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

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.”

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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.”


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