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Vivek Kundra discusses Turnbull’s IT leadership, designing digital services

by Chris Huckstepp •
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Companies like Amazon, Uber and Netflix are reinventing citizens' expectations about what government services can look like, according to former Chief Information Officer (CIO) of the United States Vivek Kundra, now Executive Vice President of Emerging Markets at Salesforce.

“Today we’ve entered an era where it’s about systems of intelligence…you have to be able to anticipate the needs of your customers or citizens and get there before they do,” said Kundra.

He warns, however, that governments around the world are continuing to “throw good money after bad” into solutions still grounded in 1960s era technology models.   

Kundra spoke to Intermedium before joining the UTS Digital Innovation Summit in late March, being led by Minister for Communications Malcolm Turnbull. The Summit was used by Minister Turnbull to launch the Digital Transformation Office (DTO). At its core purpose, the DTO intends to streamline public interactions with governments so that digital public sector services are ubiquitous, end-to-end, and on par with a range of services already available in the online banking and shopping world.

Taking cues from service delivery in the ‘Digital 5 countries’ – the United Kingdom, South Korea, Estonia, Israel and New Zealand – the DTO will help the Government make good on its goal that services occurring over 50,000 times per year can be achieved online by 2017.

Turnbull told the Summit audience: “You’re going to be putting your hands on a smartphone and going to the myGov application… and you’re going to be so excited, [asking] ‘what can I do with the government today?’”

Kundra had praise for both Minister Turnbull and the digital service delivery programs already in motion across a range of jurisdictions. “I believe that Minister Turnbull is the right leader to drive this transformation for the nation.”

“It’s an amazing opportunity under the leadership of Mr. Turnbull to build a nation that will prosper… and that will fundamentally reinvent and show the rest of the world what digital services look like,” he added.

ServiceNSW is an exemplar of the digital transformation, according to Kundra. “They have begun with a principal that the best trip to the government office is the one you don’t have to make. They’ve moved hundreds of transactions to the digital world and they’ve enabled people to self-service…. anytime, anywhere.”

“They’ve been able to do that under the construct of dealing with government rules and regulations,” he added.

Salesforce provides ServiceNSW with the front end interface seen by both citizens and staff. Dan Bognar, Vice President, Sales Engineering, Asia Pacific at Salesforce told Intermedium in 2014: “It shields the citizen from all the traditional legacy agencies, back end systems and processes by providing an omni-channel system of engagement across the shop front network, customer call centre and dedicated web portal.”  

Indeed, “adopt a user-centred design approach​…” is the third criterion in the DTO’s “alpha version of the new digital service standard” which it is currently seeking feedback for. The standard emphasises outward-facing service delivery outcomes and digital-first goals to apply across agencies. “Use web service APIs, open standards and common government solutions where possible and make all new source code open and reusable where appropriate,” states the ninth principle.  

The DTO will take “an agile and open approach to the way in which services and information are developed… and when we actually deploy services and put information out there we'll be iterating that information and those services to improve them in response to feedback”, according to David Hazlehurst, who is acting as the DTO Chief Executive Officer while the agency recruits a permanent CEO.

To overcome some of the problems often associated with government-led ICT projects, Kundra suggested:

  • Terminating or freezing projects not delivering value for citizens;
  • Make citizen-led decisions with regard to technology investment. “Make sure that you are engineering around your customers, not around government officials behind closed doors… then coming out with a multi-year IT project plan with the likelihood of that project failure extremely high… Get out there in the field, listen to customers, identify their needs;
  • Don’t try to “boil the ocean…you need to be able to start small and scale fast”; and
  • Begin with mobile.

“At the end of the day you’ve got to have simple engineering principals that puts the citizen at the heart of everything you design,” he said.

Minister Turnbull used the Innovation Summit to announce its NICTA-build ICT spending dashboard, one of the promises in the 2013 Coalition Policy for eGovernment and the Digital Economy. The United States Government released its IT dashboard under Kundra's responsibility. 

“I actually remember being in a Senate hearing when the Senator asked me: ‘What are you going to do differently to managing the 80 billion dollars that you are responsible for in federal government IT expenditure?’ I said Senator: ‘I am going to launch an IT dashboard and I am going to put the picture of every CIO in the US Government… [next to the status of the] IT project they are responsible for…’ We were able to do that within 60 days.”                       

“My bias was to execute and iterate as it moved along. And literally within six months of launching the IT dashboard we were able to save three billion dollars in federal government IT spending.”

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