The New Orthodoxy – Public Purpose

Why we need a critical review of digital transformation of government and the public sector in Australia to support human flourishing through sustainable and shared prosperity.

Australia needs a critical review of 20 years of digital transformation of government and the public sector to provide an honest and tough-minded critique of what’s been done and delivered so we can determine what big bets need to be made now that line up with the changing purpose, role and function of government in a very different and rapidly changing world.

The purpose of government is human flourishing and the chance for everyone to live their best lives.  The role of government is to create conditions in which that becomes predictably and reliably possible for more and more people by amplifying ingenuity, dignity, equality and safety.

The function of government is to provide a mix of policies, regulations and services that ensure fair and equal access to the benefits and opportunities of a sustainable prosperity forged from a contemporary focus on “commerce”, climate and care.

“Commerce” covers all of the things that governments can do to grow strong, resilient and productive economies that confront the risks and exploit opportunities for sustainable growth, innovation, good jobs and the chance to create and share wealth. It includes a mix of sound regulation for effective markets, a creative role for public investment and action, growing a capacity for business and commerce and a predisposition to innovate.

“Climate” involves a comprehensive and coherent mix of policy and regulation from government to counter the impact of climate change and accelerate the transition to a resilient green economy and society.

“Care” is the third leg of the trifecta, focusing on new models and practices of care and caring based on relationships, dignity and agency and, especially in the light of the COVID-19 experience, how Australia entrenches across society and throughout the economy an ethic of care, connectedness and a proper regard for others and the public interest.

The point about those three areas – commerce, climate and care – is that none of them will deliver their full contribution to the ultimate purpose, which is human flourishing through sustainable prosperity, without advancing together with the others.  One lesson from COVID is we can’t allow those three big drivers of resilience and adaptability to work in isolation.  Part of the problem has been how distinct and separate the work in those areas has grown.

That’s the digital’s promise.  At the heart of new instincts and practice for “commerce, climate and care” that build national resilience and offers the chance for all to live their best lives.

It’s a big call, but the right call, a call that bubbled beneath the surface of the recent AFR/Deloitte inaugural government services summit in Canberra.

The summit delivered a welcome payload of palpable consensus and energetic momentum.  It was a mood and output well captured by the event’s motive force, Tom Burton, in his excellent piece right after the event.

“There was a palpable sense of confidence – and ambition – among public leaders,” Tom wrote, “about the road map for the next critical stage of the huge transformation program now well under way across all tiers of government.”

And he’s right.

The consensus is fashioned around some propositions which will doubtless become trite with repetition and familiarity:

  • Common, shared and increasingly cross-agency and cross-jurisdictional platforms and what I’ve described elsewhere, with co-author Simon Cooper, as “public digital infrastructure.” The days of agencies and whole governments building their own versions of basically the same infrastructure and services will, we were told, come to an end. [Sidebar: in the end, no one answered AFR political editor Phil Coorey’s impertinent question about why we need four separate COVID check-in apps (and more too if, like Phil, you need to transact business in an ABC building)]
  • Services designed with people’s experience and ease of use at the heart; we all want services to be simple, easy, fast – or what Minister Stuart Robert described as simple, helpful, respectful and transparent; no one argues that they should be designed, by and large, by and with people, not to and for them.
  • Headstrong agencies and their leaders and Ministers won’t get to “do their own thing” anymore but will be guided and constrained, if necessary by increasingly bare knuckled mechanisms to, as Victor Dominello put it, pull on the ring in the nose of the “beast that is government.” Kind of “no more Mr Nice Guy”; more like “you’re free to do what you want so long as you do what you need to. The other way, pandering to the public sector’s feudal reflexes of jealously guarded bases of independent power, authority and control is too expensive, too wasteful and, when you’re up against the brutal simplicity of authoritarian competitors (ie China), simply unaffordable in every sense. Craziness, Minister Robert called it.
  • The outbreak of “one (digital) Australia” will witness much more borrowing and sharing of ideas, applications and “smarts”; if someone’s already solved a problem and it works, why waste time solving it again for pretty much the same people, the same problem (or opportunity) and the same conditions. (Except for Covid check-in apps, apparently).
  • There was talk of avoiding the railway gauge problem and, this time around, getting some digital alignment so the “rail lines” matched and synched up properly. And that should be better not just for the hard infrastructure, but for the ‘soft’ pieces too, like identity, privacy, the management of information, data and data sharing, payments.  No point replicating all that either.  Simpler, fewer, more robust pieces of a less cumbersome and complex digital puzzle. Which, Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo noted, would mean fewer vendor contracts, fewer vendors too perhaps and thinner margins all round.

These are big design principles for “next”, the new orthodoxy perhaps, when it comes to the digital transformation project in and across Australia’s public sector. And certainly the Summit positively fizzed with agreement and shared ambitions.

But it’s a consensus in favour of a direction and ambition whose aspirations have been stated many times before (often in almost identical language) for at least 20 years.  That should give us some pause for thought and perhaps invite a more critical review of the quality of the consensus and its prospects for success.

The dynamic bears thinking about for a moment.

It seems that all of a sudden we’re all furiously agreeing about the way forward for the next phase of digital transformation of all things government and public

Like Hemingway’s forensic analysis of going broke – “how did you go bankrupt? Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly” – after years of argument and slow to no progress on many of these very same items, the way forward has become clear and consensual.

I found myself wondering as I enjoyed the presentations and discussions during the day whether digital transformation was “doing a climate change.”

No one is seriously now arguing whether we should take climate change seriously.  Now we’re only interested in how far and how fast must we go and let’s bloody well get on with it.

When it comes to our very recent, and still fragile climate consensus, for those who have done the thankless work over the last “slow” 20 years (or more) of arguing for the realization we’re all happily bandwagonning now, this “discovery” of the need for urgent action must be bittersweet.  But I guess we’re there now.  Better late than never.  Better a consensus with a thousand jonny-come-lately parents than the orphaned voices in the wilderness.

Same with digital.  We’re all transformers now.

The COVID-19 pandemic has delivered the world’s biggest and most brutally effective global real-time rollercoaster workshop on why digital is the answer, almost regardless of what the question was.

Just imagine how we’d have got through the last 18 months without the Internet and all of the associated tools, platforms and capabilities of the digital, connected world in whose hands our fate now firmly rests.  Of course it wasn’t perfect and sometimes it sagged and we poke plenty of weary fun at being Zoomed to death and where is all that QR code data actually going anyway?.

But the world would be in a very different and much sorrier place without all that digital “stuff”.  It saved us and is now the only way out to whatever comes next. As Yuval Harari noted recently, we’re now hostage to the digital fortune, for better and for worse:

“As humanity automates, digitalises and shifts activities online, it exposes us to new dangers. One of the most remarkable things about the Covid year is that the internet didn’t break. If we suddenly increase the amount of traffic passing on a physical bridge, we can expect traffic jams, and perhaps even the collapse of the bridge. In 2020, schools, offices and churches shifted online almost overnight, but the internet held up. We hardly stop to think about this, but we should. After 2020 we know that life can go on even when an entire country is in physical lockdown. Now try to imagine what happens if our digital infrastructure crashes.”

The same bittersweet sense of victory and annoyance must attend all of those who’ve spent the last 20 years (remember eGovernment, Government 2.0?) patiently explaining why what is now, apparently, universally accepted should have been galvanizing this level of widespread support and momentum a long time ago.

So is this a problem?

Well, in many ways it isn’t.

I’ve been a small part of the “prophet in the wilderness’ period, penning my first essay on the wonders of eGovernment in about 2002. Clearly, there’s a lot happening and the Summit itself was a reassuring confirmation not just of a new orthodoxy but also of the rhythm of restless momentum necessary to keep doing the work.  Just ask Victor Dominello.  Restless momentum is his unmistakable brand.

And there is much work to be done, although it’s arguable much of it remains an earnest endeavour to digitize what’s there rather than breakthrough to the different than digital requires.  We’re still often busy doing digital, less ambitiously being digital.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that despite the substantial level of activity and spending, including the federal government’s recent $1.2 billion digital strategy, there is some debate about the extent to which “policy” issues are being avoided.

For example, this recent analysis:

But in the hundreds of pages of budget papers there is a distinct feeling the government is doing just enough to get by by throwing money at immediate problems – that align with its jobs and growth narrative – while continuing to neglect long-talked about reforms[1]

As I admire the contours of the new consensus, questions keep popping into my mind.

Ministers and important and powerful bureaucrats and the leaders of large technology companies have pronounced a digital transformation tipping point before, often in almost exactly the same language that they and their successors are using now. Pronouncements, strategies and digital diktats should not be confused with the thing.

The “thing” turns out to be much more stubborn than talking about the “thing”. And we know it won’t be born just because someone predicts its imminent arrival.

The real work ignites difficult questions of culture, politics, personality, institutional inertia, tangled webs of authority and brutal contests of public and private power, money and status. It’s what’s kept us waiting through all these slow years.  Why, now, should we assume it won’t be just as trying and confounding, no matter how consensual the ambition for change?

While it’s admirable, as Victorian Minister Danny Pearson noted, to be stuck with your head under the bonnet (or the ‘hood’) of the digital “car” to work out how to tune the engine to run better, failing to worry about where the car might be travelling and why carries risks.

It leaves unexplored digital transformation’s interaction with bigger questions about the role and purpose of government and the public sector as a powerful institution. I think that’s a shame and discounts digital’s potential.

I’m not sure the Summit, for example, tackled the digital transformation implications of Deloitte Access Economic CEO Pradeep Philip’s elegant tour of the big political, economic and social shifts reshaping our world.  Too often, digital transformation defines its ambitions and boundaries too narrowly.

Which leads to another long-running anxiety, that the worlds of digital (service) transformation and of policy making remain largely distinct, hermetically sealed kingdoms who don’t understand their mutual dependence.

I’m from the policy side of the house, if I’m from any side, more than the service or technology side. I’m often struck by the absence of policy discussion either about digital transformation’s agenda or about its impact on the policy making process.

The advent of digital has coincided with, and indeed has fuelled, a rising obsession with customer service and delivery, both good things to be obsessed about. But it’s a game – digital, customers, delivery – that has driven out many of the notions of policy that previous generations might recognise.

Of course services and delivery matter.  But it sometimes seems as if all that service and all that delivery comes readymade. The policy hinterland seems thin and distant.

The policy dimensions of digital transformation are the policy dimensions of good governing.  Notions of complex trade-offs of purpose and intent, of ethics, privacy and integrity, of adhering to precepts and practices of good public administration (not the stodgy stuff, but the important stuff that keeps us safe, free and relatively protected from abuses of power and various forms of oppression),  privileging questions of public good, questions of equity and fairness, of discrimination and exclusion, and of the interactions with big public questions about justice, equity and accountability don’t seem to feature either at all or at least with appropriate visibility.

Where this work, or the work of the policy process more generally is being prosecuted, it seems poorly supported and regularly berated for being too slow, too removed from the real world. Too much thinking.

But back to the Summit.

It was timely and valuable but I don’t think it’s going to be anywhere near as neat and simple as a day’s largely friendly conversation at the Canberra Hyatt made it sound.

I kept wanting someone to point out that we’ve been here, almost exactly on these terms, many times before.  Why do we keep returning to these familiar tropes and why didn’t it work last time, or the time before that?

Putting it another way, why aren’t we more interested in what seems to be to be the most urgent, but persistently ignored question across so many policy domains, including in digital transformation – why is it so difficult to do what we know?

I think we need to stop and interrogate that conundrum.

As part of that process, I’d like to see more discussion about the missing half of the transformation story, the half that deals with big questions that might include, for example:

  • How well can Australia navigate the transition to an economy that is clean, resilient and adaptable for inclusive growth and sustainable prosperity?
  • How does Australian society tackle wicked divides that are opening up in wealth, race and gender to offer everyone a sense of opportunity and the chance of living their best lives?
  • How does Australian democracy stop eating itself alive, burdened with growing levels of distrust and disengagement and invest instead in the steady rise of respect, mutual regard and accountability?

These are questions to which digital transformation should have some answers to which it should be central in contributing to answers.

The emergence of a new orthodoxy, however positive and welcome, should be a moment to subject the whole endeavour to critical review.

Such a review might do three things:

Firstly, cast a more critical eye over the work and investment of the last 20 years and come to some conclusions about what we can show for it.  Posing the question “what’s digital transformation ever done for us?” will bring some useful answers but will doubtless reveal some gaps and misses too.

Secondly, and building on that reweighing of the transformation payload, reframe the transformation narrative in larger terms. The questions we’re asking about what digital transformation can and should be doing for us are not big enough.

And thirdly, a critical review would offer a sound basis on which to acknowledge that, while the past 20 years have witnessed profound changes not just in government and the work of the public sector but across the economy and society too, what comes next is going to matter even more.

20 years on: are we hitting the digital transformation mark?

  • Saving money by making transactions with government cheaper and more efficient
  • Improving the reach, access. quality and impact of public services
  • Making it simpler, quicker and easier for people to deal with government
  • Making government more transparent and accountable
  • Increasing the rate, intensity and quality of innovation in government and the public sector
  • Improving the contribution government and the public sector make to innovation across society and the economy
  • Lifting efficiency and productivity in the public sector itself and, as a consequence, in the wider economy too, especially (but not only) through better regulation
  • Improving the quality of solving problems that lift the quality and impact of policy responses that shift systems too
  • Improving democracy and the quality of the relationship between governments and citizens and, in the process, lifting levels of trust and confidence in government and the public service
  • Changing the role and function of government and offering new ways to do what government has always done, ways to stop doing some things altogether and offering completely new things that government could do that make more sense in a digital economy and a connected world (the much-anticipated moment when “doing digital” tips over into “being digital”)

 Right now, big bets have to be made.  Money, effort and political capital have to be invested at speed and at scale.  Using the next generation of digital and data needs to transform government and governing further and faster, with big payoffs for economic resilience and sustainable prosperity.

We have to get this right.

That will call on an unusual mix of attributes – boldness, a willingness to spend significant political and bureaucratic, as well as commercial and institutional capital, an instinct for rigour and experimentation and a set of working reflexes that are open, disciplined and collaborative.

The stakes are high and the risks are higher.  But the opportunities are virtually limitless.

The Summit showcased a strong program of work backed by signs of a shared purpose and common ambitions to realise many of them.  It was outstanding, as far as it went.


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