Thodey calls for collaboration in government digital transformation

The former CEO of Telstra believes technology can be the enabler and driver of the future of the Australian public service.

Risk practice in the federal government is inconsistent and sometimes rudimentary, resulting in the limiting of innovation across the Australian public sector, according to CSIRO chair David Thodey.

special feature

Digital Transformation: A CXO's Guide

Reimagining business for the digital age is the number-one priority for many of today's top executives. We offer practical advice and examples of how to do it right.

Read More

"There is an obsession with downside risk and little evidence that upside or shared risks are considered," he said, addressing the CPA Congress in Canberra on Thursday. "This limits innovation and constrains good leaders and employees from getting things done.

"Shared risks are a particularly serious issue for the Commonwealth who need to collaborate with others more often to deliver on large and complicated issues."

Thodey said that in order for the Australian Public Service (APS) to be capable of delivering on the expectations of the future, public-private partnerships -- as well as inter-government collaboration -- will be key.

He believes technology can be the enabler and driver of the future of the public service.

"Digital comes with risks and I have always argued we need to look closely at them, talk about them openly and see what we can do to manage them better," he said.

Discussing the Governance Act during his address, the former CEO of Telstra said one of its objectives was to drive greater cross-government collaboration, but said in conducting a review into the Act, he found little evidence the legislation was having such impact.

"The demand for greater collaboration on complex issues is growing. Just look at population growth, the movement of people and goods, pandemics, climate change, and terrorism -- no single Commonwealth entity can solve such issues alone," he said.

"Cross-government taskforces and changes to departmental structures, whether internal or machinery of government, are not enough."

As a result, he called for more work to be done in areas such as partnering with private sector and all levels of government; giving government entities funding that is not limited by the four-year budget cycle; introduce shared resources, shared risk, and transparent reporting; and drive collaboration at ministerial and departmental level.

"Agreed across government, these objectives will drive collaboration and deliver tangible results for the community," he continued.

"This means there is much to learn from each other -- in fact we must learn to collaborate more than we do today whether in public, private, non-profit, or academic sectors."

When it comes to accountability and transparency, Thodey argued the two are "inextricably linked". He said trust is a product of sustained performance, and trust in government is essential for the successful delivery of services.

"In the private sector poor performance, poor behaviour, and a lack of openness destroys trust and shareholder value. The same is true in government, but the currency is public satisfaction rather than financial results," he continued.

"The consumers of government programs and services are empowered by information -- how they operate, what is achieved, who delivers for whose benefit, and how much it all costs. Good information shapes the knowledge, understanding, and thinking of citizens, in turn helping them articulate what they want from government."

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in May commissioned a review into the APS, seeking mainly to understand whether those staffing Australia's government departments are capable of ushering in the "next wave" of digital.

Thodey is leading the review that is expected to report to the government in the first-half of 2019.

"I have noticed a reluctance in the public sector to commit to absolute targets and outcomes. They are often heavily qualified. This is understandable. There are many elements outside the authors' direct control, including the political process," Thodey said on Thursday.

Must read: e-Estonia: What is all the fuss about?

"The Australian public service should be leaders in setting quantifiable relevant objectives as well as transparent reporting of results and impact. I note that some countries now publish job goals for departmental heads as well as their annual appraisals."

According to Thodey, digital technology and service delivery are converging.

"My own view is that doing things in an entirely new way should be within reach for the public service. Innovation is not an end point in itself, but it is a means to a greater end," he said. "Technology is an enabler. Technology is at its best when combined with a higher purpose, a good understanding of the people who use it and a clear-eyed view of how it can be used or misused."

Thodey also said there is a need for more conversation around the operations of government, and that it should be held up to scrutiny, making the Commonwealth more prepared to "change how things are done for the better".

RELATED COVERAGE