Where oh where is the DTA?

James Riley
Editorial Director

We seem to have travelled a long way to get not very far in relation to the digital transformation of Australian Government services. It’s in pieces.

The notion of ‘government as exemplar’ sounds even more fanciful now than it did when Malcolm Turnbull first mentioned it in 2015 (and back then it sounded like he was high.)

In fact, in the wake of the ongoing Centrelink debacle (and it most certainly is a debacle), the ATO shutdown in December, the ABS’ #CensusFail humiliation and the ongoing suckiness of MyGov, the idea of ‘government as exemplar’ is becoming a parody of itself.

Digital whitewater: Lots of movement, not much progress. Nothing to see here

Right now the government is bleeding goodwill via the Centrelink automated debt recovery program. This project is old skool, business-as-usual, public service IT.

It’s big, expensive, clunky, inflexible, and sort of gets the job done – give or take a few tens of thousands of annoyed and fearful clients who’ve been forced to jump through hoops for no reason.

Like I say, it’s BaU.

But it’s a revenue measure, so it gets funded – tens of millions of dollars – and its shortcomings are overlooked. Government says the system is working as it should, even as each news cycle punches another hole in public faith.

It would seem a completely reasonable question to ask where the Digital Transformation Agency is in all this, as Labor’s digital economy spokesman Ed Husic did through InnovationAus.com last week.

The DTA and its predecessor (the Digital Transformation Office) were supposed to ease the pain of dealing with government.

And yet it has been quiet as a church mouse. Nothing. Not a peep.

Mr Husic also asked if the DTA was not working on something that is as damaging to many citizens as its debt recovery problems – and so politically damaging to the government as a result – then what is it for. What is its purpose?

So I did. I called the minister’s office (that of rising Coalition star Angus Taylor) and was told “it has nothing to do with us” and “it’s not our project” in a tone of upper-case bold italics, four exclamations.

The official position is that this steaming Centrelink project has nothing to do with the DTA, which really just makes Ed Husic’s point for him. If not this, what is the DTA for? What is its purpose?

It also serves to underline one of former DTO Paul Shetler’s many, many criticisms of recent weeks around the current strategy being not so much about risk aversion as blame shifting.

So this project that has been causing so much political pain has many, many owners – Finance, Treasury, the ATO, Centrelink, DHS, DSS – but the digital service delivery agency unveiled with so much optimism more than two years ago is not one of them.

I repeat: “Nothing to do with us.”

Like I say, there has been enormous energy spent to get not very far at all. Lots and lots of white water.

Research group Ovum’s Government Sector global lead Kevin Noonan says the disarray at the DTA has been compounded in the months since Paul Shetler has left the agency, and until a suitable CEO is appointed it will flair.

It sounds like he’s having a bet each way, but Mr Noonan says Paul Shetler was destined to fail because he’d been given the wrong riding instructions and a hobbled horse from the outset. He also says Angus Taylor’s strategic plan is absolute the right thing to do pull it all back together.

He said merely transplanting a UK Government strategy and leader into the Australian political and public service environment does not work. He points to the whole of government outsourcing problems under John Howard, the failed Gershon implementation under Rudd/Gillard, and the GDS/Shetler as examples.

Mr Noonan says the environment was very different in Australia. The slow dismantling of AGIMO within the department of Finance in the time since former CIO Ann Steward left had put government IT in a parlous state, rudderless.

Departments and agencies had been “living hand-to-mouth” since Gershon. Risk averse was extreme by necessity (see Centrelink). But the problems that the DTO was being asked to solve were different from those the Government Digital Service had been solving in the UK.

It is more complex, Mr Noonan says, and it’s not about agile apps or website consolidation. “What you need is transformational government, and not transformational IT,” he said, and the original structure of the DTO with its limited powers of coercion was not the vehicle to deliver this.

So here we are, waiting for the DTA. With new powers and an expanded remit to get things done, we hear nothing beyond the yelling that it has “nothing to do with us.”

There are no details. No details. Industry briefings are held quietly, behind closed doors, invitation only. The gatekeepers are back in business.

The improvement of digital service delivery in government is one of the most exciting opportunities in front of the Turnbull Government right now. The re-imagining of government is a huge challenge, but the upside is enormous, with massive saving and better outcomes for citizens.

Everyone agrees on these things. But it is hard.

The single most important thing, according to Paul Shetler – and you should listen to the podcast interview with him here – is that the political leadership must have the will to push through, to get things done. It must spend political capital.

This is certainly something the UK had to its advantage, with former Cabinet Secretary and Paymaster General Francis Maude an uncompromising and consistent champion over five years.

“He took on the permanent secretaries. He took on the management consultancies. He took on the big vendors. He championed civil service reform. He took on the unions. He took on everybody, and for that he got almost fanatical support from section of the civil service,” Mr Shetler says in the podcast.

“It was difficult, but it wasn’t complicated. This is some that [former GDS chief] Mike Bracken liked to say. It’s not complicated, it’s just hard.

“You’ve got to just stick with it because there will be a million things thrown in your way and you will just have to say ‘I don’t give a fuck, I am going to go for it and I’m going to do it anyway.”

You need political cover to do that.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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