Talking About a More Digital Government

Damon Rees - CEO of Service New South Wales

September 29, 2021 Code for Australia Season 1 Episode 4
Talking About a More Digital Government
Damon Rees - CEO of Service New South Wales
Show Notes Transcript

We speak with Damon Rees, the Chief Executive Officer of Service NSW. Damon has led his team through some unprecedented times, from the horrific bushfires that have swept our nation, through to the current pandemic. All the while Service NSW have managed to innovate their ways of working and share their learnings along the way. We speak with Damon about what makes the team successful, the role digital has in service provision, and much more.

For a full transcript and links to the resources mentioned, head to this post

Credits and thank yous:
The show is hosted by Esther Semo and Sean Hua. Consulting producer is Daniel Semo. Podcast artwork designed by Nigel Moyes with illustrations by Indah Ibrahim. Music by Daniel Semo. 

This episode is brought to you by Code for Australia
Code for Australia are a for-purpose organisation working in collaboration with public sector teams and the tech community to help create a world class digital government

Sean Hua 0:01 
We’d like to start by acknowledging that this podcast was written and recorded in two different parts of Australia. We would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, as well as the Bidjigal people of the Eora Nation. We pay our respects to their elders past, present, and emerging, and extend these respects to any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples listening today. This always was, and always will be, aboriginal land.

Esther Semo 0:30 
Hi, welcome to Talking About a More Digital Government, a podcast by Code for Australia. My name is Esther and I'm Code for Australia's Head of Community and Communications. I'm newish to the world of digital and I'm super keen to learn as much as I can for my guests, and our listeners.

Sean Hua 0:47 
And I'm Sean, Design Lead for Civic Makers, a tech focused community initiative. I've worked with local Government as well as on tech teams looking from the outside in, and I'm endlessly curious about the ways tech can be leveraged for the public good. Throughout this podcast series, we're going to be asking big questions, highlighting cool innovations, and showcasing some of the incredible work that's happening in Government departments and teams around Australia.

Esther Semo 1:12 
Today, we're beyond thrilled to be speaking with Damon Rees, the Chief Executive Officer of Service New South Wales. Damon has led his team through some unprecedented times from the horrific bushfires that swept our nation through to the current pandemic. All the while Service New South Wales have managed to innovate their ways of working and share their learnings along the way. We speak with Damon about what makes the team successful, the role digital hasn't service provision, and much more. Please welcome Damon.

Damon Rees 1:45 
My name is Damon Rees, I'm the Chief Executive Officer of Service New South Wales, I've had the distinct privilege of being part of the service team for probably about four, four and a half years now. Prior to that, I was the New South Wales Government's Chief Information and Digital Officer. And I guess most of my background has been in digital and technology.

Esther Semo 2:07 
First of all, what's the term service mean to you? And how does it help set the direction for Service New South Wales?

Damon Rees 2:13 
So it's a great question to start with, what does service mean to me? I guess we always try and think about the customer and the whole customer that's in front of us and what's going on in their life? And what is it that they're trying to achieve? Or what is it that they particularly need help with? And so sometimes that's, that's more than just maybe the, the particular transaction that they're trying to do with us at the time. That transactions often fitting into something else that's going on in their life. And so I think when I think about service, it is it is taking that more complete view around what would success look like for the customer? And how do we play our part in helping them helping them to get there?

Esther Semo 2:53 
Can you talk to us a bit about how the digital and the non digital work, you do complement each other?

Damon Rees 2:59 
I guess the way that we think about this starts with the customer. So we don'tsort of think about digital as an end in its own right, we think very much about the customer. And we think about choice, we think about convenience, we think about these things for customers. And so when you start from there will actually, depending on the customer, and depending on what they're trying to do, and when they're trying to do and what's going on in their lives, actually sometimes digital will be a really great answer to that. You know, for some customers doing something like renewing the, the car registration each year, actually, by far the best customer experience for them the easiest customer experiences to do that, on the couch, using your mobile phone in a couple of minutes whilst you're watching your, your show of choice. 

But for other customers where you're trying to do something that is more complex, or, maybe it is something that you're not confident in, maybe you're thinking about starting a new business, and you're thinking about starting that business in New South Wales. Well, there's a level of confidence that you want, there's a level of empathy that you need, there's a level of problem solving and interaction there that you have some of our customers actually you want that you want that support from one of our fantastic teammates. And so I guess I think about digital in two ways. The first is as one of our range of choices for our customers, and for many of our customers, their preferred choice for some of the things they're trying to do. But I think the other thing at the end, is it really enables us to use our incredible team for the things that are the most valuable work they can do. And as more and more of maybe the more straightforward or simple or commodity type things like renewing this or applying for that, as customers choose to do more on that more of that digitally, it frees our people up for those higher value offerings. You know, which need the empathy, which need the problem solving skills, which need the care and support that our frontline teammates provide. Will they get the opportunity to do that, if our team is spending all of their time on, on the more straightforward tasks.

Esther Semo 5:17 
That's a really great delineation that if those most straightforward tasks are handled digitally, then it frees up time for the more complicated or human centric tasks.

Damon Rees 5:26 
Yeah, that's right. And I think the other thing to think about there is, for some of us, digital is, the easiest and the best way for us to do something, but some of our customers actually say the opposite is true. And, and so, we can focus our team helping those people who maybe don't have access to digital services, or don't have the knowledge or the confidence, or the ability to access those digital services, we can put more care and attention into those people, as our digital services take care of, maybe the majority of our customers in some of these areas.

Esther Semo 6:03 
So we recognise that digital service units like Service New South Wales play a key role in building capability, as well as software. We'd love to talk about the opportunities for your partner agencies in this model, the sorts of challenges that you feel you can best solve together.

Damon Rees 6:17 
Services New South Wales really doesn't do anything without, partnering with some other, either part of Government or some, sometimes organisations outside of Government. So, for us partnership is, is in our DNA, it's a core part of our strategy, we want to be a really, really great partner for, for other organisations, for a couple of reasons. You know, when organisations, work with Service New South Wales to deliver outcomes, they're placing a lot of trust in us and vice versa. And we want to make sure that we earn trust as a great partner. The other side is, though, to me, success is not great customer service, success is ultimately a great customer outcome. 

That isn't just about the person that greets you, or the person that helps you or the quality of the digital, the mobile app that we that we put in front of you, but but it's, it's the end to end process, it's the policies that underpin everything, it's the business rules that sit around it. To get to get a customer to the outcome that they need, we might be able to focus on providing great customer service on our own, but we can't achieve customer, great customer outcomes without really working with agencies to optimise the end to end experience and the end to end value chain of what's going on. So partnerships, absolutely critical. 

I think our partners, will often bring, different perspectives. And I think that diversity of perspective, as we partner with agencies is really powerful. You know, the goal there, I think, is to find the alignment. You know, in the olden days, we'd sort of think well, gee, we can either give a great customer experience, or we can uphold some form of, regulatory policy. And I think everyone is understanding actually, that that's a false dichotomy, we can actually deliver a great customer experience and a great regulatory outcome. It's not about the customer always getting necessarily the answer that they personally want. But it is around the quality of the experience they have along the way. Do they feel that they're dealt with with respect and empathy? You know, Is their time valued? Do we minimise the effort on them? Do we provide a transparent experience so that they understand what's happening? What happens next? What happened? And why did it happened? Yeah, that they're all elements of the customer experience that, even if a customer gets to the end of that, and doesn't doesn't get the answer they'd like, the customer experience is still, he's still very transparent. That sense of fair processes is there and, and we find that that's really important for our customers.

Esther Semo 9:04 
New South Wales Government has published a number of resources that have been referenced by Government teams around the world. Why is it important for you to open source your methodology and architecture? And do you have any advice for any other agencies with ambitions to participate in that more open style of Government?

Damon Rees 9:20 
One of the things I love about public services, you're not in competition with anybody and no one owns the customer. The people that we're helping are also interacting with the private sector, the not for profit sector. People will move between, domestic jurisdictions, and so there's no competition there. If you genuinely care about your customer, then you care about the quality of experience they have not just with you, but with, but with other organisations that play a role in their lives. So I think that that'll be our sort of starting mindset for this. I think the second thing would be no has all the ideas or the resources or the money or the capacity to do everything, you’re teammates. The most obvious thing in the world to kind of share those resources and collaborate on those resources to, to lift all boats to, to kind of use that expression. And I think the opportunities there are just absolutely profound, the New South Wales Government, I think, has and continues to produce some fantastic assets, and of course so do other jurisdictions and so does the private and the not for profit sectors and, the the upside for everybody and ultimately for customers, if we can get better sharing and leverage of those, those assets, I think it's probably the greatest prize that's, that's there for us to, to take through really open sharing and collaboration.

Esther Semo 10:53 
Have you seen an increase in collaboration? Is that becoming more of a norm? Do you think in recent times,

Damon Rees 11:01 
I think I've been in public service for about six years now. So I don't have the breadth of perspective that some will have and my time has all been within the New South Wales public service. I must say, since joining there has been a really good level of collaboration going on. That has been my personal observation, and it’s gotten stronger and stronger over the last six years. You know, I'm almost always in discussions personally, that are really collaborative and productive, whether they're going across the sector or across jurisdictions, I very rarely find myself in a discussion where different teams and different individuals are really resisting, the opportunity to kind of work together for the for the greater good. And I think that focus on customers plays a role there, because you can sometimes look at the problem through the narrow lens of the particular role that you sit in, or the particular organisation you sit in. And sometimes you can reach different conclusions, because you've come from different starting points or different perspectives. Let's get back to what matters for this customer, and how do we get the best outcome? You know, often that's the secret to finding your way back to collaboration and alignment in my experience.

Esther Semo 12:32 
Okay, the question we have to ask: how has COVID changed Service New South Wales?

Damon Rees 12:38 
It's a great question. It's a very, very, very big question. You know, on some level, I'm tempted to say we were built for these times, we were made for these times. You know, and if we knew that, back in the day, and we certainly would never wish these times at all, but there were some things that have been important to us for a long time, right? How do we maintain that relentless commitment to our customer, and of course, to our team, to our team that serves those customers. And so like all organisations, COVID has impacted us in many, many ways. But we've come through that together, and we've come through that really strongly as a team, and that team has come through that, with that unwavering commitment to play the role that we can to help our customers through through what's going on. I think the second thing I'd say is we've valued for a long time, the agility that we need to have as an organisation in order to be genuinely customer centric, such as about serving customers well, but it's about listening well, and it's about being able to adapt well, as you as you get that feedback from your customers around where they need us to be different or better. And so agility has been in our DNA for a long time now. And the last, the last year and a half of COVID. And before that, bushfires and floods, one of the things that was that's been required, I think, is a, a step change in the level of agility of particularly, Governments to be able to navigate and adapt and respond through through COVID. And so I think, it's, it's our agility, as an organisation has really, shown its worth. Through that actually, Services was playing amuch bigger role than we ever would have kind of predicted around things like helping communities recover from, things like the bushfires. And we've become really the primary vehicle by which I think, maybe not probably, has become certainly an important part of the way the Government has delivered sort of large scale responses, right. rapidly across the state, whether that's on things like closing borders or travel permits, or whether it's business support, or whether it's stimulus through things like the diamond discover vouchers, or, increasingly, Government with New South Wales Government, asks that of service use of Wales, because we've got this, we've got, we've got this now this asset as, as a state of New South Wales, that, that can deliver a great customer outcome can adapt very, very quickly, and can keep working with and learning quickly, with customers to make that the best experience it can be under, under very, very high pressure circumstances.

Esther Semo 15:41 
Yeah, and one of the things we tend to hear a lot is that COVID is a magnifying glass. And I think Service New South Wales is a great example of, when the system is already working, you can adapt it quickly.

Damon Rees 15:52 
That's right. And I think, look, I'm sure hopefully, through a bit through judgement abd I'm sure through a little bit through luck. But, we had we had been building the strengths and building the foundations, that were really kind of called into action, over the last couple of years, and we've been able to step into that challenge, we've been able to grow remarkably. And look, it's stretched us, across every dimension, and there's a lot of incredibly, incredibly committed hard working people in Service New South Wales that are getting a little tired, right? It's been, it's been a two year sprint for many of us. And we're not unique, our colleagues across the sector are just extraordinary. But it has been a long slog, and the journey changes, I think the thing we're thinking about now is, how do we consolidate that extraordinary kind of growth, not just in the volume of our services, but the nature of our services now that there's people depending on us 24 hours a day, seven days a week in a way that people didn't depend on us a few years ago. So we're needing to revisit different aspects of our organisation to make sure that we can deliver on that. We typically received funds on behalf of the Government. But this year, we'll pay out probably $5 billion or more in grants over the next few months. So how does that need a different set of capabilities and a different set of rigours, and foundations to deliver on? And, of course , having run at such a pace now for years, how do we sustain that pace? And how do we sustain the wellbeing of our incredible team along the way, so that we can continue to be there with the, with the energy and the responsiveness that, that we know, we're going to need for our customers in the days, weeks, months ahead.

Esther Semo 18:08 
I did want to talk about the team. So that's a nice little segue. We'll start with a bit of a history lesson for those that don't know. So Service New South Wales was one of the first agencies to have in-house technologists. So in your view, how does having in-house developers and designers change things as opposed to procuring vendors?

Damon Rees 18:28 
We think it's, what's the right thing for the right times? Always. So there are things we do within our own context, if you like. But I think there was a point a little while ago, where we said, look, actually, if you think about the experience that customers have, of Service New South Wales, actually a lot of our customers, for a lot of their interactions, that experience is digital. And so the person that designs that experience, the person that builds that experience, the person that improves that experience, the product managers, the designers, the engineers, they are as core to our organisation, as the concierge that greets you, when you walk into your local Service New South Wales. And so I think we started right from there. And then in terms of our operating model, what we hold dear internally versus what we partner with industry for. It changed our view of that actually, we need these capabilities to be part of our organisation. And I think there was two drivers. The first was that the second one was, our commitment as an organisation to agility led us to things like lean, agile, cross functional, highly autonomous, long lived teams. You know, our ability to be able to iterate Quickly not not just once or twice, not just not just for a day or a week, but sustainably at scale, all of that took us to a very different, place in terms of the people that we needed to have the sourcing constructs that we needed to have, that we needed, the architecture and the platforms that underpin our services, all of that needed to change together to give us the organisation that we are now. Of course, there's still a role for partners, when it comes to service providers, but it's a different role, actually, it's not, it's not sort of running and designing the core of our business, and it's certainly not coming in, doing something important, and then going going away, we have that core of our business now. And partners augment that from time to time, or if we need something very specialist, but our view is, quite simply, that this is our business. And it's too important to give out to other people. You know, it needs to be, it needs to be part of who we are and how we deliver.

Esther Semo 21:12 
That's what we love to hear. So delving a little further into the team Service New South Wales presents a relatively unique opportunity for technologists to work in Government. And you've mentioned some of those roles already. I know there's a lot coming up at service, New South Wales in terms of job opportunities. Can you talk to us a little bit about what the team is like? And what kind of capabilities you're looking for in people that might potentially want to join?

Damon Rees 21:38 
Yeah, absolutely. So I get away with a bit of a shameless plug as well? It's a wonderful, wonderful team to be a part of fantastic culture, incredibly purposeful work, complex work, dynamic, contemporary. It's kind of a mix of all the things that you want, when it comes to digital. About four years ago we said, agility is so fundamental to us. Who do we learn from? And look, we looked to the Netflix's of the world, and the Spotifys, and the Amazons. We looked at those organisations that were really pioneers, and leaders in what truly agile digital organisations look like. So our digital services, lean, agile, cross functional teams, product managers, designers, engineers, they think about their product, they design the product, they build the product, they improve the product, they own the product. We have about 60, those products, squads or teams, whatever your choice of languages. You know, it's contemporary technologies, we embed a lot of extreme programming practices through what we do. So a lot of test driven development, pair programming, in a lot of those disciplines that are about not just moving quickly. We're in a very API centric kind of organisation, a mobile experience that is becoming a greater and greater part of what our customers experience. There's lots of cool technology at play there, behind the scenes, eally, that there's nothing that holds us back, other than our own ability and our own aspiration to move forward. We've got some legacy, like every organisation, but we can't wait to get rid of it. We are constantly sort of pushing ourselves, technically and in the ways that we work to deliver the very, very best outcomes we can. And so I think my pitch to people would be, I think you get to do things that really matter, and make a big difference to lots of people and increasingly, lots of businesses. You get to do it as part of incredible empowered teams and with incredible teammates.

You get to work on some really, really interesting and complex stuff, particularly as we start to get into things where experiences go beyond sort of, just New South Wales. You know, we partner with the Commonwealth at the moment around things in the vaccination certificate space, we work with other parts of Government around how do you bring experiences together, through a life journey that a customer is going through. Fascinating work around digital identity, and how can we fundamentally, take the friction and effort and in some cases risk out of experiences in the future, that there's really no ceiling on what we can do here other than our own collective ability and energy. And I think that's just really energising and a fantastic thing to be a part of. 

The two things that we're looking for, before we look for anything else is his attitude and aptitude. So for us, this particular technical skill, that all changes, week in week out, but but but the permanent one for us is, are we bringing people in that genuinely care about the mission that we're on, care about making the biggest difference? Do we have that attitude of people that are really committed to what we're doing? And the second is the aptitude, if there's one thing that’s certain, it's that we're going to need to learn how to do something new tomorrow. I think my final message to anyone that hasn't spent any time working in public service, I think it can be an incredibly rich part of people's careers, and whether it's forever, whether it's for a long time, or whether it’s just coming in to make a short contribution. I think that's one of the great opportunities - if we can harness more of the incredible talent that's out there, for public good. And I think it, my guarantee to anybody that comes from the private sector, is I think it'll be one of the richest and most enjoyable learnings that you would take in your professional career, whether you stay for a short while, or a longer.

Esther Semo 26:51 
Great pitch. So you spoke a little bit about that idea of growth. So how do you cope with it? What are the plans for figuring out how to grow in a sustainable way?

Damon Rees 27:04 
The answer is often not easily, and it depends a little bit on the part of the team that we're talking about. The way that will cope with growth in our contact centres, for example, or our service centre teams is different to the digital space. I think specifically about digital, you can't just click your fingers, and double your teams overnight. And even if you get the people, if you get the talent that quickly, actually, there's a method to it and there's a need to do it right. So that the quality outcomes are there and so that whatever we do, will actually be sustained and will deliver for customers 24 by seven. When I think about scaling in the digital space, how do you sort of progressively accelerate rather than trying to go straight from first year to fourth gear? You've kind of got to, rapidly get through the gears. And look, there's a number of things we do - with we've got really rich engineering guilds and design guilds, etc. So there's a lot of learning that takes place in our organisation, because we embed things like extreme programming and pair programming, for many of our engineers, they'll spend a lot of their week, in a constant sort of, two way coaching exercise, which, from a learning perspective, in a development perspective, it's just fantastic. And, of course, our senior folk, that they're learning from our new engineers, and vice versa. So it's very much a two way exercise. And then look, I think, an awful lot of that learning is through doing. We've got people that are early in their careers. But they're on the tools, they're on the work, they're part of producing the outcome like everybody else is and I think there's often no better way to learn. We make mistakes, but we embrace that, we learn from them, we try and disseminate those learnings. We're never we're never pursuing perfect, we're just relentlessly pursuing better, I guess.

Esther Semo 29:28 
And finally, we'd love to ask you the question that we ask all of our guests, what would you like a public servant to know?

Damon Rees 29:35 
I'd like every public servant to know that the work they do really matters and is really appreciated, that would be the first thing if I could lead with one thing. The role that we play in societies in some areas, is a big role. Every now and then, the tide of public sentiment will be with us and every now then it will turn against us. But when I look across the public sector, not just the people, in teams like Service New South Wales, but, to our teachers and to our nurses, and, all the incredible roles hat I think, do such important work - I think the first thing would be, don't ever forget that the work you do really, really matters. And even if the headline of the day doesn't say so, it’s valued and appreciated by someone somewhere, I think that'd be the first thing. 

And then the second thing, I think to the journey that we're on around customers, it's thinking about, for all of us, not just the thing that we're doing, but, the experience that had that somebody has, as part of that, and the role that whatever we're doing sort of plays within the context of the life that the person that we were dealing with.  I think that's the journey we're on. As a Government, it's not just the policy that I enforce, or it's not just the transaction I do. But thinking about the, the whole person that I'm that I'm serving along the way and the experience that they have, and I think if we can all, find a way to put that lens on what we're doing and how we do it right across public service, I think that's how we, we march forward on this mission to be the world's most customer centric Government.

Esther Semo 31:30 
A big thank you to Damon Rees for taking the time to speak with us. To learn more about some of the work that Service New South Wales is doing, or to find out about the resources mentioned, head to the show notes provided. In our next episode, we're gonna be diving into circular economy initiatives within the digital Government space. I hope you'll join us until next time...