Feb 132017
 

To say Paul Shetler’s stay in Australia has been controversial would be an understatement.

After leaving the UK’s Government Digital Service in 2015, Shetler was the founding CEO of the Australian government’s Digital Transformation office. He lasted 16 months before being managed out.

In January I interviewed Shetler where he discussed the relative differences between countries, the challenges facing those trying to digitally transform governments and large organisations along with some scathing observations about the management of the Australian Public Service.

Parts of this interview were the basis for separate articles in Diginomica and the Australian Financial Review however the entire conversations is worthwhile publishing.

Some of Shetler’s answers have been lightly edited for clarity.

How do we compare the digital transformation journey of different countries?

In terms of the UK, the Government Digital Service really has done a great job. If hadn’t been for GDS we wouldn’t be having the conversation we’re having in Australia today, much less in New Zealand, the United States and other countries.

Digital Transformation wouldn’t be on the table and an awful lot of the basic ideas on how you fix government IT by looking at structural reasons for behaviour rather than just saying “let’s make a nicer interface.” they were really good at identifying those things.

Britain was the pioneer. Every country in the naughties had their own digital strategy but the UK led the way. The US right now is a mess, they don’t really have a digital strategy.

How does the US look with the new Trump administration?

They do have a lot of potential there. I do think the new administration is more likely to do something big to fix things than perhaps the Obama Administration was, because they are talking about national infrastructure.

If you to the United States it’s shocking, the physical level infrastructure is falling apart and on a digital level things are pretty much the same, if you look at the government websites many of them look like they are from the 1990s and they all look and act differently.

They are very much like the UK before Britain started the digital transformation and they’ve had several years to fix it but there’s been no concerted effort because no-one really owns it.

They do have the USDS which operates out of the White House that gets really great talent in to do fix something but they don’t have the authority across the government.

They have 18F who operate on a cost recovery basis who act like an internal consultancy… they have some extremely talented people there and we’ve learned quite a bit from them.. and they help agencies with individual things, like looking at contracts or procurement or whether it’s fixing a particular service. But there’s no vision or strategy that guides it all.

If you go to New Zealand you’ll see they’ve been doing a lot of great thinking. It really influenced us in Australia on user journeys across governments, where you want to get something done that goes across agencies.

Let’s look from the standpoint of the end user; the end user wants to send a child to school, to emigrate to New Zealand or to open up a business. What do they need to do and how can we map it out for them.

The problem in New Zealand is that the team has no authority, all they can do is propose and it depends upon other people saying ‘oh, that’s a great idea’ although there’s been a lot of great design thinking coming out of there and it difficult for that being translated into practice.

One of the things I learned here was you can have all the great ideas and talent but if you don’t have the political will and authority to drive it then a recalcitrant bureaucracy will not going along with it because their interests aren’t in alignment with their users.

What did you find on coming to Australia?

There was a lot of excitement and enthusiasm on what we could do with the idea of the DTO, particularly among the public there was a lot of goodwill as well as in large parts of the Canberra bureaucracy, generally speaking the lower you got down the ranks there was more enthusiasm.

In the UK you have two layers of governments; you have the central government and local administration.

You have the split between politics and policy, you have the politicians who just don’t spend time in their departments. When I was with the UK Justice Ministry the Secretary of State, Chris Grayling, and his ministers were in the building every day.

As a consequence they were very aware of what was going on. There were in there everyday and they could see things. It made it easier for the ministers to give direction and cover for the civil servants.

In Australia it’s much easier for public service to capture the minister, direction is spotty and politicians are easily manipulated, partly because of lack of information.

There’s also the gap between policy and delivery, the UK Department of Justice, for example, works on legal and constitutional policy but is also responsible for prisons, courts and other services. So there’s a tight feedback loop where if a policy isn’t working, you find out pretty quick.

How important are people and existing processes?

You can’t fight human nature you have to acknowledge it and live with it and make it work for you.

In Australia we did a terrible job of working with human nature. This idea we could get Australian government to magically transform itself because it was told to, that I could come here and put up some pretty pictures and say some nice words and everyone would say ‘hey we never thought of that.’

That’s not going to happen when you have entrenched interests, habits, structures and groups who are committed to doing things a particular way. It’s not going to happen and it’s vary naïve to think you can do it, it’s just not how people work.

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.”

When we talk about change management it’s often about appeasing people who are throwing up obstacles, this isn’t about appeasing them, it’s about them doing their job. Too often here there was too much appeasing bureaucrats which I think comes down to a lack of political will and perhaps cowardice.

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.

Because they understood people were competitive they created a group called ‘Digital Leaders’, the digital leaders were the Director-Generals from various departments who were future leaders – most likely to become Permanent Secretaries – and said, “you guys will be those driving the transformation from the Civil Service side.” Of course because these people were all competitive they’d try to outdo each other.

How does the Australian political culture compare?

“It’s quite a bad culture. In Canberra you have people who think they are the intellectual elite of the nation who aren’t really, it’s a relatively mediocre elite.”

The idea you have a group of people sitting around thinking their Big Thoughts in a bubble and telling each other how great they are who then hand those thoughts down to proles who do the service delivery. It’s a very weird class system that’s been built up – you have the Big Thinkers and then even the proles you give it to, they pass it on to the states or an NGO to deliver it.

There is no feedback loop, there is none. You don’t know how much these policies cost, you don’t know what they’re delivering you don’t know what’s a success. That probably suits lots of people.

We saw that with digital dashboard where citizens and ministers could monitor public services’ performance. There was so much pushback, there were some agencies that worked with us but getting information directly from the systems was difficult.

What are the lessons from the Australian experience and for those trying to drive digital transformation?

When the DTO was set up, they had to make a series of trade-offs. It wasn’t GDS, it didn’t have the powers of GDS. It didn’t have the powers to mandate or block.

GDS had both, the idea you could kumbaya your way to transformation, no-one there believed it. That’s why they set up GDS the way they did. They could stop you from spending money, even if you had the budget approval or not, so that was a massive stake in the heart for a number of zombie IT projects.

It’s particularly hard for IT managers in departments to admit that a long running project was a failure so GDS was great. That ability to do the right thing and to have it sanctioned by authority was brilliant. The years of ass-covering were over.

Some kind of spending controls are good and some ICT procurement reform is absolutely essential. That’s potentially really, really good.

How important is finding the right people?

People coming into senior digital roles in the UK government were hired by GDS and that was massively important to get the right people in.

I was thoroughly vetted as were all the other hires and it was important because it created a community of people who thought the same way. We were all committed to the same mission and we all came in at the same time. It’s not talked about much, but there was also a general clearing out of the old leadership.

Having a common sense of mission was important, we would work together and collaborate with each other.

You need to have political will to see them through because the departments will kick and scream but if their autonomy was working we wouldn’t have this problem.

Why are Australian governments suffering IT problems?

If all major government projects were failing we’d not be having this conversation. That said, there is an unacceptable rate of failure and it has to be fixed. Again, departmental autonomy is not working.

Departments have chosen to deskill, departments have chosen to become dependent upon vendors and departments have chosen to put their own interests ahead of users – as we in the case with Centrelink. Infrastructure failures like the ATO or the Census were easily preventable. The idea you’re building data centres in 2016 is insane and anyone who tells you that should be fired.

These are all predictable outcomes and as long as you have a public service that’s not really comfortable with 21st Century technology and which still views as its own departmental in-group as being more important than its end-users then you’ll end up with these problems.

Public servants have to start operating the way a bank or insurance company would – how do I get onto the cloud, not how do I keep workloads off the cloud? How do I build around the user? It’s crazy to be asking these conversations because it’s an incredibly deskilled when it comes to IT. It’s appalling, much more than in the UK.

That’s the problem, when you talk to actual practitioners in the Australian government they acknowledge it. It’s not the guys doing the designs or those trying to use the technologies, it’s those further up the management chain who don’t have the skills or have too close relationships with certain vendors where you see these anti-social behaviours kicking in.

Where next?

I’ve spent sixteen months banging my head against a wall so I’m not in a hurry, I’m looking some opportunities in Australia and a few elsewhere in the world.

Feb 112017
 

Last week, the annual Startup Muster report on the Australian startup sector was released, giving investors, founders and policy makers a valuable snapshot of a vibrant sector of the economy.

The 2016 report had 2711 responses to the online survey which the researchers whittled down to 685 startup founders, 239 potential founders and 474 startup supporters.

Compared to the previous years, the replies are an increase from the 602 in the 2015 survey and 385 the year before. It shows how the Australian scene is growing and evolving.

Still a boys club

A key finding from the 2016 Startup Muster report is the changing gender composition of a group that, quite rightly, has been criticised for being too much of a ‘boys club’. This year’s survey found 24.6% of founder respondents were female, up from 17.4 and 16.1 in the previous two years.

One area where Australia’s startup community does boast diversity is in its industry composition with 17% of the country’s startups in 2016 being focused on the most popular category of Fintech. Notably that sector came in at seventh in 2015.

2015 2016
Marketing Fintech
Content/Media Retail
Retail Content/Media
Big Data Internet of Things
Health Education
Education Marketing
Fintech Social media

Also notable in that list was the disconnect between startups and investors. While 17% of Australian startup founders were focused on Fintech, 42% of investors were. The area most of interest to investors was medical technology (47%) with the Internet of Things second (43%).

Over the next few years it will be interesting to see how investment fashions change, in the UK the bottom seems to have fallen out of the fintech boom while global investments seem to have increased. It’s likely Australia will follow a similar pattern to the wider global trends.

Sydney’s decline

Another interesting shift is the balance between cities and states with New South Wales and Sydney remaining dominant but its position slowly falling,

2015 2016
outside capital cities n/a 23.1
NSW 44 40.9
Vic 17 18.8
Qld 16.5 19.3
WA 8.9 7.3
SA 2.9 6.3
Tas 0.6 2.3
ACT 6.4 6.2

The fall in Western Australia is probably due to the state’s economic collapse in the face of the dying mining boom – many of WA’s skilled and affluent workers are moving out rather than struggling with a declining economy.

Efforts by the Victorian and Queensland governments to promote their startup sectors seem to have had some success although the real winner is South Australia, something underscored by US incubator TechStars’ recent launch in Adelaide.

The big question though is how attractive Australia is as a location for startups and investment capital.

Funding woes

In the 2016 Compass Global Startup Ecosystem Ranking report, Sydney fell four points from the 2012 survey to 16th while Melbourne fell out of the top twenty city rankings.

Due to its position as the second lowest on the Growth Index within the top 20, and its comparably weak statistics around Performance, Funding, and Market, Sydney now ranks #16 (down from #12 in 2012).

Compass’ findings show a critical problem for the Australian sector, regardless of its location, industry or founders’ gender – the lack of later stage investment funds.

That lack of funding means Australian startup founders are particularly sensitive to money issues with Startup Muster finding the most common hindrance to people launching startups is life circumstances requiring a stable income. In a high cost society, the need for a regular salary isn’t surprising.

Startup Muster’s 2016 report is a very useful snapshot of the state of Australia’s tech startup community. It serves as a good guide to what business founders, investors and policy makers should be considering.

Jan 232017
 

“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.

Jan 122017
 
how are we using data in our business

Last August the centrepiece of the Australian government’s digital dream came to an end. The Canberra Times this week described how “the Turnbull government has quietly killed off one of its biggest plans for ‘digital transformation’; the hugely ambitious gov.au website project”.

The abandonment of the project was an ignominious end of the plans for a Prime Minister who had promised so much at the time of his appointment, and that a cabinet submission would be pulled minutes before it was due to be tabled indicates the convoluted politics behind it.

Bizarrely, that story ran the same day the Federal Treasurer revealed the government would be running a ‘pilot project’ to put more services online as part of their attempts to harness the digital economy.

That the Australian Federal government is looking to run some pilot projects this year is remarkable given twenty years ago, in 1997, the then Prime Minister John Howard announced all appropriate government services would be online by 2001.

Australian taxpayers would be well justified asking what has happened over the last twenty years.

It could be argued that Australian governments are not particularly good at technology projects given ongoing disasters like the current Centrelink debacle, the failure of the 2016 Census and the collapse of the Tax Office’s portal shortly before Christmas.

Probably the main reason for Australian governments’ technology failures is the lack of focus, as shown by the Digital Transformation Office barely surviving one year.

That lack of focus is even more problematic as digital transformation projects are more about changing cultures than revamping technology, often making them a decades-long process.

Without a long term commitment to projects and policies, initiatives such as the Howard government’s 1997 Investing for Growth or Turnbull’s 2015 Innovation Agenda are doomed to failure. Until Australian governments commit to longer term visions, it’s unlikely any of their digital dreams will be achieved.

 

Oct 062016
 
sales methods are changing in an era of cloud computing and social media

In most developed countries the small business community is shrinking. What can governments and communities do to grow what should be the most vibrant sectors of their economies?

What happens when a whole industry shuts down overnight? Australia is about to find when its motor industry effectively comes to an end this week.

The fallout for the workers is expected to be dramatic with researchers reporting the soon to be laid off staff being totally unprepared for their predicament.

So worrying is the predicament of those auto workers that Sydney tech incubator Pollenizer is offering small business workshops for laid off workers.

Those workshops will be needed. One of the striking things about the research is just how few of the workers are interested in launching their own ventures despite their poor employment prospects in other industries.

australian_ford_workers_employment_intentions

While the auto workers are a group with relatively low levels of education and work experience, their reluctance to starting a business is shared by most Australians with the nation’s Productivity Commission 2015 enquiry on business innovation reporting the number of new enterprises is steadily falling.

australian-business-exits-and-entries

Despite Australia’s population increasing twenty percent since 2004, the number of new business is falling. The country is becoming a nation of risk averse employees, something not unsurprising given the nation’s crippling high property prices which puts entrepreneurs at a disadvantage.

Australia’s reluctance to set up new ventures isn’t unique, it’s a worldwide trend with most countries not having recovered since the great financial crisis.

The tragic thing with this small business drought is that it’s never been cheaper or easier to set up a venture as  Tech UK and payment service Stripe show in their list the software tools being used by ventures.

Accessibility of tools or even government taxes and regulation isn’t the barrier in Australia. As the World Bank reports, the country is the eleventh easiest place in the world to start a new venture.

In United States experience shows there’s a range of other factors at work dissuading prospective small business founders – interestingly the United States comes in at a mediocre 47th as a place to start a venture in the World Bank rankings.

A healthy and vibrant small business sector is important to drive growth and diversity in the broader economy. The challenge for governments and communities around the world is to find a way that will spark the small business communities, in a world awash with cheap capital that shouldn’t be impossible but we may have to think differently to the ways we are today.

Sep 092016
 

Over this week I’ve been posting a series of interviews with the candidates for this week’s Sydney Lord Mayoral election. All of the teams have interesting schemes and ideas on how they can improve the city’s profile as a global tech centre.

While each team’s plans are worthy, it’s worth asking exactly what governments can do to make their communities more attractive to businesses and whether short term subsidies and incentives can help.

There is some evidence they can, prior to San Francisco changing its tax rules the city took second place to Silicon Valley in the southern Bay Area. In the last ten years, the city has become the focal point for the tech industry.

However there is a counter argument that San Francisco benefited on a generational shift of lifestyle preferences away from the leafy suburban lifestyles of Palo Alto and San Jose to the grungy but walkable communities of the Mission and SOMA.

The Bay Area though is a special case, Silicon Valley’s success as a tech hub is based upon massive Cold War tech spending that drove the region’s industry and its that high level support that probably tells us more about government support.

In the case of London and Singapore, the successes have been due to the national governments putting in broader economic reforms and incentives. Also their proximity to Europe and East Asia respectively has made both cities attractive.

On balance it’s those broader economic factors that make regions attractive as industries clusters – local incentives count little compared to access to factors like markets, capital and skilled labour. Taxation is, at best, a secondary issue.

The biggest challenge for Sydney, and most Australian cities, is the the crippling cost of property. In 2013, staff.com released a survey showing Sydney to be second only to Zurich in the cost of establishing a startup.

In many respects, the cost of property doesn’t really matter to prosperous industry hubs – San Francisco, London, Singapore and New York are all eye wateringly expensive and yet they still thrive – however all of those cities have better access to capital and markets, if not labour, than Sydney.

Addressing Sydney’s chronic shortage of affordable accomodation is firmly in the state and Federal governments’ remit and beyond giving property developers a green light to build high rise apartments neither level of government has shown any interest in addressing it.

Similarly, the tax structures which penalise Australian employees of high growth businesses and dissuade investment in early stage ventures are totally the responsibility of the Federal government and it’s hard to see that changing in the term of the current dysfunctional administration.

The relative powerlessness of local governments leaves initiatives by the City of Sydney limited in scope and schemes to promote the city or offer incubator space are peripheral to the factors that encourage the development of a global industrial centre.

Ultimately though, the question has to be how much any government can do to create a Silicon Valley, factors such as labour availability and access to capital come down as much to the community’s attitudes and business’ risk tolerances.

So perhaps we focus on what governments can do for business. Maybe just providing a level playing field can be the best we can hope for.

Sep 082016
 

Leading the City of Sydney’s Lord Mayoral race is incumbent Clover Moore. Long a thorn in side of the state’s political and media establishments, the independent Moore has safely held the city’s Lord Mayorship since beating the seemingly unbeatable Labor candidate in 2004.

Since being elected, Moore has been focused on Sydney being a ‘living and sustainable city’ with the Sydney 2030 plan being the focus of her administration. This election’s platform builds on that scheme.

While acknowledged in the 2030 strategy paper, the tech sector really didn’t feature in that document – something that reflects how late all levels of Australian government have been in recognising the industry’s role in economic development.

However in recent years the council has been developing its programs, including the Startup Action Plan and on the Clover Moore team for this year’s election Jess Scully, director of  the annual Vivid Ideas festival and organiser of TEDxSydney, is the spokesperson for the campaign’s tech and cultural platforms.

“The crucial things are access to talent and space,” Scully told me when I interviewed her a few weeks ago. “There are reasons why people are attracted and drawn into the gravity of precincts in the heart of the city.”

Scully cites the city’s working with property developers to allocate space for startup hubs in new developments, the council’s support for various events and the support for infrastructure projects, not least the contentious bikepaths, to improve the city’s liveability.

Like the rest of the candidates’ teams, Jess provided the following answers to our questions.

What are your policies relating to encouraging tech startups?

“Clover has been very proactive in supporting the start-up sector and encouraging co-location, which we know amplifies the benefits of having a lot of bright minds working together. After consulting with the sector, the City adopted a Tech Start-Up Action Plan in March, which has the aim of building a robust start-up ecosystem by offering access to affordable space, promoting dense agglomeration and increasing access to funding and markets.

“Of course, it’s easy to say these things – but under Clover’s direction, the City of Sydney is already taking action – one major step has already been taken. We know Sydney can be an expensive place for start-ups to access affordable space, but in the future we want the knowledge economy well represented in the heart of our CBD. The City has negotiated a Voluntary Planning Agreement with Lend Lease to secure 3900 square metres on three floors in a prime spot on George Street at Circular Quay for tech start-ups.

“This new development will put tomorrow’s tech and start-up leaders right in the centre of the action, closer to potential clients and partners in the corporate world. This new CBD tech hub will provide affordable space for businesses at different stages of development, co-working spaces and community space.”

What do you see as Sydney’s strengths in this sector?

“Sydney benefits from its own gravity – we’re home to over two thirds of Australia’s start-up community – we’re the natural home for businesses that want to scale up and go global from the outset. We’re a global city that’s attractive for talent, and we’re the base for the creative industries, finance and services sectors, so being located here allows you connect with potential collaborators, clients and investors. Other regions have to offer more incentives to overcome the natural advantages that Sydney offers start-ups.”

What are we not doing well at the moment?

“We’re still young: Sydney has a relatively new tech start-up ecosystem and we’re struggling with two challenges: skill shortages in ICT, and in attracting capital to scale-up.”

What are we doing well?

“I think our start-up ecosystem in Sydney is one of the most supportive and collaborative in the world: I’m so impressed by the generosity and knowledge sharing that goes on in places like Fishburners, Stone & Chalk, Blue Chilli.

“It’s also fantastic to see how engaged our start-up success stories – the founders behind Atlassian, Spreets, Freelancer, and the incredible team at Blackbird – and how committed they are to leading the next generation, being present and offering support, to raising the tide and growing the sector here. I have been fortunate to work with Blackbird Ventures for the last two years on The Sunrise, a conference they fund and drive to get students, aspiring entrepreneurs and emerging founders to connect with new thinking and with each other. Their work and their investment fund are going to be transformative.

“From my observations around the world, this generosity and level of support is just remarkable – they’re leading the way in helping Sydney deliver on our potential to be a global start-up and tech hub.”

How do you see the City’s relations with state and Federal government affecting current efforts?

“The City has differences with other levels of government on some issues but tech start-ups is not one of them – we have a good relationship with other levels of government on tech start-ups.  In particular, we are working closely with the NSW Government on innovation and new initiatives.”

Currently Victoria and Queensland are doing better at attracting businesses. Should we do anything to counter that and, if so, what?

“The City of Sydney is the nation’s tech start-up hub with two thirds of Australian start-ups. The City of Sydney’s economy also grew at 4.5 per cent per annum in the last term – outstripping the national growth rate. Other states use incentives to try and attract businesses to counteract the fundamental strengths of Sydney as the nation’s global city. Our ecosystem is 6 times larger than Brisbane and 55% bigger than Melbourne.

“Working on the fundamentals that underpin the strength of a tech start-up ecosystem is the key for a successful ecosystem in Sydney – not picking winners.”

How can Sydney compete globally against cities like Singapore, Shanghai and even Wellington?

“Sydney is consistently ranked as one of the leading global cities – we are one of the Asia-Pacific’s finance hubs and host high-quality ICT, professional and business services, educational institutions and creative sectors. Sydney also has high liveability which is important for attracting and retaining talent.

“In addition to improving the capacity of our tech start-ups ecosystem to support local, innovative companies become global companies, we need to address some of the other issues affecting the functioning of our economy and society such as the affordable housing crisis.”

The Clover Moore team comes with the advantage of incumbency despite the hostility of Macquarie Street and the performance of the City of Sydney and the growth of the tech community under Moore’s administration has been remarkable.

How much of this is attributable to Moore’s leadership is another question, however her policies are similar to those of other successful tech cities like San Francisco, London, New York, Wellington and Singapore.

Singapore and Wellington probably illustrate the weakness of Moore’s leadership in that both the island state and New Zealand don’t have a level of provincial government whose parties are hostile to independent administrations as is the case where successive Labor and Liberal governments have interfered in the City of Sydney’s operations.

That however hasn’t stopped Moore from investing in the city’s infrastructure and making it a place attractive to startups and tech businesses. Making the city a better place to live and work may be Moore’s biggest attraction for the startup sector.