“This is transformation” — the challenge of leading digital change
This article originally appeared on the Decoding the New Economy website.
To say Paul Shetler’s stay in Australia has been controversial would be an understatement.
After leaving the UK’s Government Digital Service in 2015, Shetler was the founding CEO of the Australian government’s Digital Transformation office. He lasted 16 months before being managed out.
In January I interviewed Shetler where he discussed the relative differences between countries, the challenges facing those trying to digitally transform governments and large organisations along with some scathing observations about the management of the Australian Public Service.
Some of Shetler’s answers have been lightly edited for clarity.
How do we compare the digital transformation journey of different countries?
In terms of the UK, the Government Digital Service really has done a great job. If hadn’t been for GDS we wouldn’t be having the conversation we’re having in Australia today, much less in New Zealand, the United States and other countries.
Digital Transformation wouldn’t be on the table and an awful lot of the basic ideas on how you fix government IT by looking at structural reasons for behaviour rather than just saying “let’s make a nicer interface.” they were really good at identifying those things.
Britain was the pioneer. Every country in the naughties had their own digital strategy but the UK led the way. The US right now is a mess, they don’t really have a digital strategy.
How does the US look with the new Trump administration?
They do have a lot of potential there. I do think the new administration is more likely to do something big to fix things than perhaps the Obama Administration was, because they are talking about national infrastructure.
If you to the United States it’s shocking, the physical level infrastructure is falling apart and on a digital level things are pretty much the same, if you look at the government websites many of them look like they are from the 1990s and they all look and act differently.
They are very much like the UK before Britain started the digital transformation and they’ve had several years to fix it but there’s been no concerted effort because no-one really owns it.
They do have the USDS which operates out of the White House that gets really great talent in to do fix something but they don’t have the authority across the government.
They have 18F who operate on a cost recovery basis who act like an internal consultancy… they have some extremely talented people there and we’ve learned quite a bit from them.. and they help agencies with individual things, like looking at contracts or procurement or whether it’s fixing a particular service. But there’s no vision or strategy that guides it all.
If you go to New Zealand you’ll see they’ve been doing a lot of great thinking. It really influenced us in Australia on user journeys across governments, where you want to get something done that goes across agencies.
Let’s look from the standpoint of the end user; the end user wants to send a child to school, to emigrate to New Zealand or to open up a business. What do they need to do and how can we map it out for them.
The problem in New Zealand is that the team has no authority, all they can do is propose and it depends upon other people saying ‘oh, that’s a great idea’ although there’s been a lot of great design thinking coming out of there and it difficult for that being translated into practice.
One of the things I learned here was you can have all the great ideas and talent but if you don’t have the political will and authority to drive it then a recalcitrant bureaucracy will not going along with it because their interests aren’t in alignment with their users.
What did you find on coming to Australia?
There was a lot of excitement and enthusiasm on what we could do with the idea of the DTO, particularly among the public there was a lot of goodwill as well as in large parts of the Canberra bureaucracy, generally speaking the lower you got down the ranks there was more enthusiasm.
In the UK you have two layers of governments; you have the central government and local administration.
You have the split between politics and policy, you have the politicians who just don’t spend time in their departments. When I was with the UK Justice Ministry the Secretary of State, Chris Grayling, and his ministers were in the building every day.
As a consequence they were very aware of what was going on. There were in there everyday and they could see things. It made it easier for the ministers to give direction and cover for the civil servants.
In Australia it’s much easier for public service to capture the minister, direction is spotty and politicians are easily manipulated, partly because of lack of information.
There’s also the gap between policy and delivery, the UK Department of Justice, for example, works on legal and constitutional policy but is also responsible for prisons, courts and other services. So there’s a tight feedback loop where if a policy isn’t working, you find out pretty quick.
How important are people and existing processes?
You can’t fight human nature you have to acknowledge it and live with it and make it work for you.
In Australia we did a terrible job of working with human nature. This idea we could get Australian government to magically transform itself because it was told to, that I could come here and put up some pretty pictures and say some nice words and everyone would say ‘hey we never thought of that.’
That’s not going to happen when you have entrenched interests, habits, structures and groups who are committed to doing things a particular way. It’s not going to happen and it’s vary naïve to think you can do it, it’s just not how people work.
In the UK, we didn’t focus on consensus we focused on getting things done. When I first met with Francis Maud he said ‘this is not a change management process — this is transformation.”
When we talk about change management it’s often about appeasing people who are throwing up obstacles, this isn’t about appeasing them, it’s about them doing their job. Too often here there was too much appeasing bureaucrats which I think comes down to a lack of political will and perhaps cowardice.
One of the major reasons why the UK was a successful as they were was because Francis Maude was the minister for five years. It became clear he was going to see this through and if you were going to fight, you were going to lose. People got into line.
Because they understood people were competitive they created a group called ‘Digital Leaders’, the digital leaders were the Director-Generals from various departments who were future leaders — most likely to become Permanent Secretaries — and said, “you guys will be those driving the transformation from the Civil Service side.” Of course because these people were all competitive they’d try to outdo each other.
How does the Australian political culture compare?
“It’s quite a bad culture. In Canberra you have people who think they are the intellectual elite of the nation who aren’t really, it’s a relatively mediocre elite.”
The idea you have a group of people sitting around thinking their Big Thoughts in a bubble and telling each other how great they are who then hand those thoughts down to proles who do the service delivery. It’s a very weird class system that’s been built up — you have the Big Thinkers and then even the proles you give it to, they pass it on to the states or an NGO to deliver it.
There is no feedback loop, there is none. You don’t know how much these policies cost, you don’t know what they’re delivering you don’t know what’s a success. That probably suits lots of people.
We saw that with digital dashboard where citizens and ministers could monitor public services’ performance. There was so much pushback, there were some agencies that worked with us but getting information directly from the systems was difficult.
What are the lessons from the Australian experience and for those trying to drive digital transformation?
When the DTO was set up, they had to make a series of trade-offs. It wasn’t GDS, it didn’t have the powers of GDS. It didn’t have the powers to mandate or block.
GDS had both, the idea you could kumbaya your way to transformation, no-one there believed it. That’s why they set up GDS the way they did. They could stop you from spending money, even if you had the budget approval or not, so that was a massive stake in the heart for a number of zombie IT projects.
It’s particularly hard for IT managers in departments to admit that a long running project was a failure so GDS was great. That ability to do the right thing and to have it sanctioned by authority was brilliant. The years of ass-covering were over.
Some kind of spending controls are good and some ICT procurement reform is absolutely essential. That’s potentially really, really good.
How important is finding the right people?
People coming into senior digital roles in the UK government were hired by GDS and that was massively important to get the right people in.
I was thoroughly vetted as were all the other hires and it was important because it created a community of people who thought the same way. We were all committed to the same mission and we all came in at the same time. It’s not talked about much, but there was also a general clearing out of the old leadership.
Having a common sense of mission was important, we would work together and collaborate with each other.
You need to have political will to see them through because the departments will kick and scream but if their autonomy was working we wouldn’t have this problem.
Why are Australian governments suffering IT problems?
If all major government projects were failing we’d not be having this conversation. That said, there is an unacceptable rate of failure and it has to be fixed. Again, departmental autonomy is not working.
Departments have chosen to deskill, departments have chosen to become dependent upon vendors and departments have chosen to put their own interests ahead of users — as we in the case with Centrelink. Infrastructure failures like the ATO or the Census were easily preventable. The idea you’re building data centres in 2016 is insane and anyone who tells you that should be fired.
These are all predictable outcomes and as long as you have a public service that’s not really comfortable with 21st Century technology and which still views as its own departmental in-group as being more important than its end-users then you’ll end up with these problems.
Public servants have to start operating the way a bank or insurance company would — how do I get onto the cloud, not how do I keep workloads off the cloud? How do I build around the user? It’s crazy to be asking these conversations because it’s an incredibly deskilled when it comes to IT. It’s appalling, much more than in the UK.
That’s the problem, when you talk to actual practitioners in the Australian government they acknowledge it. It’s not the guys doing the designs or those trying to use the technologies, it’s those further up the management chain who don’t have the skills or have too close relationships with certain vendors where you see these anti-social behaviours kicking in.
I’ve spent sixteen months banging my head against a wall so I’m not in a hurry, I’m looking some opportunities in Australia and a few elsewhere in the world.