The impacts of Assistant Minister for Digital Transformation Angus Taylor’s announcements on 14 October 2016 to expand the digital agenda are significant for the Australian Government, ICT industry and innovation agenda.  There has never been a better opportunity for public and private sector collaboration to contribute to Australia’s social and economic prosperity through innovation and transforming to a digital government.

Taylor knows countless predecessors in this space have ‘talked the talk’, promising reform and material benefits.  Research shows the odds are stacked heavily against success – 40 years of research frustratingly shows the majority of change initiatives continue to fail at disappointing rates. So what will make this chapter an exception, and how well will agencies adapt in walking the walk?

One certainty is the future of digital government is still uncertain.  We believe there are 4 key factors indicating Taylor’s approach has the potential to succeed where others have failed previously, by reaching a tipping point of critical mass.

  1. More powerful mandate

There is no more authoritative champion for a public sector initiative than the Prime Minister.  Having unwavering backing from the top of the hill differentiates this attempt from many others by virtue of having tricky political decisions where views are divided fall in your favour when they need to be escalated above agency head level.

  1. Centralising power

Phase 1 of the digital transformation agenda, including the DTO, was evidence that even a mandate from the top is not enough to overcome the other powerful forces of resistance and systemtic siloed thinking that exist in the large and complex organisation, with 155,000 staff, that is the APS.  By centralising key aspects of power, you no longer have to rely on influence alone.  The Digital Transformation Agenda will takeover ownership of government ICT Strategy, ICT Policy, ICT procurement and major ICT projects – killing any doubts that digital transformation is a ‘just a fad’ or ‘the latest combination of tech-buzzwords’.  This enables key shifts in decision making on wide-scale issues such as dictating and/or designing common platforms for horizontal data and information sharing.  But to reduce the risk of insular thinking, the Digital Transformation Advisory Board will leverage private sector innovation and thinking from CEOs of large private sector utilities and financial service organisations.

  1. Strategic change

When you’re spending almost $6 billion of public money on ICT, naturally there’s pressure to find ways to reduce that figure through efficiency opportunities.  The issue with previous reform attempts has been that efficiency tends to be a weaker, internal-facing rationale, that distracts from more compelling and public-facing narratives.  By adopting a citizen-centric approach, this requires a shift in mindset from merely ‘managing ICT, but better’ to the more progressive ‘enabling prosperity through government as a platform’.  This more strategic approach cuts across all agencies and their vertical functions, and requires new thinking and new capabilities to be developed.

  1. Integrated and connected

When the model is not working, sometimes you need to change the model.  To date ICT reform has attempted to set measures and rely on governing agencies to perform accordingly, without addressing the systemic constraints of a decentralised ICT model lacking effective horizontal coordination and integration.  The new remit, functions and staff that the DTA has gained will enable the opportunity to further coordinate, integrate and connect with agencies.  However, this is the perhaps the critical area of uncertainty.  Early insights, including incentives for agencies, and agency members becoming conduits between the DTA and their own agency, appear to be well-grounded in change theory, but how this is managed in practice will be crucial.  Despite the big stick, success and failure will still depend on how well agencies are engaged and to what degree the culture shifts to valuing collaboration and risk.

In this context, these 4 key factors confirm real potential for the word ‘transformation’ to live up to its meaning through achieving critical mass, but one key question remains…

How will agencies adapt to and engage with the new model?

The stakes are high, and there will be winners and losers.  Agency ICT divisions will face various difficulties with both the cadence and integration requirements of the Digital Transformation Agency, whilst being performance measured against digital transformation benefits.  Agencies must now make key internal capability changes to keep up.

  1. Agencies will need to strategically manage the people changes necessary across leaders, managers and staff – uplifting specific people and data skills that enable greater transparency, cross-unit coordination and data-driven decision making.
  2. Existing governance structures and many processes will need to be re-examined to identify impacts to the division’s ICT strategy, policy, procurement and programme management. A full list of implications and opportunities for improvement, including costings, can then be prioritised and investment can be targeted, governed and iterated accordingly.
  3. Existing approaches to user experience design and application development will need reviewing, particularly the increased focus on demonstrating being citizen-centric, solidifying business cases, and improving frequency of application deployment.

These are changes that require senior executive commitment, tight business engagement and coordination across the entire organisation.

Finally, agencies cannot realise digital transformation without help.  Taylor’s call to action at the Australian Information Industry Association luncheon was clear: we need help to make this a success, adding “that the private sector is the greatest source of innovation for the public sector”.

One of Strategic Reform’s differentiators is a track record in enabling agencies to walk the walk in pursuing business transformation and organisational change.  We are currently engaged across multiple agencies in strategic ICT change projects, including programme delivery, procurement and Department-wide data and information management capability uplifts.  We look forward to continue helping agencies deliver real and sustainable change as part of the innovation and digital transformation agendas.

Chris Morrison is a Senior Consultant in Business Transformation and Organisational Change, holds a Graduate Certificate in Change Management, and recently won the 2016 ITSMF Thought Leader of the Year award.

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