When ex-CDO’s go postal: Shetler

James Riley
Editorial Director

The high error rate of Centrelink’s automated debt recovery operation is “catastrophic”, “shocking”, “appalling” and “extremely preventable,” according to the Turnbull Government’s former digital transformation tsar Paul Shetler.

And if Centrelink were in the private sector “it would be shut down by the regulator for fraud,” he told ABC radio.

If the government was hoping Mr Shetler would go quietly into the night after resigning as its chief digital officer in late November, it must be very, very disappointed right now.

Paul Shetler: Centrelink problems are symptomatic of a failing bureaucracy

In a series of high profile interviews over the past week, Mr Shetler has taken aim at policy makers for the series of technology failures of the past year, and for the shortcomings of its plans to deliver services in future. He did not miss.

The reorganisation of the central Digital Transformation Agency under assistant minister Angus Taylor would fail – inevitably – because it adopted an approach that had been tried “several times before and did not work.”

Mr Shetler has a lot to get off his chest, not least the disagreements with the minister’s office about how to approach the digital transformation of government that ultimately led to his resignation.

“The idea that the DTA should just become a policy agency and essentially stop doing delivery was not something I agreed with. It’s not the way that I want to work, it’s not the way that I do work, and it’s not the way that I will work in future,” he said.

Mr Shetler took up his post as CEO of the newly-created Digital Transformation Office in July last year, recruited from the UK as a global leader in public sector transformation programs.

His appointment received the personal approval of Malcolm Turnbull, who was running the show as Communications Minister.

He arrived at a time when the ambitions for transformation were high, and the political will to get things done were substantial. The ambition and the political muscle only grew when Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister.

That’s now gone, Mr Shetler says, describing the political will to get things done as “absent”.

Which brings us to the digital vacuum in government and the weird aversion that Australia seem to have when it comes to taking the advice of the international expertise they spend so much time and effort in recruiting.

Paul Shetler was famously recruited by Mr Turnbull from the UK’s Government Digital Service after a six month global search. A year and a half later he was restructured out of the job when government changed the Digital Transformation Office into the Digital Transformation Agency.

While he had been given the nominal title of Chief Digital Officer, he is clearly not interested in the new approach – as evidenced by the quotes above.

Australian’s have an schizophrenic approach to international talent, according to innovation systems expert Sandy Plunkett, and it is hurting our ability address the problems of our shallow digital talent pool.

You can’t, Ms Plunkett says, go out into the world and find the best global talent and then get all shirty when they tell you things you don’t want to hear. It is something she’s experienced since returning to Australia after a career in tech in the US.

And you hear this broadly from the many successful tech expats who have returned here. There are certain things Australians don’t like to hear.

In the case of Paul Shetler, it seems inconsistent with reality to headhunt expertise from the GDA – the agency that Malcolm Turnbull promised to flatter through imitation – and then to throw those plans overboard just 15 months later in favour a direction more palatable to the existing public service regime.

How does that make sense?

“It’s extremely difficult to get an incredibly balkanised bureaucracy to decide that it wants to transform itself. There is an awful lot of inertia in the system that’s built-in,” Mr Shetler told the ABC.

“It’s still obviously possible to do that, but you need to have string support along the way from the ministers at the top,” he said.

This support evaporated, including from the Prime Minister. Digital government is supposed to be a passion project of the PMs. Shetler and the GDS strategy was his personal choice.

And yet, that support was gone.

So here we are. If you want to run the Commonwealth’s Digital Transformation Agency as the new CEO, you have less than a week to apply (deadline is COB on January 15.)

The job ads were posted five days before Christmas.

While I am sure international candidates are not excluded from being considered for the role, it seems very clear the Australian Government is not so interested in global expertise this time around.

It seems too far outside of the comfort zone. That’s the trouble with outsiders. They’re different.

The Centrelink story is a terrible look for a government that has made digital service delivery a central theme. Just as the ATO’s recent failures were a terrible look. Just as the Census fail was a terrible look.

The other thing about the Centrelink story is that it is going to run and run.
The ridiculously error rates of the automated debt recovery program has put a spotlight on a gigantic hairball.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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