What will it take to transform government and cities to ensure Australia thrives on the global stage? As Amplify Innovation Partner, PwC Sydney hosted Amplify Talk ‘Rethinking, re-imagining and re-inventing Australia’ earlier this year.

The panel included CEO of the Digital Transformation Office, Paul Shetler. Since taking up the role in July 2015, Shetler has been tasked by Malcolm Turnbull with digitising government services. He spoke to Digital Pulse about how the ‘small agency with a big remit’ is deconstructing government services.

What is your driving force for the transformation of government?

At the Digital Transformation Office (DTO), our focus is on user experience – it’s all about great service design. And it’s not just digital channels. Service design includes every touchpoint for the user, whether those are shopfronts, call centres or digital channels.

However, we want digital to be the primary channel. It’s not quite ‘digital by default’ (which is the mantra of the UK) but digital is very likely to be the primary channel because that’s what people want – but first and foremost it’s got to be a really great experience for people.

If you’re tackling every touchpoint, where does your remit end and another’s begin?

We officially have responsibility for the user experience. You could also have called us the user experience office if you wanted to! That really has been the focus of this government: how can we provide really brilliant services for people who need to use them?

With such huge scope, how do you prioritise what you need to digitise?

Currently the DTO is working on a number of initiatives:

One is a platform for service delivery, called GOV.AU.

The strategy is to consolidate government information and services around user needs. The GOV.UK website in the UK drew together hundreds of individual websites and applied consistent design patterns. It works well but it still largely based on the organisational structure of government. So if you’re using it for the first time it’s still hard to find where everything is. And that’s not so easy.

What we’re saying is, we know some people are going to be specialists. They might spend their entire life focussing on one particular policy area and so for them, the structure of government might make sense and we need to present some information that way. Other people, however, might want information presented more generally or thematically. It might be the first time they’re doing this – starting a business, or coming to Australia, for example. We need to guide them through that entire user journey and for me, that’s the most exciting part because that really is the most radical change to the way government normally presents itself to the public. We just launched a prototype of this work, based on user needs, which is really exciting.

We’re also working on a digital trust solution.

Right now we are in a stage of Discovery, the point where you look to see what the user is trying to do, what their needs are, what’s happening in their life and what’s going on as people try to reach their objective. What are the privacy, policy, legal, or technology constraints?  What will users feel comfortable with and what will motivate them to use the solution? Only then can you start formulating hypotheses.

We don’t want to be constrained by a lot of preconceived ideas, which is one of the general problems of delivered government services. A lot of people say, ‘Wow, I had this great idea and now I’m going to build it.’  Then they find out when it’s delivered that it actually didn’t meet user needs, and they’ve spent millions of dollars. We want to stand back and start from first principles.

Another big platform is the Digital Marketplace.

This will be a catalogue of digital and technology services for government agencies. It’s hugely important because to be able to do what we need to do, we have to have a lot of capability. The DTO can’t do all this work, it’s tiny, one of the smallest government agencies. We want to provide ways to make it really easy for government to find suppliers. That’s important for a number of reasons, particularly to fill the skills shortage in government.  It will also help us build the digital sector in Australia. We can actually start supporting our startups, supporting our business and anyone else who wants to bid for that.

Is the Digital Marketplace like a dating site for government and suppliers?

We look at it more like Amazon or iTunes, but perhaps it can be viewed as a matchmaking site for government! It probably wouldn’t have the same algorithms …

What’s behind the idea of the Marketplace?

Looking very closely at what the UK has done, like G-Cloud and the digital marketplace, we want the same openness, the same ability to say, ‘These are all the various things we buy, and here’s how you can provide them to us’. To list those services independently, see the rates, and find out what people who have used those services say about them. We want to report back out on what government is buying, who it’s buying from, and what they’re using it for.

That information is of interest to the public and it’s really important to have that. We’re not talking about the huge tenders that go out and are reported on Austender, we’re talking about people in government having to make the decision, having the flexibility they need to make good decisions, and to be held accountable for the management of that.

Prior to joining the DTO, you worked in digital transformation for the UK government. What did you learn from your time there?

One of the big lessons was that you had to have the capability in-house.  You had to have the ability to actually do things. That doesn’t mean you do everything yourself, but you need to have the ability to decide, ‘Do I have my own capability?’ If you don’t, you might have a problem.

People needed to be able to have a vision of the bigger thing and deliver it in chunks so they were constantly getting feedback on what they were doing. The ones who were successful had a clearly defined MVP (minimal viable product). The ones who weren’t, tried to do everything all at once. Having a strong, agile development culture was terribly important, particularly for the user-facing parts of the service. Otherwise they typically didn’t tend to learn until it was too late that what they were developing wasn’t going to meet user needs.  Having a very strong user research function was also really important because otherwise how do you know you’re developing the right thing?

Political support from the top is extremely important, as is having a clear idea about methodology. One of the things we’ve done here in the DTO is provide guidance: this is what you do in Discovery; this is what you do in Alpha; these are the artefacts; this is how you go about doing it. Just like in every government, this is the first time they’re doing it, so be really clear. It’s about building the right thing in the right way.

 Make it invisible. People don’t want to engage with #govt agencies, they just want to get stuff done. Simple. @Paul_Shetler #AmplifyFest

Talking about user research, do you use technology to listen and respond?

It’s important to have lots of different ways of understanding what user needs are. Quantitative research is part of it – and government isn’t terribly bad at that, by the way – but government needs to be better in the qualitative side of it. Rather than asking people, you need to watch people. What are they actually doing?  Ethnographic qualitative research is something we think needs to be much stronger in government and we recommend that every single product team (we don’t call them project teams) have a user researcher in it.

What is the Australian government doing that is different to anything else you’ve seen?

The really important thing is the idea of not having to know how government works to be able to use government services. There is no other government, to my knowledge right now, that’s actually trying to achieve that.

So far, in the Alpha for GOV.AU, we think we’ve come up with some interesting patterns that do work, that test well with users and that also maintain accountability. We’re not just building this huge service as a unitary thing, in which you don’t know who’s providing what bit of it – you can find out as you go that one part is provided by the ATO, another by New South Wales, for example.  We maintain the accountability but you don’t have to know everything up front.  It seems to be a good thing, it’s testing well (you can see the Alpha at www.gov.au/alpha).

What about the people side of such a major transformation?

It’s massively important. It’s the biggest thing because organisations develop structures over time and then tend to try to replicate themselves.  What we’re trying do is massively countercultural and it’s not easy. It’s a challenge in every place we’ve seen it – any brownfield organisation has those problems.

In a lot of organisations, people want to do the right thing – in fact, often, particularly in operational areas, they already know what it is. Part of what the DTO, and the Digital Service Standard [the Australian government’s criteria for digital services], is all about, is giving people the permission to do the right things.




Tan Allaway

Tan Allaway is a former editor of PwC’s Digital Pulse.

More About Tan Allaway