What’s your vector, Victor? Canberra’s tangled web awaits

In the wake of speculation that the Australian government may appoint Victor Dominello to ‘something’ significant to do with the digital delivery of government services, it’s worth considering the likelihood of success. Dominello has done good work in NSW. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, first, we’ve been here before.

We all know that the Australian government needs considerable work to bring it up to date with the systems and services – and user experience – we’ve come to expect from the major digital platforms.

Yet ministers seem convinced that resolving the ongoing issues and from their perspective performance of the public service is simply a matter getting the right bloke in – or, depending on who has a parliamentary pass – the right consultancy or vendor.

They are less willing to grapple with the complexity and effort – and risk the uncertain rewards – associated with sorting out the hardware, software, data, and legacy systems that underpin government work.

Lesley Seebeck
Dr Lesley Seebeck on digital transformation in government

Those legacy systems are not simply technologies but include legislative requirements; the financial framework and funding models; the extant culture, skills, and practices; and Canberra power structures.

Without addressing those – and without the right remit and ongoing top cover at both ministerial and prime ministerial level – the ‘right bloke’ will likely be hung out to dry. The internal operating climate is unforgiving, the politics can get personal, and the nature of public policy is wicked.

Paul Shetler’s experience is evidence that being a great bloke, having good ideas, and success in other jurisdictions – plus good well-seasoned deputies such as David Hazlehurst, amongst others – is not enough.

Political support for innovation in Canberra is a timid and fickle beast. IT development and delivery rarely goes to plan, is an attractive cash cow for the legion of vendors, consultants and contractor, and a ready target for political attacks, worthy or otherwise.

Nothing has changed that suggests Dominello’s experience would likely differ. His current success stems in good part from his decision-making and political authority within the New South Wales government.

He would not have that inside the federal bureaucracy; indeed, federal bureaucrats are adept at managing political appointees once they are ‘inside the tent’.

Further, the nature of the problem, even within the Human Service portfolio, is considerably more complex – with sensitivities magnified by the Robodebt Royal Commission – than the digitalisation of the NSW public services suite accomplished by Dominello and his people.

Human Services is not a single, independent actor; its data – that is, your data – is shared with, and its operations are dependent on, the ATO and in some cases other departments.

The ATO, Human Services and Home Affairs compete for control of citizen identity, typically leveraging an efficiency-driven budget funding process and separate national security decision-making apparatus.

That’s hardly a promising basis for an enlightened, beneficial, and citizen-centric outcome. And in such a contest, a lone saviour without a clear remit, a strong political base, adequate resources, and great people, will fail.

Last, there is a belief that government services should reflect the speed and innovation of a Silicon Valley startup.

That’s not unreasonable given the plasticity of software and ubiquity of digital systems. But government and the private sector startup scene are different beasts.

Government ICT, data and digitalisation is a serious affair, especially where it touches the lives, livelihoods, and wellbeing of individuals.

It is societal and economic infrastructure. We expect it to be always up, always correct, thoroughly secure, predictable, and – somewhat naively – to have our best interests at heart.

It is managed as a risk-controlled cost centre, like all infrastructure, with funding allocated on an efficiency and risk-minimisation basis, often piecemeal.

And government is coercive in nature. As we’ve seen with Robodebt – and other examples in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and the United States – poor decisions over the design and operation of automated systems have real-life consequences.

A public dependent on government systems, whose data is stored in government networks, is not simply an end-user of a Silicon Valley start-up: they are taxpayers and citizens and have a right to expect transparency, accountability, agency, and recourse.

That is hardly the territory of a ‘move fast and break things’ or experiment-based lean startup ethos. Ministers shy away from the spectre let alone the reality of failure, even as they praise ‘fail fast’ attitudes elsewhere.

And when senior leaders acknowledge that sometimes systems fail – such as the COVIDSafe app – there’s rarely an effort to go back and learn from those failures, let alone share those with the public.

It is worth noting that in contrast to the government’s behaviour over Robodebt, the Dutch Cabinet resigned after its tax system wrongly accused 26,000 families of fraud.

Ministers want outcomes, and departments rarely deliver to the tempo and levels of satisfaction ministers, and the public, feel they deserve. (Somewhat ironically, they probably don’t appreciate that many within the Public Service, including within ICT, feel the same way.)

And so ministers tend to turn to individuals to resolve the problems, even though many of the impediments, constraints and incentives are deep systemic behaviours that have evolved over decades – often due to a myriad of earlier ministerial decisions and behaviours.

The rumours of a role for Dominello are the latest indication of ministerial frustration. But not – yet – of substantive and needed change.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

  1. A solid rewrite of history here (how was Shetler a great bloke with solid record again?), coupled with a far too typical wait n see pessimism and perhaps a little ignorance of the compounding APS reform agendas driven by unprecedented pressure for reform (Robodebt, Coaldrake, Covid, trust deficit, APS Review, NACC, etc). Come on, Lesley? Firstly there is a lot of systemic and structural change underway, at a scale and ambition I’ve not seen in 10 years, which we should collectively embravlce and run with. The discussions im having woth oublic servants across the service are becomi hopeful and enthusiastic again. Dominello well knows about the complexities of gov, but in any case, there is a huge amount of talent in the APS that are starting to find their confidence and flex their expertise on the back of a little existential lifting. It’d be great if you wanted to suggest solutions rather than just pointing out problems 🙂

    • James Riley 1 year ago

      I am happy to confirm that Paul Shetler was indeed a great bloke and a very good friend. Yes he came to Australia with good ideas and a ton of energy. And he had such a good track record in other jurisdictions that he was hand-picked by Malcolm Turnbull to run the new digital office. History now tells us that he was very quickly spat out of a public service incapable of embracing digital, and shockingly poor at delivering digital services. Disparaging Paul Shetler is very low rent, especially given this poor performance at the federal level. You can cheerlead all you want, but there are certain realities that no amount of Kool Aid can help with.

      • Digital Koolaid 1 year ago

        Paul was a decent bloke, and his LinkedIn entry is still active in rememberance (hxxps://au.linkedin.com/in/paulshetler). It says that he was with the UK government for less than 2 years. He was at the UK Ministry of Justice from Jan 2014 – Feb 2015 which is 14 months. He went to the Government Digital Service in Feb 2015 until Jul 2015, which was 6 months (he’s not at 2 years yet) then he came to Australia. I suspected Frances Maud wanted him disappeared and conned Mal Turnbull, who circumvented recruitment policy, simply appointed Paul. Madly, insanely, Paul set up shop in Sydney, against advice. James is right to say that Paul was very quickly spat out of a public service. It could never have ended well. In the end it was Angus Taylor, who disliked Paul, who did the dirty deed. Remember the name.

  2. Mark Toomey 1 year ago

    James, I seem to recall exactly this conversation with you when we met over coffee with the late, great Graeme Philipson some years ago.

    Victor Dominello, as the technology aware Minister, had the absolute commitment of Mike Baird and Dominic Perrottet to strongly direct the behaviour of the rest of the ministry and the public service heads. There are powerful stories of department heads being told that their perception of their priorities was completely wrong, and they were given career choices regarding not just support for the scheme, but their active effort to ensure its success.

    Failing to put in place this level of direction and control (key governance concepts) and failure to recognise that IT enabled change is primarily about changing people, process and structure (that is, reviewing, updating and sometimes reinventing the entire design of every business process) is the reason why no Government CIO (including alternative names like DTO and DTA head) has ever succeeded at the national level. It’s the same reason why so many Australian Government IT investments have failed dismally.

    Dominello should take on the job ONLY after he get iron clad assurance of absolute support from Albanese, Shorten, Husic and the rest of the Labor Ministry. His first priority should be to implement a governance structure across the Australian Government that conforms top and fully implements the principles in ISO 38500 (not like the sham that was implemented some years ago in Vicotria), with a top level governing body supported by no less than 3 and no more than 5 totally independent (that means not from any IT company, consultancy or lobby) advisers who have extremely high levels of industry recognition and respect for their expertise in governance of IT enabled change. This group also must not include any person currently or recently employed in delivering the farce that has been called IT Governance for twenty years.

  3. Chris 1 year ago

    Really solid analysis here, and very much echoing my own experience within government identity a few years ago. Very difficult to work with multiple departments, each of whom felt they were ‘the natural owner’ of digital, while being caught between the ‘do nothing’ security and privacy people and the ‘crazy ideas’ people from the ministers office…

  4. Digital Koolaid 1 year ago

    OMG Leslie, you’ll get no Christmas cards this year. The Albanese “crack team” (hxxps://www.innovationaus.com/catalysing-a-new-era-of-an-australian-tech-policy/) in Cabinet won’t invite you to anything – ever again. Surely you’ve figured out that good things only happen to people who sing along with the choir. If you sing your own song you have to do it on another island. This island is taken. Vic is a legend. Sing the song. (ps. Cabinet resign???? What’s gotten into you? Substantive change ??? You’ll be excommunicated and cast into a burning pit. Recant now!)

Leave a Comment

Related stories