Public Services > Central Government

Shetler warns of need to “fix the basics first” in digital government

David Bicknell Published 03 August 2017

Former MoJ CDO raises concerns over ‘spending time and money’ on ‘big data, holographic interfaces, gamification and AI’ when ‘users still can’t find what they need when they need it’


Former Ministry of Justice chief digital officer and former chief executive of the Australian Digital Transformation Agency Paul Shetler has slated federal bureaucrats over their attitude to digital government.

Shetler told the Technology in Government conference in Canberra that government service delivery agencies that can’t “answer the friggin’ phones” should not be spending time and money exploring exciting new areas like big data analytics, artificial intelligence and gamification.

In the comments, reported by Australian Civil Service title The Mandarin , Shetler defended the development of digital government in Australia, arguing that ‘’ was a good idea, ‘cut down by federal bureaucrats who felt it wasn’t exciting and cutting-edge enough.’

Shetler said, “Now, when we came forward with this thing called … every single user-facing department was actually in favour.

“Some non-user-facing departments had a few people in them who weren’t, and they felt that … it wasn’t really innovative enough. [They thought] we should have been focusing more on big data, artificial intelligence, dancing holograms, and all that kind of stuff.”

“Now my view is that you can’t do that other stuff till you fix the basics first. You’ve got to first understand what the user journey is.”

“The original sin of the DTO was having been torn out of Finance, because all it did was complicate governance. ”

Shetler reiterated a phrase now consistently repeated in Whitehall, the ‘user need.’

He suggested that all the best digital services are designed by focusing on the user need.  In contrast, hundreds of separate government websites are often about fulfilling each agency’s assumed need to build a brand and an online presence, and demonstrate public “engagement” in its own right “as if it’s terribly interesting”.

He went on, “But really, you know, newsflash: people don’t want to engage with y’all.

“Nobody wants to engage with government. Nobody cares about the DTO, ATO, DHS, DSS — the whole alphabet soup — nobody cares about any of that. Nobody really wants to engage with it, because people just want to get stuff done.”

The Mandarin reported that Shetler had said that under his leadership the DTA had only made “a start” on exemplar projects, whole-of-government platforms and delivery hubs but still had a lot of work left to do, pointing to over 1524 federal government websites, lots of “broken customer journeys” and “repeated IT failures” over recent years as the proof.

Shetler cited a significant reduction in call waiting times achieved by the highly regarded ServiceNSW in New South Wales as part of its efforts to improve service delivery through digital transformation.

“They fixed the call centres. They made it so when people called the phone … they were picked up within a minute. Not 45 minutes, not one hour, not two hours. One minute.”

Shetler said ServiceNSW was doing “absolutely brilliant” work — so good he heard about it in the UK — and improving the call centre was one of its most important achievements. “And that bought them a huge amount of political capital. Because even though it wasn’t strictly digital, it was service and it was a radical improvement on the service they offered,” he added.

Shetler added that experimenting with the newest and most exciting technological advances is important, he said, but should not come at the expense of the basics.

“And I say that because actually we have been spending a lot of time and money on things like big data, holographic interfaces, gamification, artificial intelligence. I just want to know, how’s that working out? Seriously guys, how is that working out?”

“Because users still can’t find what they need when they need it. Information is still out of date, private data is still being published [by mistake], and major services are still failing.”

Shetler said Australia should copy Whitehall, which is training 5000 frontline customer service staff in new digital skills.

“They’ve taken people who worked in call centres, they’ve taken people who worked in shopfronts — the people who have the most empathy with the end users, who know the situation best, who know where things break and where people need help — and turned them into the product managers, designers, developers and so on and so forth that they desperately needed to digitise their business.”

He concluded with some “friendly advice” for public servants, starting with: ‘in-source the core business’.

“Some things can be outsourced but dealing with your end users and understanding your end users is your core business,” Shetler said.

He also advocated keeping agile projects under control.  Where appropriate, and where the agency is iteratively building something new and trying to understand the user needs along the way, drip-feed funding should be used to keep agile digital transformation projects under control, he said.

Shetler acknowledged that agile, iterative and experimental digital projects may not necessarily be the right approach for all projects and some things should be outsourced. But, he argued, wrapping everything to do with service redesign up in big tenders, including the ongoing job of understanding and serving citizens’ needs, is not the right way to go.

He also paid tribute to Francis Maude’s role at the Cabinet Office. He argued that having a powerful senior minister in Maude leading the project for five years was “massively important” to making changes stick.

“We need somebody senior who is at the end of their career, not the beginning,” he said. “Somebody who doesn’t need to please anybody but who knows what needs to happen.”

Related link:

The Mandarin



We have updated our privacy policy. In the latest update it explains what cookies are and how we use them on our site. To learn more about cookies and their benefits, please view our privacy policy. Please be aware that parts of this site will not function correctly if you disable cookies. By continuing to use this site, you consent to our use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy unless you have disabled them.