Can Australia’s Digital Transformation Office improve service delivery, consolidate government information, and build credibility?

In 2015, Australia earmarked $95.4 million to establish a Digital Transformation Office. These funds are part of the nation’s $254.7 million “Digital Transformation Agenda”: a comprehensive plan to make government services more efficient through digital delivery. The newly established Digital Transformation Office, or “DTO,” was established on July 1, 2015 as an Executive Agency within the Communications Portfolio. Its mandate is to bring together data from disparate government agencies in order to assess the potential of improving service delivery. The DTO is expected to operate in an agile, responsive manner similar to a startup, which is a goal perfectly suited to its new chief.

Locating the Leader Who Makes it Happen

When the DTO initiated its worldwide search for their ideal executive, their job posting stated, “Under your leadership, government services will be simpler, clearer, faster and easier to use. All new and redesigned services will be digital by default, benefiting everybody.” After three months of searching, entrepreneur and technologist Paul Shetler was selected for the position. A U.S. native, Shetler has been living in the UK for the past fourteen years, working in private fintech and in public tech-related positions. Most recently, he was a director at the UK’s Government Digital Service, shepherding that nation’s leap forward into the digital age. His five-year term as Australia’s DTO chief began in July 2015.

Overhauling Government Services to Become More Intuitive

The central project for the DTO is a complete overhaul of the government’s online presence. The plan is to consolidate government information and resources in one place and to structure this central website in a way that feels natural to users. Landing pages will focus on people’s specific needs, such as moving to Australia or starting a business. To facilitate this user-simplicity, Shetler and his team are creating and nurturing digital teams across many government agencies, initiating digital transformation similar to that underway in the White House. In this effort, they are working with a mindset “very similar to that of an incubator in the commercial world.”

Building Credibility by Streamlining Services

In his work in the UK, Shetler faced the challenge of persuading “old school” civil servants to take his digital proposals seriously. They were accustomed to the glacial pace of government IT projects, and were skeptical of Shetler’s agile approach. He overcame his colleagues’ cynicism by rapidly implementing four showcase programs, including a booking system for prison visits that has now been adopted by other government departments. Discussing his success, Shetler offered the following advice in his interview: “Choose the thing which can be delivered within a short period of time, [and] actually delivers real value to users. It should be something that is tangible and adds value and is more than just ‘lipstick on a pig.’” The nature of the customer experience is crucial to how users view the institution with which they are interacting.

In his first speech to the Australian public, Shetler stated “Everybody in this room cares about people that we’re serving — we all do, we’re all here — [but] in many cases we’re hamstrung by the ways we are forced to communicate out to the outside because of the way we organise our digital presence and because of the tools we use to work.” The vast amounts of information that help the government run smoothly require a big data strategy to be structured properly. Furthermore, digital transactions stand to save the federal and state governments of Australia a total of $26.6 billion over the next 10 years, according to a new report by Deloitte.

Making Glass Walls and Breaking Down Silos

The key to an effective digital strategy is creating a climate of transparency within government agencies as well as between the public sector and the citizenry. Shetler has stated that his team will be instituting changes in an inclusive manner, sharing ideas between government departments and operating entirely in the open: “We’re doing it with departments, not to departments.” Even at the code level, the DTO will strive for complete transparency. They will be making all their code openly available through a GitHub repository.

Designing Robust Security Architecture

As the digital transformation gets underway, a natural concern arises regarding the safety of sensitive information. Shetler acknowledges the primacy of this concern, naming online security as “probably the most critical part” of his agency’s efforts. To address this challenge in the most efficient possible way, the DTO plans to hire the services of “ethical hackers.” These professional sleuths can test the safety of data by trying to break into the system and detect any potential holes. Each vulnerability they identify will be securely patched before the system goes live, so that users can feel confident that they are protected from the rising global tide of cybercrime.

Working Himself Out of a Job

Shetler’s vision is that his team will be so successful that they will eliminate the whole need for their agency. He states: “The ideal situation at the end of these five years is that there would be no need for DTO and the government here would organize its digital presence in such a way that the users would be able to do what they needed to do without having to have a map of government in their head or a degree in constitutional law to know who does what.”

In general terms, Shetler is working to achieve a lofty—but realistic—goal: “We think Australia can become the best in the world—absolutely the best in the world—at delivering digital public services.”