Victoria's DHHS digital transformation held back by executives, not ministers

A 'risk averse' leadership culture is preventing the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services form embracing digital transformation, despite the state's ministers demanding change.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

Too many restructures and a "risk averse" leadership structure have emerged as reasons preventing the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) from embracing the digital transformation that public servants and ministers are craving.

With 30,500 employees, two IT teams, two CIOs, and AU$21 million in annual spend at its disposal, Damien Dempsey, head of experience, engagement, and innovation at DHHS, painted a picture at the Acquia Engage conference in Sydney on Wednesday of a department that is begging for digital transformation.

DHHS is responsible for health, ambulance services, families and children, youth affairs, public housing, disability, ageing, mental health, and sport policy in Victoria, and is the result of the amalgamation of the Department of Health, Department of Human Services, and Sports and Recreation Victoria that came into effect on January 1, 2015.

As a result of the merger, DHHS ended up with a whole bunch of legacy CRMs and a lot of procedural duplication, such as four separate entities that citizens could complete paperwork for in order to receive government-assisted living arrangements.

Many consumers receive multiple services from the different tranches of DHHS, Dempsey explained, so his teams have worked -- and are still working on -- making things accessible via one login on the federal government's myGov platform.

"One of our failings or flaws is that we are very risk averse and I think this is a product of endless restructure, [machinery of government] changes, those sorts of things," Demspey said. "We want to know exactly what the end state's going to look like before we set out to do anything at all."

DHHS however, has "ramped up" projects to create a layer of data across the top of its disparate CRMs, with Dempsey noting the department has "had a couple of cracks at it" but is still not there. Another program with heavy IT investment is a whole-of-government project aimed at bringing services together.

"We've started to look at the policy development process -- working across the whole-of-government on engagement so we're talking to actual people and asking genuine questions before the policy settings are passed," Dempsey explained.

"We provided a discussion paper, not a decision paper, to ask people for their ideas. We had over 1,000 contributions which we were really happy with at the time."

However, Demspey said there were challenges around what gets done with those responses, such as whether they were included or if DHHS policy makers just pretended that certain responses weren't received. He called the process "fascinating territory".

"We've got ministers who are very keen on this stuff, who want to ask the questions, and are really up for the discussion -- and are really happy to actually be criticised, which is pretty unusual for government -- but they're open to it, and it's really refreshing," Dempsey said.

"But we have tiers of management inside the department that are much more reluctant to take risks -- so it's an interesting dilemma for us."

Dempsey said ministerial advisors who are in their late 20s to early 30s get the need for digital transformation.

"They get it, and they're saying, 'what is going on, why is this not happening?' But directors and depsecs [deputy secretaries] in the organisation, fairly senior, are a bit more risk averse, a bit more careful."

To the staff at DHHS, the user is their main priority, urging the department to spend money on something that will actually make the way the citizen interacts with government easier, Demspey explained.

However, the culture of the leadership is something Dempsey -- who himself is not young -- feels might be linked to age and the "digital maturity" of an organisation.

"You're at a level in the organisation where you want to take risks and you want to try something new ... as you go up the chain, the issue of risk becomes bigger and bigger," he explained.

"As a director or depsec, risk becomes a major issue, be it financial risk, business risk, reputation, or whatever it happens to be. [People are more] hesitant at that level of the organisation."

But if the minister wants it, the department must deliver it, he said.

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