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Drop the technology think and ask more questions

By  Zilla Efrat

Technology is useful but by itself, it’s a toy. It can only go so far and you have to be smart in how you use it.

That’s the view of Jane Treadwell who has spent her career transforming the public sector’s use of technology.

‘Digital transformation is not about technology. It’s about your way of thinking, operating and innovating,’ she says.

She says there’s digital side to government and then there’s the analog side, which includes aspects such as actions, skills, leadership, governance and regulation. ‘You have to deal with them at the same time or it’s not going to work very well.’

Treadwell says she has railed against the notion that digital government, e-government or i-government is different to government.

‘Government will have digital and non-digital elements and thinking that digital government is something separate leads to missed opportunities,’ she says.

Treadwell has found that many leaders are scared of technology conversations. She advises them to drop technology from their thinking (because that’s not their gift) and to keep asking more questions. ‘There’s never a stupid question here.’

Indeed, she believes leaders should stay true to their strategic intent and the history that they’re trying to manage and ask how the technology will help that and what needs to be in place before the technology can be effective.

Despite all years of experience in public sector technology, Treadwell has no technology qualifications and started out in change management.

Her first public sector role was as the South Australian government’s director of strategic services. Two years later, she went national by getting involved in the creation of Centrelink, turning it into one of the first one-stop shops for citizens.

She moved to Canberra and became the new organisation’s first chief information officer (CIO) and deputy CEO of digital business.

‘It was a big job going from a state department to having 1,500 staff members whose task was not just to continue to do things they did, but also to be focused on customer satisfaction,’ she says.

‘As the IT people, we had to create self-service. This had never been done before. And, the then Prime Minister [John Howard] wanted the internet to be one of the key tools.

‘We also had to cut our budget or make savings of a billion dollars over five years while providing a means by which government services were made available easily with respect and accountability.

‘It was a fantastic opportunity to do everything at once, rather than just taking a piecemeal approach.’

Treadwell says when setting up the IT system, it wasn’t always clear what was going to be required by legislation until almost the day it was to go live.

‘There might have been a two-year lead time and we had to build three systems in the event that Parliament chose to go one way or another,’ she says.

‘My job was to explain the reality of all sides and get some sort of recognition of how to move forward as an organisation.’

But Treadwell says her team delivered on what the prime minister wanted. ‘We made those dollar savings and we lifted customer satisfaction to 85 per cent,’ she says.

‘We also created new governance processes and looked at how we could be transparent and accountable. We built an IT constitution and gave warranties for the software internally.’

After over seven years at Centrelink, Treadwell took a job as CIO at the Victorian government’s Department of Premier and Cabinet. Again her work involved bringing government agencies together and upgrading the department’s digital capability and security.

‘Six months into my life in Melbourne, the World Bank came looking for an expert in e-government and they thought I was perfect for that task,’ she says.

‘They recognised what we had been doing at Centrelink and believed that developing countries might be able to benefit and leapfrog on the back of that knowledge and experience.

‘That was a defining moment for me. Suddenly, the area of impact and influence was global.’

Treadwell joined the World Bank as a consultant and was responsible for helping countries in South America and Asia adopt and implement technology and e-government to improve their economies and service to the public.

She set up an advisory network for developing country CIOs, enabling them to draw on the experience of the CIOs in the United Kingdom, Canada, Singapore and various state governments in the United States.

She left the World Bank for a while to become CEO of the Australian Centre for Excellence in Public Sector Design, a pilot project aimed at testing the value of design thinking techniques across the public sector.

‘It was created around the time when everyone was looking at innovation in the private sector and there were questions as to its value in the public sector,’ says Treadwell. ‘It involved a combination of everything that I’d been focused on before.’

When the pilot project ended, Treadwell re-joined the World Bank on a full-time basis, again helping to lift the digital capability of developing countries but also working to shift the digital mindset within the bank itself.

She was also involved in systems governance. ‘The concept was that you can have regulatory, technology governance or financial governance, but unless they’re cohesively created and you can see the linkages and the influences of one over another, it’s not going to work for organisations or countries.’

After five full-time years at the World Bank, Treadwell joined Amazon Web Services (AWS). ‘Essentially, I was again guiding governments on how they could deploy technology effectively to achieve their missions. But this time, it was about looking at where the cloud might fit in and helping people come to terms with cloud as a shared infrastructure.’

Treadwell believes COVID forced governments to realise that working in silos wasn’t going to do.

‘How were they going to support people, schools and hospitals when they were locked down?’ she asks.

‘Cloud became instrumental in providing access and connectivity to the tools of the day from the home.

‘Interestingly enough, the Ukraine/Russian war highlighted that governments under attack might lose their way of operating if their technology and connectivity were dismantled.

‘So Ukraine kept all of its critical data out of Ukraine, on things called snowballs, which is AWS infrastructure, to the Ukrainian embassy in London on the basis that that its government would be able to operate from London if it needed to.

‘So life has been on of the most amazing disruptors, forcing  governments to work across departmental structures and to look at what’s critical and how to protect it.

‘It’s also forced governments to realise that they can’t do things alone and cross-sectoral partnerships and arrangements can be much more effective.

‘For someone who’s been in the game for a long time and has tried to argue the case for disruption, or where organisations can do things differently, it’s only under these types of significant threats that I’ve seen these big shifts.’

These days, Treadwell has slowed down. She still does a bit of consulting advisory work and is focused on her artistic skills. ‘I am almost at the point of having sold my first painting and I look for things I have a personal interest in to make use of my experience.’

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