Turnbull’s ex-tech guy Paul Shetler slams ‘predictable’ government IT disasters
By Paul Wallbank on Monday, February 6th, 2017
Features in QESP NewsletterVolume 29 , Issue 2 - ISSN 1325-2070
(QESP Editor’s Note: The following is an extract of a Feb 6 2017 Australian Financial Review article.
The original, with photographs and related articles, is available at http://www.afr.com/technology/enterprise-it/turnbulls-extech-guy-paul-shetler-slams-predictable-government-it-disasters-20170203-gu5cx9 )
The man brought to Australia by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to digitally transform government services has blamed a public sector hostile to change and short on tech competence for IT disasters at the Australian Taxation Office and the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
In a stinging parting shot, former head of the Digital Transformation Office (DTO) Paul Shetler told The Australian Financial Review that initial government enthusiasm to change how public sector services are delivered in Australia had foundered in the face of institutional hostility and a lack of political support.
Shetler was effectively sidelined in October when the DTO became the Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) under new Assistant Minister for Cities and Digital Transformation Angus Taylor, and he resigned in November.
Speaking before the recurrence of the ATO’s nightmare December outage last week, Shetler outlined a public service rife with fiefdoms, ill-deserved back-slapping and unwillingness to change the way technology is deployed in order to match the modern world.
He described ongoing crises in government technology projects as being part of a broader culture issue, where skilled workers had been jettisoned leaving far-fewer experts than in similar departments in Britain.
“There is an unacceptable rate of failure and it has to be fixed. Departments have chosen to de-skill, departments have chosen to become dependent upon vendors and departments have chosen to put their own interests ahead of users,” Shetler says.
“These are all predictable outcomes and as long as you have a public service that’s not really comfortable with 21st-century technology and which still views its own departmental in-group as being more important than its end-users, then you’ll end up with these problems.”
Shetler arrived in Australia in 2015, and rode a wave of government-led optimism that he could bring his expertise from 13 years revolutionising British government technology to bear on Canberra’s creaking systems.
Byzantine civil service culture
He says, however that excitement and enthusiasm for DTO among the public and in large parts of the Canberra bureaucracy was not shared with the Australian Public Service’s senior officers.
“The further up you went in the bureaucracy you found people started to worry about their fiefdoms, their controls and all the various other things that give you status in the public service,” Shetler says.
“They want to hold onto that and that stops you from delivering a really good service.”
He says he found the Australian public service structures unexpectedly byzantine in comparison with Britain, with much more disconnect between policy making and policy delivery.
He was surprised to see what little time some Australian ministers spent in their relevant departments in comparison with British ministers, meaning senior Canberra mandarins have much greater scope to exercise personal influence on policy delivery.
“When I was with the UK Justice Ministry, the Secretary of State and his ministers were in the building every day, and as a consequence he and his staff were very aware of what was going on and able to give direction and cover for the civil servants,” Shetler says.
“In Australia it’s much easier for public service to capture the minister, direction is spotty and politicians are easily manipulated, partly because of a lack of information.”
He said the culture of the public service in Australia needed to change so that it operates in the same way a bank or insurance company would.
This means using the latest technology and looking to get systems into the cloud rather than seeking to keep them guarded within a department.
However, he says the knowledge and willingness of savvy workers within the public services to make the necessary changes is consistently stifled by senior figures.
“When you talk to actual practitioners in the Australian government they acknowledge it. It’s not the guys doing the designs or those trying to use the technologies, it’s those further up the management chain who don’t have the skills or have too close relationships with certain vendors where you see these antisocial behaviours kicking in,” Shetler says.
He says he was also alarmed by the federal bureaucracy’s isolation from the rest of the country, and an attitude around Canberra that the public sector hierarchy meant those at the top knew much better than the rest of the country.
‘Weird class system’
He describes a “weird class system” where top civil servants dream up “big thought bubbles” and congratulate each other for their brilliance, before passing the ill-formed ideas down to more junior employees to deliver.
“In Canberra you have people who think they are the intellectual elite of the nation who aren’t really, it’s a relatively mediocre elite,” Shetler says.
“You have the ‘Big Thinkers’ and then the proles who do the dirty work or pass it on to the states or a non-government organisation to deliver it.
“There is no feedback loop, so they don’t know how much these policies cost, what they’re delivering or if it’s a success. That probably suits lots of people.”
Highlighting this wilful lack of accountability, he says one of Malcolm Turnbull’s best original aims for DTO had been the creation of a Service Delivery Dashboard, which would measure services by cost of transaction, customer satisfaction and other KPIs.
However, it has yet to be realised because of a lack of willingness by some agencies to share their own performance data without vetting it.
Despite the bruising experience, Shetler sees some positives in the reformed Digital Transformation Agency, particularly in proposed changes to spending controls and tendering.
“IT procurement reform is absolutely essential. I was delighted when it was announced as part of the DTA’s remit,” he says.