“The pendulum has perhaps swung too far to the risk-averse or ‘conservative’ end of the spectrum, potentially stifling [government] agencies’ capacity to flourish through innovation.”
A veteran of the WA Government’s technology ecosystem, Christian Rasmussen has been a constant and reassuring presence in the state’s longstanding digital uplift program. While Rasmussen’s most recent government appointment was with WA’s Health Support Services agency, it was his leading role in the state’s tertiary sector that defined his approach and optimism around the public sector’s potential to be a bleeding-edge innovator.
Speaking with FST, the newly appointed Executive Director of IT at St John Ambulance WA and conference chair of the upcoming FST Government Western Australia 2022 event, weighs in on WA’s recently updated technology and digital innovation roadmap, and offers his thoughts on why the university sector provides an ideal model of digital innovation for the wider government sector, and why unfounded fears have stymied governments’ ability to establish a rapid, iterative and innovation-friendly development ecosystem – one that has been embraced by many tech-centric corporates.
FST Government: While you’ve also had an extensive career in the private sector, you’ve been drawn back time and again to government, serving in several senior technology roles across WA’s public sector – most recently at Lotterywest and WA’s Health Support Services, but also in the tertiary education sector.
What in particular has drawn you to the public sector tech space?
Rasmussen: My initial foray into government was early in my career, as a programmer working on mainframes at the Department of Defence. I then spent several years in the private sector, including working for several global multinational IT vendors. It was through a relationship I’d built with the University of Western Australia (UWA), who was one of our customers, that led to an opportunity for me to join them. This fairly soon led to a leadership role.
I’d engaged a lot with universities during my time with PeopleSoft and had come to see them as compelling ecosystems of innovation and opportunity, particularly in their use of technology to enhance both back-end operations as well as front-line student services.
This was almost 20 years ago; at the time, the technology wasn’t quite where it needed to be to really impact student outcomes – apart from the early work being done to record lectures for students to access on-demand (of course, within the constraints of the internet back then). After UWA, I then dipped back into the private sector for several years until the opportunity to head up Curtin University’s transformation program. Curtin, thankfully, was quite willing to innovate and experiment with technology.
I could see the challenges that the industry was facing from competition outside of the traditional university sector.
New and exciting platforms were emerging in the higher education ecosystem, with end-user technologies that could directly improve student outcomes.
I spent almost six years at Curtin kick-starting the transformation of their IT team and implementing changes to the student experience, including the introduction of a mobile app – a service that obviated the need for students to access multiple back-end systems via clunky, fragmented legacy platforms. Transformation, you quickly learn, is an enduring journey, like continuous improvement.
FST Government: What have been some of your other career highlights?
Rasmussen: Building the leadership team at Curtin and seeing the changes that we achieved to support student learning outcomes have been among the most satisfying achievements of my career so far.
Among my other career highlights was the work I did at Lotterywest to improve their support arrangements and vendor relations with their main gaming platform provider (which, at the time, was not in good shape), and to get that back onto a very positive footing, thereby enabling it to run far more efficiency – a platform that is so critical to the overall revenue generated by the state for the good of the WA community.
It was also an opportunity to experiment with blended teams, establishing a joint agile development team that was part Lotteries business unit and part IT business unit staff.
This new structure enabled Lotterywest to rework its ageing mobile app. While this may not sound that monumental, for our organisation to have a completely blended apps development team driving its own timelines and delivering outcomes in weeks – ones that previously would have taken months if not years – was quite a proud achievement for me. That was delivered jointly with my peer EGM of the Lotteries business unit and was proof to me that innovation can certainly occur within government.
FST Government: In the context of your roles traversing the public and private sectors, as well as in consultancy, paint us a picture of how you see the WA Government’s digital innovation ecosystem.
What are some of the challenges, and perhaps unique opportunities, emerging from WA’s digital transformation program?
Rasmussen: I certainly see a lot of innovation coming out of Australia’s university sector, particularly in WA. There are a handful of universities, including Curtin and Deakin, that put a lot of energy into digital innovation and partnering with industry for better outcomes.
To my surprise, when I joined Lotterywest and was looking at ways to innovate and transform how we worked (including the work I previously mentioned on apps development using Agile) we ended up looking to Racing and Wagering (R&W) WA as well as Keystart (a private lending provider wholly owned by the WA Government’s housing authority) to better understand how innovation could be done in a government context. This helped us to map out Lotterywest’s digital agenda.
In the case of Keystart, they’d started in IT and had enabled innovation to spread throughout the entire organisation, completely reengineering how they worked.
One of the big challenges that government agencies face is the self-doubt that some of these innovative practices and technologies can be effectively adopted within an agency.
That feeling was there at the start within Lotterywest, but through the joint leadership of the Lotteries and ITC divisions, we worked through it and managed to start making changes across parts of the business. Not all of these changes are about technology, of course. Digital technology implementations often fail because they’re either solving the wrong problem or the organisation has not adapted the way it works to realise a benefit from the technology. Changing work practices, culture and digital technologies all need to be done in a coordinated and well-thought-out way.
Another challenge for government is the fear of failure. Experimentation is a key component of innovation, and with experimentation inevitably comes failure as well as reward!
High risk-aversion in government is a big drag on rapid innovation and change; there needs to be a better balance between managing risks (and in some cases, the fear of corruption) with an innovation-friendly ecosystem.
This is just a personal observation: the pendulum has perhaps swung too far to the risk-averse or ‘conservative’ end of the spectrum, potentially stifling agencies’ capacity to flourish through innovation.
I encourage state governments to learn from how higher education institutions – not only in WA, but around the country – have formed innovative partnerships with commercial entities without sacrificing good governance.
Skilled technology resources are also an issue for WA; this can, to an extent, be overcome by partnering with industry or using commercial services that have access to these resources in other jurisdictions or even worldwide.
I recently did some consulting work with a start-up, and their teams are based where they can find the resources they need. Government obviously can’t do that, but we can certainly partner with service providers that do.
Another big hindrance for government is that some larger agencies, like Health, have massive legacy systems that are difficult to keep running, let alone replace, due to cost. This becomes an obstacle to change as these systems force staff to use dated work practices and what’s more they consume a lot of resources.
FST Government: How then does the public sector’s innovation ecosystem compare to that of the corporate world? Are there any lessons government can take from the private sector to become more digitally innovative and improve front-line services?
Rasmussen: There are certainly things both government and private sector organisations can learn from each other; of course, not all private organisations are innovation hotbeds and not all government agencies are immovable objects.
However, from my experience (apart from the higher education sector) I have certainly seen more innovation in the private sector. Again, one thing holding government agencies back, especially in WA, seems to be the extra controls that have been put in place to try to minimise potential corruption.
One of the tenets of agile innovation and experimentation is being able to do things quickly – to try it out, and if it fails, drop it and try something else. Given government funding models and concerns over the perception of how public money is spent (and rightly so!), it makes that type of an approach an extremely difficult one.
Government funding is typically geared towards formal business cases with defined benefits, and that’s just not how agile innovation works. Agile is, of course, an iterative approach, experimenting your way to the best solution by building small pieces in the design – something that may change several times along the way. This is very hard to outline upfront in a business case.
However, there are agencies and teams out there trying to find ways to innovate despite the constraints they face. WA’s Office of Digital Government (2.0) has also come a long way, and the digital strategy and the ideas behind it will certainly help government along the journey.
FST Government: The procurement process is often perceived to be mired in difficulties, with official audits uncovering persistent delays, insufficient transparency, and a lack of competition in the tender process.
What can be done to improve the government’s tech procurement process, ensuring tech providers and government are reaping the most from their partnerships?
Rasmussen: This is an area where I feel the state government could certainly learn a lot from the approach of Australian universities. There’s been a lot of good work done to put more streamlined procurement systems and partnerships in place in segments of industry today. However, these are typically around large-scale physical infrastructure services – and these are not areas where, typically, a lot of innovation happens for the customer.
Most innovation from a digital transformation perspective is in the arena of applications, artificial intelligence (AI), bots, data and digital services (notably in IoT) that utilise this infrastructure. This is an area that is severely constrained by cumbersome processes.
There are some exceptions, ironically created during the Covid pandemic, where WA Health has been able to achieve some quick and innovative digital outcomes due to being able to fast track approvals and processes. But the pandemic will end, and the bigger ticket problems will still be there. We’ll therefore need to find better ways of fostering innovation in a sustainable way in government.
FST Media: As chair of the upcoming FST Government WA conference (our first in-person event in WA for some time), what pain points, or perhaps opportunities, do you anticipate hearing from your peers?
Rasmussen: One of the big challenges, which has been ongoing for some time, is access to skilled workers, given competition with the private sector and the way the Australian economy has survived the pandemic.
These shortages should, in fact, provide greater focus for governments – one that enables them to provide effective services to customers, with perhaps fewer overheads, while enabling the available workforce to be used in a more efficient manner.
In terms of accessing technologies, given the state of global networks and ways of working remotely, this issue is probably more constrained by government processes and an appetite for truly innovative partnerships with industry (not just big contracts with strategic suppliers). If we can find some better ways of managing anti-corruption and governance practices that aren’t as stifling as where we’ve ended up now, that would also be helpful.
FST Government: The WA Government, under new ICT and Innovation Minister Stephen Dawson, recently outlined its priorities for the state’s 2021-25 Digital Strategy, offering what appears to be a more fleshed-out roadmap.
Overall, how do you rate the scope and focus of the roadmap?
Rasmussen: It’s great that we finally have a digital strategy for the state. There are some ambitious customer-centric priorities in the strategy, such as an objective that customers should only have to engage with one point of contact for several functions common to all agencies – for instance, for name or address changes. This is both ambitious and challenging.
If I look at health as one of the largest agencies in the state, that system is divided into regions (healthcare service providers, or HSPs). There is a high degree of fragmentation in the way records are kept across individual entities within an HSP, let alone across the whole of Health and extrapolating that further across the whole of government. This represents both a major opportunity as well as a mammoth challenge.
FST Government: Finally, what burgeoning digital government innovations or innovators most excite you right now?
Rasmussen: There are so many areas of note, but I find some of the work with virtual reality and AI particularly exciting. One project I rate particularly highly was the creation of a virtual reality 3D model of the wreck of the HMAS Sydney, led by Curtin University’s visualisation centre. Some of this work has led to the design of systems that could be used in the resource sector to help with remote engineering inspections.
In a broader sense, there needs to be close collaboration between industry and government to ensure the right ecosystem is developed, both for innovation within the government but also to sustain innovation within the state.
During my time at Curtin University, we undertook an innovation study tour to Denmark and Sweden to see how close collaboration between government and industry can foster innovation. For instance, Denmark has made legislative changes to its industrial laws to give start-ups and organisations wanting to experiment with digital innovation greater workforce flexibility. This has taken away a lot of the stigma around being hired and fired for short-term work – but, of course, one that is still underpinned by a very good social security net.
Denmark has been on a path of innovation with technology for a long time. Ever since the energy crisis of the 1970s, a lot of work has been done on technologies and systems that can help reduce power consumption on one side of the coin and help generate more power in a sustainable way for the other side. While this conference is not about the environment per se, this to me is a crystal-clear example of collaboration between government and industry on a number of fronts, including technology, that has an overarching benefit to society as a whole. ◼
We are privileged to welcome Christian Rasmussen as Chair of the upcoming FST Government Western Australia 2022 conference. As part of the event, we’ll explore reactions to and assessments of WA’s updated digital transformation agenda and roadmap, evolving data governance and sharing frameworks, and how WA’s health sector is grappling with the next wave of digital transformation.