Digital Transformation for Public Sector: Galvanize to Revolutionize

Tom Cochran was invited by Acquia’s Asia Pacific team to share his experiences leading digital transformation in the Obama Administration.


I was delighted to be invited by our Asia Pacific team out of Australia to share my experiences leading digital transformation in the Obama Administration prior to joining Acquia.

I was exposed to some incredible energy during a packed schedule in Sydney, Canberra, and Melbourne. I met a good few hundred people working at all levels of the public sector in Australia, including federal, state, and local government departments at a number of events, roundtables, and meetings.

The idea was to help those in the public sector hear how we navigated the considerable bureaucracy of a country with over 300 million citizens, to achieve digital transformation, when traditional change can be hard enough, let alone if it’s driven by digital technology.

Here is the thing that people often do not realize about people who work in the public sector: we work in the sector because we love it, and want to drive change for the better.

Speaking to the teams here driving the govCMS project (the standardization of the Australian Government on Drupal, working with Acquia and our partners), I had the overwhelming sense that they love what they do in public service, therefore been incredibly successful at it.

I would like to point out here - the govCMS project is gathering significant, and all in the absence of a mandate. It is important to note that it is not mandated that any Australian Government Department or Agency must use the govCMS platform. In fact, the team driving the project at the Department of Finance has declined two attempts at mandating it because they want people to want to use it, not to have to use it. And in two years, it has 124 sites live, 21 in development and 54 agencies using it (at time of writing this).

We ran some events and asked Sharyn Clarkson, Assistant Secretary at Department of Finance, and Dawn Routledge, Executive Director Policy & Innovation at Department of Finance, Services and Innovation, to share their experiences of digital transformation in relation specifically to the govCMS project.

The most common questions during my time were ‘how can we innovate more, and better?’, and how can we innovate in the face of obstacles such as bureaucracy, rules and regulation?

I wanted to share my thoughts, and the considerable lessons Sharyn and Dawn shared with the group given they have incredibly current and relevant experience:

  • Innovation requires risk and failure: The only way to make government better is to innovate, and innovation comes from risk - you must be prepared to fail, learn and iterate. Quickly. Failure is a sign you’re trying to do things better. In government, risk is considered toxic and there’s a real aversion to risk. Actually, risk should be managed not avoided - there are obviously things that should not fail e.g. security, platform stability, you should be able to pay taxes, planes should not fall out of the sky. Know the places to be innovative.
  • Focus on a minimum viable team: My own personal favorite is to have as few people in the room / at the table as possible. The likelihood of the success of a project was inversely proportional to the number of people working on it. We heard about one leader’s drive for ‘minimum viable bureaucracy’ which resonated with the audience.
  • Focus on a minimum viable product: Emulate a minimum viable product (MVP) approach like the private sector would. Make sure everything is agile and iterative - and how to work out how to procure via sprint time, without named outcome, otherwise you have bid, build, rebuild and potentially waste millions of dollars.
  • Communicate and collaborate: It’s really important to share your vision, plans and failures - no one owns the problem, each department plays a role - so how you connect and collaborate is really important.
  • Address culture problems: Few of the problems are tech problems, they are usually people and culture problems.
  • Let technology enable: Technology is, and should remain, politically agnostic to enable business strategies.
  • Take action: Just get started - action what is in your control. Make the best thing to do the easiest thing to do. Run until you’re tackled.
  • Provide guidance: Governance is about guidance and support not control. There should be enough governance to make sure people don’t stray too far off the field.
  • Empower decision makers: Get your team to make the decisions, this imbues then with confidence and ownership
  • Experiment and try things: Test your assumptions, and then gently poke the beast.

It is really worth remembering that transformation is a journey that does not really have a destination. And, that every time someone adopts your platform, you get added functionality from what they contribute to the community. That is invaluable, and that is transformation.

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