QnA with Grantly Mailes – Governmental Barriers in the Digital Age Part 1

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28th May 2015, 10:00am

In the lead up to Optus Vision 2015, our very own Phil Brady sat down with Grantly Mailes to give us a glimpse of what to expect before he took the stage at Sydney Town Hall.


Grantly Mailes is the Victorian Government's Chief Technology Advocate and a Deputy Secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet. He advises the government on how digital technologies can improve the delivery of government services and the productivity of the public service as well as the impact of "digital" on the Victorian economy. 


In the first of four blogs, Grantly provides his perspectives into what are the primary roadblocks for a government to stay relevant in a digital citizen age?


What are the primary barriers for a government to stay relevant in a digital citizen age?


The biggest roadblock for governments in the age of digital disruption is the same roadblock that is affecting industrial era businesses struggling today - decades of legacy thinking and rusting business processes. This legacy has built up over the years and is proving difficult to change. Embracing digital service delivery is a big cultural change that governments are embracing very slowly.


Size and complexity is another key barrier. The complexity of government in Australia has resulted in people either not knowing or not caring that much about which part of government they interact with. Australia has three tiers of government - federal, state and local. Plus a fourth tier when you include the not-for-profits and social welfare agencies. When you break it down it’s one federal government, eight provincial governments and around 550 local governments for a total of around 560 “governments”. But there is more… governments provide services and regulate the economy through a variety of business enterprises, agencies, commissions and similar bodies. There are over 15,000 of these, and they are largely, autonomous.


Australian governments operate according to Westminster principles. Each tier, department, agency and state owned enterprise has autonomy from the other.  So you can see how it is difficult to coordinate digital delivery of services with this number of bodies. Imagine if each level of government had its own “citizen at the centre”, there would be 560 of them. Adding agencies, there are thousands of them. Autonomy would be fine if each service was delivered by a single entity within government. Finding that ‘just right’ mix is generally elusive. Groups need to include the right services to be helpful to citizens to overcome the culture of autonomy, all without proliferating service portals.


Accountability rewards and incentives favour the status quo. Accountability and funding in government flows from Cabinet, through ministers to departments for federal, state, and local government. If accountability and funding drive behaviours, then government bodies have every incentive to remain vertically integrated and siloed. This was evident before the digital world and plays out equally well now with the potential for technology to seamlessly join up and homogenise service delivery. There is little incentive for departments and agencies to move to digital business models, as accountability to citizens usually isn’t a big factor. If anything, the incentives seem to encourage the status quo.


Decades of autonomy has resulted in governments having deeply ingrained and unique cross-departmental processes. It’s almost like “we do the same things but we choose to do them differently.” Change is difficult because we have always done things this way.


Government is inherently conservative. The business of government is conducted in a fish bowl, intensified by the 24 hour news cycle and social media. Political risk is a clear consideration for almost everything. Critics pounce on every misstep, which trains politicians and bureaucrats to be circumspect. Change is often slow, especially when the change brings real or perceived risks. 


This is the first edition in the series of Q&A sessions with business leaders and experts. Click here to read part 2 of Grantly’s Q&A as he talks about how digital technologies can play a role in helping governments to engage the public and to improve the efficiency of government operations. 


Optus Business would like to thank Grantly Mailes for his time. If you'd like to know more about Grantly, please follow him at @grantlymailes.


By (Phil Brady), State Manager, NSW Government Sales

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