Andy Kelk

Dear Malcolm – Can you deliver on digital?

Note: I am writing this post as a citizen of Australia and not a representative of any organisation I’ve worked with past or present

To the Minister for Communications, Malcolm Turnbull


This week, the Australian government released a report by the Commission of Audit which included recommendations around e-Government. Apart from pushing the myGov solution which has been pioneered by the Department of Human Services, the paper recommends “consolidating the e-Government effort through a single team under the leadership of a Chief Digital Officer”.

This is the step that I think has the most potential to benefit Australia and its citizens. But only if the government is brave, radical and willing to change. The audit commission’s report suggests following the lead of the UK government to replicate the success seen there. GDS (Government Digital Services) is a new government agency tasked with delivering services “digital by default” with the aim of being “more efficient and more convenient for users“. What’s being done in the UK is a vast leap ahead of most other government technology departments. It’s been achieved by bringing in talent with domain expertise and leadership capability to shape delivery of services. I know that you’ve been in the UK recently and I’m hoping you’re taking a good look at what GDS are doing.

Back here in Australia, the Audit Commission has now set the challenge to the government and to you in particular to drive a new way of approaching digital service delivery. This is a clear indication that the current strategies are failing. Take, for instance, the launch of the ATO’s eTax software for Mac computers, the allegations of lax security within myGov as two examples. It’s clear that government digital initiatives are failing and in a world where digital continues to grow week on week, failing at digital is not acceptable.

To succeed in a digital transformation requires radical action which only you can spearhead; incremental fixes won’t work. As demonstrated by GDS, the key success factors are the autonomy and influence of digital in government; a relentless focus on meeting customer need; the desire to simplify digital experiences; and a focus on delivery over policy. These are themes which will be familiar to anyone working in the Lean/Agile space. (You could almost rewrite the agile manifesto and create a digital government manifesto – “service delivery over comprehensive policy”.) Without these, real change will not occur.

In order to achieve these, what’s needed is a strong leader – someone who understands digital, someone who is not afraid to challenge the norms and someone with the vision to work differently from 95% of the existing government IT departments. Naturally you’d look at someone like Mike Bracken (who heads up GDS) as an inspiration and see who is out there in the Australian landscape who fits the same mould. Picking the right leader and giving them the authority and autonomy to run digital across departments is going to be key to success.

What should that leader be focusing on? Firstly, the delivery approach has to change. Abandon waterfall methodologies and the hangovers of waterfall software delivery. Don’t tender to the same old firms who have failed in the past. Don’t allow the work to be parcelled up and sold off to the highest bidder whether they’re on or off-shore. Build a team with the right culture and the right operating model to execute. You need people who get digital – technologists who can innovate and deliver. That means putting in place different models to hire the right people and retain them – they’re after different things than your usual government IT contractors. They’re not going to be in Canberra and are not likely to move to Canberra – you either need to employ them where they are or set up working arrangements which makes remote the norm.

Most of all, realise that the skills you need right now are in the private sector – look to REA, BankWest, News Corp, Seek or to the digital parts of organisations like Australia Post.

Most of all, Minister, it’s time to be brave and be radical. Don’t let us down.


Around the same time that I posted this, it seems the minister was visiting GDS. Hoping that’s a good sign!

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