Making change happen in New South Wales government.

A couple of weeks ago we brought together a group of senior New South Wales (NSW) state and local government officials (from Departmental Secretaries to Council CEOs, people leading the transformation to ministerial advisers) for a Chatham House chat about digital transformation. We wanted to reflect on our collective experience and have an open conversation about how to push beyond service-level impact initiatives. It gave us a chance to think about how to take the steps needed to create a new kind of public service.

Removing barriers

In Australia, we’ve worked with all levels of government to re-design services and constantly try to push towards larger-scale transformation. We want Australian public services to embrace the opportunities and benefits that the digital era has brought to countless other industries and governments globally.

But that requires organisations to take an honest look at their culture and mindset and to seek with an open mind, opportunities for collaboration. It’s something we constantly come across and work hard to change. Culture, mindset and collaboration — in our view are undoubtedly the biggest barriers stopping digital transformation from happening in today’s public sector organisations. Around the table, we found total agreement.

Good intentions don’t get outcomes, mechanisms do

Jeff Bezos’ sentiment was echoed by everyone. Without public sector leaders adopting a digital mindset and creating a culture that embeds it across organisations we won’t see citizens benefit from the opportunities that true digital transformation creates.

We wanted to test that observation with the group. That is, if the government continues to operate through silos, we’ll continue missing opportunities that radical redesign of organisations can bring. We need to go beyond singular exemplars. It’s not good enough to think that digital transformation and the opportunities to change business models, increase efficiency and maximise impact sits with the digitisation of individual services alone.

Progress reality check

We’ve seen a real progression in NSW through initiatives like the Innovation Launch run out of the Department of Finance, Services and Innovation and the Future Transport Digital Accelerator run from within Transport for NSW. New ways of working are undoubtedly creeping into departments and councils across NSW. We all agreed we need to do more.

Technology moves fast, benefiting from open cultures and shared knowledge and information. There’s no time for saying things can’t change. But the room agreed that there is a real “end of life” challenge right now — that is in terms of legacy technology systems, ways of working and policy frameworks. These things must keep up and move at the same pace to adapt to changing citizen needs. This needs to happen now in order to have a government truly fit for the 21st century.

The group agreed that there are a few central elements needed to be the catalyst for change:

  • Joined up transformation within government organisations, focussed on bringing together digital, change and transformation into a truly 21st-century approach, complete with reusable service patterns and platforms.
  • Regulations and policy need to keep up with the pace of change that we see with technology. We’ve seen examples of this with the arrival of Uber and Airbnb in NSW and the State’s ability to change regulations and policy to adapt to the changing market quickly
  • Focus on data to provide a change of mindset around privacy laws. Looking at the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in Europe or the recent legislation brought into Victoria to see some new ways of thinking about and acting on data sharing.
  • Aligning to the digital maturity scale and remembering it’s not about aiming to become a ‘level 5’ digitally mature organisation but that you need organisations across all levels to provide the right ecosystem for change.

A public service startup

It was fantastic to see public service leaders from across local and state governments in NSW so excited by and committed to digital transformation — we’ll be keeping that conversation going.

We’re going to work with the group to find one cross-cutting service and run an exemplar project, one that brings a “public service startup” mindset to rebooting a public services and speeds-up innovation and change.

We want to prove that when we remove those barriers around mindset, culture and collaboration we can create a new and improved kind of public service, one fit for the 21st century. Watch this space.

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