Stripping out the waste from government ICT – Ashley West, Executive Director, Strategic Delivery, WorkSafe Victoria

As the state insurer and workplace standards setter, WorkSafe Victoria is driven by a clear mandate: to reduce workplace harm, and to improve outcomes when workers are injured.

For WorkSafe, the push to digitalise is not simply a matter of delivering on promised efficiency dividends or creating the next great widget. It is, always, aligned around this core purpose – a purpose that also inspires its workforce to do better for all those it represents.

In the lead-up to the FST Government Victoria 2022 conference, we sat down with featured event speaker Ashley West, Executive Director, Strategic Delivery at WorkSafe, to explore the agency’s purpose-empowered digital transformation program and the great leap forward to break free of the mainframe, making better use of the insurer’s high-value data assets, and, coming out of a Covid-fuelled bounty of digital investments and with economic uncertainty on the horizon, how ICT teams can negotiate tightening government purse strings and “strip out the waste”.

FST Government: While digital transformation has been the flavour of the last decade, there’s no doubt that two years of Covid has fundamentally re-written transformation agendas of both industry and government.

Over the last 18 months, coming out of – hopefully – the worst of Covid lockdowns, how has your digital transformation program evolved to meet changing demands of your workforce and members?

West: Currently, we’re undertaking what’s probably the most significant change to both of our prevention and recovery services since WorkSafe came into existence about 30 years ago.

We’re heavily using data to influence our prevention activities as well as reinventing our services and experience for our injured workers. We’re really trying – particularly from a prevention perspective – to use those data insights to understand and really target those industries that we think are going to have the most likely prevalence of workplace injuries.

Like most organisations, over the last couple of years we’ve been trying to do all that whilst working remotely. Connecting people to our purpose and aligning them to the outcomes has been difficult, particularly as we’ve had new people that have started during that journey.

More recently, just finding the staff and the skills that we need for these massive changes has been a real challenge for us.


We’ve constantly had to rearrange our priorities, put things on the backburner, and become much more focused on the outcomes that we’re chasing. We’ve got a real mantra at WorkSafe about focusing on what will have the most impact on those outcomes.


FST Government: In terms of transformation serving front-end innovation, how are you creating more accessible and seamless customer-end touchpoints?

West: One thing we’re really focused on is making WorkSafe easier to deal with. Right now, we’re pushing hard to digitalise all our services, but it’s a work in progress.

We also acknowledge that we’re coming from a long way back.

For instance, while we’re increasingly putting things online, we are still using a mainframe. We’re currently doing a big transformation into Salesforce. But there’s a lot of integration that still needs to happen at the backend.

You can’t do everything at once – you’ve got to stage how you do it. At WorkSafe, you can now apply for licenses online. You can do your incident notifications online; we went really hard and quickly to stand up some Covid notifications when we needed to do that in the midst of the pandemic. And we’re now trialling online claim lodgements as we progress the task of developing a new claims service model and supporting technology. As we start to put things online, there are a number of implications for the back-end – for instance, our mainframe, when it was implemented 30 years ago, didn’t have gender-diverse responses; as we start to put things online, we need to meet accessibility and gender diversity requirements that don’t integrate well into the old systems.


FST Government: You note WorkSafe is still dependent on its mainframe. Is the goal ultimately to go all-in on cloud?

West: 100 per cent. And it’s a process we’re now working through.

Looking at WorkSafe, we’ve got our prevention arm, or our health and safety business, and our claims or our insurance business. Over the last couple of years, we’ve migrated all our inspectors across from a legacy system onto the new Salesforce CRM. The intention is to do the same for the insurance side and move everybody onto the same CRM platform.

This is not about replicating the way that we currently provide services for injured workers in a new system; there needs to be a whole reinvention of the process of providing services to injured workers.


It’s more than just a technology transformation – there’s a whole product and service transformation that needs to occur at the same time.

While there are a lot of complications moving off legacy systems that have been in existence for 30 years, we’re working our way through that and it’s going really well. The first step, as mentioned, is doing claims lodgement online; this is undergoing trials with the hope we’ll have it up and running later this year.


FST Government: Of course, WorkSafe is not alone in its dependence on a longstanding mainframe, with even many tech-forward businesses struggling to shake this legacy infrastructure.

West: And the longer you leave it, the harder, the riskier and more expensive it becomes. And that’s always been a bit tricky with government, because there’s been a lack of willingness to take on some of those big, expensive, and risky technology projects.

Governments are in a real bind right now about how much risk their organisations can take on and how much money an agency can spend.


That’s often why some of these mainframes persist – they’re simply too expensive to replace. That’s really been one of our key learnings: Don’t go to the Board and ask for a business case to replace the mainframe with a bill in the tens of millions of dollars. You’ve got to talk about the services that are going to be improved as a result of this new technology, how it’ll reinvent the organisation, and the way that you provide services in a whole new paradigm. It’s not just about doing the same thing with a new system and spending millions of dollars to get there.


FST Government: Employee buy-in is of course key to any transformation program’s success. How have you appealed to your holdouts, ensuring all employees are ‘fellow travellers’ in your transformation journey?

West: As I mentioned, it’s that connection to purpose. We’re lucky being that we’re a very purpose-driven organisation; our people are here because they’re invested in our purpose of reducing workplace harm and improving outcomes for injured workers – it’s our core value proposition.

We’re a government organisation located in Geelong. Can you go and work somewhere else and get paid more? Sure. Can you have an impact on the Victorian community by doing the work that you do here? Probably not.

As a result, we’ve received 80 per cent employee engagement in our employee satisfaction scores.


That score’s even higher in some of those enabling functions like IT. People are here because they want to contribute to the health, safety and well-being of Victorians. And we continue to reinforce the messaging of that through all of our communications, what we celebrate in staff events, and the stories that we tell are all linked to that purpose.


FST Government: Speaking of pride in one’s work, what is one digital initiative you’ve been particularly proud to have delivered at WorkSafe?

West: Recently, I was particularly proud of the transition from being an in-office-based organisation to working remotely. That might seem somewhat run of the mill, but with fewer than two days’ notice, we transferred the whole organisation to working remotely – and that was never part of our crisis management plan! We had to stand up infrastructure really quickly, test everything, and make sure everyone had the right equipment and was updated with their patches. The work from our helpdesk support to stand up that additional infrastructure – but also the support that they gave our staff and then the rest of the organisation that really wrapped around that, providing equipment out to homes if we needed to and ergonomic assessments – was remarkable. It really changed the approach of our services and, within a couple of days, it changed the whole way that we provide services ongoing.

We now work in this hybrid environment. Our people recognise that they can do these things remotely.

It’s fundamentally changed the way the organisation works.


And the whole process has been pretty seamless which, I think, has been a really significant achievement.


FST Government: And will hybrid be the norm from here on for WorkSafe?

West: It will. We’re looking at having people in the office three days a week. Previously, apart from our inspectors in the field, we were in-office five days.

The shift recognises that personal connection and collaboration really make up the fabric of the organisation; we want to make sure that we retain that. But we also recognise that the world’s changed and people want greater flexibility in the way they work. And we’ve now got the technology that supports that.


FST Government: How is WorkSafe progressing with the implementation of the priorities of the Victorian Government’s Digital Strategy 2021-2026?

West: Before I was doing this job, I was the CIO of the Transport Accident Commission (TAC) and WorkSafe, where we run a shared IT department. We’d already implemented what we called an ‘IT Enablement Plan’, which, again on my point before, was about enabling the purpose of the organisation. That was done before the Government’s Digital Strategy was released.

However, once it was released, we did an assessment against the Digital Strategy and found that it was already really closely aligned with a lot of shared goals, shared priorities, and shared outcomes.

In fact, the design principles and guidelines that were in that digital strategy were almost the exact same points that we made in ours – they were just expressed slightly differently – and we’ve effectively been working towards those priorities for some time.


We’ve recently moved to turn off some legacy tools; when implementing new technology such as our CRM, this is something we hadn’t done particularly well in the past. Our inspections tools are a really good example of that; this was previously on an old Lotus Notes database written internally some time ago – the centrepiece of how our inspectors did inspections. We’ve since now moved that to the CRM.

But it’s not just about moving what we did in the old tool into the new tool; it’s about a fundamental change in the way that inspectors interact with people out on-site and the way that they use the tools and the data that they’re collecting as well, ensuring we can use that down the track for things that we haven’t been able to use before, which is also great.


FST Government: On the point of data, WorkSafe has access to a growing repository of high-value data assets (notably, personal claims history and claims management data).

How are you leveraging – and what systems do you have in place to leverage – this data to enhance service delivery and, potentially, further personalisation of front-line services? 

West: Improved use of data really underpins all our strategic objectives. We understand the goldmine of data that we’re sitting on; the problem is that lot of it has been tied up in these disparate systems.

We previously bought some of that into an old-style data warehouse, which back in the day was acceptable.

But we’ve now got new capabilities and expectations that have advanced so quickly that we’re now very much aware that we need a new way to leverage that data, opening up new possibilities in ways that we’ve never considered before.


We’re now changing our prevention activities: we’re using that data to now be able to predict the number of workplace injuries we think are going to happen in certain industries or certain workplaces, which then drives where we’d send our strategic workplace inspections. We can then look at that data and track the success of our intervention. This is V1.0 of our targeted activity, which will be refined and continue to get better. But these are the use cases we’re leveraging our data for now that we simply couldn’t before.

I also spoke about the fact that the inspectors are now using the CRM out in the field, not only collecting more data but also capturing it in a much more structured way. This means we can use it more effectively than the very rudimentary text-based comments that were being placed in the system before – data that was so difficult for us to mine. That’s all coming together now to the point where we’re making massive strides in the way that we’re using data in that prevention activity.

We’re also, starting to move into the claim space as well, with the intention of being able to use the data we’ve got to better inform recovery outcomes for injured workers.


On the point of tools, we’re also implementing a data hub and we’re using Qlik to visualise our datasets. We’re starting to get to the point now where we can put some of those QliK tools in the hands of the broader organisation – currently, we’ve got a centralised data team to handle a lot of that, which can prove a bit of a bottleneck as the organisation thirsts for data. The ability to visualise that data using Qlik and get that into the hands of our subject matter experts is the next step for us, which I expect will happen over the next three or four months, a fantastic development.


FST Government: Is there any prospect of opening up that data to agencies outside of WorkSafe?

West: I’ve been chatting with our Chief Data Analytics officer about this possibility. Open data is one of the goals of government, and we’re certainly keen to be part of that.

We can see advantages in sharing our data, but we can also see massive advantages in sharing other people’s data for our workers. It goes both ways. We had some great success throughout Covid in being able to better leverage data across agencies to help the safety initiatives underway at the time.


FST Government: Looking more broadly now, what one emerging technology has the most transformational potential in government?

West: My unfortunate answer to this is I don’t think there’s one. There’s no real silver bullet; it’s really a combination of things.

One thing I can say, though: in government, we can’t keep throwing people at problems. We need to be able to leverage systems and data to direct people towards areas that have the most impact.


There’s a whole range of things that we need to be able to do; it’s about having the right platform, about collecting the right data, about using that data, and then also about engaging the whole organisation in that change process. It’s all well and good having the right platforms and tools, but if the organisation as a whole isn’t looking at how they use those tools more effectively, finding greater efficiencies where they can strip out waste, then we’re wasting our time.

This is one of the most fundamental things from a government perspective, particularly as we start to come out of Covid. Governments everywhere have borrowed a lot of money to get us through to this point. The amount of money that’s there now won’t be there in the future. So, we’ve got to focus on stripping out waste in organisations and pointing the precious resources that we’ve got at the right problems.

This brings me to another point, which is probably one of the biggest risks that all tech programs – particularly government tech programs – are facing right now, and that’s the cost of doing technology projects. And while it’s not necessarily a brand new problem, it’s been exacerbated by the pandemic. There’s a real risk, particularly as governments emerge from Covid and belts are tightening, that getting access to dollars is going to become a lot harder, but at the same time, the cost of doing these technology projects is going up.


FST Government: Do you think then this is encouraging that push for a CapEx over an OpEx spending model, which is increasingly being touted by vendors?

West: Vendors are slightly ahead of us in understanding this, because that’s where their revenue comes in. You’ll often see these conversations where they’ll be pushing CapEx at one point and OpEx at another depending on the environment.

Whichever way it’s packaged, you still need to look at the overall cost. You’re paying contractors daily rates which adds up over time. Vendors’ costs are also increasing. This was an issue pre-Covid as well, but the current financial environment we’re all finding ourselves in, particularly from a government perspective is challenging.

We’re also competing against large commercial organisations for a scarce number of resources, with their costs also spiralling. We’re going to be at a distinct disadvantage unless we can do something fundamentally different.


This is a space where vendors need to get a bit smarter in terms of not just selling products, but also selling why a particular product is important for the specific outcome of an organisation. Vendors, as such, need to put in more effort to understand the unique needs of an organisation to drive those productivity outcomes. No longer is it enough to focus on products; it’s about the value.

Ashley West will be a featured panellist at the upcoming FST Government Victoria 2022, exploring what it takes to build a responsive, resilient, and connected government organisation.