Digital reformer Paul Shetler dies

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Digital reformer Paul Shetler dies

Paul Shetler, the outspoken and charismatic former head of the Digital Transformation Office has died after suffering a heart attack last week, aged 59.

Renowned as a digital change agent in government and civil rights activist, Shelter was in 2015 hand-picked by then-Communications-Minister Minister Malcolm Turnbull to spearhead the federal government’s digital reform program.

Turnbull's plan was to base Australia's efforts on the UK’s Government Digital Service. Shetler led that agency and was lured to kick-start Australia's effort.

His direct and forthright manner, together with a loathing of doublespeak, won him many supporters amid entrenched institutional resistance to reform.

Always a presence, his persistently can-do attitude was coupled with a burning and unapologetic belief government services needed to be delivered better, quicker, more effectively and humanely with a minimum of bureaucratic overhead. 

A captivating, eloquent and passionate public speaker, Shetler’s presentations after his arrival in Australia to take-up role of chief executive of the Digital Transformation Office inspired a new generation of technologists to join the public service – to make a difference rather than a career.

After presenting his game plan at an Adobe event in Sydney shortly after being appointed DTO head, parts of the room literally stood-up to applaud him while others – mainly large incumbent vendors to government – appeared catatonic with shock.

Advised to pick his interactions with the Australian media carefully, Shetler proceeded to sit down at a large table and open the conversation by asking what people wanted to know.

He then then challenged journalists to ask why citizens should cop service delivery well behind that of the private sector, and to write about the solutions as well as the problem.

It took less than a few weeks for Shetler to make it clear that his core belief was that rapid progress had to be made to lift the federal bureaucracy out of a systemic malaise that he termed “learned helplessness” when it came to using technology to improve peoples’ lives.

Libertarian in his outlook, Shetler was adamant that the machine of government was there to serve and uplift the people, not for people to be forced to bend their lives out of shape to obtain basic services, online or offline.

A fundamental point Shetler would hammer home to anyone who would listen (and plenty who didn’t want to) was that public services, digital or physical, carried a special responsibility to be effective, simple and easy to use.

He often bristled at the notion that government could have ‘customers’ because people were usually obliged or compelled to interact with the state, a power dynamic he was adamant should not be abused.

In private conversations Shetler was horrified by the customer service levels at large public-facing agencies like Centrelink and the Department of Veterans Affairs, especially when people were spending hours on hold on phone calls or could not get through at all.

That frontline services were so poor, yet could be delivered far more effectively via a mobile app or online, genuinely angered him. So did the propensity of projects and bureaucracy to self-replicate and creep beyond its original purpose.

Appointed as head of the DTO in 2015, Shetler’s time as an agency head frightened many senior bureaucrats who feared the change agenda he was trying to prosecute was overambitious, unrealistic and unsympathetic to the challenges public servants faced.

He relished the challenge to make a difference.

Although frustrated by the resistance he encountered, especially the lack of candour disguised behind polite smiles, Shetler continued to push for reform as a ministers changed around him amid the infighting within the Coalition that dispensed with the services of Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

It is fair to say Shetler lost valuable air cover after the politician that cemented his appointment, Malcolm Turnbull, became Prime Minister and was subsumed by other issues.

With Angus Taylor installed as Minister the DTO got an upgrade in bureaucratic stature to become the Digital Transformation Agency, a far larger affair.

Shetler exited promptly. Not many people were left wondering what he thought of the exercise.

Prophetically, Shetler had previously said that if the DTO became a larger agency like the ones it was trying to jolt out of complacency and legacy, it would have failed in its core purpose.

Instead of returning to government work in the UK, or heading to the US to return to financial services – Shetler was an alumni of SWIFT, the global banking technology standards platform – he chose to stay in Australia consulting, advising, mentoring and advocating.

His bold personality and passion will be sorely missed by parts of the start-up community where he not only pushed people to follow their passion, but build a thriving, local and sustainable tech development community that could cut it on the global stage.

He will also be missed in government, especially in NSW.

As Shetler’s friends and he himself acknowledged, his sometimes uncompromising manner could be polarizing, but this didn’t faze him. He was more interested in the quicker, simpler road to the greater good rather than the easier or the more comfortable one.

While his life may have passed too soon, it was lived with purpose, passion, generosity and a commitment to help others over recognition or self interest.

Vale Paul Shetler.

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