Radical rethink in digital governance key to ‘real change’ within QLD agencies – Chris Fechner, CCDO, QLD Govt

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To carry on the state’s serendipitous success in public service innovation realised in the thick of the Covid crisis last year, government agencies should raise their tolerance for risk, promote a “growth mindset”, and take a “portfolio approach” to ICT and digital direction-setting, says Queensland’s chief customer and digital officer Chris Fechner.


Headlining the FST Government Queensland 2021 conference, Fechner spruiked Queenslanders’ resounding tick of approval in public services last year, revealing trust in the state Government soared by 11 per cent – a statistic driven, he hypothesised, by the reliability of services delivered to “communities who were stressed [and] worried” during the pandemic.

He further boasted of the Sunshine State’s swift action to “disrupt the system”, pivoting a host of services, including boarding passes, hotel quarantine management, education, and health to run digitally for the first time.

While identifying several drivers to success, Fechner saw myriad opportunities to reshape public services over the next three years as was achieved during Covid, “but a little more structured [and] a little more sustainable.”


Leading with empathy, focusing on outcomes

For Fechner, the state’s successful delivery of Covid-prompted digitisation initiatives was predicated, ultimately, on empathy.

Listening to customers, he said, is a practice that should be integrated into public agencies’ core design processes.

“We need to also make sure that we take on a growth mindset. We learn from listening to the people that we’re serving. We need to make space for the voices of our citizens, their businesses and communities.”

The pandemic forced significant positive changes in the way government operates, he said, particularly in keeping customer interests top-of-mind.

However, he notes that the government now faces a “dichotomy” between operating in a way that is historically “regulatory and process-driven” to one that is “service and outcome-focused”.

“In a highly regulated, process-driven environment, preventing failure is a very important component,” he explained.

By contrast, an “outcomes-focused perspective” ensures tangible results can be achieved – a step-change in mindset which he feels should influence not only operations and delivery, but also procurement and investments by government.

For example, Fechner noted: “During Covid-19, we had lots of vendors come up with great ideas about how to support us better. And this was a really good change in mindset.”

“We have to think about how we can carry this mindset forward and how we can keep that outcome orientation as the key thing for us, along with customer success.”


A new approach to ICT and digital governance

“Looking at the governance components of public service delivery, we’ve historically had a strong vertical sense of governance,” Fechner said, explaining how decisions have been made on an “agency-by-agency basis.”

Indeed, while agencies have made attempts to engage externally with the private sector and other jurisdictions, Fechner felt government services are still largely delivered in silos.

Acknowledging that departments “don’t exist in vacuums”, he stressed the importance of clarity around whole-of-government direction-setting in digital and ICT agendas.

“How do we actually know what it is we’re meaning to achieve as a government, not as a collection of agencies?”

To Fechner, this leads to a new assurance model built around “portfolio thinking” – that is, incorporating engagement with multiple stakeholders, including private industry, citizens, upper-level government, as well as other agencies when defining objectives around public service delivery.

“If we take a portfolio approach, we can adapt this to what the citizens, the businesses in our communities need, as well as the functions that we really want to focus on in government,” he explained.

However, Fechner acknowledged, existing funding models are still ill-suited for whole-of-government digital initiatives that traverse multiple agencies.

“You would have all talked many times about how it’s more expensive sometimes to do things together than to do it alone; how, when an agency is provided funding, it’s for the purposes of the agency only,” he explained.

As a result, Fechner feels the “right authorising environment” is needed to unlock digital value in government.

“Here is the opportunity for real change inside of Queensland Government when it comes to digital,” he said.

Meanwhile, on preparing for the future of work, Fechner again stressed the importance of cultivating a “growth mindset” within public sector agencies, ensuring staff are ever-ready to grow their skills and competencies.

He also stressed the value of “showcasing successes” as digital transformation ensues.

“If I ask nothing more of you today, in the digital space, we have a history of calling our failures and being hung up on those for a really long time,” he said.

“But in many, many things, what we’re doing is a fabulous success.”