Tributes flow for digital icon Shetler

James Riley
Editorial Director

Public sector, business and political leaders have paid tribute to the Australian Government’s former digital tsar Paul Shetler for his contribution in driving new thinking in this country in the development and delivery of citizen services.

Mr Shetler, who passed away in Sydney last Friday at age 59, had been personally recruited by Malcolm Turnbull in 2015 to lead the just-established Digital Transformation Office. He had been brought in as an outsider to shake things up, to drive transformative change within the closed culture of the Canberra public service.

And while a resistant public service was quick to close ranks and spit him out – Mr Shetler had left the government within 18 months after being restructured into a lesser role he could not accept – he never stopped agitating for improvements in citizen outcomes through better use of the technology.

Paul Shetler
Paul Shetler, the critical thinker brought in to ‘shake things up’

“He cared deeply about doing better for average Australians,” Federal Labor’s Ed Husic told InnovationAus. “He believed the public service could do better by the public, using tech and digital as a means to deliver that.”

“He was brought in to shake things up, but that was confronting – because he wasn’t about just developing an app or revamping a website. Digital transformation challenges the way work gets done and that ruffled feathers,” he said.

“But I think his ultimate legacy – despite the resistance – is that he has forced people to rethink the way things get done. People can contest the degree to which that’s happened, but I sense he was successful in that regard.

NSW Treasury Secretary Michael Pratt met Paul Shetler in the first week after he arrived from the UK to run the Digital Transformation Office. At the time, Mr Pratt was the NSW Government’s customer service commissioner and had been instrumental working with Victor Dominello and then Finance Minister Dominic Perrottet in building the ground-breaking ServiceNSW strategies and the citizen-centric focus that came with it.

At that time, NSW was far ahead of the other government in Australia in its thinking on digital delivery (just as it is now). Mr Pratt says the challenge Mr Shetler faced was both structural and cultural in the three-tiered Australian government landscape.

“Paul had held a senior position in the UK digital transformation, and we enjoyed an active and well-informed conversation on all matters digital and its application to government,” Mr Pratt told InnovationAus.

“It was clear Paul had an excellent knowledge base in the application of digital to bring about real and sustainable change”

“Whilst success was mixed, Paul brought a change of mindset and certainly created an increased awareness of the need for change and citizen requirements,” Mr Pratt said. “[After leaving] his government role, he was active around both government and the business community to share his knowledge and experience.”

“A strong contribution to digital transformation in and around government and his perspective and passion will be missed,” he said.

National Disability Insurance Scheme chief executive Martin Hoffman met Paul Shetler immediately after he started at the then DTO. Mr Hoffman had just left the federal government to join the NSW government in a role that included responsibility for Service NSW and digital government overall.

“My first thoughts were ‘Oh this is going to be interesting!’ And so it proved,” Mr Hoffman said. “His political and social views were delightfully heterodox. On any topic, tech or not, he was never cliche’d, always had something interesting to say.”

“He was fiercely critical of cant, received wisdom, program failures, purist process and methodology over practical results (read his stuff on ‘agile’). But in all that, he always played the ball, and not the person,” he said.

“I think he was probably best suited to the external advisory and provocateur role – and I told him that when we talked about the potential for full time roles in NSW Government in later years.

“He did a couple of review reports for me when I was Secretary of the then Department of Finance Services & Innovation and they were typical Paul – weak on contextual and organisational awareness, some errors of fact; but a fresh perspective, real truth-telling, and a couple of gems of insight.

“One in particular significantly changed the direction and approach for a whole agency mega-project in a couple of weeks,” he said.

Mr Hoffman describes Paul’s ‘Shetlerian Pragmatism’, which “meant he believed people don’t want to ‘engage’ with government, they just want to get stuff done and get on with their own lives.”

“He derided excitement about machine learning, AI, bots and all the rest when he’d point to phones not answered and all the pdf forms still clogging up government offices,” he said.

Victorian deputy privacy commissioner Rachel Dixon – who ran the nascent Digital Identity program with the DTO – described Mr Shetler as a passionate and enthusiastic man, who genuinely wanted to improve the lives of people.

“Intellectually, emotionally and physically, he was quite literally larger than life,” Ms Dixon said.

“Paul was a champion of evidence-based decision making and was inclined to question everything. He was always willing to listen to why there might be a better way of doing something and was driven by a strong desire to be effective,” she said.

“He was unafraid to challenge those in Canberra with vested interests, and he never stopped believing there were better ways to deliver services to people.

“Paul was also enormously supportive of his staff. He wouldn’t suffer fools, but if you knew your stuff you could count on Paul to defend you, no matter the cost. The world is a smaller place without him,” Ms Dixon said.

Author and tech policy commentator Sandy Plunkett said Mr Shetler had been demonstrably and deeply disappointed that he never got the chance to fulfill his mission for transformative and citizen-focused digital service delivery with the DTO.

He had struggled to reconcile many things but had been especially disappointed at the lack of political cover from the former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who had hired him “with eyes wide open,” as Mr Shetler used to say. He had no time whatever for former assistant minister for digital transformation Angus Taylor.

“Paul’s natural tendency to speak his mind no matter to whom should never be confused with a mere ‘shoot-from-the-hip’ style,” Ms Plunkett said. “He was an all too rare deep and critical thinker who always sought to understand his environment, the people in it and any resistance (overt or shadowy) that he confronted along the way.

“His desire was to find ways to connect with diverse audiences and advance better policy and service delivery by drawing on other experiences internationally and thinking critically and deeply about what was unique about the ‘Australian way’,” she said.

“I learned a lot about ‘taking the high road’ from Paul, because he was not ‘platitudinal’ or insincere like so many. He was fearless, pragmatic and entrepreneurial, always.”

Labor’s Ed Husic said the “measure of the man” was put on public display when Mr Shetler presented to the Senate Inquiry into Digital Transformation in 2018, which had sought to shine a light on a series of huge and expensive technology failures within the federal government.

“After what he went through, he could’ve justifiably gone into those hearings determined to settle scores. In fact, he did the opposite,” Mr Husic said.

“He took the opportunity to point out how digital transformation could strengthen the public service. He was dignified, candid and helpful.

“He had been through tough times, learned, move on to better. He lived what he preached. That’s why I respected him. And it’s why I will miss him.”

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