Former Australian digital transformation chief wants government run like Amazon

Paul Shetler has told a Senate inquiry the Australian government should learn from the methods enterprises use to deliver services, and train its staff so it can own the tech from start to finish.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

The way the Australian government builds services is outdated, and according to former CEO of the now defunct Digital Transformation Office (DTO) Paul Shetler, instead of building digital services the same way it builds bridges, the government needs to adopt the approach used by the likes of Amazon.

Shetler told the Finance and Public Administration References Committee on Wednesday morning that Amazon would never ask a customer to deal with its packing website and then its shipment site, yet the Australian government sends citizens through a maze of websites delivered often by multiple agencies with almost every service it offers.

"Amazon doesn't require you to navigate their internal bureaucracy," he said, noting that's not because internal bureaucracy doesn't exist. "Governments can do that and the first government that does will have a huge advantage."

When asked by the committee looking into the digital delivery of government services if it is a realistic expectation to want government interaction to operate as smooth as it is with the likes of Amazon and Uber, Shetler said "absolutely".

"If you look at what Amazon do, Amazon don't just receive orders and ship goods -- they do an awful lot of stuff -- which is one of the reasons why every industry in the world is terrified of Amazon," he explained.

"They're able to do that because they have the same base platforms that allows them to build multiple services from ... they build further layers on top of that. Everything they build can be further used by other parts of Amazon as well ... and so they have all the benefits of vertical integration, but they also have all the benefits of market competition because they open up every single part of their business to their competitors to use as well and that means inefficiency is rooted out very quickly as well."

The committee heard earlier from Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) Policy and Research Officer Osmond Chui, who called for a cap on funding given to third parties and for that leftover money to be used to train the public service.

Agreeing with Chui, Shetler said instead of providing digital training for public servants, too often the government has outsourced IT to international technology vendors and consultants.

"Outsourcing makes the government seem smaller, but it is expensive, and contributes further to deskilling the public service," he added.

"Facebook, Amazon, they don't outsource their stuff to IBM or Accenture -- they make darn sure they can actually react in real-time to their understanding of what user needs are, that's how they survive, that's how they maintain competitive advantage ... it's their speed and their ability to adapt.

According to Shetler, the government should be focusing on up-skilling its existing workforce. He said people generally don't join government because they want to make a lot of money, instead it's because there is a social purpose that is different to the private sector.

"The Australian government needs to, if it's going to provide really great services, it has to have people that know how to do that," he said. "We need more people like that and we need to take the people we currently have ... that know the user problems."

See also: APSC training Australia's public service to be more 'agile'

The DTO was initially established to unify government agencies and services online and disrupt the way government operates.

Shetler was personally selected by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to lead the government's own disruptor back in 2015. He returned from the United Kingdom where he was responsible for leading a similar government initiative -- one the DTO was closely built on.

Turnbull, who was communications minister at the time, said Shetler was bringing with him 20 years' experience in leading IT and business transformation projects.

"Paul was the outstanding candidate following an extensive executive search and competitive recruitment process, and has been appointed to the DTO for a period of five years," Turnbull said.

A year into his role, Shetler said the DTO had already made plenty of progress in simplifying and unifying government agencies and services online.

But by October, the DTO had been superseded by the Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) and Shetler, who had already moved into the position of chief digital officer from CEO, hung up his boots shortly after the name and remit change.

Shetler told the committee on Wednesday that during his tenure at the DTO, his team embarked on a project to rework how a Medicare card was provided to citizens, with the obvious first step being a digital solution. He said the DTO initially thought it would simply build an app that would allow new parents to register the birth of their child and have a Medicare card provided.

But it was shortly realised after starting the project that the best solution wasn't an app, rather it was to simplify the paperwork at the hospital level.

"People need government services most when they're in distress," he added. "Right now, when you visit Centrelink's website and go to the option for people in crisis, they're redirected to the Bureau of Meteorology ... a big green button that tempts you to press it and it drops you right at the Bureau of Meteorology."

According to Shetler, for someone in the middle of a crisis, this can feel like they're being left behind.


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