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What AU’s Digital Council needs to address to set up for success

08 Oct 18

This month saw the newly-formed Australian Digital Council getting together for the first time, a meeting convened by Australia’s new Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, who sat down with the ministers responsible for digital transformation programs. 

The Council was created to oversee the development of Australia’s digital capability. A key part of its mandate is the establishment of proposals for better cross-government collaboration on data and digital transformation. 

Some of the developments targeted by the Council include an examination into the feasibility of collaboration between different jurisdictions on a proposed national data system, and a move to drive the simplification of business between governments. 

But critical to the achievement of these and the Council’s other goals is the ability to deliver digital transformation projects effectively (by implementing the right end-to-end solution) and efficiently (within the allocated budget and time), which has rarely been the case when it comes to major digital initiatives within the public sector.

A litany of failures

Whilst the Council’s mandate is to be a strategic forum that sets goals, part of its mandate should be the oversight of how effectively and efficiently the digital transformation projects are scoped, planned and managed to achieve these goals, as all levels of Government have struggled to successfully deliver programs. 

For instance, in April this year, the ACT strategy for the justice directorate's IT department was found to be at 'high' risk of failure.  

Then in July, it emerged that Transport for NSW's IT group blew its annual operating budget of $30 million by more than $80 million

Two years ago, there was #Censusfail - the $24m Australian Census blow-out, and there have been numerous other instances of public sector digital transformation projects that have either gone awry or have had the costs blow out horribly. 

This issue was further highlighted in a scathing Senate Committee report into the digital delivery of government services, which was released in June. The report stated that the government “had not demonstrated that it has the political will to drive digital transformation” (which to be fair they have addressed to a degree with the creation of the Council), had presided over “a litany of failures” and were responsible for “serious deficiencies in the way government departments contract with the private sector.”

The AI opportunity for project management reform

The foundation of this oversight of digital project delivery by the Australian Digital Council should be the establishment and tracking of a small set of predictive measures of project success for critical transformation projects. This would enable timely and effective interventions to keep these projects on track.

There are innovative predictive assurance systems available to government agencies that are based on artificial intelligence (AI). These can help project leaders to significantly improve the success rate of their transformation projects.

Such systems and services are highly accurate, reliable and objective in pinpointing a small set of root causes of any issues, rather than enduring a long and very costly process to identify where a project is faltering. This is regularly achieved in a time-effective, cost-effective and low-intrusion manner. 

This is in contrast to the traditional and currently prevailing consultant-lead assurance, which is often very time-consuming, highly intrusive, expensive, subjective, and deals with symptoms rather than root causes.

With robust assurance processes in place, government agencies would be better placed to show Australians that their ICT investments are well managed and result in the right public value to justify the significant public expenditure. 

Indeed, in its inaugural meeting, the Council did acknowledge a need to build trust with the public when it comes to investment in large-scale digital transformation projects and given their track record in recent years, that will not be an easy feat. But as the American author Zig Zigler once said, “the first step in solving a problem is to recognise that it does exist”, so at least that box has been ticked by the Council. Now comes the difficult part.

Article by Michael Devlin, Managing Partner at Certus3