The importance of information sharing – Dr. Shikha Sharma, Director of Business Improvement and Technology, Chief Information Officer and Chief Data Officer for the South Australian Department of Human Services

As the Director of Business Improvement and Technology, Chief Information Officer and Chief Data Officer for the South Australian Department of Human Services, Dr. Shikha Sharma has been driving digital transformation, data collaboration and technology evolution across the state. 

We sat down with Dr. Sharma in the lead up to the FSTGovernment South Australia Think Tank she will be speaking on, and discussed process improvement, the security of collaboration and importance of information sharing. 

 FSTGov: Digital Transformation has been a priority for the South Australian government for almost a decade, however the last couple of years have accelerated the need for digital tools, programs and services. How has the Department of Human Services adapted to meet these sudden changes in citizen, workforce and organisational needs? 

 Sharma: With COVID, obviously digital transformation has increased a lot and there’s a lot more requirement for it, all across the DHS. There’s a lot more noise around things not working, and we need digitisation and everything. Two years back the Department of Human Services amalgamated the BI and the business technology teams together to create a much bigger portfolio of the team so that we can use more evidence-based decision making and more data in terms of where we should be focusing. Because there is so much to do and very not enough budget and resources to do everything. So how can we focus on the most critical and biggest priority things first. And to do that we needed obviously a lot more evidence and data. So, the BI team, the analysis and improvement team were amalgamated with business technology team, and we created a business improvement and technology team to tackle that. Since then, I’ve been leading the business improvement and technology team as a director and what I have been doing is working a lot in developing the IT and strategic direction for the department. Ensuring that we are aligning the resources where we can get the most benefit. 

The other thing is that we haven’t done a big digital transformation piece across the whole department. What we have done is that we have taken one thing at a time, and it’s not really one but four or five across the department, and deliver it well, and use the lesson learned to deliver the next thing. So that’s the iterative process of improving our learning based on what we have done and what we are doing. There’s not a lot of lessons learned across the public sector because everyone is in the same boat. Everyone is trying their, trying their best and that the business is also taking part in that transformation. 

And it’s not done, we are leading it from a technical perspective, but we are also taking the business along the journey so that they can also understand what is happening. Because with individual transformation, the biggest thing is you can bring new technology and new services, but if your business is not ready and your employees are not ready to use that technology, then it’s wasted because people are not using it properly. That has been our main thing, working alongside the business, developing a strategic direction and strategic plan and amalgamating across the department so that we can leverage on each other’s skill set more and have bigger teams to leverage the budget and resources better. 

FSTGov: One of the biggest obstacles for Transformation projects is reluctance and hesitation to these new platforms, systems and programs. How has the Department dealt with this and what are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learnt that have changed how the Department operates? 

Sharma: One other thing that we have done in the past three or four years, is to develop an executive committee, which is kind of a subcommittee to the executive leadership team. It’s recently been named the System Support and Corporate Committee and all the IT related decisions for the DHS are taken by that committee. And our CEO, deputy CEO, executive directors, and I are making decisions for the whole department. So, it is not being made at a business unit level or at an IT level, it is being made at really at the top. What that is helping us to do is that from the start, there is now a lot of engagement between business improvement and technology. 

So, with the ASK website or the Pavely app or Family Safety Portal, we are working with really different teams on these three apps and a website. But the methodology has been pretty much similar in all of them, there is an idea that can come from us or from the business, then that idea is taken into the committee. And we then have a brainstorming session on whether that’s a good idea for the department to go ahead with or not. And if we say OK let’s try, let’s explore, then we look at it again in terms of what the budget would look like, how the work will happen, who will do what part of the work. 

We do regular monthly reporting back to the committee about what’s happening with those ideas. So, we are creating a method around how we are doing the digital transformation across DHS so that there is better engagement at the top, and there’s better engagement at the ground level. If the project is really big, for example we have recently changed the rostering system across the department, and it has been a really big project. We had changes that has impacted 1800 employees in the department and a lot of those employees are frontline disability workers who are not sitting in front of the computers all the time. Their digital literacy would be at a lower scale compared to other people who are working in the corporate environment. So, we’ve done it really successfully and it has just been rolled out in September.  

And we did the same lesson learned process there from the beginning. The project was approved then the budget was allocated, and the project ran at the business unit level. That’s another change that we have made. So, we are not leading the project, but we are leading the technical component of the project. What we are doing is we have a technical lead that is working alongside the business project manager and then we are working a lot on change management as well. How do we take the employees along the journey with us, and all the projects are being closed with lessons learned that are then taken on and used for following work that we are doing. 

Another thing that is different, is transitioning to BAU is now a thing. Previously what would happen is that there would be a lot of enthusiasm to do a project or to do a program of work or change in technology but when it was time to close off, the excitement and enthusiasm tapers off and people don’t know who’s doing what. And then suddenly the project is sitting on top of everyone’s BAU and they don’t know what happens in the BAU world. But now we are planning for the BAU way before the project is finished. So, we are starting to talk about what would happen for example, with the rostering system that I’m talking about, it is closed off as a project, but now we are continuing the steering committee because now we are developing a BAU model of the project. So, what part of the new rostering system is the technology team responsible for, what part is the business responsible for, who will be the vendor contact person, who is the product owner. There is a lot more clarity around roles and responsibilities and a bit more investment, I would say, upfront in the project is happening as compared to what we used to do in the past. 

 FSTGov: How do you ensure people are trained and comfortable using these new technologies, systems and tools? 

 Sharma: That is something that we are working on right now. There are two main things that we put in our strategic plan. One is technology adoption models, and the other is the business readiness model. So, we don’t have a similar kind of framework around this, but we are working towards it, so I’ll give an example. We have recently moved to virtual call centres and have changed all the call centres across DHS. In the process of that, when my team was closing of the project, I said to them, are we comfortable? Then everyone started using the virtual call centre and they said, yeah, everyone except one team that is not comfortable, and they don’t like using it because they love the previous system. So, we can’t close the project. I need a hundred percent people on the system before we close off, which meant that the team asked, how do we make sure that those people who are not using it, are able to start using it. So, there were like 20 – 25 people who were not comfortable using the new system, which meant that someone from the team had been sitting with them for a month helping them and holding hands with them. And until we had a hundred percent adoption, we didn’t close off the project. But now what we are doing is developing a framework that helps us with that technology adoption really early on.  

I would also say that people have been a bit better at adopting technology compared to their work two years or three years back because of COVID, as a lot of people had to work from home. They had to learn to do things online and in a digital way. And there is a bit of curiosity and a lot more questions coming from the employees asking, why am I doing it in this way? Is there a better way to do this? So, IT is both ways, I think employees themselves have become a lot more vigilant and they want to learn new things and learn new technology. However, from the technology teams and business perspective, we do not have enough resources to take all of them in that journey.  

With some of the recent projects what we have done is we’ve taken prototypes and helped the team learn the prototype. We haven’t waited for the whole thing to roll out and develop and implement it and then see whether people are using it or not. We’re starting to bring them on board from the beginning, when we are in the prototype and developing stage, and employees are coming during the testing period and testing things with us so that they understand a little bit more for bigger projects like changing the rostering system.  

What we have done with the business is having some champions along the line because a lot of the disability workers are not working in an office. They are working in homes across the whole state, and we have 250 homes and there might be 10 to 12 workers working in each. So, it’s not easy to train those people who are not in a central location. You cannot get them all at the same time cause they’re on a 24/7 rostering system. What we have done for those employees is we have created champions in between who can understand the technology a bit better, and we are doing a lot more work even after we close off the project, ensuring that everyone knows how to use the technology. I have found generally we are finding that employees want to use new technology and want to learn things because that’s making their lives better. 

With the new rostering system, for instance, if they are using the online system, they can pick up more shifts which is an incentive for them, if they learn it, they pick more shifts, they are earning more. Similarly, if they are using new technology, their workload is reducing, or they can work from home or can work flexibly. For example, with the virtual call centre, the biggest benefit for the employees was that they were not able to work from home throughout the covid because we didn’t have the capability for them to work. So, they had to come all through covid, but now with the virtual call centre, they can work from home, and they have more flexibility. So, using those incentives with the employees encourages them and motivates them to use new technology. 

 FSTGov: The Department of Human Services has many projects and programs that require collaboration and sharing with organisations in the public and private sectors. What have been the biggest triumphs and challenges when working with these other organisations? 

 Sharma: I think as a whole sector we can do better in terms of sharing information generally. It is a little bit hard to sometimes get the information that you need on time. There’s a lot of work to do there. I’m part of the SA Chief Data Office and network and part of the Chief Information Office and network. And we have been discussing how we can make data sharing and sharing of resources, technology and lessons learnt and all of that easier. I think some of the work that even like what FST is doing with conferences that are coming to SA have really helped us in terms of learning about what others are doing. 

Last time I presented at the Innovation SA conference I got so many calls and so many people pinged on LinkedIn as well, wanting to know how we have done certain things. So, some connections have been made through that and that’s one of the things that’s I really like about being part of these things is you get the platform to share what you are doing. Otherwise, you’re so busy in your day-to-day work that you really don’t have time unless someone asks you what you have done about something. I’m representing DHS in conferences, so whenever someone contacts me, and if I can do it, I always say yes. 

We are participating a lot in cross collaborative government, working group committees and other things so that we can share things with each other. But as I said, we can still do a lot better in terms of the whole public sector in how we are utilising information with each other. The biggest hurdle I think is legacy systems because the systems are so old, and some technologies are so old and it’s very expensive to change them. And some of them are embedded deeply into the work and are frontline services so, you can’t really change them. So, information sharing becomes very hard as well even if you have all the good intention to do it, you just don’t have the right technology to share things.  

The other one I would say is we have, as government agencies, we have MOAs with each other, like memorandum of whatever they call it. And usually what happens is the government agencies pay each other through that MOA and I feel like that that’s something we should look at as government. Like why are we paying each other when it’s government money in the end, whether that money goes in whichever organisation’s pocket in the end it’s SA budget. So, we can do better than doing these MOAs and in sharing information with each other and sharing technologies with each other. 

 FSTGov: Some of these projects handle very sensitive citizen data, how does the department ensure its safety and security? 

 Sharma: We take safety and security very seriously for all the information that is being collected. Right from the start of the project, one of the things that we are really focusing on is ensuring that we have done the penetration testing on all the systems that are coming into the organization and on the vendors that we are taking on board. We have created very detailed questionnaires and other things for the vendors to apply to us as part of the procurement and as part of the tendering. So, we have a separate cybersecurity assessment framework for the different stages of the project, right from when we are in the process of tendering to the contract negotiation to when the contract awarded and after that all the systems go through numerous penetration testing to ensure that they are safe from any breach that can happen.  

We are doing this for the new systems, but even for the systems which are already in the organisation. We are continuously monitoring them, and we are also developing 12-month risk and governance frameworks around all of them. So, that we can secure the information and data that is coming. Any vendor that we are providing the contract to are usually from the SA government panel, so they have already gone through strict cybersecurity assessments. Then we do our own as well when they are touching our systems and within the organisation, we have changed all our policies, we have made them a lot stricter. We have had MFA adoption across all the systems.  

We are also moving towards single sign on with all the new systems to reduce the workload for my team because they don’t have to now set passwords for a hundred different systems. It’s lot safer because now there is only one entry point for everyone, and it is easier for the employee to exit them out of the system. So, we are moving lot more into the single sign on all our systems that are coming new as well as looking at all the old systems. One other thing that we are working on is enterprise architecture as an organisation which DHS didn’t really focus on in the past but, now we have 10 or 12 principles that have been agreed at an executive level that we use for all our IT investment. 

Some of those principles directly talk about our cyber security and the requirements that any new system would have to meet before we take them into consideration and reducing the number of systems we have. So, anytime we are bringing in a new system, for example, we are changing our financial ground management system this year, which is a big project that we are about to start, and at the start of the project itself, we are looking at all the systems that do a similar function in the organisation because we don’t want four different systems in the organisation doing similar things. So how can we wrap them up and reduce the number of systems, and number of vendors across the organisation. Because it becomes harder and harder as you keep adding more point-based solutions. So, reducing the number of systems and solutions across the organisation means that we have a much smaller footprint in terms of the number of technologies or number of vendors that we must manage, and we can more securely manage them. 

 FSTGov: You’ll be speaking at the upcoming FSTGov South Australia Executive Think Tank. What do you hope to share, hear and discuss with your public sector peers? 

 Sharma: What I have learned from my last two years as a director for the technology team in DHS is it’s really important to bring your executive as well as your employees along the journey for any digital transformation that we are doing. Having a good strategic understanding of where we are heading and not jumping onto the solutions straight away. So, what is the value that we are trying to drive? What is the value outcome we are going to get? And your value outcome won’t always be financial, but it needs to be business driven as well. So obviously finance is important but having the value because that value is what connects the business. And once you have that connected network of the business and the strategy, the culture and employees and your executive at the top are believing in your strategy and your vision, then I think a lot more can be achieved in very short span of time.  

In last two years within DHS itself, we have done amazing work across the department and it’s unbelievable the number of systems we have changed and honed successfully. Like at any given point in time, we are working on at least six transformation programs which are big pieces if you see them individually, but we are doing successfully by having right methodologies in place and trying and testing that again and again, and using that lesson learned every time we are starting the new work. So, I would like to discuss that.