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Opinion_

In a digital age, Australian governments need recoding

Calls for governments to change their tech mindset

Suresh Cuganesan offers insight into the issues facing goverments in an age of digital transformation and ways to improve through lessons learned from the private sector.

Our governments need to lift their game as they go digital. Their recent track record has been less than favourable. Rewind to the 2016 online census fail, the Australian Tax Office’s technology platforms outages and Centrelink’s much criticised data matching and robo-debt program. Add to this the risk of significant delays and overspend that can occur in digital transformation projects – recall Queensland Health’s AUD6 million payroll system upgrade that ended up costing taxpayers over AUD1.2 billion - and one can be forgiven for being gloomy about governments efforts to become hi-tech. In fact, the Commonwealth government itself is so concerned that a parliamentary inquiry was launched in August to investigate its strategies, programs and capability for digital transformation and service delivery. As of this week it has yet to release its final report.

Hopefully one of the key messages to come from this inquiry is the need for better leadership. Governance and sponsorship often suffers when senior executives view technology-based projects as just that rather than as important enablers of change and innovation in organisational and customer facing processes. For government this means digital transformation should be governed and led from a lens of how such projects and initiatives enable policy outcomes and service delivery objectives rather than as ‘something being done by IT’.

This is where the governance of the Centrelink robo-debt system comes into question, with a recent investigation by the Commonwealth Ombudsman concluding that those involved should have paid greater attention to and mitigated the potential for frustration, anxiety and stress, especially amongst those customers in vulnerable circumstances. A key lesson, the report notes, for decision-makers is to ensure that users are supported adequately in the transition to digital services. This requires a deep understanding of government policy and service delivery strategies along with the different types of customers for government services and the contexts in which they live.

There also needs to be better conversations about risk. In the world of digital transformation, organisations must take some informed risks based on their risk appetite and have good conversations on how to mitigate and manage these. Learning based on real-time data, user feedback and prompt adaptation to unforeseen circumstances is key. The myGov website got off to a rocky start with many users unable to logon or, if they were able to, finding that they could not access the services they needed. While improvements could have arguably been made more quickly this digital portal to government is now regarded by many as well functioning. In a report released this year by our National Audit Office, myGov is described as contributing to improved delivery of government services. Reduced time spent transacting with government, much improved availability, and a user base of over 10 million (approximately double what was originally forecast), bear testimony to this.

However this does not mean that technology projects should not be appropriately piloted and experimented with before launch. In the digital world, entrepreneurs, designers and innovators succeed or fail by the ‘user experience’ they provide. The best of them maintain a laser like focus on whether people find their products and services useful, easy to use and pleasing to interact with. This same mindset needs to occupy those responsible for digitally transforming government. Such a focus requires those governing these projects to move beyond results from the ‘average user’. Senior executives in government have to understand and plan for the various contexts in which employees, suppliers and citizens will interact with the new digital service. They also have to ensure that those leading these projects have a strategy for how change will occur and how the transition from old to new will be managed. Only then can benefits from digital be realised.

Crucially governments should have the ability to deliver digital services in smaller chunks. This allows more flexibility to adjust to changing technological and user environments and can help to de-risk a digital transformation project. While the private sector is increasingly shifting from big technology projects in favour of the continuous delivery of smaller improvements, the majority of government seems locked into big bang approaches. Unfortunately the bigger the project, the more approvals are required and the longer the funding approval process. This can mean delayed improvements to government services or, even worse, projects being planned on obsolete technologies and capabilities.

In a world where we increasingly transact and interact online, avoiding the digital transformation challenge is not an option. The development of Nadia, an innovative AI virtual assistant voiced by Cate Blanchett that helps users to navigate the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), is a case study on the challenge facing government organisations. Nadia was lauded as one of the first AI projects and was meant to go live earlier this year. In October it was announced that it was being put on hold due to concerns about the technology but also because it was felt that more work was required on how Nadia would both operate as part of the broader National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) organisation and interface with other pathways for NDIS participants and suppliers. This would indicate that some had previously adopted a mindset of Nadia as a standalone piece of ‘tech’ rather than a means of enabling and empowering NDIS participants. While this perspective shift is critical there appears to be insufficient discussion on the ‘when’ and ‘how’ of a staged transition into "use", which suggests significant opportunities for a more mature and agile approach to learning through experience. For governments, a recoding of mindsets and approaches to transformation is required if they are to do this successfully.


This article was written by Suresh Cuganesan, Deputy Chief Executive of the John Grill Centre for Project Leadership at the University of Sydney and Professor and the University of Sydney Business School. Suresh specialises in the areas of strategy execution, organisational design and performance measurement. His area of focus is on how public and private-sector enterprises can improve their achievement of policy and strategic goals through being better aligned, collaborative and innovative.