When delivery is a DTA disgrace

James Riley
Editorial Director

It is more than three years since the then-Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced the creation of the Digital Transformation Office, detailing a bright future of better government services, delivered at lower-cost.

These transformational services were also going to open new opportunities for local tech SMEs and startups to become suppliers to government. The digital plan signaled that procurement would become an instrument for tech industry development.

Obviously these things did not happen. The digital transformation effort has fallen shockingly short of even jaundiced expectations. It has become a minor disaster that is looking to graduate into a major disaster.

Gavin Slater: Needs a new set of levers to pull on digital transformation

As Prime Minister, you can only assume that Mr Turnbull has been bitterly disappointed at the lack of progress.

Even the shape of the effort has strayed significantly from its original direction. Renamed as the Digital Transformation Agency, it has become a washed-out policy shop rather than the digital delivery catalyst that had been sought.

The DTA looks far more like the old AGIMO – the Australian Government Information Management Office – than the DTO. It has been stripped of digital capability. The platforms and projects that had been underway when the agency was still focused on delivery are either dormant or shuttered.

The agency’s ex-banker chief executive Gavin Slater must be wondering what he’s got himself into.

He has been given the reigns of a central agency that was set up to drive improvements in digital service delivery, but has not been given the means to do much more than make suggestions.

He’s got no carrots to give out, and is carrying the least intimidating stick in government.

Quite literally, there is nothing transformational going on within the Digital Transformation Agency.

It is a business-as-usual policy shop that has been subsumed into mainstream public service culture.

It is simply dead as a vehicle for transforming anything. It does not have the digital capability nor the cultural DNA to deliver on what it has been asked to do. Mr Slater must surely know this by now.

Without significant restructure in the current budget cycle, it is quite simply over. Certainly it won’t survive a change of government without substantial wins, and there are none of those on the horizon.

The digital transformation effort has been full of missteps. This does not mean that the issues are self-inflicted. It just means it is hard to do.

And while another restructure would be a bitter pill for the Prime Minister, the current structure is not working, and he has got to keep the effort moving.

The strategy frameworks developed while Angus Taylor was in the digital transformation role as assistant minister have now been in place for some time – on ICT procurement, on digital identity, on cloud, on digital priorities.

The industry were supportive of the strategy. But where’s the forward progress? At some point strategy has to be implemented, and that’s on the executive team, not the minister’s office. The DTA inertia is spectacular.

Angus Taylor had always said the DTA would retain a delivery capability, and that it would continue to develop and delivery significant projects – sometimes in partnership with others and sometimes in building stuff on its own.

Well, that’s all gone. The DTA has retreated back into the business-as-usual public service, a policy box-checker without delivery nous. It’s AGIMO. Again.

There is nothing that the current minister Michael Keenan has said publicly about digital transformation that does not suggest he has been kidnapped and held hostage by DHS captors.

From his first interview, Mr Keenan – who is both Human Services minister and the minister assisting the prime minister on digital transformation – has run the line that criticisms of service delivery problems are overblown.

There can only be two explanations for this: Either someone has a gun to his head, or he has not been given the full picture.

Ed Husic has been one of parliament’s most vocal proponents on digital transformation in government. He gave a neat summary of the DTA’s performance issues in an under-reported speech recently to the APAC Blockchain Conference in Melbourne.

The speech outlines a series of applications in government where blockchain might provide an interesting solution, but then laments that there is no central agency that would be capable of taking leading the innovation and experimentation that would help guide public sector adoption.

This is precisely where the Digital Transformation Agency was supposed to have been at its best.

“Having had a solid focus on public sector product development and delivery in the past, it seems the DTA is now more focused on being an auditor; ticking off ICT project costings and management plans,” Mr Husic said.

“This means there is a gap where government leadership in service development and leadership should be,” he said.

“This is a pity because we need an agency that has attracted outside thinkers and talent to help identify the ways that emerging tech – like blockchain – can be applied constructively within government.”

This is the opposite of where the DTA has now put itself. It does not attract outside thinkers, and it is frankly the last place where you would expect to find leadership in service design using a high-potential emerging technology.

It’s not possible to write a column about the DTA right now without mentioning the dubious memorandum of understanding the agency signed recently with the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA).

This was a shocking error in judgement on the part of DTA management that has left its Minister embarrassed.

The MoU is little more than a commercial joint-marketing arrangement with a lobby group that has large multinational tech companies and their local resellers as its primary power base.

It is not representative of digital tech innovators that should be the target of DTA engagement. The DTA frankly has a hopeless track record in communicating with stakeholders, and this non-starter of an MoU signed with AIIA is quite shameful.

The agreement is nothing more than one crusty old culture scratching the back of another crusty old culture. How Michael Keenan’s office were able to be convinced this was a good idea is a mystery.

The Australian Government spends nearly $10 billion on its ICT goods and services. Does it seriously need to sign a joint marketing agreement with the lobby group for multinational tech in order to “engage” with them? It is laughable.

The Digital Transformation Agency is a key pillar of the Turnbull Government’s innovation agenda. It is supposed to be a champion of the Australian industry. It is supposed to champion new ways of doing things.

And yet it pays only lip service to smaller local companies. It has shown no real interest in engaging with companies that offer new ways of doing things.

The long-dormant development work on the Digital Marketplace and its disinterest in improving the outcomes for SMEs is a monument to this business-as-usual approach.

Gavin Slater needs a new plan. He needs new levers to pull to deliver progress.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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