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From Chief Customer and Digital Officer to Chief Executive Officer: Queensland's Chris Fechner goes to Canberra

by Judy Hurditch •
Free resource

Chris Fechner, Queensland's Digital Chief, has been recruited to head the Digital Transformation Agency (DTA).

The DTA's previous CEO, Randall Brugeaud, vacated the role when he was appointed to head the new Simplified Trade System Implementation Taskforce on 1 July.

The agency's Deputy Chief Executive Officer and Chief Operating Officer, Peter Alexander, has been acting in the role since June.

Fechner hails from Queensland, where he studied computer science at the Queensland University of Technology and worked at Queensland Rail during its privatisation in 2010.

Before relocating to Sydney for roles in the NSW public service, he spent just over two years at the Queensland Department of Transport as its Chief Information Officer.

In NSW, he worked at the Office of Environment and Heritage and then at the Department of Planning and Environment, in both cases as Chief Information Officer, before moving to Service NSW.

He was the Chief Digital and Product Officer at Service NSW from April 2019 to February 2020. In this role his team implemented digital initiatives at scale in Australia's most digitally advanced jurisdiction.

Following his relatively short stint at Service NSW, Fechner was recruited to Queensland's Chief Customer and Digital Officer role, just as COVID 19 impacted Australia for the first time.  

The Queensland government's response to the pandemic's economic impact was to put dozens of ICT projects on ice.  It also placed a lower priority on its Whole of Government (WofG) digital transformation activities. Queensland's 2020 score in Intermedium's Digital Government Readiness Indicator (DGRI) fell as a result. 

The reshuffle following the re-election of the Labor government in October 2020 created the new role of Minister for the Digital Economy. Disappointingly, however, the State's subsequent (2021-22) budget was light on digital transformation funding, according to Intermedium's analysis.

The Queensland investment in digital transformation in 2021-22 stands in contrast to other jurisdictions, such as NSW, South Australia and most recently, Western Australia, which have all instigated Digital Restart Funds.  

While the Queensland role may have had its challenges, the DTA will be no walk in the park.

The March 2021 Cabinet reshuffle placed new Ministers at the head of the three biggest digital and ICT agencies and returned the DTA to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) from its brief time at Services Australia. 

Prior to the reshuffle, Stuart Robert was the Minister responsible for the DTA. The administrative arrangements announced shortly after the Machinery of Government changes gave Robert continued responsibility for the DTA in addition to his role as Minister for Employment, Workforce, Skills, Small and Family Business.  A fact that that points to his degree of personal commitment to the success of the government's digital transformation initiatives. 

Robert announced at the Australian Financial Review Government Summit on 28 April 2021 that the DTA now had a revised mandate for WofG ICT governance, strategy and policy that would allow for a renewed focus on centralised ICT architecture and ICT-as-infrastructure.

Fechner's experience in Queensland, where his Queensland Government Customer and Digital Group has a very similar remit, will stand him in good stead for this revised DTA mandate.

There are an overwhelming number of initiatives listed in the DTA roadmap, many of which are marked as either red or amber in a presumed traffic light coding (although there is no legend to explain the color code).  

As part of its December 2019 response to the Independent Review of the APS (the Thodey Review), the Morrison Government agreed to an urgent ICT audit. It tasked this to the Secretaries Committee, which in turn requested the DTA to action it, under the auspices of the Secretaries Digital Committee. 

For an 'urgent' activity, it is now significantly overdue. The DTA confirmed that data collection activities began in March 2021, advising that it 'is currently undertaking data validation and analysis'.

Fechner was CIO at the Queensland Department of Transport when Queensland undertook the ICT audit that the Thodey Review cited as a possible model.  His agency was one of the very few which did not have a major ICT system or application exposure, according to that audit. 

The DTA is also under some resourcing pressure.  Its budget for 2021-22 is $336 million, which is a significant reduction from the $425 million it was allocated in 2020-21. Its ASL (average staffing level) of 227 is down by 28 or almost 11% on 2020-21. This reduction has occurred at a time when many other agencies received significant ASL increases.

Brugeaud explained the budget reductions when he appeared before the Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee on 24 May 2021, stating that the net reduction was $39.388 million.

He said that as part of the DTA's transition into the Prime Minister and Cabinet portfolio, 'there are a number of delivery functions—particularly myGov and Digital Identity—that will transfer out into delivery agencies'. Of that $39 million, 'we have $32.5 million being reallocated to Services Australia to allow them to continue to work on myGov and Digital Identity'.

WofG ICT and digital roles have historically been subject to high turnover and the DTA is no exception. 

Fechner will be its seventh leader since its inception as the Digital Transformation Office (DTO) in 2015. The people who have held it before him are:

  • Peter Alexander, appointed as Acting CEO, from the role of Deputy Chief Executive Officer at the DTA (2021)
  • Randall Brugeaud, recruited from the role of Deputy Australian Statistician and Chief Operating Officer at the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2018-21) and by far its longest serving executive
  • Gavin Slater, recruited from the role of Group Executive, Personal Banking at the NAB (2017-18)
  • Nerida O'Loughlin, appointed as interim CEO, from the role of Deputy Secretary at the Department of Communications (2016-17)
  • The late Paul Shetler, recruited from an executive role at the UK Government Digital Service by then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (2015-16)
  • David Hazelhurst, appointed as inaugural interim CEO, from a Deputy Secretary role at PMC (2015)

According to the DTA's most recent annual report (2019-20), the base salary of the CEO was $513,700.

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