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Tom Burton Talks Digital

Tom Burton’s discussion of digital transformation during his keynote address at DrupalGov 2016 was frank and enlightening.

Salsa Digital 9 March 2016

Burton’s background

Starting off in journalism, Tom Burton was the executive editor at The Sydney Morning Herald and chief political correspondent The Australian Financial Review before setting up his own digital business He also worked for the Center for American Progress in the US and was Chair of the Walkley Foundation for seven years. He now runs The Mandarin, where journalism, government and tech meet.

It was during his time at the Center for American Progress in DC (2008-2010) that he first “started to see interplay between technology and government and engagement.” And now, Burton is uniquely placed to deliver key insights on digital transformation.

The big picture

One of the first things Burton talked about during his keynote address was the importance of the big picture — and how easy it is in the technology sector to lose sight of the big picture. To help the audience fully appreciate the big picture, Burton addressed several key drivers for the future…and where we are now.

“Definitely government is starting to feel the hot breath of big digital disruption,” he said. After noting that media and commerce were affected earlier, he described government as resisting and how smart phones have changed everything by empowering citizens.

Burton noted how technology is being used to rapidly organise what he calls tribes. “Movements that would have taken 20-30 years to take hold are throwing their weight around.” The example Burton gave — gay marriage, a movement he reckons would have taken 30 years to get moving in the 1970s, but it’s moved so quickly because of technology and smart phones. The second example he gave was raising awareness of domestic violence, and he specifically noted Destroy the Joint and its counter tracking the number of women killed by violence in Australia.

“The tribes are empowered and they’re moving quickly. Big government is really struggling with that concept.” In fact, Tom Burton then went on to admit that everyone’s struggling with it and that one of our jobs over the next five to 10 years is to navigate through all these changes in a sensible way. As he said: It “will be noisy and it will test us.” He then likened our current position to “the silent movie phase of the web — we’re still trying to work it out.”

New business models

Burton gave the examples of Apple, Google and Facebook as new business models and platforms that confront government in many ways, both in their ability to communicate directly with people, but also in terms of the regulation around these business giants and their services. These types of business models and platforms are “very big and moving fast and consolidating at a very rapid rate.”

Another new business model Burton noted was the shared economy: websites/apps such as Uber and Airbnb. He noted that Uber has already disrupted parts of the economy and talked about its use of peer-to-peer reviews, where the taxi driver rates the customer and vice versa. Burton said this begged the question: “Do I need regulation anymore to manage and register taxi drivers?...My view would be no.” This is, of course, very challenging for government.

Driverless cars challenging government

Burton also touched on driverless cars as a new technology that’s challenging governments. The State of California put out a draft policy that indicated someone would need to be sitting behind the wheel of driverless cars — but Google says it’s humans who are the problem in terms of accidents. Volvo agrees, and Burton talked about Volvo’s mandate to reduce deaths in Volvos to zero by 2020…but to do that, they need driverless cars. “We will see really interesting worldwide debate about this.” Burton said. “Really big moving pieces, really confronting government.”

After these examples, Burton talked about the fact that Australia is certainly not alone, saying that “government is struggling everywhere.”

The public sector

In the public sector, Burton sees two main forces in digital transformation right now — digitisation and service unification. In terms of digitisation he mentioned Turnbull’s goal of digitising the majority of government services by 2017 and some of the other big players in the field such as South Australia, the DTO and at a higher level the Australian Government’s emphasis on innovation.

On service unification he said, “Service unification in many ways is pushing things harder than the actual digitisation process itself.” He gave Service NSW as a leading example of this…a site that took 400 services and “crunched them together.”


Burton stressed the need for government agencies to think in terms of outcomes. “Focusing on outcomes gets a very different answer to the problem. It’s a very powerful process.” This outcome-focus is something Burton said the US is picking up big time, and often this means commissioning others to do it; government listening to external providers’ solutions.

His example: the NSW Government’s Child Story, a platform that unifies dealings with at-risk children; and an example of the government going to market and asking for solutions. Burton talks about it as an “interesting case study of what new government will look like…much more outward focused.”

Efficiency and rationalisation

Burton then went on to talk about the need for government to be more efficient. He warned that there will be rationalisations and mentioned the “large layers of bureaucratic costs sitting in our system.”

He named govCMS as a good example of high-efficiency thinking and cited the fact that three years ago the average cost to build a website in the Commonwealth was a bit over $2 million…an unnecessary expense in Burton’s opinion.

But things are changing. “We’re in a great period of political enlightenment at the moment,” Burton said, referring to Turnbull as a prime minister who’s told the public sector to get on with it.

Agency collaboration

One of the important actions Burton discussed was the need for the agencies to talk to each other across the local, state and federal levels. “…agencies have to talk to each other…we’ve got to plot the journey end-to-end.” From the consumer perspective, he said, “What people want…is to sign in once, tell government once and want a set of automated features.” They want it all in one place, which is a huge challenge under Australia’s federated system, but as Burton said: “If we don’t get digital identity sorted we’ll all be running around in circles.”

Government as data layer

During his keynote, Burton referred to different ‘pieces’ of the digital transformation puzzle. One such piece was data. He discussed the importance of data in digital transformation in government but pushed it further, suggesting that “Government really becomes data layer, doesn’t need to be playing at application level so much…profound change, ideologically and a structural change.”

Government platforms

Another different approach Burton outlined was in relation to government platforms and building on existing, corporate solutions. As an example, he questioned the government’s spend of $450 million on a welfare distribution platform. “Provocatively I’d say, you know what, we actually have four banks that do this really well, really well…I think we’ve got payment platforms already built and we could build on top of that. Got to start provoking ourselves.”

Burton puts tax in the same boat and said they were “two big platforms we could really challenge ourselves with. Got to start those debates.”

Systems not hierarchy

Burton advocated the “Need to think in system levels rather than hierarchical levels,” and the need for a “strong vision [to] drive this thing at platform level.” Here he talked about the different government agencies, but also the fact that often IT and comms aren’t connected. In addition to these two areas working together, Burton said to push the importance of digital transformation these teams should be sitting next to the CEO’s office. “The CEO’s got to feel that pace, and that movement. It gives it the importance it’s got to have.”

Burton’s quick tips

Burton gave lots of practical advice during his keynote, especially in his closing remarks. Below are some of the key points that we haven’t discussed in detail above.

  1. “Design for mobile first, then the desktop later… I’m a big fan of material design, that people touch rather than click. It’s very different…so that whole UX starts to change.”

  2. “Take an industrial approach…have big, heavyweight strategy because government’s about long term” (not just a quick fix).

  3. “Measure it into an inch of it’s life” (that’s how you get good feedback and user-centric design). Analytics are really important…got to get savvy about it. “Turn on real time in Google analytics…start understanding your Google analytic numbers.”

  4. “This idea that we just put stuff up and wonder how it will go has got to stop in government. Goals, set goals.”

  5. Content: “start with thinking about who’s going to consume this content and where…Distribution drives content.”

  6. Good content is hard…need to simplify it, using plain English and “80:20 is good rule. 80% of the people will consume 20% of the stuff. Focus on that 20%.”

  7. “Stay lite [sic] if you can…digital’s so quick moving…Don’t go building big. Build it lite, get it out there...improve it as you go.”

  8. User-centricity—government needs to get that right.

Salsa Digital’s take

Tom Burton’s keynote was a great example of a thought leader presenting ideas to challenge and improve government’s approach and processes. We’re looking forward to partnering with government agencies and being part of bringing digital transformation to life in Australia.

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