Former CEO of the Digital Transformation Office Paul Shetler has slammed the government’s IT outsourcing bent, saying it has drained the public service of tech talent.
The government should instead build internal capabilities and emulate the likes of Facebook and Amazon, Shetler told the Senate Committee on Digital Delivery of Government Services this morning.
“Years of outsourcing to contractors and integrators have progressively deskilled the public service to the point that it lacks the digital and commercial skills needed to deliver services that citizens expect,” Shetler wrote in his submission to the committee.
“Government urgently needs to conduct capacity and capability planning for the future public service,” he said in the submission, co-authored by former senior digital advisor Jordan Hatch and former digital marketplace head Catherine Thompson.
According to the Community and Public Sector Union, which also appeared at the committee, the public service employs more than 14,000 IT personnel, of which close to a third are contractors. That share has grown from around a fifth five years ago.
“Reliance on vendors in turn further deskills the public service, to the point that it is not uncommon for public servants to seek advice from vendors about what they should be buying,” Shetler added.
Shelter was hand-picked by then communications minister Malcolm Turnbull to lead the government’s Digital Transformation Office in July 2015. Following a restructure and rebrand (to Digital Transformation Agency) in October 2016, Shetler was effectively demoted from chief executive officer to chief digital officer.
He resigned less than six weeks later.
Appearing before the committee today Shetler warned against continuing to outsource IT contracts, and recommended capability was built in house.
“Government should try to develop its own capabilities because, Facebook, Amazon, every one of these companies they don't outsource their stuff to IBM or Accenture or anyone like that. They make darn sure they can react in real-time to their understanding of what user needs are,” Shetler told the committee.
“That's how they survive. That's how they maintain competitive advantage. It's that speed and their ability to adapt. It means they have to control what they do. Government should be, and really must be, like anybody else that’s working in the digital world, open to practices and see what's working and doesn't work and be on the forefront wherever it can.”
A census of APS staff taken in 2015 found that 35 per cent had received no formal digital skills training at work.
Shetler urged the government to create “modern digital and technology professions” with competitive salaries and career prospects, to create a “genuinely compelling offer to work in digital or technology roles in the public service”
He also recommended a formal training and accreditation program – a ‘Digital Academy’ – once proposed by the DTO.
“It takes people from within the ranks, it takes people who understand why they’re in government in the first place, who actually have a mission for what they’re doing, who understand the existing operational problems and who also understand user issues – and trains them up as professionals,” he said.
A similar initiative by the UK government has improved the skills of 6,500 civil servants since it was launched in 2014.
According to the UK government, one of its Government Digital Service Academy courses was attended late last year by a representative of the Australian Public Service Commission. The Canadian government is also seeking to emulate the idea.
“It’s absolutely the best way to do it,” said Shetler.
A number of departments are already busy developing in-house IT skills.
In its submission, the Department of Human Service said it had established a skilled workforce over the last five years by recruiting more than 230 technologists, and running a major training programme. The department said it had, for example, one of the largest SAP trained workforces in the Asia-Pacific region with almost 500 APS staff now certified.
Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.