Governments are failing to make the best use of emerging technologies because they are working to unrealistic time frames that don’t address a period of co-existence between new and legacy technology and processes.
This is the view of Catherine Garner, who leads Accenture Australia’s Health and Public sector business. Garner told CIO Australia there are three barriers to the successful rollout of new technologies in government: an absence of in-house skills; lack of leadership; and legacy systems, processes and thinking.
Public trust in government services is continuing to waver as projects run over cost and behind schedule. Earlier this year, it was revealed that the Department of Human Services’ $104 million child support system was more than 12 months late and in disarray. Acting Commonwealth Ombudsman Richard Glenn last month highlighted poor project planning, system testing and risk management in the implementation of Centrelink’s online automated debt system.
“The three challenges that we see [for governments ] are around skills, leadership and legacy. To navigate today and in three months’ time where you want to be, ‘where’s the skills, where’s the leadership, where’s the understanding of the legacy to get you there?
“It’s getting the balance between those and not just swallowing the ‘kool aid’ from someone, [who says], ‘don’t worry, we’ll set up a new CRM and you can migrate all the data and it’s going to be straight through processing and it’s only going to take six months.”
Accenture’s recent ‘Emerging Technologies in Public Sector’ research found that only 18 per cent of Australian government agencies reported having machine learning skills, compared to 62 per cent in Germany, 53 per cent in the UK, and 52 per cent in the US.
Garner said that Australia governments – and private enterprises – have challenges with experience at all levels. They must develop in-house skills and recruit specialists in areas such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, and biometrics – and make these roles attractive to internal staff.
“There are also lots of people talking about leadership and making one line statements about it, but there are not many leaders who actually understand the critical parts of [technology transformations] to deliver something for citizens and employees. We’ve got to address the leadership tension around this,” said Garner.
“The third thing – the elephant in the room – is legacy. Legacy legislation, legacy systems, legacy processes, and legacy thinking. One of the things that my team and I are constantly reinforcing with our government and health clients is … there’s going to be a period of existence between emerging tech and what we have today with legacy technology and processes.
“The real challenge is not just saying, ‘we want everything new,’ the challenge is saying, ‘how do we manage the co-existence between where we are today, and where we will be in six and 12 months’ time, until we get everything to the new,” said Garner.
Addressing the skills shortage
Garner believes there needs to be broader thinking around how governments gain access to skills. She said running pilots, proof-of-concepts, and small projects will create more success.
“People tend to flock towards success and run away from failure. With these emerging technologies whether they be AI, robotics, process automation, or advanced analytics – collectively we need to create some showcases, show our kids, the people who are wanting employees in this industry that this is great stuff, that it’s got longevity and there are exciting careers to be had,” said Garner.
Changing the ‘risk-averse’ nature of government and public servants should also be at the top of the agenda, said Garner.
“This is why I am an advocate of doing things in bite-sized chunks because it’s okay to fail – as long as it hasn’t taken you three years and cost $50 million. If it’s taken you three months and you’ve always set out to understand what the risks are and what the issues are and you’ve made a calculated risk, then it’s okay for some of those things not to pay off.”