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Beyond reset and recovery: how to lead service transformation in the new economy

By Cecilia Hill, Simon Cooper, and guest author Martin Stewart-Weeks 

Sooner or later, Peter Drucker once wrote, all good ideas degenerate into the need for hard work. 

He was right. 

And he was especially right (not that he knew it) when it comes to leading digital transformation in government and the public sector. 

Big ideas, high ambition, untold complexity. But, in the end, there’s work to be done and leaders who need to hold it all together.

And let’s remember that, in the end, the work is not the technology, although doing the technology exceptionally well is the non-trivial foundation for success.  The ‘north star’ of this work comprises the expectations, needs and circumstances of customers and citizens. Working with those at the sharp end of delivery, they help design and shape the programs and services that navigate a rapidly changing world of opportunities and risks.

This is especially true amid intense, volatile and ongoing pandemic-driven uncertainties, flooding across the country and heightened geopolitical uncertainty in 2022.  It’s been a testing and often exhausting experience for workforces in every sector, and certainly in government and the public service.

The pace will likely be just as intense as we move through the year, with a renewed push for leadership and tech skills in the digital economy and a slew of looming state and federal elections.

We’ve described this elsewhere as a 5D model of digital leadership: an ability to link policy and service design; understanding digital service delivery platforms and tools; leading new ways of working; harnessing new approaches to trust, safety and security; and using new techniques to build public profile through storytelling and engagement.

This leadership model will be tested as Australia moves beyond ‘reset and recovery’ to shape personalised, robust and resilient government services that meet rising expectations in the new economy and across society for trust, inclusion and sustainability.

We’ve brought together five useful pieces of advice – or UPAs – that speak to the leadership demands at the nexus of policy reform and service delivery transformation.

These are all born of the hard work and shared experience of public servants and citizens and speak to things we know matter to leaders and the ambitions driving them.

The point about big ideas is to get them done.

Think of Australia’s intentions for sovereign space sector growth announced last year, and for which a new Mission Control Centre has to be built. Or NSW Treasurer Matt Kean’s ambitious announcements on hydrogen research and development, chasing $80 billion of private investment and the promise of 10,000 new jobs.

Leaders need to be big, bold and ambitious – but also intensely pragmatic. Successful transformation work has always been about the ability to hold ambition and delivery in a close, persistent and sometimes uncomfortable embrace.

A sense of what’s possible can only be as unconstrained and creative as the diligent and detailed determination to get the work done.

Too often we’ve witnessed projects stranded on the shores of ambition without the capacity (or willingness) to build. By the same token, we’ve witnessed projects with operational capacity to burn but bereft of purpose, direction or big strategic intent.

Leaders of digital transformation need to move easily between a project’s ‘why, what and how’ to explain the ambition that fires them and detail how the work gets done.

In any piece of digital transformation, what comes first: the technology or the experience?  As the leader, do you worry first about how the technology will be designed and built and then about the experience it’s meant to deliver?

Or do you start with the experience and worry later about how the technology piece will live up to those expectations?

In digital transformation, leaders rarely have the luxury of either/or. Instead, they must embrace the discipline of both/and.

In our experience, projects that can navigate the liberating interaction of the technology and the experience – like the work that the Federal Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment is leading to modernise how agriculture exports are regulated – tend to deliver true happiness. This is where new digital services become powerful pieces of infrastructure built to work in ways that people need and want, be they farmers, parents or families recovering from floods.

That’s also the ambition behind the MyGov beta project led by Services Australia in a major overhaul of a primary delivery platform that connects Australians to a range of government services.

Trust and collaboration remain bedrock values that pervade the best examples of digital transformation.

There are a couple of dimensions that are key to this.

One is the way governments are developing new tools and platforms to give a clearer sense of how well digital transformation projects build trust and transparency. NSW minister Victor Dominello‘s plans to embed trust, security, privacy and ethics at the heart of digital identity reform, and the development of an assurance framework for its AI projects, are both good examples.

More broadly, leaders and agencies don’t get as much as they could from their partners and advisors. They often fail to invest in a ‘trust quotient’, squeezed to the transactional margins, that can fuel higher levels of collaboration and shared learning.

It’s an area of the digital transformation journey that leaders, with the partners they are working with, might give more thought to. How could those margins be widened for real collaboration to build stocks of practical trust?

In our experience, there are two kinds of accountability.

One is the traditional notion of making sure that, when work must be done or outcomes achieved, it’s someone’s job to make that happen.

The other notion is about stepping up to do the work in the first place, being willing to escape the cliché of mutual finger pointing and recognising your obligation not to duck the call to action.

It’s not an uncommon experience in big projects. We’ve all been there. A culture of practical accountability has always been a hallmark of good projects.

The alternative, which we’ve certainly experienced, is missed deadlines, a pervasive sense of frustration and unfairness and, if it becomes entrenched, a reputation for poor performance. 

Our final UPA is about the technology itself.

Especially for those leaders who are less savvy about technology, hesitation and delay can lead to deferred decisions and a debilitating search for safety.
Our advice is don’t be afraid. 

To start with, fewer and fewer digital transformation decisions should be taken at a ‘scary’ scale and intensity. 

With the transition to agile and breaking projects into smaller and more modular pieces, the decisions that need to be made are increasingly less ‘forever’.  

The rise of tech and innovation hubs and labs has helped grow a more open and rapid style of innovation and experimentation, like the new centre based in Bathurst as a partnership between a professional services provider and Charles Sturt University.  Moving towards a new digital normal way of working, which is part of the new Victorian government digital strategy, has to become the default operating culture across agencies and their partners.

There’s always a lot at stake, of course, but there are ways to break the work down into more manageable chunks.

And that can mean giving yourself permission to take smaller steps, to learn and, as a consequence, to become more confident and motivated.

Back to Peter Drucker.

These five pieces of advice, in our experience, tend to be associated with transformation projects that live up to his definition of innovation – anything that introduces a new dimension of performance.

In the end, that’s what transformation should be in the digital and the physical world. Not just getting the job done, but getting the job done to change what’s possible forever. 

If you would like to learn more about digital leadership in government, visit our AFR Government Services Summit 2022 page.