Shorten: Vendor-driven approach ‘isn’t user-centric’

Greater investment in the capability of the Australian Public Service (APS) will give public servants increased autonomy to make better, more informed decisions, as opposed to relying only on vendor-driven designs, says Minister for Government Services Bill Shorten.

Addressing the Australian Financial Review Government Services Summit, the Minister emphasised a need to approach government services in “a new, non-traditional, flexible way that eliminates the silos and the jockeying for supremacy.”

He stressed that “siloed thinking between policy and implementation can act as a barrier to putting the user first”.

“Policy is important. We need big ideas. We need people to think about how to deliver a government’s agenda. But implementation is equally important or government simply doesn’t work.”

He said he was worried that “the intellectualism of policy development” was elevated to a position of “superiority over the practicality of implementation”.

“And yet,” he added, “starting with implementation means starting with the user.”

As an example, Shorten cited an announcement under the previous Government concerning a junked Entitlement Calculator Engine. The Engine was expected to help determine welfare recipients’ eligibility for payments as well as how much they should be paid; Services Australia had decided to write off the calculator as an asset.

“It was a decision not taken lightly, but the agency could not keep throwing good money after bad,” he said.

The way forward for government services, Shorten stressed, would be to ensure that the viability of implementation was tested and determined early in its lifecycle. He also cautioned against vendors dominating the conversation.

“If you think of it, you could have four or five projects in the incubator, tested to ensure their viability before it is sent out into the world. It is a lesson in the criticality of not just investing in tech but in tech people,” Minister said.

“If we don’t have people who speak the language, who have the knowledge to know the benefits and limitations of a particular software program, we can end up with our tech uptake being vendor-driven.

“And vendor-driven does not always equate to user-centric. Big tech can hold government departments hostage to long contracts that build complexity into customer service.

“I’ve heard it described as an archaeological dig to find the origins of some processes, there are so many layers.”

Shorten stressed that government services must stay on top of prevailing social trends, with Australians considered major users of applications that “give them back precious time that was once wasted searching for and filling out online forms”.

“We have examples of it being possible to innovate in service delivery by tapping into a spectrum of expertise.

One such example was the Property Exchange Australia (PEXA) platform, described as a “world-first digital property exchange”. The platform was rolled out across a number of states; however, it required collaboration between government, banking, legal and conveyancing communities.

“This project was developed by a small, enterprising group of people but it drove big change. There is no reason that can’t be replicated across a number of areas of government.  But it requires a concerted effort to improve the digital capability of our public sector workforce,” the Minister said.

“In my opinion, mission tech beats commodity tech when it comes to government services. And who knows the mission better than those dealing with it on a daily basis?”

“Government should not restrict itself to procurement and project management just because consultants would prefer we ‘stay in our lane’.

“[And] Investment in in-house digital competency gives an excellent return.”