Transcript - Interview with ABC News on Centrelink and other recent Australian government service failures (January 2017)
Presenter: Centrelink would be shut down for fraud for its conduct in the recent botched debt recovery efforts, if it were a private company. Now, that’s according to the Commonwealth’s former digital government chief. Paul Shetler says Australians should be outraged the government can’t deliver efficient online government services. He was handpicked to head the agency aimed at streamlining government digital service delivery, but resigned from the role after just six months. Paul Shetler is here with me in this studio. Paul, thanks very much for coming in.
Paul Shetler: Thank you.
Presenter: Can I first of all ask you why you resigned from that position after just six months?
Paul Shetler: I was actually - sixteen months, actually.
Presenter: Sixteen months, yep.
Paul Shetler: Yeah, sixteen months, it wasn’t just six. We had established a track record of delivery, and delivery is what I’m all about. When I was interviewing for the role, and in all previous roles, and all the way throughout my entire tenure at DTO, I said, ‘You can’t separate policy from delivery. You must deliver.’ And in fact if you ever hear anything about me, I’m always talking about delivery. Under the new Minister Taylor, there has been a shift in emphasis away from delivery, much more towards pure policy, and pure governance, and I don’t believe in that, I don’t think that’s actually worked for us really in the past, and I don’t want to be a part of that.
Presenter: What were some of the reasons you think meant that that wasn’t being delivered?
Paul Shetler: Well, it was just - it’s obvious that’s what’s happening, right? We’re actually moving away from delivery. We’re defunding programs, and so on and so forth.
Presenter: So when you heard about this issue with Centrelink and the debt recovery, were you surprised?
Paul Shetler: I wasn’t exactly surprised, because we’ve had a whole string of these things so far in Australia. I was very disappointed, to be honest with you, because I’d spent sixteen months of my life trying to fix these things and trying to make them better, and to see this repeated pattern, I felt, was a little bit discouraging, so when I was asked my opinion, somebody asked me, and I told them what it was.
Presenter: What are some of the string of things you say - give us some examples of those --
Paul Shetler: Well, you can think about the myGov failures, you can think about other DHS failures, you can think about the CensusFail, you can think about the three-day ATOFail, and then this. Now, some of those are just sort of when computers fall over, right? You know, just completely - just crashing, which, again, is astonishing in this day and age, considering how much we’re paying for government IT, that that even happens. When was the last time that Google fell over for three days, or Facebook, or Apple, for three days? It just doesn’t happen. CensusFail’s a bit different. CensusFail - a lot of the same root causes, but the system didn’t fall over. It kept on going on its merry way, with a flawed algorithm matching datasets that are actually incommensurate, trying to make extrapolations, which you can’t necessarily make, and ultimately victimising a lot of people who shouldn’t have been victimised.
Presenter: As you say, the Internet always isn’t 100% reliable, and the government’s operating with such huge numbers of people, particularly with something like CensusFail, so of course there would be some times when there would be failures, in the end.
Paul Shetler: I think you need to keep in mind, actually, how big is government? We in government like to talk about how big we are, and I often heard when I was in government, ‘Oh Paul, you don’t understand. If only you understand how big our load is!’ Government transaction volume is about that of a small to medium-sized bank. Most people don’t have regular transactions with government. Or, to put it another way, the yearly volume of government transactions is about half an hour on Twitter. We’re not talking big transaction volumes, nor is the complexity that you find in government sort of externally-imposed. It’s stuff which we create, through legislation, through policy and through the behaviour of bureaucrats in Canberra.
Presenter: So what do you think could be done differently to avoid these kinds of situations?
Paul Shetler: Three big things. I think first off we need to have radical, radical upskilling of the public service, so the public service can feel comfortable with 21st-Century technology. The same technology we ask every start-up in Australia to use. Government should be able to use state-of-the-art technology, it’s outrageous that we can’t. Secondly, government needs to start putting the needs of its users first. The Centrelink case is a very clear case where the government put its own needs for debt collection above the needs of the actual users, and burdened them with actually having to prove their innocence, even knowing that the algorithm was flawed in 20% of the cases, which is madness. Thirdly, you have to get rid of this, I think, anomalous, very strange split between policy and delivery in the Australian Government where you have a Department, say DSS, dreams of a policy, hands it over to DHS, says, ‘DHS, you implement this thing,’ and then everybody can say, ‘Well, guess what, you know? The policy was great, but the implementation was poor.’ Or, ‘Wow, my implementation would have been great, but the policy was rubbish.’ You can’t do that. You gotta get rid of that split. Otherwise, you have no way of knowing actually what is the effect of the policy on the lives of the people who are actually seeing it?
Presenter: Alright. Paul Shetler, really appreciate your insights. Thank you.
Paul Shetler: Thank you.