Paul Shetler, chief executive, Digital Transformation Office, government of Australia: Exclusive interview
Paul Shetler, the first chief of Australia’s new Digital Transformation Office, tells Winnie Agbonlahor how he tempts sceptics into the technological world of digital services – and digital gurus into the analogue world of sitting down together
Paul Shetler’s CV tells a story of distances spanned: there’s the distances between his native USA, his 13 years in the UK and his new job in Australia, for a start, but the gap between his careers in financial services and in the civil service is just as great. This is a man able to move successfully across cultural divides – a skill just as important in the digital world as a talent for technology.
After making a career for himself in the digital world of his native America, Shetler was headhunted by Microsoft for an international job based in the UK. So in 2002 he relocated to London, then spent time running digital teams in the finance industry before joining the UK government as the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) chief digital officer. He soon became a director at the Government Digital Service (GDS) – the Cabinet Office body tasked with driving digital transformation across government – but was quickly snapped up by the Australian government to kick-start its own digital unit.
Since July 2015, Shetler has been chief executive of Australia’s newly-formed Digital Transformation Office (DTO): the unit, which became an executive agency on his arrival, is often described as Australia’s version of the UK’s GDS. The DTO’s function, Shetler says, “is very similar to that of an incubator in the commercial world – we want to incubate digital teams in different agencies and states, but primarily agencies of the Australian government.”
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The biggest project currently underway is an overhaul of the government’s entire web presence: Shetler’s team is working on a new government website – gov.au, which will not only consolidate government information, but also include landing pages focused around the “things people want to do”, called ‘transitions’, such as opening a business or moving to Australia to work.
Shetler has come to love his new life: Australia is “a fantastic place to be”: it has a kind of “freshness, an optimism and openness to the world you see in very few other places around the world,” he gushes. But all beginnings are difficult. Despite his background in British government, whose structure has much in common with Australia’s, he had to get his head around lots of new things. “I didn’t have a lot of the institutional context. It was like coming into government all over again. There were a lot of acronyms that I’d never heard of, and many ways of doing things which are a bit different, but are just assumed to be the way everything is done.”
Coming in from the outside
While Shetler’s biggest task “was getting the organisation started up”, this wasn’t the only task facing him in his new job: “Being a Yank, by way of the UK, coming into Australia – another country, another culture – was a big challenge,” he says. It was, though, made easier by the fact that he’d already passed the ‘tissue rejection test’ that faces many private sector staff entering the civil service, gaining experience both in a delivery department and at the centre of UK government.
This phrase was popularised by former UK Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, and the UK’s test is a tough one: one Cabinet Office-commissioned report warned that the British civil service is unwilling to “harness the experience that external hires bring” and described the organisation as a “closed elite club, “a bear pit” with a “bullying and macho culture” and an “uncollaborative, poisonous environment.” However, while Shetler did detect some initial scepticism among MoJ civil servants towards him, he rejects the findings of the report, describing it as “too harsh.”
It’s problematic to “talk about ‘the civil service’ – this huge collection of federated organisations, each with its own culture, as one thing,” he comments. For his part Shetler, who is openly gay and describes himself as a human rights activist, found that “there was much less of a macho culture in the civil service compared to some of the big corporate companies I’d worked for previously.”
So why did Shetler decide to leave the British civil service after less than two years? “Part of what I was doing at GDS was looking across all of government and seeing what had worked and what hadn’t worked, and here I was given an opportunity to apply those lessons,” he replies.
Converting ‘old school’ civil servants
Traditionally, government IT projects have been delivered over many years. But recently, digital teams have started to adopt a new ‘agile’ approach. Increasingly, revamped websites are launched in Beta form, which means they are online but still being worked on. One of the most important pieces of advice Shetler received when he first joined the British government came from chief technology officer Liam Maxwell, who told him: “What you need to do is deliver. You need to show that what you’re doing is going to deliver a better result more quickly at lower cost – a better overall result for the users or for the department. If you can do that then you will turn people around.”
And so he did. Within a few months of him being at the MoJ, Shetler says, people changed their attitudes from an almost cynical scepticism to welcoming acceptance. “When I first came in, people were like: ‘Oh, are these the Emperor’s new clothes? Is this the latest thing? Guess what, we’ve been here, we’ve seen these things come and go!’” Shetler says he quickly drove forward the implementation of four exemplar programmes, including a new online prison visits booking system that is now being reused by other departments. This, he says, “made a big difference, because rather than having stuff drifting on for years, without delivering anything besides piles of documents and architecture diagrammes, we had working services out there. Of course, people saw that, liked it and and wanted more of that.”
Shetler took that lesson to his current job and quickly started delivering various digital projects. His advice for anyone in a similar situation? “Choose the thing which can be delivered within a short period of time, but actually delivers real value to users. It should be something which goes beyond just a front end website redesign. It shouldn’t be just lipstick on a pig.”
Shetler is particularly proud of converting one influential “old-school civil servant” to the agile way of working: Alan Eccles, chief executive of the Office for the Public Guardian, became a “huge advocate” and about two months after Shetler joined, spoke of his enthusiasm at a public event with almost the entire MoJ senior civil service present. “What he said turned a lot of people’s minds and made them realise that this is something that’s worth doing,” Shetler says. “After that, we had a big upsurge of support because he was one of them. He wasn’t me coming in from the outside, he was one of them, which meant that people started saying: ‘Okay, we’re going to give this a chance’.”
In his short stint at the UK government, Shetler also took away some learning about what not to do: “There was some duplication – in many cases teams were solving the same problem over and over again” in different parts of government, he says. With digital teams from different departments often “located in different buildings, different parts of town or even different cities”, the potential for sharing ideas wasn’t used to the full, Shetler argues.
Having grown alert to this danger, he now makes sure civil servants from different departments are in the same room when working on DTO-led projects. “They’re physically sitting next to each other and they’re learning from each other and they’re able to attend each other’s showcases. When you have teams that are co-located there’s a lot more sharing, there’s a lot faster learning and we want to take advantage of that.”
If this way of working had been introduced in the UK, he says, “there would be a lot more synergies amongst the government teams.” He adds that this “was one of the things we could have done better – and so here we’re going to do that better.”
Working to become unnecessary
Shetler has been appointed for a five-year term, which will come to an end in July 2020. Of course, there is a potential for renewal, but he does have a vision of what he would like to have achieved by the end of his current term: “The ideal situation at the end of these five years is that there would be no need for DTO and the government here would organise its digital presence in such a way that the users would be able to do what they needed to do without having to have a map of government in their head or a degree in constitutional law to know who does what.”
Inaccessible public services, Shetler argues, present a problem “pretty much everywhere.” He’s right: governments around the world are frantically working to improve their online presence in a bid to tempt people into digital services – a shift than can produce both better outcomes and much reduced delivery costs. And here, Shetler has a lot to impart: having developed his digital skills in the trailblazing financial services industry, he learned his government skills in the UK and now he’s polishing them in Australia. If, come 2020, he has indeed eliminated the need for DTO, he’ll find plenty of demand for his services elsewhere – and, no doubt, some more big distances to span.
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