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M van Steel


I offer my contribution to the Independent Review of the APS as both a customer of Government services as well as a member of the APS.

When my employment transitioned from the private sector to the APS, I did so on the understanding that I would be both altruistic and of service to my compatriots. While this remains true of my intent, the experience is somewhat mixed.

The most significant critique applicable to the APS is the relationship between the parliamentary decision makers that barely operate beyond every election cycle and a public service that is expected to deliver services that may persist over a lifetime for its customers.

I expect the services the APS administer should be easy to deliver, easy to understand, and easy for customers to access. As much as this review is focused on the APS, there needs to be a political will to review what it is Australians expect of the APS.

So often I observe critical commentary about public servants that are actually intended for parliamentary representatives. May this review also facilitate a clearer understanding between policy and the delivery of services as a consequence of that policy.

I also hope that at the conclusion of the Review, we have an APS executive that demonstrates frank and fearless dialogue between those who make decisions and those who carry them out.

Attached is more in depth observations and commentary which is intended to prompt further investigation.

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“The APS has a critical role in assisting government manage and respond to new and emerging

challenges — both in policy and implementation. But it must be best placed to harness the

opportunities, with the necessary in-house capability to both develop and implement solutions.”

“The APS needs to be apolitical and professional, agile, innovative and efficient — driving both policy

and implementation through coherent, collaborative, whole-of-government approaches. It must have

the capability to meet core responsibilities and deliver functions, and to understand and deploy

technology and data to drive improvement.”

I commenced a career in the public service following almost two decades of self-employment. My

business was born during a tumultuous period of corporatisation and privatisation ideology that

disrupted the very core of both public and private service delivery. Being agile was more than just a

buzz word for the latest project management methodology that is currently in vogue with the APS.

My observations of the public service is a workforce that is bound by annual budgets curtailed by

efficiency dividends imposed to mimic the level of competition the private sector contend with. It’s

an entirely artificial and blunt instrument predicated on a 1980’s notion that the APS is both isolated

from reality and inherently wasteful. If the APS is to demonstrate the very attributes this review seeks

to resolve, the government will first need to address the budgeting artifice that has been an unseen

divider and conqueror of the APS itself. The malaise that is prevalent within some branches of the

Department of Human Services is directly consequential to poorly conceived budgetary measures that

have ultimately stifled necessary and ongoing investment in both systems and people.

The current world we live in sees the Prime Minister sneezing, a Department Secretary catching a cold,
the Senior Executive developing a flue, the APS3 service officer expiring from pneumonia, and the

customer waiting for hours on the phone (
). We have a very downward view of how “we do things”. The public often

tar the APS with the same brush as their members of parliament; well, from what I hear during my

daily commute on an overcrowded tram to work. Indeed one contributor to this review has coined

the phrase “Public Serpents”, and I question whether this contributor makes assumptions about the

public service based on the APS3 service officer they may interact with at a customer service centre,
or the Departmental Secretary, or even the respective Departmental Minister. I can assure the

contributor there are no public servants at my level earning any more than a commensurate position

in the private sector.

The focus of my contribution is on the emergence of an Australian Digital Government in context of

the Department of Human Services, and particularly my movement between DHS programmes. Since

the conglomeration of social services: Centrelink, Child Support, and Medicare into one super

department, the concept of service delivery on behalf of a Government Programme has been poorly

understood by the public, and the benefits have eluded many of the APS. The DHS’ primary focus is

on the disbursement of benefits on behalf of the Commonwealth Government. However, the larger

the vessel the less agile it becomes. I also contend that the model successive governments have

pursued where the DHS is the service delivery provider of other government departments, e.g. DHS-
Medicare delivers payment services on behalf of the Department of Health, Aged Care,
Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, and Veterans Affairs. From a healthcare provider’s perspective, this

may be an obvious pathway between themselves, their client, and who pays for the service. The public

are oblivious, and the APS are often frustrated when the desire to meet operational challenges are

constrained by the division between a Programme owner versus the Programme delivery. The most

significant critique of the APS is the divide between the operational APS employee and those who

have the ability to effect changes that enhance employee engagement, desirable performance, and
ultimately the customers experience with government services. I would argue that the APS already

achieves the requirement to be apolitical and professional but is adversely bound by legacy policies

and procedures at the expense of agility. I would likewise argue the APS has a significant cohort of

innovative employees but organisational structures that remain in place prevents the very innovations

the government seeks from being realised. The DHS has internal mechanisms to solicit “bright ideas

and innovations” which is admirable yet yields very little real change. This being said, there is an

executive that reacts to pressures from department ministers that often results in considerable

expenditure on IT systems that dismally fail to deliver desirable efficiencies. There are two agency

programmes in particular that comes to mind; the Child Support system that saw a significant

investment in SAP software solutions that were incapable of interfacing with legacy systems and has

ultimately been abandoned. The entire Child Support ICT spend requires a thorough and transparent

review. The second is a replacement system to the processing of Age Pensions that has resulted in a

backlog of four months. The expected productivity gains have not been realised. Furthermore, the

relationship between minister, secretary, executives, and operational staff requires a fresh appraisal

to minimise if not eliminate the reactionary outcomes that have diminished the reputation of the APS.

The DHS-Medicare Programme is on the cusp of exploring new technology from the ground up. Many

of the public servants performing processing tasks can easily identify the anomalies and complexities

which if addressed would yield significant performance and cost-benefit improvements. The

landscape of health service delivery has substantially changed from the early 80’s where a typical

healthcare provider was a sole trader and the claim and payment pathway involved three

components: the doctor, patient, and the payer – in this case Medicare.
In 2018, we have an entirely different benefit claim and payment model. Now we have a medical clinic

employing several healthcare professionals of differing disciplines, and while a doctor provides a

service to the patient, the financial transaction is actually between a business and the payer -
Medicare. Yet the functional components of a provider/patient/payer that was of service in 1985 is

cumbersome and inefficient for a business to government transaction. Thankfully, there is a solution

already close at hand. The Department of Health has acknowledged the use of the Healthcare

Identifier (HI) Service which facilitates a business to government transaction model; there is no

evidence within the APS or externally that the HI Service could be scaled for payment systems. It seems

that harnessing HI as a modern solution to a legacy issue alludes those who are exploring creative and

efficient pathways fit for purpose for the coming decades.

“The APS must retain the key competencies and capabilities to discharge its responsibilities.” “But it

must be best placed to harness the opportunities, with the necessary in-house capability to both

develop and implement solutions.”

I am currently a project officer and have seen the demise of permanent

full time APS employees being replaced by ICT contractors. In fact several contractors were formerly

APS employees and intentionally resigned from the APS only to return as contractors at double the

remuneration. This management of human resource and cost to the tax payer seems incongruous with

the above statement, and diminishes the motivation to serve the Australian public from one of service

to one of self-serving; the question begs that while head count caps have been imposed upon the DHS

for permanent full time staff numbers may make the “books look good”, the significant employee

costs of contractors versus APS employees is counter intuitive and belies the premise that government

is expected to provide cost effective service delivery. I believe that the executive lack both

transparency and courage to articulate the effect of a Digital Government on the existing human

resource. If this means employing a person for a fixed term APS position then do so, rather than
outsourcing to an employment agency contractor at considerable cost. The increasing discontent of

Australians with the casualisation and temporary nature of work based on a commercial ethos

developed over the past two decades is further reinforced when the value of ongoing APS career

choices is white anted by the increased outsourcing to a contracted labour force. I believe this also

compromises the trust the citizens we serve to have in the public service.

For the APS to deliver an Australian Digital Government, APS employees need to see themselves as

digital transformation agents with a targeted focus on the very citizens we serve. Maintaining in-house

capability, the APS has a better opportunity to mitigate fragmentation and wasteful duplication when

the focus on service delivery is not compromised by the attention given to external pressures

associated with a contractor – customer relationship. Investment in the APS’ capability to fulfill their

potential is often narrow and task specific. In recent times the adoption of the latest buzz word and

trending ‘Agile’ project management methodology has befallen the APS. It’s as if the public service

has suddenly experienced some kind of illumination and feels the need to jump on to the ‘Agile’
bandwagon that the private sector has been using for the past decade. That ‘Agile’ is typically used in

an IT environment, and often within companies that are smaller than government organisations, and

have targeted product offerings, does not necessarily translate to the APS effectively. Ultimately, my

point is that while the APS must attract and retain those who possess digital excellence, they shouldn’t

be hampered by trendy methodologies. In conclusion, to this point, we need an executive that also

values wisdom, and is able to distinguish the difference between “doing the right job and doing the

job right”.

“Tackling complex, multi-sectoral challenges in collaboration with the community, business and


I have been a keen observer of the original Digital 5, now Digital 7, countries that have collaborated

on common projects that promote an evolving digital government. It is disappointing that Australia

has chosen to remain isolated from the D7 group given commonality for most of the social needs. A

significant personal focus as a public servant is “improving citizens’ experience of government and

delivering fair outcomes for them”.

I became far more aware of the disconnection between the APS and our customers while participating

in customer research for a myGov project. I am a champion of a Digital Government; yet discovering

a cohort of customers that have very poor experiences with the social services government is charged

with delivering, when those customers are driven toward a digital channel that is difficult and

convoluted to navigate. The driver of this, on the one hand, is face to face staff needing to meet KPIs,
and promoting a poorly conceived message that doing things digitally is the most efficient interaction.
Essentially cajoling digitally challenged customers to use self-service terminals. On the other hand,
there is a failure of the APS to recognise that digital channels are not always of service to our

customers. The Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) Service Standard is an excellent document that

very few APS employees are aware of. APS programmes and projects must be keenly aware of the

customers that require non-digital channels that are as simple as possible but no simpler. My

conclusion is we see ourselves as a Department of Humans Services before we see ourselves as a

Department Serving Humans.

The current digital landscape within the myGov experience is to promote myGov as a secure way to

access government services with one login and password. Yet, customers also have various mobile

apps at their disposal from the same government department. It seems counter intuitive for

customers to be guided to a single sign-on myGov pathway, but then also have Express Plus Centrelink,
Medicare, and Child Support apps. In addition there are apps for jobactive and the ATO, and many

state government derived apps.

The degree of incoherence emerging because the APS promotes the use of myGov yet has multiple

access points via other websites and apps. Legislative and policy changes need to be included in the

review that removes blockers to improving citizens’ experience of government and provide a

seamless, integrated and cohesive end to end digital service. In reshaping the Digital Government

landscape we may gain greater levels of trust in the APS as well as digital Government solutions.
Customers’ trust in the APS delivering a Digital Government is dependent on levels of transparency

thus far not demonstrated, and the messaging about Australia’s digital transformation requires

department ministers to better articulate the key elements of a Digital Government that the APS is

currently working on and towards.

Australia could, and possibly should, be spoken of in the same conversation as Estonia when it comes

to a cohesive Digital Government experience. The creation of the DTA should have resulted in an

autonomous instrument to enhance political and agency adherence to digital transformation path.
The DTA is not broadly known in the public domain nor is it apparent to the wider APS as a potential

means to align agency’s digital strategies, investment decisions, and policy development, and it should


If the APS were to be genuine in improving citizens’ experience of government and delivering fair

outcomes for them, then the integration of the DTA within every agency needs to be more obvious.
To my knowledge the DTA does not have a Whole of Government (WofG) Chief Information Officer,
where the role focuses on framing and supporting the strategic direction of a Digital Government

across all agencies. In addition to this is the potential for the DTA to emphasis the need for a unified

customer driven service. Anecdotal observations of the DTA is an agency that lacks the power to both

harness and impose a unifying digital pathway across all government agencies where leveraging

agency transformations can deliver scaled, repurposed and rationalised IT infrastructure. In my

experience we have focused on what can we do for our customers rather than asking customers what

do you want us to do for them. Fundamentally, the DTA should be setting the stage and providing the

delivery framework based on their discovery of what Australians want and their desired outcomes.

While I have an understanding of the DTA and some of the projects the DHS is working on, I and my

colleagues poorly understand how the DTA progresses a WofG outcome. I have canvassed colleagues

on their knowledge of Govpass, myGovID and Exchange and its importance in providing a platform for

a Digital Government that is a federal government goal to be in place by 2025. If the APS is to be in a

position to offer and provide meaningful and valued services, the foundation should include the APS

knowing the big picture and have a clear line of sight as to how we contribute to that delivery. It’s

disheartening that I learn more about my agency’s direction via news and editorial content from The

Mandarin publication, than I do from our own internal communications. I sincerely hope that the

DTA’s trajectory is exponentially visible in the very near future.

Following on from this is the most recent experience of the Opt Out of the My Health Records (MHR)
service. The communications management has resulted in a messy debacle where “tin hat wearing

media writers” have hijacked the message and have maligned the intent of the My Health Records

value. I would contend that the APS and policy makers have poorly understood the sentiment of both

healthcare professionals and the public. On the one hand, the success or failure of MHR significantly

rests with healthcare professionals.
The problem began well before the conception of MHR when Medicare introduced and encouraged

the use of digital channels to submit claims for Medicare Benefit payments. We have a digital

landscape that includes over one thousand software products used by healthcare professionals to

initiate a digital transaction with Medicare and other programmes within the Health Service Delivery

branch. This has resulted in an astonishingly complex and bespoke IT system that has grown

patchwork solutions over several decades. The task currently before DHS-Medicare cannot be

understated, yet the political will of successive governments to provision the APS adequately has

yielded an IT behemoth no one wants nor has the courage to address. Our most recent federal election

was to conjure thoughts of corporatising and privatising Medicare to the horror of must Australians.
That 97 percent of all Medicare transactions are digital is nothing short of miraculous.

The Australian Digital Health Agency is a very recent addition to the public service and has

insurmountable challenges to somehow unify the health industries IT expectations. That the MHR

system is designed to use the very same clinical software that healthcare providers use for their client

records and Medicare online claims only highlights the diversity of software offerings. A comparative

few are MHR compliant and this very problem compromises the support of the MHR. In the above

outline the question that arises is does the responsibility of a complex health landscape reside within

the public service or with successive parliamentary representatives that have prevented the ‘health

football’ from ever reaching the try line or being converted to achieve a game winning score. It is

disheartening both as a customer and an APS employee to experience the undermining of confidence

in our health sector. The ADHA needs to be supported both at a political and APS level to fully research

the health sector from a Digital Government perspective and drive an alignment of policy, procedures,
and IT systems.

In conclusion and despite my critique of the current landscape, I have confidence that the APS does

have the capacity to serve our citizens well. I am also tentatively optimistic that the transition to a

Digital Government will afford the APS to be frank and fearless in addressing the issues that have thus

far frustrated those whom we serve.