The latest senior appointment is former Treasury chief information officer Peter Alexander. He joins the DTO as its chief operating officer. He is the fifth person in just over a year to run the DTO’s operations and corporate services role.

I’m not an expert, but five people in fifteen months seems like a lot.

Paul Shetler: In search of an elusive chief operating officer for the DTO

Peter Alexander looks like an excellent choice. He comes from a more traditional government IT background and has lengthy experience in a variety technology and transformation roles.

He speaks the languages of both traditional technology and the public service. He is well-liked. He has been hands-on in large, agency-wide change programs.

The DTO has struggled to communicate a consistent message to potential partners and collaborators within government, and has burnt relationships as a result.

Mr Alexander’s knowledge of the machinery of government will help here. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he is based in Canberra, at least among the people still annoyed at the DTO setting up HQ in Sydney.

And the fact that he spent a big chunk of his career working on whole-of-government technology policy in the Department of Finance is a bonus. The relationship with Finance is important as it is fractious.

Hopefully Mr Alexander will stay in the role longer than his predecessors.

Given the importance of the DTOs role in helping to configure a new way of thinking in the best-practice delivery of better government services, some continuity can only help. Because right now, an outsider would be left wondering.

The DTO’s chief executive Paul Shetler dismisses – outright – the suggestion that five people have been in the role.

This seems more a matter of interpretation. He says Peter Alexander is his organisations second COO. He conceded you could suggest a third if you include someone who was an ‘acting’ COO. That would be three in 15 months.

So let’s step through the timeline.

Gary Fleming was seconded from the Immigration Department as the Head of DTO Establishment, including corporate services, from July to September 2015. Mr Fleming was reassigned in September to a role working on issues related to the National Innovation and Science Agenda from within the DTO, and then joined the Industry Department to continue work on NISA.

Marianne Cullen PSM was then seconded from the Communications Department as head of business services from September until November last year. She had responsibility for DTO corporate services. She then moved back to Communications, and has subsequently taken up a new role in business modernisation at the Department of Human Services.

Jane Madden was then seconded from Austrade as the DTO’s first ‘acting’ chief operating officer. Over four months from November to February, her role – to hear Paul Shetler tell it – was to find a permanent COO.

Deb Lewis was then appointed to the permanent role, which she held from January to September. She has subsequently found another role running corporate services in the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet.

And now Peter Alexander takes the role and possibly ends a spectacular run of short-termism. That’s five. Since the end of June last year.

This timeline excludes whoever was running corporate services – the COO’s role – during the period from January to July 2015, when then Digital Transformation Office was being set up, in its ‘interim’ period. So you could argue there are six.

The DTO talks a good game about being open and transparent and its willingness to engage. The reality as quite different. This is an organisation with many stakeholders. Its establishment was met with tremendous goodwill.

How disappointing that it has not managed to get a straight-forward communications infrastructure in place.
It has left a trail of fuming stakeholders, from people in executive government, to public servants, to NGOs and interest groups, to government suppliers, and to the media. And that’s a list that doesn’t include the APS grumpiness.

You could easily conclude this is business as usual for technology-based government service delivery. As ever, it is opaque. Don’t call us, we’ll call you.

Nothing. Has. Changed.

The DTO is an organisation that makes material announcements via patronising blog posts. It telegraphs its intentions regarding highly sensitive issues like digital identity through vendor forums and then squeals when stakeholders get annoyed.

Can you even imagine that we have an organisation that is happy to talk about biometric identifiers for citizens to access government services at a conference paid for by a vendor that manages this exactly the kind of infrastructure it is talking about?

Without even remotely testing the temperature with other stakeholders? Like the public?

Leaving aside the stunningly high turnover of people across the rest of the DTO organisation, why have there been so many chief operating officers – somewhere between three and six people in the role – in less than two years? Who knows?

There is a real issue here. This is an endeavour the Prime Minister set up. He has a direct interest. He took the DTO with him to PM&C from the Communications portfolio.

He has appointed a smart, credentialed rising star in Angus Taylor to oversee its deployment across the public service. There is frustration in Mr Taylor’s office. This is unsurprising.

Some of the turnover has been because public servants at the DTO have been on secondment. The people in these roles are senior. Maybe they have taken one look inside and not liked what they’ve seen and run for the nearest exit.

But why is an organisation that has the deferred power of the Prime Minister’s office not given permanent staff (at least in the case of the COO role) until the start of this year? Why must it rely on a series of secondments? This is an issue that is repeated across the organisation.

To be fair, the most recent DTO chief operating officer Deb Lewis is thought to have left because she has been ‘poached’ by the Public-Servant-in-Chief Martin Parkinson, being given a role to run corporate services in PM&C. This is a coveted position.

Ms Lewis has worked with Mr Parkinson previously at Climate Change in the previous government. She is was offered the plum role and took it.

So now we have Peter Alexander. To circle back to the original point of this piece. Mr Alexander is very good choice to back up the outsider CEO Paul Shetler. He brings some nuance and connection to a difficult public service relationship.

This is about change management, not disruption. And to an outsider looking in, there has been precious little change management, and a lot of white water and spinning wheels instead.

And just quietly, there is a huge amount invested in this uncertain venture. Huge amounts on minimalist projects. Huge amounts that have not been communicated to taxpayers in even the perfunctory way.

One of the DTO’s exemplar projects is an online booking system for people wanting to reschedule their citizenship interview appointments. It cost considerably more than a million dollars to get to beta. Apparently it is terrific.

How was this project even remotely important for the citizens – the taxpayers – who paid for it? And if there is some unknown benefit of this tremendously important appointment rescheduling system, why is it not communicated to the people that paid for it?

The DTO is an incredibly important organisation. The Australian Government in the middle of a very difficult period of transition. It is building a modern administration after years of complacency. It is playing technology catch-up.

But there are many, many stakeholders along for the ride. Not least the Australian public. After the ridiculous nonsense of the Census debacle, there is very little trust.

The goodwill is nearly spent.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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