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Getting Hands-On with the Australian Digital Transformation Office

By Joanne Jacobs

The new building housing Australia’s first Digital Transformation Office at UTS is astounding. The clean lines. Efficiency of movement. It looks and it FEELS like the 21st Century has arrived and that we are living it. There is a murmur of conversation everywhere you turn – students walking to classes, collaborating in the open meeting spaces, beavering away at computer workstations. This is a space for living ideas, so it’s no surprise to find the DTO nestled here amongst the action. And taking those living ideas to the government and to the Australian people is the task ahead of CEO, Paul Shetler.

I am greeted by a long queue of people as I arrive at the DTO. We’re making a list and checking it twice – so it’s clear that Santa has arrived early this year. And while I am waiting, I’m suddenly struck by the reality of this “open house”. When was the last time – in fact – when was the first time – that a government department threw open its doors to reveal its inner workings.


[Tweet “When was the last time – in fact – when was the first time – that a government department threw open its doors to reveal its inner workings? Never”]

For the first time, the citizens are not just allowed, but welcomed, into the workings of bureaucracy. No wonder the room is abuzz. Crammed. It is literally standing room only.

The space is open in the centre with work spaces along the walls. Each of the spaces showcases the current active themes:

      • We’re working with the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, in collaboration with the Australian Tax Office, to grow the economy by helping Australians establish new businesses
      • We’re working with the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to improve processes for Australian businesses engaged in international trade
      • We’ll be teaming up with the Department of Human Services to transform the way approximately 600,000 citizens register for Medicare each year
      • We are working with state and territories, starting with the ACT Government, to transform services across all levels of government.

Inside each of these spaces are DTO team members explaining how the process works, the insight that has been yielded through the discovery stages and what happens next. It’s story-telling the process of government transformation in a very human way. One on one. For all its high tech sensibility, at the DTO, digital transformation is high touch.

Improving online government service delivery

The overarching goal is improving online government service delivery. It’s a huge task given that more than a million people a month experience a problem when looking up government information. The team has set a demanding agenda – nine weeks to “alpha” – designing a .GOV.AU prototype for how digital services should be delivered. The process is four phased – discovery, alpha, beta and live. Getting to alpha in nine weeks will be challenging. Luckily the DTO is drawing on the best local and international talent to drive the outcomes – the Open House was like a who’s who of the global UX community – Leisa Reichelt fresh from her stint at the UK’s version of the DTO, Ash Donaldson from Tobias & Tobias, Steve Baty from Meld Studios. ausdto

A guided tour to innovative thinking

Ushering the growing crowd into a meeting room, Paul Shetler explained the big picture plans and the practical activities of the DTO. “Our standard of service is increasingly defined by the commercial internet”, he explained. This means thinking big to solve problems, but transforming in slices. This strategy is evident in the user centred approach adopted by the DTO. After all, Paul explains, “at the beginning of a project we know the least about our subject”. Peppered with personal experience, Paul Shetler leads the packed room through some of the scenarios the team are focusing on. “Medicare enrolment?”. He lets the question hang in the air. “There has to be a better way”. Nods of agreement. Grunts. For a moment I half expected applause. But what Paul Shetler is doing, is laying the groundwork – explaining the problem domains that will be addressed by the DTO. By articulating the problems worth solving and explaining the framework that will be used to address the challenge, the DTO is hoping to rapidly achieve outcomes not by enforcement but through scale. The trick is to collaborate with departments and help them succeed.

Access and resources – transformation and open source

One of the most interesting admissions of the Open House was the government’s reliance and focus on open source. Open source is original software code that is made freely available for use, redistribution and modification. By making code, information and frameworks open source, it not only dramatically reduces the cost of development, it also makes it easy to iterate and improve. And the DTO is actively using this approach – building their code on previous work by other government departments around the world.

Not only is there a DTO Blog (how many government departments have a blog?), there is also a DTO GitHub repository and a GovHack Service Catalogue for easy access to government services as and when they become available.

The DTO has bolted out of the gates – but it’s not a one horse race. Done right, the DTO could be the catalyst for many races in many places – and now is the time for not only government to get hands-on with digital. It’s time we all did.

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