Government defends DTA as a change that needed to happen

With the Australian government's own 'disrupter' now behaving less like a startup, Assistant Minister for Digital Transformation Angus Taylor has defended the agency's new remit, saying its redefinition was a change that needed to happen.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

When Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was the country's communications minister he established the Digital Transformation Office (DTO) in a bid to unify government agencies and services online and disrupt the way government operates.

A little over a year after it kicked off, the DTO was renamed to the Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) and had its role within government redefined.

According to Assistant Minister for Digital Transformation Angus Taylor, this was a change that needed to happen.

In creating his vision for the startup-like office within government, Turnbull appointed Paul Shetler to the position of CEO within the DTO. At the time, Shetler had not long moved to the United Kingdom to work on the country's own government-led disruptor -- a model the DTO was closely built on.

When the DTA was formed, Shetler moved into the role of chief digital officer, however he handed in his resignation within a month of his new remit.

One of the first projects the DTA is tasked with is reviewing the Australian government's IT spend -- which sits at approximately AU$6.2 billion annually -- and comes at a time of technology-related blunders experienced by Centrelink, the Australian Taxation Office, and the Australian Bureau of Statistics in the past six months.

But unlike the DTO, the DTA's remit does not stretch to pulling the plug on issue-plagued IT systems.

Speaking with journalists on Sunday, Taylor explained that the establishment of the DTA is an expansion of its predecessor's role that was "absolutely needed".

"Yes, we want to disrupt, we must disrupt the way the government does IT, but we've got to do it in a way where we're working alongside agencies, not against them," he said.

"It's a change from the initial philosophy, but it's a change I know can work.

"The idea that it should take everything over was wrong; it's not the right model."

Addressing the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee last week, DTA interim CEO Nerida O'Loughlin admitted that some projects kicked off under Shetler's lead were not welcomed by a handful of government departments or agencies.

"The real challenge is that when you have a central digital agency that can provide services taking over, it has to be called in, because it's very clear from the review work that's been going on that the outcomes are not what they're meant to be," Taylor explained on Sunday.

"If you think about the DTA's role, there has been an important oversight and review role ... with the capability to get in alongside the relevant government agency and help them make that transformation. But the alternative is that the DTA takes it all over. I haven't seen that model work in business and I don't think it was ever going to work in government."

Taylor said the DTA currently has an "extremely positive relationship" with the people within government departments and agencies, but alluded to wanting a central body taking over whole-of-government tech oversight perhaps earlier than it did.

"It was the combination, I think, of a change in the nature of the relationship with agencies and the DTA having this oversight. Those two things in combination changed the dynamic within government quite dramatically and we've seen that in a very short space of time," he said.

"And it needed to change. Make no mistake about that."

Shadow Minister for the Digital Economy and the Future of Work Ed Husic said the demise of the DTO is aligned with Turnbull taking up prime ministership, and that his responsibilities did not allow him to give the government startup the management it needed.

Having watched the creation of the DTO, Husic said he saw holes from the start, which included the office being placed in Sydney, rather than Canberra. He said he was also concerned that the DTO was working with state governments to fix problems, rather than its own backyard, which he explained was due to federal departments not wanting to work with the transformation office.

"I was focusing on the symptom, not the problem," Husic said on Sunday, following Taylor's opening remarks.

"This project has gone off the rails since early last year.

"It's widely rumoured that key ministers hardly ever met with senior people at the then DTO. How do you manage something as big as digital transformation within the federal government without that kind of ongoing contact?"

Husic said digital transformation at this point in time needs people, and that people on projects as large as that need direction, engagement, and have to be participating in meaningful "collaboration".

"There has been massive internal resistance," he said. "It's why Minister for Human Services Alan Tudge went out on his own to announce digital transformation of his own department instead of involving the DTO."

"I don't for one moment argue that this process is easy or straightforward, because it is not," Husic said, highlighting that he is always going to welcome the idea of digital transformation within government.

While critical of its operation, Husic preferred the role of the DTO, noting it had delivered a digital service standard, delivery hubs, an exemplar for state and territory governments, and a bunch of products or prototypes in action.

"Since the DTO became the DTA what has it delivered? Other than a seismic redefinition of digital transformation into this change management exercise," he asked.

"The DTA has seemingly camouflaged itself, becoming the government virtual assistant."

While Taylor confirmed the DTA will soon be naming its CEO, he praised O'Loughlin for her few months as the interim chief, saying she is doing an "absolutely outstanding job of making profound changes".

Disclosure: Asha Barbaschow attended Tech Leaders as a guest of MediaConnect.

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