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How vendors would fare under Shetler’s digital govt vision

by Poppy Johnston •
Free resource

Under former Digital Transformation Office chief Paul Shetler’s vision for the successful delivery of digital services in government, ICT suppliers would likely see fewer prospects in the design of citizen-facing services.

According to Mr Shetler’s submission, co-written with former DTO senior digital adviser Jordan Hatch and the former Head of the DTO Digital Marketplace Catherine Thompson for the Federal Government’s digital services inquiry, there are several barriers preventing the government from providing digital services that meet citizen expectations, including a deskilled public service.

“As the public service has become progressively more deskilled in modern IT and design, government has grown to heavily rely on external contractors to deliver ICT outcomes. This reliance has been increasing over the last five years as digital service delivery accelerates”, stated the submission.

“Reliance on vendors in turn further deskills the public service, to the point that it is not uncommon for public servants to seek advice from vendors about what they should be buying”.

Following up on the submission at a public hearing in Sydney on Wednesday 14 March 2017, Mr Shetler provided further clarity around his vision for “good digital government”, including the role of both government and industry in achieving it. Part of his vision hinges on the adoption of agile methodology in the public sector, which he believes is still not gaining traction. Instead, he says the government still wants in-depth specifications before commencing a digital project akin to “building a bridge”.

As such, Mr Shetler says internal digital teams should stick to designing digital services and products when the desired outcome is clear “but you don’t know the best way of getting there.” Keeping digital experiments inhouse, particularly where end-users are concerned, feeds into Mr Shetler’s broader argument for building internal capabilities, and how this will help government adapt to citizen needs more quickly.

“Government should try to develop its own capabilities because, Facebook, Amazon, every one of these companies they don't outsource their stuff to IBM or Accenture or anyone like that. They make darn sure they can react in real-time to their understanding of what user needs are,” said Mr Shetler.

“That's how they survive. That's how they maintain competitive advantage. It's that speed and their ability to adapt. It means they have to control what they do. Government should be, and really must be, like anybody else that’s working in the digital world, open to practices and see what's working and doesn't work and be on the forefront wherever it can”.

Conversely, Shetler thinks vendors are best “for when you both know the outcome well, and the way to get there… they can help you build the bridge".

Shetler sees the government chiefly approaching the market for work that is “easily commodified”, such as back office-type work. Vendors would therefore continue to play a key role “[u]nder the hood” of Shetler’s ideal government, which would “make use of internal and external platforms for highly-commoditised functionality like payments, notifications, and analytics”.

Several “blockages” are holding the government back from reaching Shetler’s ideal state, including funding models. To secure budget funding at present, digital projects must be presented with clear outcomes and methods to achieve those outcomes. This model “doesn’t handle agile very well”, and in response the inquiry submission recommends new funding formats, including seed funding for prototypes and a review of “value for money” in the context of procuring innovation.

Further, Shetler says current procurement processes, which emphasise compliance and probity, are preventing the uptake of agile methodologies and the subsequent innovation.

“This emphasis results in a bias towards ‘tried-and-tested’ methodologies. Though these methodologies are appropriate in some cases, they are typically ill-suited to delivering user-facing digital products, which requires experimentation and iteration to discover what users require.

“Contrary to this, experimentation and iteration is ruled out by lengthy requirements documents and rigid procurement systems,” states the submission.

Shetler, Thompson, and Hatch also believe the government is currently “downplaying” its procurement significance as “an instrument of economic policy”.

“Government’s own $6.2B spend can be used to underwrite the development of a dynamic and resilient domestic tech sector. As Australia’s largest buyer of ICT, government can provide the customer, cash flow, and experience that will help small Australian ventures to succeed. Government-as-customer can be a more effective way of investing in the sector than startup grants.”

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