Governments must overcome structural, cultural and skills-based problems to improve digital services, Paul Shetler, the outgoing Chief Digital Officer for the Australian Government has said.

“Government might think it’s huge, but its daily transaction volume is equivalent to just a few minutes of Twitter – or even less on the NASDAQ”, Shetler writes in a blogpost published shortly after he resigned.

“For services to be truly transformed, we need to go beyond the front end, and transform the back office IT too. If we don’t rethink the underlying IT systems and business processes, we’re constrained to do little more than make cosmetic changes,” Shetler wrote.

Services are currently too complex, “often delivered by an assembly of different branches, agencies and tiers of government”, he said.

“When dealing with government is too difficult and confusing for users to navigate online, it drives people to phone lines or forces them to visit a to visit a shopfront – both more expensive options. Too often, people are forced to pay professionals to deal with government for them”, he said.

“IT systems often end up being passed on from agency to agency” when government is restructured, resulting in “complex webs of systems that cost a lot to operate, and take a long time to change”, he said.

“This creates a vicious cycle because, whenever a new policy needs to be implemented, it’s often easier to build a new system on the side, than it is to change the existing legacy system.”

There also needs to be a change in the way the public sector procures IT. “Government is one of the last industries that thinks it can outsource wholesale”, but “how can you test with users, deliver a lean solution quickly, and iterate with what you learn, if you are forced to specify all your requirements upfront? When you’re locked in a big IT contract, changing what you’re building comes at a huge expense”, he said.

Shetler believes that this problem is “further complicated and exacerbated by the lack of technical and contract management expertise in government.”

The biggest challenge, however, “is to completely upskill the public service so that it is well equipped to deliver the change that’s needed”, Shetler said.

“Over the last 40 years, as we’ve outsourced technology, there’s been a progressive deskilling of the public service”, he continues, and an over-reliance on consultants. “That’s just not necessary if we re-skill the public service”, he wrote.

Common among governments, too, are that “many public servants working in back offices are often reduced to… processing the repetitive common cases that shouldn’t need any human intervention at all”, he continues, which “is a waste of their talent and initiative.”

Read the full blog here.