Former Australian CDO Paul Shetler: ‘Governments need to radically upskill their people’

Written by Rebecca Hill on 13 January 2017 in News

Governments need to stop relying on outsourcing and make sure they have competent public servants who can deal with technology, the former leader of the Australia’s Digital Transformation Office has said.

Paul Shetler, who left the DTO in December last year, was previously chief digital officer at the MoJ - Photo credit: CSW

Paul Shetler, who left the DTO – now the Digital Transformation Agency – in December last year, told PublicTechnology that the “single most important” thing for governments was to “radically upskill their people” so they can handle the demands of modern public service delivery.

“We have to have people who are competent to do this work in the public service,” Shetler said. “We can no longer say ‘Outsource it’, ‘Get someone else to deal with this’, ‘It’s not my problem’. We're responsible, and we need to be held accountable for it. But we need the skills – without that you can’t do anything else.”

Related content

GDS calls for greater collaboration between policy and digital staff
Government at ‘tipping point’ over digital, says think tank
Why we should be more afraid of the cultural chasm than the digital skills gap

Referring to recent major service failures in Australia – including a three-day outage of the tax office and the Centrelink fiasco where use of an error-prone algorithm saw hundreds of people receive inaccurate debt notices – Shetler said that the public was being let down “on a massive scale” by a lack of technical expertise in government.

“The civil service has become very dependent on a set of vendors… and they’re locked in to those vendor solutions,” he said. “That’s been a real problem; we have people who are afraid of technology, who are not up to date on it.”

Shetler said that “even now, you hear bureaucrats cringing” at the idea of using modern technologies like the cloud, adding that the only data centre policy governments should have is “not to build any more”.

Another issue is an unwillingness – or inability – for civil servants to call time on projects, even if they are failing. Shetler, who was CDO at the Ministry of Justice from 2014-15, said that in the UK the Government Digital Service was one of the “greatest success stories in government IT” partly because they “allowed us to do the right thing”.

“There were things that IT people frankly didn’t feel comfortable killing things off,” Shetler said. “They were very happy to have GDS say no.”

"You can't just put cosmetic changes onto broken processes, broken systems or broken policies."

Shetler also argued that public servants tend to “look for complexities”, echoing the on-going debate in the UK over the relationship between policymakers and digital teams, as GDS tries to address the separation between the policy and digital service design cycles.

“I just don't see this split as being helpful,” he said. “Policy is, in many ways, service design writ large; it establishes parameters in which a service is built, and many of the tools, techniques and methodology you use when designing services would be very applicable with policy, whether it's quantitative research, qualitative research or prototyping.”

This division is also one of the reasons he left the DTA back in December, citing a shift in direction from the government that Shetler said has seen a move towards the “default public service setting” of a focus on policy not delivery.

Although he said he didn’t think “anyone had got it cracked”, Shetler said the best solution was to get policy and design teams to work together on “concrete, actionable problems that are related to service”.

However, Shetler added that none of these improvements would improve overall service provision unless something is done about government back office functions, which were all too often “inflexible and incapable of being modified” quickly and iteratively.

“The service that the end user actually uses is an ensemble of things,” he said. “You can't just put cosmetic changes onto broken processes, broken systems or broken policies.”

Share this page



Paul Scott (not verified)

Submitted on 17 January, 2017 - 01:37
Paul is 100% right. Until public sector technology teams are up-skilled to digital innovation themselves, there will never be momentum or lasting change. Adopting methods that break problems down into digestible chunks, focusing solely on end users and delivering outcomes in weeks rather than months and years, will deliver results and grow confidence. It's going to take courage, but the solution is within touching distance. Getting comfortable with cloud, ultra-agile development methods, ditching large enterprise vendors and accepting failure as a necessary experience, are all part of the new way technology solutions are delivered today.

Add new comment

Related Articles

Councils have ‘limited understanding’ of digital skills needed by frontline staff
28 April 2017

Eduserv report finds that just 3% of local government HR leaders rate digital literacy of frontline staff as ‘good’ -...

Government ‘clearly failed’ to properly test Register to Vote site ahead of EU referendum
12 April 2017

MPs slam government for lack of clear technical leadership and contingency planning to deal with website collapse...

Former Cameron adviser launches scheme to get tech start-ups into Whitehall with big-name backers
4 April 2017

GovStart programme gives small companies the chance to learn from GDS leaders past and present and access part of £...

Scottish digital strategy set out plans for assurance, training and common platforms
22 March 2017

The Scottish government will implement a “tough” assurance process for digital projects, mandate the use of common technologies and offer training to make sure civil servants “get digital”.

Related Sponsored Articles

Schools can win £10,000 to spend with BT following the return of the Tech Factor competition
27 April 2017

BT has launched Tech Factor 2017, a competition inviting schools to show how they would use technology to help pupils prepare for the challenges of the evolving jobs market

UK SMEs showcase projects in competition final to help millions of businesses and citizens stay safe from online crime
19 April 2017

BT, TechHub and the Cabinet Office have announced the winners of their Securing the Nation competition at an event at the iconic BT Tower

BT appoints senior executive to lead public sector business in London and the South East
5 April 2017

BT has appointed a new senior executive, Mark Sexton, to head up its public sector business in London and the South East and implement a new strategic direction to increase its local presence

BT appoints senior executive to lead Public Sector business in Scotland
27 March 2017

BT has appointed a new senior executive, David Wallace, to head up its public sector business in Scotland and implement a new strategic direction to increase local focus nationwide