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.


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.


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.

Sep 072016

Of all the contenders in the City of Sydney elections, the Liberal Party’s Christine Forster seems the candidate with the best chance of beating incumbent Clover Moore. For the city’s tech industry and startup communities, the Liberals have made a strong pitch.

At the last council election in 2012, the Liberal Party’s Edward Mandla – who has since defected to the Sydney Matters group – was the second placed candidate with 16% of the popular vote after incumbent Clover Moore’s 51%. With the voting rules changed this year to allow business owners to vote alongside residents, Forster is expected to pick up a substantially bigger proportion of the poll

Like Sydney Matters’ Angela Vithoulkas, Christine Forster sees Brisbane as being the example Sydney should be following in encouraging startups. In her detailed tech policy Forster laid out what is probably the most ambitious agenda of the major candidates.

The Liberal policy paper points out Sydney is home to nearly two thirds of the Australian startup community but doesn’t rate well internationally. She proposes addressing that through establishing a Sydney Emerging Entrerpeneurs Program to provide support and small grants.

Forster promises an incubator offering affordable office space based on ‘The Capital’ in Brisbane setting up a working hub to address the crippling commercial rental costs and establishing global ‘launching pads’ for local entrepreneurs in key overseas centres.

“To help promote Sydney to US companies wanting to establish an outpost to expand into Asia, we will establish an office in San Francisco, and investigate further offices in Guangzhou and Singapore,” Councillor Forster is quoted in the policy’s media release as saying.

Of the standard questions we asked the four major candidates, Cr Forster’s team answered them in bullet points;

What are your policies relating to encouraging tech startups?

  • I will commit to Council providing affordable office space for start-ups
  • I plan to establish an Incubator, similar to The Capital’ in Brisbane
  • I will establish a ‘Sydney Emerging Entrepreneurs Program’ providing practical support and small grants to the city’s best emerging start-ups. (One of these already exists in Brisbane.)
  • Appoint a Digital Director for the City of Sydney
  • Set up a ‘City of Sydney Digi-Challenge’ to help solve local council issues though digital leadership
  • Have clear goals for digital policy achievement benchmarked against globally accepted measures.

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

  • Sydney is Australia’s most visible global city. People and businesses want to come here to live and work.
  • Sydney is home to an educated, technically literate population and three world class universities.
  • Sydney already has a strongly entrepreneurial culture and outstanding local success stories – think of Atlassian and Freelancer.com.

What are we not doing well at the moment?

  • Lord Mayor Clover Moore doesn’t intuitively see business as part of the community – she treats business as the enemy
  • Council has not embraced new technologies, it is not business-friendly and dealing with it is notoriously bureaucratic, expensive and time-consuming
  • Clover has mishandled opportunities for the community because she doesn’t understand what businesses need. One notable example is Council’s failure to secure an anchor tenant for its Oxford St properties
  • Business contributes around 80% of rates to the City of Sydney but the Council has not been living up to its own KPIs.

What are we doing well?

  • Not a lot. We’re trading on our name and on the fact that Sydney is physically beautiful and well located.

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

  • Any relationship needs to be more collegial than it has been. There are situations where I disagree with tech and innovation policies at the State and Federal levels but where these arise, I prefer to negotiate to achieve a solution. Clover has made much of “taking the fight up” to other levels of government – I don’t believe it’s a fight, it has to be a negotiation.

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

  • I don’t believe we should think in adversarial terms – I want Australia to attract more business.
  • But that doesn’t mean Sydney has nothing to learn from Brisbane or Melbourne.
  • I want to set up a ‘Revive Oxford St’ taskforce bringing together residents, business, local and state government representatives to build a strategy – at the moment I’m thinking a QVB-style development in which we offer organisations with experience reviving retail precincts an opportunity to tender on how they could sensitively revive this important cultural precinct
  • I want to establish a dedicated office in our sister-city of San Francisco to promote Sydney’s potential as a stepping-stone for tech companies interested in expanding into Asia. The office will provide advice on establishing an office in Sydney.
  • I will also improve Council’s online services. I’ve got costings to show that with 10% of services moving to digital we could cut costs by $5-$10m p.a. That money could then be reallocated to community projects in each of the eight villages.

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

  • By making it easier to do business for a start, but also improving the city’s amenity. One of my policies is a simple but important one – increase the number of bins and make recycling easier in public areas to get rubbish off the streets.
  • Facilitate the establishment of a ‘SydneyOne’ ticket that covers all local arts, culture and tourism destinations. If Singapore and London can do this – and make it available online – so can Sydney.
  • We are also investigating ways of delivering free Wi-Fi in public areas.

How does your tech industry policy fit in with other key Sydney employment sectors like the creative industries, financial services and education?

  • I want it to cease to be a ‘poor relation’. Sydney has a global reputation in finance, the arts and education. Walk through Martin Place and look up; walk through Sydney University or UTS and look around you; go to the Opera House. These activities are so obvious as to be stereotypical. I want people to think of our tech sector in the same way. I want there to be 10 Freelancer.coms, not one.

Christine Forster and the Liberal Party have an ambitious program to place Sydney as global centre and, given the Liberals also hold government at state and Federal level, their platform does hold the promise of improved relations between the city council and other layers of government.

However the state government has been very slow in identifying the tech sector as being important to the regional economy and its focus on property development makes one wonder what the priorities would be if every level of government was dominated by the Liberals – the decision to sell the Australian Technology Park over the protests of the tech community speaks volumes on Macquarie Street’s attitude towards the sector.

At the Federal level, the innovation agenda seems stalled and confused with little likelihood of any reforms to address the causes of Sydney’s high property prices being addressed or further changes to the tax system to encourage investment in new technologies and businesses.

If anything, the declining fortunes of the Liberal Party at a state and Federal level may well damage Forster’s local campaign and detract from her message. The message though does flag an understanding at the local government level of the importance of the tech community to the city.

Sep 062016

In the second of our series on the tech policies of the Lord Mayoral candidates for the upcoming City of Sydney elections, we look at the policies of the Sydney Matters team, the independent business focused group.

Sydney Matters is led by Angela Vithoulkas, who’s operated a central Sydney coffee shop with her brother for 25 years. Angela, who is a friend of this writer, ran as a Lord Mayoral candidate in 2012 and won election as a councillor.

Angela’s team includes the founder and editor of Startup Daily, Mat Beeche, as well as Edward Mandla who was elected to council as a Liberal candidate but defected from the party earlier this year.

The Sydney Matters platform is the only one that has a specific tech policy which reflects both Angela’s and Mat’s backgrounds and interests in technology and how it affects the business sector.

What are your policies relating to encouraging tech startups?

As Lord Mayor I will work with Tech Sydney, Startup Aus, FinTech Australia and other key players. I would like to explore concepts like having a Chief Entrepreneur in Residence program at Town Hall – similar to what Advance Queensland recently announced.

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

“The People, in 2011 the startup scene we have in Sydney didn’t exist in the same way it does today – and it exists today because passionate people said I am going to change things.”

What are we not doing well at the moment?

“We are fragmented, we need closer connections – physical hubs where tech startups can collaborate, meet serendipitously, make it easier for them to do business with each other – proximity can be helped by the city looking at smarter real estate opportunities for the tech sector.”

What is Sydney doing well? 

The City of Sydney’s Tech StartUps action plan is a step in the right direction but we need to build on this and work in collaboration with other levels of Government to drive our tech startup industry forward.”

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

“To make inroads we all need to be on the same page and collaborating for the interest of the sector.”

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

“When I sat down with Mat Beeche who is on my ticket and asked that very same question, I was surprised by his answer – The stats show that NSW is actually performing a lot better than the media would have you believe.

“Sydney has attracted some huge tech companies to Sydney including data and analytics startup Qualtrics, valued at $1 billion that chose Sydney for its APAC operations.

“Fintech startup Acorns is in Sydney, HealthTech startup ClassPass is in Sydney, Dropbox chose Sydney, Market Research startup SurveyMonkey chose Sydney and most recently Social Media Snapchat chose Sydney to set up their sales operations office for the region.

“Our problem is that we perhaps are not being as vocal about the achievements of the NSW government who put in a lot of hard work behind the scenes to have these organisations choose our city as their destination of choice for expansion.

“What the City of Sydney needs to do is work closer with Macquarie street from a PR and Media perspective to change this perception.”

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

“By being more proactive and being an exemplar – Wellington does a great job of that.”

How does your tech industry policy fit in with other key Sydney employment sectors like the creative industries, financial services and education?

“Tech Startups sit across all industries including creative industries, financial services and education – so our policy is about them as well.”

Of the four candidates we interviewed, the Sydney Matters team probably has the most comprehensive tech strategy. It’s notable how they’ve paid attention to what other Australian cities – particularly Brisbane – have been cultivating their startup and tech communities.

Councillor Vithoulkas’ point about Sydney not marketing itself well is a fair point and that probably reflects more on the cultural differences between the harbour city and its interstate counterparts where Sydneysiders are far less likely to be cheerleaders for their cities than their Melbourne or Brisbane counterparts.

In many ways their strategy is not greatly different from existing council policy which in some ways is probably good for continuity for the business community.