Malcolm Turnbull describes the Australian government’s former digital tsar Paul Shetler as a “brilliant technocrat” who ultimately did not have the right set of management skills to lead the digital transformation agency that the former Prime Minister had established.
While taking full ownership of the decision to hire Mr Shetler from the UK’s Government Digital Service – “it was absolutely my decision” – Mr Turnbull says he got it wrong. While lamenting Paul’s death earlier this year as a great loss, he said Mr Shetler did not have the people skills to take the government’s digital movement forward.
Well, I would say that that we are missing Paul Shetler’s voice on disruption and transformation and building in-house digital delivery capability right about now.
It is worth noting that even in hindsight it is difficult to assess what success would look like for an outsider like Paul. I am able to offer an alternative view on Paul’s time in government here simply because it goes to the heart of the cultural impediments that make digital transformation projects so difficult, and I had the chance to talk to him often and in depth about the experience.
Paul Shetler was hired specifically as an agent of change, and specifically for his experience in the UK, which was Mr Turnbull’s model for the Australian public sector. And whatever the talk about people skills now, Paul’s sharp elbows were considered an asset back in 2015.
And whatever the complaints about his management style coming out of Canberra at the time, they weren’t coming from his team. One former senior DTA executive got in contact with me yesterday to take issue with the Turnbull assessment.
Paul was not infallible as a leader, the executive said, but he led a team where the vast majority of people were practitioners – rather than managers – and were fully engaged in getting on and delivering services.
Since Mr Shetler left, the Digital Transformation Agency gradually crowded out that crack team of practitioners with bureaucrats to the point now where they are spending millions – many millions – with Deloitte, McKinsey, Adobe, Boston Consulting Group and the rest – and “the few practitioners left are silenced for having a dissenting view.
“It is hard to overstate how little in-house capability exists in the Digital Transformation Agency now,” the executive said.
Malcolm Turnbull told the InnovationAus podcast about the damage that the “cult of the consultant” was doing to the public service and lamented that there is no quick fix to this issue. Reskilling and upskilling the APS to reduce the reliance on outside consultants for run-of-business tasks would “take a decade”.
Which sounds exactly like Paul Shetler’s view up until he passed away earlier this year. He had been committed to building delivery capability inside government.
In the end, he was shocked at the lack of political cover from either Mr Turnbull or the secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet. It was after all, Paul’s role to move in as an outsider and build a digital practice in the mould of the UK’s much-admired Government Digital Service.
The GDS, it has to be said, enjoyed its early success because of the bulletproof political cover provided by UK Cabinet Secretary Francis Maude. This was the model.
Paul had brought together a crack team of doers. He had brought two brilliant young digital specialists like Dan Searle and Jordan Hatch from the UK, and hired smart senior delivery executives like Catherine Thompson on the Digital Marketplace and Rachel Dixon on Digital Identity.
If he could have had his time at the DTO over again, Paul says he would havve sought out a comprador as soon as he arrived in Australia to help him navigate Canberra and to translate the cultural strangeness of the public sector.
As it happened, Paul Shetler was expelled from the host organisation inside two years. This was the Canberra collective holding the line against change. Paul was hired as an outside agitator specifically to perform that role.
When he left the public service, there was a campaign to discredit his work. But he fought back and became a valued voice for change from outside of government. At the end of the day success is hard to measure in these things, but it is clear that Paul Shetler made an immensely positive contribution to the digital thinking in this country.
And whatever his differences with Malcolm Turnbull at the end of his tenure, he would have agreed whole-heartedly about the ridiculous over-reliance of the Australian Public Service on expensive outside consultants to do the work they should be doing themselves.
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