We are missing Paul Shetler in this crisis

James Riley
Editorial Director

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.

Paul Shetler
Paul Shetler: Government lacked in-house digital delivery capability

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.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

  1. “It was absolutely my decision” – Mr Turnbull said. Got that. The temporary Minister for Communications can just give the finger to Commonwealth recruitment processes, selection on merit, published requirements, duty statements, selection criteria, interviews and the whole process of APS employment. It’s “absolutely Malcolm’s decision” and the rest of you can get stuffed. Oh, he got it wrong. How sorry he is now. Not. Paul was one of the good guys in so many ways, but he had been with the GDS for less than a year, and the justice department for a short time before that. He had so little public sector experience that Malcolm’s decision was madness. Paul had zero APS experience. He was an American, and yet was handed an exemption from AGSVA clearances at a high level. Paul had never transformed anything, and had only written a report for the GDS looking into what other people had done before he arrived. Somehow he was given credit for their work, and never said anything to set the story straight. He had transformed nothing, disrupted nothing and his big success was a visitor booking system for UK prisons – totally awesome. In Canberra Paul led a team that produced almost nothing in the 16 months he had the job. When he left there was a Digital Standard in “beta” (a standard can be in beta ??). It had been plagiarised from the GDS and still had UK government footers in the MS Word document. Malcolm is on record at the time praising plagiarism and encouraging the APS to use it as first choice. Paul did, and then he brought a 19 year old HTML “programmer”, Jordan, from the UK with the “source code” for Gov.AU, that was indistinguishable from Gov.UK. He brought other escapees from London weather as well, nearly all of whom used their return fights after Paul abandoned the DTA following his rude demotion by Angus Taylor and abandonment by Malcolm (that had nothing to do with “the Canberra collective holding the line against change” – Angus hated Paul instantly and appointed a subservient APS, Nerida O’Loughlin to replace him). At the time Mal wasn’t getting far with his “agile” mantra and it was making his colleagues sick of the word, so he tossed Paul overboard. Not that the Commonwealth ever did agile, because it can’t – it’s a quasi-military organisation. But Malcolm and Paul had started a great tradition of getting big APS jobs without interviewing or even applying. The current boss, Randall Brugeaud, was just appointed, no process, no application, no interview, no short list, no competition, nothing. That’s how you get a $350,000 APS job these days. Thanks Mal, really glad that “it was absolutely your decision”, then it was absolutely Angus Taylor’s decision to appoint Gavin and absolutely Michael Keenan’s decision to appoint Randall. This how we get “the best of the best” (laughing). @digikoolaid

    ps. Paul knew he was up against The Mob the week he arrived. He knew he needed a comprador, an insider, a way to understand the APS game and how to play it – because I told him the week he arrived.

  2. Chris Drake 4 years ago

    It’s sad that he’s no longer with us, but on the technical front, it is worth pointing out that he presided over multiple successive “total failures” during his time.
    a) what is now the TDIF is at least the 3rd total re-build, at at cost of more than $250M in wasted development effort, which they forged ahead making with zero transparency, after deciding not to buy any of the already-built-and-working solutions made available to them in their original RFI by Australian providers, and repeatedly refusing to engaged with experts).
    b) the DTA marketplace is simply a fork of the UK work, which not even to this day has rolled out the features that were promised – it’s a stagnant pile of garbage that makes it impossible for government to buy anything – all they can do is hire “expensive consultants” to build bespoke solutions from a short and never-updated list of “approved suppliers” who have been price-capped (which would be illegal under our cartel laws, except our government does not have to abide by our consumer protection laws!) and unfairly “vetted” to ensure that no quality providers can apply.

    I was one of the panel who, after years of effort, managed to get the DTA to sign a written agreement to be transparent with their work and to engage industry and experts along the way. Despite this being in writing, they never did.

    Whatever was, and no doubt still is, going on inside the DTA, it was utterly toxic to the core.

    You can see Paul Shetler responding to questions in the “Failed digital services” senate inquiry – not a single word of truth was spoken there, and despite them never engaging with outsiders, he had the gall to blame 3rd parties for DTA failures.

    The Australian Public Service SHOULD NEVER BE DOING WORK THEMSELVES. They should GOVERN, and leave DEVELOPMENT to the experts.

    The only reason you think “outside consultants” aren’t good, is because they’re banned from participating in senate inquiry failures, and never given any right of reply, so public servants always blame them for everything that went wrong with total impunity.

    And it is not their fault they are “Expensive”. Have you ever tried to work with the government? The overheads are nothing short of crushing – consultants are not in real live “expensive” at all, they’re just having to recoup their costs.

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