Turnbull moves digital to PM&C

James Riley
Editorial Director

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has made good on his promise of putting innovation at the heart of his economic narrative, moving key chunks of government’s digital framework into Department Prime Minister & Cabinet.

The Digital Transformation Office has been carved out of the Communications portfolio and moved to PM&C, which also takes on Data Policy responsibilities, effectively driving an Open Government agenda from the top.

Meanwhile, Communications has also lost portfolio responsibility for the digital economy, which has been shifted to Industry, Innovation and Science, nominally under newly-installed Industry Minister Christopher Pyne, but specifically under the wing of ministry newcomer Wyatt Roy.

Cultural Shift: Malcolm Turnbull’s new ministry puts down digital markers for the whole economy

The architecture of Mr Turnbull’s first ministry is a dramatic departure from the structures and priorities that existed under former Prime Minister Tony Abbott. The differences could not be more stark.

The markers laid down by Mr Turnbull in naming his first ministry – both in his choice of personnel, and the structure of portfolios – points to ambitious plans to re-make the Australian Public Sector. He has set up a framework to drive digital transformation from the heart of government.

It is an incredibly important moment for the technology sector in Australia, shifting the Commonwealth’s policy emphasis to embrace the opportunities of the digital forces that are reshaping the global economy.

The devil, as always, will be in the detail. And the detail will be contained in the administrative orders – which outline the portfolio responsibilities and objectives of each minister – which will be made public before the swearing in of ministers on Monday.

But Mr Turnbull’s office was already outlining last night its key objective to bring digital policy to the heart of the new Prime Minister’s government.

As a horizontal industry, policy responsibility for the technology sector for decades has generally fallen across portfolios of Communications, Industry, Finance and Education. The Turnbull Government has now added the political weight of the most powerful office of the land to coordinating and driving a central agenda.

The headlines for the ministerial reshuffle are this:

Mitch Fifield, the Victorian senator who has been acting for the former Communications minister in the Upper House since the 2013 election has been given the portfolio as Minister. He has also been given the Arts – which was taken from Attorney General George Brandis responsibilities – and brings the portfolio more in line with the structure as it was during the Howard years.

Senator Fifield is at the conservative end of the Liberal political spectrum, but had changed his allegiances to the centrist Mr Turnbull.

Former Education Minister Christopher Pyne has been appointed Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science. This was perhaps unexpected, but for a government that had already been making noises about driving better commercial linkages between industry and government-funded research makes sense.

Mr Pyne has good insight into the Australian tertiary research sector. In his previous role, Mr Pyne had oversight of the Australian Research Council, and had been a supporter of the ICT research agency NICTA (now merged with the CSIRO’s digital flagship and called Data61.)

The elevation of Mr Roy – a long-time Turnbull supporter – to the role of Assistant Minister for Innovation is important. Mr Roy has cultivated excellent relations with the Australian startup sector, and has been an enthusiastic supporter of the sector.

Mathias Cormann, who was a standout performer in the Abbott Government, is retained in the Finance portfolio. Of interest to technology providers, Mr Cormann has retained responsibility for technology procurement, albeit under the weighty direction of a digital agenda being driven from the Prime Minister’s Office.

South Australian senator Simon Birmingham takes the Education portfolio. A Liberal moderate, Senator Birmingham has strong policy credentials in the communications and digital economy sectors, having served lengthy periods on the Senate Environment and Communications Committee.

Senator Birmingham has been charged with the immediate challenge of boosting Australia’s output of STEM – science, technology, engineering and maths – capability at primary, secondary and tertiary levels.

The appointment of the well-regarded Arthur Sinodinos as Cabinet Secretary is also a key appointment. With Mr Turnbull having brought the digital agenda directly under his own Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Mr Sinodinos will play a key role in driving change.

The role of the Cabinet Secretary is critical in bringing all of the other portfolios – and the public service – into line with the new Prime Minister’s objectives. Mr Sinodinos is not a tech aficionado. But he has been reaching out to the sector and understands the importance of digital change, and is superbly qualified to ensure the machinery of government is pulling in the right direction.

Putting ‘digital’ at the heart of political power cannot be understated. The Australian Government has been stuck for a decade, unable to marry its roles as the biggest and most influential user of technology, with its role as an industry development policy engine for the sector.

Mr Turnbull has put digital transformation at the heart of his government’s agenda. That’s digital transformation of government, of industry and of the economy.

There are a couple of things worth mentioning here. The Australian Public Service will become a driver of this change, willingly or unwillingly.

The fact that the Minister for Employment, Western Australian Senator Michaelia Cash, has also been appointed as Minister Assisting the PM for the Public Service is instructive. This will be as disruptive a period for the public service as there has been in the history of the Federation. There will be battles fought.

If the APS is unsure about the terminology of Open Government and government-as-a-platform, the should probably google it. Because the winds of change are starting to blow.

The role of former Howard Government Minister Mal Brough will be watched closely. He has been appointed Special Minister of State under Mathias Cormann, and though it is not yet clear, it can be speculated that this will be a role that has at least some role in shaping procurement in line with overarching digital themes. (Mr Brough is also Minister for Defence Materials and Science, where he will oversee the Defence Science and Technology Organisation).

And finally to the Digital Transformation Office, which was formally established just three short months ago. The DTO’s CEO Paul Shetler, recruited from the UK’s Government Digital Service, had been given a Mission Impossible – a role to transform the way government delivers services, but without the political or purchasing clout to make it happen.

Moving the DTO from the policy periphery of the Communications portfolio – which had been starved of oxygen under the Abbott Government because of political intrigue – into PM&C gives these change agents tremendously enhance power to get things done. Mr Shetler’s job now seems less of a nightmare.

Power flows from the top. And we have a Prime Minister who has signalled very clearly that digital transformation will be his government’s signature theme.

This is an incredibly exciting time for our industry. What a difference a week makes.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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