Surprise resignation of Australia’s digital chief, Paul Shetler

By on 07/12/2016
Paul Shetler, former chief digital officer, Australian Government

The Australian government’s digital transformation chief Paul Shetler has resigned only weeks after being appointed to the role.

Shetler was handed the new post of chief digital officer in October as part of a shake-up of Australia’s e-government infrastructure.

That process saw the Digital Transformation Office – which Shetler left the UK’s Government Digital Service to set up 16 months ago – replaced with a new Digital Transformation Agency. The new body was handed a brief to coordinate all government ICT policy and procurement.

Rather than appoint Shetler chief executive of the new agency, the government instead brought in Nerida O’Loughlin, formerly deputy secretary of the Department of Communication and the Arts, on an interim basis. Shetler’s new post was billed as having strategic oversight of digital transformation across government, but it seems the role was not to his liking and his resignation was announced by the DTA last week.

Shetler has not commented publicly on his resignation. But in a blog post reflecting on his 16 months in Australia, published on LinkedIn after his resignation last week, he alluded to the challenges of instituting fundamental changes in practice in large, complex organisations – and suggested that political leaders hadn’t done enough to promote digital reforms.

“It’s a general law of sociology that every large bureaucracy seeks to maintain itself in its current form. And that means the institutional inertia against transformation is enormous. Changing government to operate at internet speed and quality also requires strong will and expenditure of political capital from the nation’s leadership,” he wrote.

“Without that mandate to change, it’s naive to expect an organisation that is very comfortable with its way of working to decide to spontaneously transform itself.

“This is the challenge in the next 16 months — to double down on building the capability to deliver on the vision, and eliminating the blockers getting in the way,” he wrote.

In an interview with Global Government Forum earlier this year, Shetler spoke of the need for e-government champions to demonstrate quickly to potentially cynical civil servants the value that digitally enabled services can offer.

“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.”

In a statement on his resignation, O’Loughlin said Shetler had been “instrumental” in kick-starting Australia’s digital government agenda. “Paul’s wealth of knowledge and international experience in the field of digital services has been invaluable to the government’s digital ambitions,” she said, adding that a replacement chief digital officer will be found in the new year.

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See also:

Australian government launches new digital marketplace

UK Government Digital Service sets up international team

Users registered to Australian government’s online service portal reaches 10m

About Ben Willis

Ben Willis is a journalist and editor with a varied background reporting on topics including public policy, the environment, renewable energy and international development. His work has appeared in a variety of national newspapers including the Guardian, Daily Telegraph and Times, as well as numerous specialist business, policy and consumer publications.

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