With the change in Prime Minister to Malcolm Turnbull there was always likely to be a shift in the prominence of digital and IT within government.
The new administrative arrangements released earlier this week demonstrated this clearly, with the Digital Transition Office moving from the Communications portfolio to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Gov 2.0 and open data functions moving from Finance also into the DPC.
This means little to the Australian public, who simply expect government to do its job well, but means a great deal within government itself. It is a very strong signal to Secretaries and their teams that digital transformation and open data are serious priorities for the current government and need appropriate attention, resourcing and support.
What’s also interesting is how these changes and others going on both publicly and behind closed doors in Canberra are about shifting the structures and cultures in Canberra towards a more collaborative, consultative and engaging one.
While signature government policies on asylum seekers, climate change and other key areas haven’t changed under Turnbull, or at least not yet (a matter of significant commentary on social media at the moment), I would argue that the structural changes that have been started are far more significant in terms of shifting how the Australian government functions in the long term.
Historically while policies have changed regularly, and often quickly, as governments are elected or react to circumstance and public views, the public service had been slower to adapt to 21st Century realities, held back by its legislative design and shape, its obligations and the cultures it has evolved over the decades.
To reboot how government operates, enable more innovative and relevant policy approaches and allow in widespread adoption of modern business practice it was always going to take more than changes in policy settings – an elected government had to be willing to reach deep into the gullet of the public sector and change its operations in a fundamental way.
Few governments have been prepared to do this in more than a cosmetic way, due to the challenges in changing such a large and complex beast which was actually performing well by global standards. However the system has been fraying at the edges for some time, with capability losses and rigid legacy approaches making it harder and harder for elected governments to implement their policy and create real positive change for Australians.
I have witnessed situations where agencies were incapable of implementing certain government policies, necessitating either shifts of responsibility or the creation of new agencies, as well as situations where Ministers and public servants found their capability to be productive was restricted, rather than enabled, by legacy IT systems and regulation which has grown like weeds over decades.
If the Turnbull government is serious about its intention to systemically change how government functions in Canberra, reshaping the role of the public sector in policy design, service delivery and rapid accountability, then one of its most significant legacies may be to future-proof the Australian government for the next century.
The structural change underway is not about rewinding government’s clockwork, but about replacing cogs with computer chips and agile digital programs.
It’s not just about connecting public servants to the wider community, but about letting the community lead and drive policy agendas, with the public sector as a expert facilitation support.
If this works it changes everything about how government works in Australia, though perceptual changes will take longer to be obvious to citizens.
These changes will take time. There will be fumbles and missteps and significant resistance both from internal and external players who enjoy the benefits of the failing status quo. Some resistance will be overt, but most will be covert, and often couched in supportive words but with no supportive activity. Some will be deliberate and calculated, but much will be instinctive or based on old world paradigms by people who simply haven’t grasped the realities of our changing world – particularly outside the Canberra bubble.
However if these changes do not occur, rebound with a subsequent government or are given lip service only due to being ‘too hard’, Australia will face a more frightening scenario. A scenario in which our governance structures fail to support Australians to be competitive in our changing world. Where we become a sunset economy of resources and agriculture and our most talented scientists and computer specialists leave for greater opportunities offshore, leaving Australians to buy our own successes at retail prices.
Events will tell us how serious Turnbull’s government will be – and how successful. However if the current government doesn’t succeed in this systemic change, the big question will be, who could?