Turnbull takes the digital bull by the horns

Once considered a leader in policy-making to drive e-government service delivery, Canberra has lost its mojo. The creation of a Digital Transformation Office is a great opportunity to get things back on track.

Digital disruption has turned much of the corporate sector on its head in the past ten years, laying waste to jobs in some areas while creating whole new industries in others.

And yet there is one giant employer in this country that has remained immune to these dramatic technology forces. The Australian government has been largely unmoved, drifting for years as the world has transformed around it.

Once considered a leader in policy-making to drive e-government service delivery, Canberra somehow lost its mojo. In fact, the Australian government has not had an effective champion of the transformative benefits of technology since the former Labor Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner left politics at the 2010 election.

Tanner reformed government technology procurement and established budget mechanisms through which departments and agencies could share the savings that better service innovation delivered -- and could re-invest those savings into innovative new delivery projects.

He had a passion for innovation and for open government, and also a seat at the Cabinet table. And holding the purse strings as Finance minister kept other portfolios in line in relation to a range of e-government initiatives.

It didn’t last. When budget pressures mounted in 2009/10, all of the savings from technology delivery programs were tipped back into general revenue, and Lindsay Tanner left Canberra for good.

And it has been five years since a cabinet minister has championed technology in government. This has been a problem.

These historical notes are remembered here to underline this point: The creation of a Digital Transformation Office inside the Department of Communications unveiled last week is welcome indeed.

Putting aside the weirdness of announcing such an important program on the Friday afternoon before the Australia Day long weekend (seriously, what was that about?), this is policy that should return government focus to tech-enabled transformation.

It also puts the pointy-end of government’s digital challenges into the portfolio of an energetic and reform-minded cabinet minister in Malcolm Turnbull. This bloke has both the interest and inclination, which is a good thing. The DTO is a tremendous opportunity to get things done.

Few details of the DTO’s construction were released with the announcement, although we can surmise a lot from similar public sector digital initiatives overseas, particular that of the UK cabinet Office Minister and Paymaster General Francis Maude and that of the US Government’s 18F program.

Starting life with no budget

One of the most intriguing details to emerge since launch came via the technology website The Register: The DTO will start life with no budget.

"The government already has significant expenditure on service delivery and it is anticipated that much of the DTO’s work will be funded through existing expenditure," the Register quotes a Communications spokesman.

This is a crazy-brave way to reset cultural inertia, so crazy it just might work (in the short term.) Whatever digital challenges the Australian government faces, money is not one of them. The Commonwealth spends about $6 billion every year on its technology.

Throwing more money at choked-up government arterial processes will not work. We know this. Spending big on new technology to make existing processes more efficient has diminishing returns. The government sends 240 million letters to citizens through Australia Post each year: Buying faster printers and envelope stuffers doesn’t help the basic issue. It needs a total rethink.

The point is that digital transformation has less to do with technology than it does with process and culture.

The DTO wants to build a start-up mentality within its ranks from the get-go, with a small team of doers moving fast to crank through ideas to proof-of-concept stage where they can either be picked up by departments and agencies or quickly dumped in favour of the next idea.

Turnbull faces a mammoth task 

Which is easy to say, but hard to do. The challenges for Turnbull are enormous, not least of which is getting buy-in from across government. In this regard, Lindsay Tanner had it easy. He had the funding levers of a finance minister to persuade recalcitrant departmental secretaries and cabinet colleagues, just as Francis Maude has as the Paymaster General in the UK.

From the outside, it has been hard to view the working relationship between Malcolm Turnbull and the current Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, although the complexities of the various NBN negotiations point to something productive at least. But they will need to be in lock-step on this.

There is a great deal at stake here, not least the potential for hundreds of millions of dollars in quick savings to the commonwealth’s budget bottom line.

But the DTO could also deliver great opportunities for small Australian tech companies and service providers. While ICT procurement will remain the purview of Finance, it is to be hoped that the DTO’s operation will be sufficiently flexible to enable innovative SME’s and even start-ups to be engaged more easily.

Much will depend on the composition of the DTO. If Malcolm Turnbull is able to attract a strong leadership team of passionate digital reform advocates from both the private sector and seconded from the far corners of the government machine, encouraging progress can be made.

James Riley has covered technology and innovation issues in Australia and Asia as a writer and commentator for 25 years. Read more from James Riley at www.InnovationAus.com or follow him @888riley on Twitter.

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