Taming the tiger: NZ’s digital chief on harmonious e-government

By on 10/01/2019 | Updated on 04/02/2022
Tim Occleshaw has been credited with overseeing the delivery of cross-government ICT strategy, helping build sector resilience through uptake in common capabilities and developing system-wide standards

Tim Occleshaw, who runs New Zealand’s digital operation, has learned from the backlash against other countries’ central digital units – and established a ‘networked leadership’ model that leaves agencies in the driving seat. He tells Matt Ross why he prefers persuasion to power

It’s a fairly hard rule of human psychology that organisational leaders don’t turn down the chance to win more powers or resources. Yet when New Zealand was setting up its digital government operation a few years ago, Tim Occleshaw did just that.

“Ministers asked us whether we wanted to have increased powers, and perhaps a right of veto around digital investments if we didn’t think they were on the right track,” recalls Occleshaw – who, as Deputy Government Chief Digital Officer, has managed New Zealand’s cross-government digital operation since 2012. “And what I proposed instead was that we didn’t really want the right of veto: that would potentially mess up accountabilities, and it would set us up to be battling agencies fairly frequently.”

The New Zealanders’ decision, Occleshaw explains, owed much to the experiences of the UK’s Government Digital Service: a powerful central unit which, whilst ground-breaking and influential, has been bloodied – and, ultimately, weakened – by a series of clashes with Whitehall departments. A “senior British civil servant” within GDS, Occleshaw recalls, had warned him that “the civil service has a very powerful immune system: that it’s very good at isolating disruptors.”

And Occleshaw listened carefully: that comment “might even have been the genesis of our choice to be on the field of play with the agencies, rather than on the sidelines,” he says now. For New Zealand’s digital team, he adds, “it’s better to paint a picture of the desired vision, and to have agencies wanting to be on board, as opposed to us constantly trying to fight them or impose controls that they’ll have all sorts of resourceful ways to resist if they wish.”

The Kiwi model

The consequence of this thinking was an approach described by Occleshaw as “centrally-led and collaboratively-delivered”, in which agencies have “skin in the game: they co-own the digital agenda, and we co-design strategies and standards.”

At the heart of New Zealand’s model is the Digital Government Partnership (DGP): a group of 60-odd agency chief execs and senior directors who oversee the development of digital policies, tools and major projects. Emerging projects, such as the creation of design standards and the forthcoming Digital Government Strategy, are pursued by DGP sub-groups combining agency staffers with members of the 100-strong Office of the Government Chief Digital Officer (OGCDO) team run by Occleshaw (Chief Digital Officer Paul James plays a more strategic role, as he’s also Chief Executive of the Department of Internal Affairs – where Occleshaw is the Deputy Chief Executive responsible for Service and System Transformation).

By putting agencies at the heart of strategic development, Occleshaw argues, this system ensures that “the successes are theirs, the investment theirs, the services theirs – and what we attempt to do is to guide that and to leverage investment across the system, working with them.”

Concealed weapons and shared tools

OGCDO isn’t completely without leverage, of course. Though Occleshaw foreswore veto rights, he recalls, “we suggested that perhaps ministers might seek our advice on digital investments when decisions are made.” The central team also provides recommendations to Cabinet, which approves major digital schemes. So whilst there’s no formal “gateway process” enabling Occleshaw to block an agency project, he has heavyweight influence through ministers – ensuring that agencies seek his advice as they begin work on new projects.

To make it easy for agencies to adopt today’s digital technologies, OGCDO manages central contracts providing cloud-hosted services such as desktops, telecoms, data storage and enterprise management. Without mandation powers, Occleshaw’s team have worked hard to make these “commercially compelling” – and it seems to be working: more than 200 public bodies are buying services through the framework, most of them outside central government.

Aggregating demand in this way helps drive down prices, notes Occleshaw. And there are other advantages to consuming digital tools “as a service”: with data and systems held and backed up off-site, agencies become more resilient. When an earthquake demolished an agency building, he recalls, civil servants found new offices and had all their systems back online in four days.

Occleshaw’s approach “centrally-led and collaboratively-delivered”

Sharpening the risk appetite

So Occleshaw is proud of New Zealand’s approach to technology – but he doesn’t pretend that all is rosy in the country’s digital garden. He notes, for example, that the civil service’s long-standing approach to project planning requires agencies to “fully develop your business case, then do a very detailed design, and work out exactly how much it’s going to cost before a single bit of code is cut.” This, he acknowledges, is “a very poor fit” with the ‘Agile’ project development methodology best suited to digital schemes.

In part, this desire to nail down every aspect of a scheme before beginning development work reflects the civil service’s traditional attitude to risk. But digital projects are often best pursued through “experimentation and learning lessons,” he comments. “It’s got to be okay to try things that will sometimes fail – but unfortunately, when mainstream government tries something that fails, the only word that hits the media is ‘failure’.”

To compensate, Occleshaw’s team has set up a Service Innovation Lab: “A safe ‘sandbox’, where people can try new things and failure is okay.” And they’ve collected NZ$10m (US$6.8m) of agency cash for a Digital Innovation Fund, supporting experimental and prototyping schemes that wouldn’t make it through the traditional business planning process. Attitudes to financial and reputational risk are changing as a result, comments Occleshaw: “The Treasury are now better understanding that this is hugely valuable.”

Building the skills to build the tech

Another key challenge lies in recruiting the right skills – particularly experts in emerging tech such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), and people able to commission new-model digital services. “Are we good at buying ICT systems and widgets? Yes, I think we are,” says Occleshaw. “Do we have the capability we need to safely and responsibly procure an AI system that learns? I’m not sure.”

Government needs the capability to “deploy very interesting but very complex – almost black box – tech, and do it safely in a way that’s going to benefit New Zealanders,” he adds. “The pipeline for bringing in that sort of talent looks pretty thin to me.”

Still, the picture is improving – in part because Occleshaw’s team work with agencies to recruit people into senior digital roles. “We don’t have a right of refusal on who agencies hire,” he explains, but OGCDO staff often get involved in long-listing and interviewing – aiming to hire “fewer of those more traditional leaders who want to build and control things themselves, and more digitally-savvy people who think about outcomes for the nation”.

Ditching legacy thinking

Even the most digitally-savvy leaders face a major task in managing a transition away from the bespoke, monolithic IT systems left them by previous generations. But as Occleshaw says, “one of the biggest barriers to digital development isn’t legacy software: it’s legacy thinking, which I think gets set in concrete by legacy processes and legacy structures and legacy policies.” Agencies have built themselves around outdated technologies and processes, making it hard to make the shift to digital tools: “If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” he comments. “And if your ICT shop is all about programmers, then the solution is programming.”

The biggest challenge facing Occleshaw’s team, then, “isn’t about the tech. The tech can be tough – but I don’t think that’s the crux of the problem, or the hardest piece.” What’s needed is culture change and a shift from “legacy thinking”; and his determinedly collegiate approach seems to be generating results.

Occleshaw cites a major reform by the Inland Revenue Department (IRD), which had “a tiger by the tail”. When tax officials needed to replace their 30-year-old IT network, he explains, they were “heading down the track of a bespoke development, and that could have become quite a large, monolithic, traditional system.” But, working with his team, tax staff “very quickly came to the realisation that actually they’re transforming their entire business – and if you start with that thinking, you’re in a better place.” So the IRD rethought their approach, rebuilt and streamlined their businesses processes, and bought an “off-the-shelf software solution” through OGCDO’s ‘telecommunications as a service’ contract. Some of the biggest taxes have now migrated across to the new system, Occleshaw notes, adding that IRD leaders’ “willingness to think about things differently” has been crucial to making the leap.

Occleshaw says that Francis Maude – the former UK Cabinet Office Minister, has become an admirer of the Kiwis’ collegiate approach.

Swaddled in services

The cross-departmental ‘Smart Start’ programme is another good example, he adds. Designed to bring together all the services required by new parents, it required tight cooperation by five agencies; and the biggest challenge here, Occleshaw explains, was “working through governance and funding and accountability and operational challenges. Who’s paying for it? Whose throat are ministers going to reach for if it doesn’t work?”

Maria Robertson, the Deputy Chief Executive leading the project, hammered out agreement with OGDCO staff and the other agencies. “Then we were able to do an agile build in about four months, and the service has been delivered,” comments Occleshaw. “It’s been hugely popular, and we’ve got another series of ‘life event’ services in the pipeline.”

So these are the poster boys. But has Occleshaw’s lack of hard levers allowed other agencies to stick to traditional approaches to ICT? “There really isn’t a huge amount of what we might call non-compliance,” he replies. “We know what’s coming up, and we get in as early as we can to work with the agencies.”

Indeed, Occleshaw says that Francis Maude – the former UK Cabinet Office Minister, who first established GDS as a powerful central unit – has become an admirer of the Kiwis’ collegiate approach. At a November conference, he recalls, Maude “told me that in his work internationally at the moment, he’s frequently citing New Zealand’s model of networked leadership as a way of cracking this nut.”

What’s next?

New Zealand will need a powerful set of nutcrackers to break into the next set of digital challenges facing government. These, Occleshaw believes, include the “mindset shift” required to understand that “government doesn’t have to do everything; it doesn’t have to own everything.”

Sometimes, he explains, “our job is to make information, rules, datasets and APIs available, then get out of the way and allow the private or third sector to build solutions that are meaningful for their communities.” Identity verification is a good example, he adds: like the UK, New Zealand aims to support private sector providers rather than offer a single, government-run system – enabling citizens to use one ID verifier across the public and private sectors.

Looking still further ahead, Occleshaw sees a future in which OGCDO’s inclusive approach extends not just to agency staff, but to the wider population. “One of the next things we all need to be thinking about is how people are going to engage with government,” he says, arguing that civil servants need “tools for people to participate in government, co-designing regulations with citizens and businesses; co-designing interactions with real users and communities.”

It is fitting that, as Occleshaw’s team moves to promote more collaborative, interactive services for citizens, its work will rest on its collaborative, interactive relationships with government agencies – rather than by laying down the rules and wielding a big stick. “We’re very careful about accountabilities. We don’t want to accidentally inherit a chief executive’s accountabilities,” he says. “It’s their job to run their business. And it’s ours to support, to enable, and to influence.”

Tim Occleshaw on learning from overseas

To help our readers get the best out of Global Government Forum, we ask interviewees five standard questions – four seeking practical advice and opinions, and one to reveal something a little more personal. This is an edited version of Occleshaw’s answers.

Can you name one lesson or idea from abroad that’s helped you or your colleagues?

“I’m going to refer back to the comments that I mentioned earlier from a senior British civil servant: that the civil service has a very powerful immune system, and it’s quite good at isolating disruptors. That was possibly the genesis of our networked leadership model – the thing we call Digital Government Partnership.

“It’s something that’s been incredibly powerful for us: being on the field of play with the agencies, rather than on the sidelines shouting instructions or being a referee of some sort. We have chief executives and many other senior people involved in co-designing standards, and architecture, and strategy and so on. We’re in the game with the agencies, instead of being an organisation that’s trying to control.”

Are there any projects or innovations from New Zealand that might be valuable to your peers overseas?

“One is probably our digital marketplace. It’s an end-to-end digital channel for procurement that goes right from registration and signing up, through a very standardised set of terms and conditions, to fulfilment and all the analytics and reporting that go with it. And the whole thing is digital.

“Within the first couple of weeks, we had more than 30 agencies sign up to be customers and more than 30 suppliers. It hugely simplifies the process; it allows agencies to meet the rules of procurement; and it reduces the friction immensely – so it’s been very successful for us.”

How do you think we can improve the ways in which senior officials work with and learn from their colleagues overseas?

“We have networks like our D9 [network of digital governments], in which we get together and share our experiences. OECD e-leaders is a great opportunity for us all to get together and talk about these things. Between New Zealand and the UK, we have a digital government exchange: we send five or six young future leaders to the UK for a couple of months, and the UK sends theirs to us.

“But the biggest thing is about working out loud, in the open – sharing the stuff we’re working on; sharing designs; sharing code; sharing how we fund, how we govern. One of the great things about shifting from private sector to the public, for me, was that we’re not competitive. And if we can get together and share these stories, we’re all going to be able to move faster towards a better digital planet.”

What are the biggest global challenges in your field over the next few years?

“Governments are complex, and our authorising environment is very different to the private sector’s. There are many stakeholders, and they’re all important. So I think one of the biggest challenges is just keeping up with the pace of innovation and change. And I don’t mean from a tech perspective; I mean breaking free of legacy thinking.

“That means Agile policies and settings, and governance and funding models that can encourage innovation whilst being mindful of the human aspect – protecting people’s rights. So the biggest challenge is keeping up with that in a way that fosters innovation and promotes the digital economy, but keeps the government policy social aspect at the forefront.”

And finally, what’s your favourite book?

That’s a tough question, and I don’t think I can pick a favourite. At the moment, I’m reading a book called ‘Forbidden Archaeology’ by Michael Cremo; it’s not a particularly easy read, but I’m really enjoying it.

“It’s a very thoroughly-researched examination of modern archaeology, and some of the thinking that that may be holding our understanding back. And it’s exploring the emerging theory that civilisation may go back way further than we think. I’m finding it very interesting.”

About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.

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