“You can’t kumbaya your way though it,” says Paul Shetler, the former head of Australia’s Digital Transformation Office, about the task of bringing an organisation or government into the 21st Century.
Shetler, who previously worked for the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS) and Ministry of Justice, was reflecting on how a brutal approach to change was necessary when confronted by management resistance and a recalcitrant bureaucracy.
I had the opportunity to interview Shetler two weeks ago with part of that discussion being published on Diginomica. One of his key points is when driving a transformation, consensus is the first casualty.
“In the UK, we didn’t focus on consensus we focused on getting things done. When I first met with Francis Maud he said ‘this is not a change management process – this is transformation.’”
However to drive such change forcefully strong leadership is needed and Shetler emphasised that one of the great drivers for digital transformation at the UK’s Ministry of Justice was having a committed and powerful minister.
“One of the major reasons why the UK was a successful as they were was because Francis Maude was the minister for five years… It became clear he was going to see this through and if you were going to fight, you were going to lose. People got into line.”
Ultimately a lack of strong leadership is why the Australian DTO failed, with the country’s political culture seeing ministers rotated out of positions on a regular basis – the Innovation portfolio is seeing its fourth minister in 18 months – it’s almost impossible for any leader, however forceful, to drive meaningful change.
This raises the question of whether some organisations can culturally handle change, it may well be that some institutions are impervious to change given the nature of their management structures and the people that lead them.
Australian taxpayers may hope that their public service isn’t an institution that resists change but Paul Shetler’s experience is a worrying warning.