Imitate 2 Innovate

Hi guys, so let’s talk imitation. It’s not a word you hear often these days, because in Australia we use the word innovate to mean imitate. We have a new Digital Transformation Office, a DTO, that was created in 2014 to imitate the Government Digital Service in Britain. In fact our PM used the word “unashamedly” to describe the eagerness of our imitation. And so far things are going more or less to plan: we’ve imported several GDS staff to Australia, reused their design standards, copied lots of their Digital KoolAid (words like “government as a platform” and “stuff that matters”). We’ve taken to heart their GDS mission : To boldly go where no one has ever …. No, that’s another mission. The GDS mission seems to have been to create something called digital government. Nobody really knows what that is but we decided to “innovate” that too. But there’s one really big twist to this story, and that’s the topic.

The GDS failed: and we’re still busy copying it.

They had a guy named Mike who ran their service for five years. He left in September. His Number 2 was a guy named Tom. He left on the same day. Tom liked to say that he just did the talking and other people did the real thinking (very nice of him), and that the thinker-in-chief was really a guy named Richard. He left a few weeks ago. There was a handful of Aussies in London, and they left on QANTAS flights back to Sydney. Your DTO is very much a Sydney-Sider, not a Canberra Creature at all. A few of the really hot GDS talents got on the same flights. There’s a guy named Jordan who walked away from a university degree (before finishing high school) to join the GDS aged just 17. He’s come to “innovate” something called GOV.AU that we think won’t even slightly resemble the GOV.UK that he worked on in London (sure). Our very own Leisa left the GDS and came home to design things. And we got an American named Paul to run everything for us here. He’s your new DTO CEO. @DigiKoolAid imagines it must be feeling quiet at GDS London these days. And, there’s a reason.

The GDS failed: because its central idea failed, and we’re still busy copying it.

And so the UK government cut off most of its money. Mike said he was out the door as soon as the cash stopped. He’d pushed an idea for five years and came up as the loser. Mike believed that the state should be centralist with a powerful digital heart to control things for everyone else. Sounded great, but a few people disagreed. They were very influential people, and they believed in devolution. That’s the movement of power and control from the centre outward to the separate departments. @DigiKoolAid has watched a video by GDS Tom, a few days after he left, where he describes Richard’s GaaP (Government as a Platform) ideas and what happened. Sure, you know what happened.

The GDS failed: because Richard’s ideas opposed the evolution of the British state, and we’re still busy copying it.

Tom and Richard worked inside a creature called The Cabinet Office. That would seem to be a powerful position, but in the end not powerful enough. The Westminster system that Australia shares with the UK is an important issue here. Ministers are appointed by our Queen and have individual authority. Departments and agencies of state are assembled under Ministers’ control. The hierarchies within departments understand where the orders originate and follow commands. The teams in the departments follow along. Under the Westminster system we have evolved major departments that operate with quite a lot of autonomy. This was not easy for Mike, Tom, Richard, Paul and the others to understand because none of them had worked as civil servants before. They got it wrong, by misunderstanding the walls between spheres of influence and power sharing inside the state. That’s no surprise. But what is a surprise is this.

The GDS failed: and we’re still busy copying it. It’s a glaring lesson in what NOT to do. But since we imitate rather than actually “innovate”, and we really can’t tolerate the idea that we have enough brains to invent our own solutions, we’re racing down the road to the same certain failure. Recycle Richard’s ideas. Reprise Mike’s approach. Repurpose Tom’s words. Reprint the GDS design standards, Reiterate Paul’s KoolAid and we guess maybe Reuse the HTML for GOV.UK to create GOV.AU right down to the CSS colour schemes and fonts.

It won’t be until we remember that we can actually innovate that Australia will get any real Digital Transformation. Until that happens we’ll be imitators, of failures.


Your DTO at Work
Your DTO at Work

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