11 August 2023

Public service too policy-focused when it comes to IT, says Shorten

| Chris Johnson
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Bill Shorten

Government Services Minister Bill Shorten says IT service delivery should be user-centric. Photo: File.

Government Services Minister Shorten has called on the public service to embrace a user-first approach to delivering services in the digital era.

Addressing Canberra’s Tech in Government conference this week, Mr Shorten suggested government services would increasingly be dominated by IT, but a rethink was needed in how technology is developed for mass consumption.

He said the public service wasn’t good at placing the user at the forefront of service delivery.

An overemphasis on policy, he said, wasn’t really best practice.

“Siloed thinking between policy and implementation can act as a barrier to putting the user first,” the minister said.

“Policy is important. We need people to think about how to deliver a government’s agenda.

“But implementation is equally important or government simply doesn’t work.

“Somewhere along the way, the intellectualism of policy development has been elevated to a position of superiority over the practicality of implementation.

“In the public service, I feel the policy people have had an aura of superiority over those with the mechanics of implementation.

“That thinking can lead to disaster. And yet, starting with implementation means starting with the user.”

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Where the government was falling down was in attracting the right people with the skills to implement IT policy.

“It then follows that government needs to invest, not just in tech, but in tech people,” Mr Shorten 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, when our tech should be mission-driven.

“Because 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.”

The minister cited current research from global digital transformation consulting company Publicis Sapient, which recently released its Australian Digital Citizen Report 2023.

It surveyed more than 5000 participants from a broad range of demographics in December 2022.

“The research concluded that Australia’s digital government ambitions are heading in the right direction but better collaboration across tiers of government is crucial to understand the scope and quality of service delivery,” Mr Shorten said.

“The report stressed human-centric designs must be at the core of further improvements to public service delivery, a non-negotiable element that must underpin all our offerings and a point I emphasise to my own agency of Services Australia.”

The minister’s speech comes just two weeks after his agency wrote off a $191 million investment into the Infosys project overseeing the entitlement calculation engine (ECE) for Centrelink payments.

Region first flagged the massive issues with ECE in February, saying that while it was meant to be the ultimate in working out just how much to pay someone seeking welfare benefits, it simply wasn’t working.

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Infosys won the lucrative government contract in 2019 to develop the new ECE to replace how calculations were working within the legacy program Income Security Integrated System (ISIS).

But it was all downhill from there, with the government never confident enough to turn the extremely complicated and antiquated ISIS off.

‘Modern’, ‘flexible’ and ‘rules based’ were all words associated with the ECE, which by simply being based on legislation and business rules, would apparently calculate the amount of Centrelink pension support someone should get.

Yet despite Services Australia bureaucrats appearing before successive estimates hearings with prepared excuses for a number of years as to why ECE wasn’t yet in full flight, the simple fact is, it was a mess.

Making the announcement at a separate government services summit in Canberra two weeks earlier, Mr Shorten confirmed that ECE wasn’t able to deliver.

“We still have nothing to show for it,” he said.

“I can announce … that Services Australia has taken the decision 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.”

Original Article published by Chris Johnson on Riotact.

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