Steve Hodgkinson is banning ‘stupid digital stuff’. Relentless incrementalism, empowered staff and reusable platforms allow for cheap, fast ‘micro services’ that users love
By David Donaldson on Friday, July 19th, 2019
Features in QESP NewsletterVolume 31 , Issue 7 - ISSN 1325-2070
(QESP Editor’s Note: The following is a reprint of a July 19, 2019 article in The Mandarin by David Donaldson. The original, with links to other articles, is available at https://go.pardot.com/e/272522/um-email-utm-source-newsletter/2tpnwg/427586517?h=RP1wq4DZhymD9gw9S25QVI67k-A2roO5kc4cOJots2s )
Steve Hodgkinson has been chief information officer at Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services since late 2014. He has been named state government CIO of the year at the iTnews Benchmark Awards, and his team won state government project of the year in 2019 for its Client Incident Management System.
Before DHHS Hodgkinson had varied experience, including eight years as chief public sector analyst for consultancy firm Ovum, and even founded an online marketplace for house moving services. He has spent plenty of time thinking in depth about the exact questions he now confronts at work, having completed a PhD at Oxford examining the centralisation of IT functions in large multi-business organisations.
Hodgkinson has been driving the move to cloud-based platforms across DHHS, which recently completed the shift to Microsoft Office 365. This means that rather than persisting with running its own clunky, rarely updated software, the department can buy into an adaptable, ever-improving online system.
“That is actually going to be the most radical transformation in this department in terms of the way technology is used in the next decade. … We’ve just migrated off Lotus Notes, for example, which was a platform that was fairly static for really the better part of a decade. And if you think about all the change that’s happened in technology over that decade, and yet when government owns these platforms we don’t invest in them to keep them current. So let’s just wave the surrender flag, let’s just consume platforms that already exist.
“And by the way, those platforms are being invested in by massive global audiences all around the world. I was just looking at figures today for example. On Microsoft Teams, we have about 3900 active users and teams after just completing a one-year migration. … Microsoft have, I think, around 13 million users of teams globally. So, our usage makes us 0.03% of the user base of Microsoft Teams. That means 99.97% of all the other users in the world are pooling their investment to fund the innovation of that platform for us.”
In 2016, a series of high profile IT failures led to a highly critical auditor general’s report that argued the state government had “poor planning and implementation, resulting in significant delays and budget blowouts”. Hodgkinson is on a mission to shift government away from the days of big, brittle, failure-prone IT projects.
“What was going on there was the thing I’ve railed against really for the past decade, as an analyst and in this role, which is big-bang mad-science experiment projects. I often talk about it, and it sounds ridiculous when you say it. So we say: how will we do a big IT project the government is relying on for policy and service delivery reform?
“The problem we’re trying to solve is probably complex, which means the answer is not clear. Despite that, we’ll spend perhaps over a year developing a business case, in which we’ll document at great length an understanding of the problem, which is probably wrong. We’ll use that to construct a simplistic and mechanistic program of work, which we will use as the basis of a business case … and then we’ll go through an extremely difficult and risk-averse and error-prone procurement process to find someone who can deliver this.
And then, we go into the contracting process, which creates all sorts of inflexibilities. … And then we’re surprised that it doesn’t work very well.”
The alternative is the “relentless incrementalism” of platform plus Agile, which Hodgkinson is working hard to embed.
“It’s all about how you can remove the intrinsic inefficiencies and impediments in the way things work so people can get on with things … Let’s get money in smaller doses in a multi-year investment logic. Let’s have repeatable, reusable platforms that we don’t need to procure for each application, with strategic procurements. Let’s invest in our people so they’ve got the skills to know those platforms and how to do things using those platforms.
” … And they’re now empowered to do things in an Agile way, because the platform already exists. So you can start a project quickly. You can develop things once, embed them into the platform as micro services and then reuse them for the next project. … And then to deliver something as fast as possible, so they get feedback from real users. And once they’re getting feedback from real users, then a whole lot of magic happens, because you’ve got people that are feeling motivated and proud of what they’ve done, because they’ve delivered something.”
Part of the challenge is empowering staff to say no to bad ideas.
“One of the first things I used as a mentor to engage my staff, when I first started in this job was ‘ban stupid digital stuff’. That came from Obama’s ‘don’t do stupid shit’ foreign policy. … That authorised people to say, hang on, you know what, what we’re talking about is actually stupid digital stuff. We are authorised not to do that. We’re going to think about it differently.”
There are still plenty of people across the public sector, and even in the department, who prefer the old way — but the federal government stands out as a laggard.
“I think it’s more problematic at the Commonwealth level. That’s more unsolved territory. They still predominantly go down the procurement plus waterfall path, mainly because their projects are so much bigger. And in a way they have more money. In some ways it’s liberating not to have too much money.”
Hodgkinson was involved in the creation of SafeScript, a central system that allows for the sharing of prescription records for high-risk medicines in real-time between health professionals. Rather than wait years for all jurisdictions to “hold hands” and agree on how to create a national version, Victoria went ahead and made its own, meaning other states can now adopt a pre-built setup rather than create their own — if they think it’s good enough.
“It’s no longer complex, multivariate problem-solving. We’ve turned it into: this thing already exists, the other jurisdictions simply have to decide on what basis they can become an intelligent consumer of this thing that already exists.
“One thing we’re pretty confident of is that anyone who does the analysis properly will see that this is the most cost-effective, least risk, fastest way forward. And if they don’t see that, and they want to go off in some other direction, and they’ve got the money, they just have to have APIs, which means their system can interoperate with this one to create national information sharing so people don’t doctor-shop across jurisdictional boundaries.”
Likewise, various health organisations are gradually choosing to adopt DHHS’s Incident Management System not because they’re being ordered to, but because it works better than the old software. Such devolved, merit-based cooperation is becoming more common, he thinks.
“I often characterise it as: the old school shared services model in government is to get a secret police to round up a group of sullen comrades and force them in a march through the snow into a socialist collective so they can all drive around in a smoky old Trabant.
“The modern model is a capitalist economy model. You say no worries, here’s a fantastic commune, we’ve found a sweet spot and assembled this critical mass of stuff, but we’ve engineered it in a way to be scalable and adaptive and resilient and evolutionary. So would you like to consume it? If it is better, and faster, people will consume it. And if it wasn’t better, and faster, you shouldn’t have been trying to force them to use it anyway. Because actually you’re just damaging the public sector.”
About the author
David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne.
People: Steve Hodgkinson
Departments: Vic Department of Health and Human Services