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MARIA MACNAMARA: My name is Maria MacNamara and I’m the CEO of Advance.org. Today I’m joined by Minister Victor Dominello, the Minister for Customer Services in the NSW government. Hello Minister.

VICTOR DOMINELLO: Hi Maria.

MARIA MACNAMARA: It’s great to see you, we’ve had a relationship that now goes back 6 years.

VICTOR DOMINELLO: Absolutely, and you don’t look a second older. 

MARIA MACNAMARA: This is going to be a great conversation. Minister, the reason I wanted to invite you into this conversation is because you’re doing something that governments around the world and organisations around the world, especially in australia, are turning their attention to, and that’s the transformation of product and service delivery to their customers, both to take customers out but more importantly to improve the quality of services and the experience of their customers and users. So, before we get to what it is you’re doing now, what was the preparation for this adventure because it didn’t just happen, you spent quite a bit of time, first in data then understanding what was happening in other ecosystems before you chose to begin this work.

VICTOR DOMINELLO: I think it really started when I was a lawyer. I was a commercial litigator, I remember being involved in a really complex case and we literally subpoenaed everything that moved and this was in the 90s and back then, I had access to an excel spreadsheet. Traditionally what you would normally do would get pens and paper out, pour over documents, read it, work through a chronology, what I did, one night is, put all the chronology into an excel spreadsheet and did a magic thing called sort. All of a sudden I got the chronology not based on what the witnesses’ version of events were, but what the document’s version was. I had the actual facts, based on documents, then the witness’ scratchy recollection. It provided a great cross examination tool to say, well hold it, you said it was sky but the forecast said x. We won the case so, that really embedded the power of data to me. I got into Government, Aboriginal Affairs, and realised there was not much data and architecture around the policy work we were doing. Better regulation, was another area where we had to put a lot of effort into data. I guess I’m here now in the Department of Customer Service where data, digital and customer are part of everything we do.

MARIA MACNAMARA: Talk to me about your experience with data, you set up the Data Analytics Center in NSW and that’s been a really important foundation stone for the work you’re doing now.

VICTOR DOMINELLO: Again, the Data Analytics Centre was the first of its kind in the country and one of the leaders in the world when it comes to bringing all the data together in a safe and secure way. That’s because I got frustrated inside a government that agencies were not talking to one another. That’s what we normally see inside a government, every agency has their deep silo of expertise and they guard that ferociously, as they should, they should be proud of their expertise. The problem is, you could have these deep areas, but if there is no cross ventilation where people are sharing, that’s where you have disjointed services, suboptimal decisions. We set up the Data Analytics Centre, we have wicked problems inside the Government we need to solve. It’s not going to be solved one silo at a time. It has to be a whole Government lens. That’s where the DAC really started its journey. It really changed in response to the pandemic because on Day 2 of the pandemic, I’ve got the DAC, all the data from each agency coming together for the first time ever, sharing their own respective dashboards, insights and seeing how can they utilise the community of data, aggregated to ensure privacy, to get their outcomes.

MARIA MACNAMARA: That must be one of the untold stories of this pandemic, which is your use of data because when you look at your response in NSW compared to the response of other states and indeed other countries, there doesn’t appear to be the same resource available or at least the ability to harness that data and analyse it for better decision making. 

VICTOR DOMINELLO: I think that is true and I think Maria to your earlier point, we didn’t start this journey at the pandemic. It takes time to build up this capability. The DAC has been in play now for about 4-5 years. A lot of the barriers to sharing of information in a private and secure way are cultural. It’s not like it’s hard to share information but the cultural settings are in place. We built up those relationships over 4-5 years now where we can now flick the switch and we’re into the 5th gear pretty quickly. We were fortunate that we started this journey some time ago.

MARIA MACNAMARA: So there’s two things, this data, is it also available to members in the private sector, are they able to work with the Government to unlock the power of the data for better decision making in terms of the products and services they take to the market?

VICTOR DOMINELLO: Yes, again, this is a journey that does not have a destination. That has a destination that we will never reach. It’s like digital transformation, it’s a journey not a destination because we’re constantly evolving. So, we’re opening up as much data as we humanly can to make sure that we provide it to the market to help us provide better products and service delivery. For example, we opened up at a very early stage, the data relating to infection rates at a suburban level and a postcode level indeed. To this day I think, we’re providing more open data to the open market in relation to covid than anyone else. At a micro level, more than anybody else. That means the startup community can go out there, get the data and create their own products and services and that in turn creates more jobs and moves the economy forward. I’m a really keen advocate of open data because it goes with privacy, security, transparency and ethics, open data goes to transparency. 

MARIA MACNAMARA: So you talked about privacy, and I won’t make that the subject of this conversation because that’s a whole other conversation, but I will talk about cyber security because it is something that still has to find it’s feet and raise its profile amongst business and the community more widely. You’ve made a real effort with your cyber security so that you know you’re constantly under attack because you’re sitting on assets that others want. What’s your approach and what is your suggestion to both businesses small and large based on your experience.

VICTOR DOMINELLO: My approach is leadership. Unfortunately in most areas you need someone to champion it otherwise it just goes to the back of the bus. So we determine here in NSW to take a real leadership stance on cyber because as you said Maria, we’re gathering more and more information which makes us more and more, in many ways susceptible, our profile has lifted. So we have to make sure as we accelerate into that digital journey, we strengthen our cyber position. We have a 1.6 billion dollar digital restart fund. Of that, 240 million over 3 years is dedicated to cyber which really gives us strength. Not just here in Australia but we’ll lead the southern hemisphere with 240 million over 3 years, but a genuine world leader when it comes to cyber. Then we’re working with industries, we have the task on sovereign procurement, we have a standards task force that NSW is leading and we have great industry players there working with the government to say, how do we harmonise and standardise cyber standards across the board. We can then give that to the feds so they can then say we’re a world leader thanks to the NSW Government. Beyond that we’re getting other states on board as well and then there’s the regionalization approach to cyber. It can’t all be the eggs in the Sydney basket so we’re already making announcements in relation to cyber muscle in Bathurst for example, we have spatial services and with more announcements coming downstream. So everything we’re doing in the cyber space requires industry involvement because they’re at the cutting edge, but we need that partnership.

MARIA MACNAMARA: When you’re looking at customer services more broadly, what all of this data, and what the security enables you to do is begin your journey of transforming the services confidently so that you can serve the people of NSW in a much better way. So, you began with service NSW which is a world leader and that was a precursor to the transformation we’re seeing now. What can you tell us from your experience with Service NSW. 

VICTOR DOMINELLO: If I had to talk about what is the secret sauce, or the magic behind service it’s about putting the EQ at the front and the IQ at the back and then you have that alchemy that creates the magic. It’s easy for government to go out there and say, alright we’re going to have a world class service front door like we’ve created with Service NSW and all we’re going to do is get an old agency like we used to have the RNS or the RTA or whatever it was, and just put a new logo over the top and say, now we’re going to have world class service delivery. That doesn’t work, that doesn’t change the culture. So what we did is we started, literally from scratch, if we really, truly want to put service at the heart of what we’re doing, let’s go out there and find people that enjoy serving people. There are some people that quite frankly should not be behind a desk, who shouldn’t be near people, should be doing their own thing. So we went out to the market, got people people and brought them in and then got the best people skills within government, combined it. Then we said, alright, let’s build some digital platforms so that when I’m serving a customer I can do it fast because of the digital smarts behind me. That was the beginning of our journey, it evolved with new product and service delivery on top of that.

MARIA MACNAMARA: So let’s talk about those digital services. Because, when you look at the website for NSW, you know very clearly and very quickly that you are entering the NSW portal and it’s simple, it’s clear, it has the same attractiveness in terms of user experience as the one in the UK Government and what’s really important is that we know that this is the place to go when you have questions. That single entry point for services out of NSW, obviously it is cheaper to do it on a digital platform than in person, but you still offer the in person, you still offer the mail, it’s not as though you’ve killed off those options for those that want them, that your service experience digitally is much better.

VICTOR DOMINELLO: Spot on, in the digital transformation journey, I have to keep reminding myself that there are a lot of people out there that are not digitally savvy and that’s the reality, we all have different levels of maturity for my mum for example, I keep thinking about how will my mum access government services if everything goes online. That’s why when we set up Service NSW, the very first thing we did was set up the digital kiosk, you get a concierge at the front door as they say, g’day sir/madam, how can I help you, what do you  need, look I need to renew my license. You can go see the young man, or the lady at the counter, or alternatively, I can just walk you across to the kiosk and I can walk you through and show you how to do it online so that way you can do it at home. IE, we help people on their own digital maturation, and that’s critical because not everyone is going to be feeling comfortable to do it online. It’s an important inclusion in providing digital services. 

MARIA MACNAMARA: Then, when you’re looking at the service delivery over years, a service will gunk up, there’ll be legislative change, amendments, this, that, different ideas, and it becomes overly complex. You mentioned the digital licence, so, what sort of, I’m assuming that what you’ve done with a lot of your programs is mapped the user journey, seen all the pressure points and you’ve, over time, streamlined them to make it a really simple experience. What’s your experience been there, in terms of understanding how difficult it is for people and then what’s your experience being with your examples of the transformation. What sort of responses are you getting?

VICTOR DOMINELLO: It’s been overwhelming, all of the digital products I’ve personally rolled out, I insist that I have a sentiment check. I have 2 things, consistent on all digital products, I drive my department crazy with this but I insist on it, the first is I want a sentiment check, a simple thumbs up thumbs down. I want to gage, we’re in the ballpark, I don’t need a survey, a deep dive that takes too much time, people don’t have the time, just happy, I’m sad, that’s it. And then the engagement score. Of all the people that are using the service, how many are actually engaging with us to give the thumbs up, thumbs down. Then with the provision that people, they can give us feedback if they want to. So I’m constantly looking to see the feedback we’re getting, the engagement score and the sentiment, honestly Maria, for example the digital driver’s license, last time I checked, our satisfaction score is 96-97%. It’s just extraordinary. I don’t think i’ve got a digital product yet in the market that is less than 94%. You have a product, you’re actually testing it and the score is at 94%, you’re doing handstands, and we’re talking about products that are really complicated, that are easy to confuse with other players in the market. For example, with the checking service, some people are using the checking service but sometimes the QR reader doesn’t work because the vendor doesn’t have the service … so then they reflect poorly on us. Where it has nothing to do with us. You’re even weighing that in. You’re not withstanding all the other problems. People might be angry with the price of the petrol but it has nothing to do with us. So that might adversely impact on the score, but even those scores are at 95-96%. It is really comforting to know we’re delivering a good product. The best thing about it is, we get the comments and feedback in real time, if there’s a problem, we can see it. I don’t need a deep dive or a survey every 6 months or 12 months, I can be agile. For example, the checking feature now, Im looking at it this morning and some of  the feedback, it’s all anonymised so I don’t know whose giving the feedback, in fact I give myself my own feedback because i’m a secret CEO type thing, just make sure that my feedback is coming back on the loop. Some of the feedback now is saying, can we have a provision … dependence, so i’m going to pick up the phone, speak to my secretary and say, can we do this, there’s soon to be a demand for it. This is an agile government at its best.

MARIA MACNAMARA: In terms of your closeness to the market, you talked about picking up the phones to you secretary, what I’m hearing from you is this work is being done inside government, inside your team, not work that’s outsourced because you have the skills and capability inside the organisation.

VICTOR DOMINELLO: Absolutely, and I’m really proud of the team, they had built enormous capacity. And again, somebody was asking me the other day about the border check. When the Victorian second wave appeared, our headspace in NSW was, how do we open up more of the economy. We were absolutely on a path to opening everything up then all of a sudden we had a problem with the Victorian border, we had to close it down, picked up the phone literally on the Monday morning, gave the brief to the Department and said, you have to give me some digital border pass for the Victorian border and I knew that I can’t have it in two months, I can’t even have it in two weeks. Here’s the outbreak and people are coming across the border, we’ll have a second outbreak if we’re not careful. They had a border pass up within 36 hours. And let me say this, it wasn’t perfect, and we’ve constantly tweaked it, but they got it up in 36 hours. There’s no chance they would have been able to do that if they didn’t have that capability in the Department you’re talking about.

MARIA MACNAMARA: I think it’s close enough for the business. They have the capacity, they are able to respond, and you are like any other digital business which is, you are in control. It’s outstanding. What I find amazing also is you shift away from pdfs. Straight through processing is something close to my heart, I only want to tell you once I don’t want to keep telling you.

VICTOR DOMINELLO: Tell us once you approach, inform and consent, the PDFs, they drive me mad. If you enjoy paper do origami, but if you want a true digital experience it has to be end to end. I coined PDFs as a paper sandwich because, you can have the emails, emails are digital but if you’re putting a bit of paper as an attachment it’s a paper sandwich, and that’s rubbish. But this is the transformation we’re on. If people who have PDFs are … good, it’s just a small step up from paper quite frankly. We have to rapidly get out of that. It is a huge risk to cyber.

MARIA MACNAMARA: I’m going to ask you a difficult question now, if you don’t have people keying information, people doing the job of machines and machines are doing the job of machines, what happens to the people, are you retrenching staff or are you reskilling them.

VICTOR DOMINELLO: Reskilling them. What does service look like in 10-20 years. To your point, if everyone has got digital maturity, if I’ve done my job and there are no more epaper forms, and there is a truth …. if I’ve done my job and you can do everything online then why do we need people? That’s the reality. Well the answer is this, even now, we don’t understand each other that well. We need to invest in our people to improve our EQ skills. We’ve rolled out a new product in service where we’re training the staff now to pick up on cues in relation to mental health. In the bushfires, people would come in and it was obvious they had been under distress, in COVID people we’re under enormous pressure and mental anguish. We’re now training the staff to say look, have a bit of a dialogue with them, don’t just stay how can I do your license, have a bit of a heart to heart discussion with them so if you’re picking up any cues in relation to mental anguish, you can gently say hey look here’s a great support service. In many ways it becomes far more than just a simple transaction, it becomes a relationship and that is critical to service. Ultimately, if technology is there not to serve the people and help improve the quality of life or reduce suffering, then quite frankly technology is meaningless. In order to do that you need that human interface to help in that journey. 

MARIA MACNAMARA: That’s outstanding. Often when you’re looking at the sort of transformation that you’re doing, you’re having to shift your focus in terms of the platforms that you choose. Many of the platforms in big organisations are large institutional, expensive, difficult to move, and yet to be able to do what you want to do you need platforms that you can pay for on a credit card that you can swap in and out that are robust and you also don’t want to be stuck. So what’s your thinking and what’s your experience in terms of the reshaping of your platform strategy.

VICTOR DOMINELLO: For me, we have to have diversity in the ecosystem. There’s obviously the big players that can provide the big platforms that are tested and robust but equally, there’s the very vibrant startup community that we need to invest in to build capacity and where the big players need to partner with the small ones to lift them up as well. Constantly there are new products, new platforms coming into the market and we can’t be limited to one, pay a huge license fee and then get lazy and think, well they’ll do all the heavy lifting, we’ll pay the fee and roll things out. I am very much aware that diversity is key in delivery and when it comes to platforms, making sure that there’s a lot of operability in relation to it so that people can plug in. In many ways it’s the taxonomy, the data architecture that’s critical in the design so that when people do plug in they can.

MARIA MACNAMARA: What I’m really interested in now is the whole concept of, two parts, one procurement and two priorities. If you’re a high growth or a startup looking for your first customer, if you’re a high growth company that has gone overseas, an Australian founder who’s had to go overseas for their first customer, or if you’re an Australian company overseas who wants to come home, what is the best way? How do you procure in a way that makes it possible for them to get their first customer. Nobody wants a grant in a lot of cases, they want a customer, it’s a better relationship.

VICTOR DOMINELLO: We have buy.nsw.gov.au, and just recently I launched a light and stripe task force because I don’t want a task force to … they drive me crazy. So I got myself in an institute, I have a relationship with procurement, we have the 1.6 and we want to make sure that we use the 1.6, not just to get more uplift our digital skills and delivery, but to use the 1.6 as an economic enabler. I got some leaders in the NSW ecosystem to come on to the task force, I am taking the recommendation of the government as we speak because we want to make sure that it is easier, particularly for Australian SMEs to navigate through at pace and with clarity in relation to, not just the 1.6 but the broader IT spend across.

MARIA MACNAMARA: So let’s talk priorities now, you’ve reformed the way that you choose your program of work, you’ve reformed the way that decisions are made about how their money is distributed, you have the drip feed model, talk to me about that because that is quite radical. And it’s very different to the old days where a lump of money was given, and you didn’t see anything for 6 years and you hoped it worked. 

VICTOR DOMINELLO: The old model is the waterfall model and it was aptly described because what happiness is, you go out, it comes off the cliff and then 6 years later there’s a whole lot of bubble and froth and foam at the bottom and if you survive that’s great, but it was a terrible experience, but sometimes it just ended up in disaster at the bottom of the cliff. So that doesn’t work. Particularly things are changing so fast, you could understand how, maybe ten years ago, 15 years ago, when IT was in many ways still … you’d say well, this is new, we need to build this out slowly like your building the Opera House over 6-10 years. There’s nothing faster than IT now. Now we’re saying look., what we’ll do is give you an envelope of the 1.6 billion, if you have an education program you want to roll out, give us your envelope, alright you 100 million of the 1.6, fair enough. Now, we’ll just earmark that, at this stage, we promise not to give that 100 million anyone else, this is earmarked to you, we’re not going to give it to you. We’ll give you the first chunk of ten, go away, show me what your doing, show me your datas, digital design, your customer lens, show me my domo or my feedback trials on the platform, show me the thumbs up thumbs down, show me the customers are enjoying the product, great, I will give you another 10 million, what are you going to do with that. It really is a delivery and performance committee that is overseeing the role that they have in this. Is it perfect, no. Is it much better than before, absolutely. And are we evolving, definitely. So we’ve just really started the journey over 18 months, it is far different to what it used to be.

MARIA MACNAMARA: Also, the decision making to what could be built from scratch because it doesn’t exist, all the way through just buy it off the shelf because you can pay for it on a credit card, often the temptation is, well it’s not perfect for our needs therefore we need to customise, we need to build it just for us. Those sort of conversations must be difficult as well. It’s very easy in government and large organisations to say, we’re unique. 

VICTOR DOMINELLO: Everyone says we’re unique, but they’re the tough discussions you have to have. You honestly have to pressure test everything you hear. It’s a culture change. But, we’re definitely doing that here in NSW and I’m proud.

MARIA MACNAMARA: With all of this innovation that will be unlocked as you improve your focus on being a great customer, you become a magnet for talent, we’ve had 1 million people in the Australian diaspora all over the world, 300,000 have come home. We have a survey in the market at the moment and 20% of those people have indicated that they want to stay in Australia, and most of them want to stay in NSW and they want to start businesses and they want to invest in businesses. There’s also a significant proportion of about 1 third of them not returning to their work overseas. These are people who often are CEOs, senior management at the forefront of the digital revolution, at the forefront of financial services. What is it, how can we in NSW, and this is a model for other states as well, how do we attract that talent, retain that talent, how do we encourage them to bring others from their overseas ecosystem back to Australia, physically or digitally. How do we make it a destination for great talent and business?

VICTOR DOMINELLO: There’s two components, the first is, you need to be bold in your vision. We’re very fortunate here with the Premier, who gets this space, who understands the importance of NSW being a leader and therefore moving the country as well on this journey. That’s why she’s recently announced tech central, the aerotropolis, there’s so much smarts being put into this. And she gets it. We are not shy in our ambition, we are very bold. I don’t want to say aggressive but very bold in our ambition to be the world leader, to be a world leader in this space. That’s the first thing, the second thing is, you have to back it up. It’s one thing to have rhetoric, I could give soaring speeches, like Obama, be lyrical about where we need to be, but it becomes very empty, I’d become the emperor with no clothes if I don’t have a track record of delivery. That’s why, here in NSW, were lucky, we can be bold in our ambition and we can be complimenting that ambition because I can give you seven years of digital reform and the hard yards we put into place through the DAC, through Service NSW, through behavioural insights, thorough our response to COVID, etc, through the money we’re putting in, through our cyber, through the eplane, through e construction, there is so much happening. People can say, the rhetoric matches the reality, so next time they talk boldly, there’s a good chance they’ll deliver, I want to be there, I want to be part of that future.

MARIA MACNAMARA: That’s tremendous, particularly since there’s significant competition for this talent. Singapore has made clear what it wants to be good at, Ireland, Israel, Canada, they’ve all marked out their territory. In Australia when we go to the world they don’t see NSW, Victoria, they see centers of excellence. We have particular centers of excellence, computational linguistics, conversational AI, what would you like to see NSW known for?

VICTOR DOMINELLO: There’s so many areas, it’s like saying, who’s your favourite child. I’ll start with cyber because, it just goes to so many pieces, cyber is the proverbial seatbelt, the insurance. You cannot get into a car without having it. It goes to trust, and it goes to the geopolitical positioning of our great state and country as part of the 5 Is. If I could get NSW to a position where we really are a leader in cyber, in addition, because cyber goes to AI, it goes to everything else in the digital space, then I’ll be really pleased. We have the money for it, nobody else is going to match us, no one is close to putting 240 in terms of our population over 3 years.

MARIA MACNAMARA: One thing I’ve noticed in our conversation is your understanding of the transformation journey. Your ability to get your head around what’s required. That education process that you put yourself through, many executives now, who did their MBA 10 years ago will have to rethink how to prepare for this transformation. What was the journey you went on, what is it you paid most attention to and where did you look for inspiration.

VICTOR DOMINELLO To be honest, I’m lucky, I have a great team here in my staff that, I’m a humble student. I learn from great people around me all the time, whether it’s here in my staff, and I am fortunate enough, I have some great recruits, even in the department as well, so i’m constantly learning from them. I don’t sleep well so in the middle of the night i’m listening to podcasts and reading things all the time, I have an appetite tomorrow and the next day. It’s just an ongoing journey, I used to be a lawyer by trade, I had no idea about IT, even when I became a minister for aboriginal affairs, again this was new territory, even when I did my AICD course I graduated a couple of years ago. They just started to dabble into this world. It’s just a constant journey of learning. 

MARIA MACNAMARA: Is there an international ecosystem that you model us on or draw inspiration from?

VICTOR DOMINELLO: I’ve been lucky because i’ve been a minister now for almost 10 years, I’ve been fortunate to, wear various hats, go around the world. When I was the minister for communities and diversity and innovation, I went to Israel. I had a look at what their innovation ecosystem was. When I was the minister for this ministry, I managed to get to Estonia and to Denmark to see what they we’re doing. I managed to get to England to see what they ‘re doing, I’ve seen what they Valley is doing. Obviously in a COVID world everything is online, but I try and see what the best countries around the world are doing. I’ve been to Singapore, seen some of the great work they’re doing. We’re very unique, Singapore has their government structure, we’re not there, Estonia has their governance structure given how close they are to Russia, and their experience and their cultural history, why they had to go so fast. So, we just have to make sure that we take all the best, and try to model it into where we are on our digital arc.

MARIA MACNAMARA: That’s fantastic and it comes back to the question of leadership. I think with all of that sort of work, you have to be bold, you have to lead, you have to spend political capital, you have to convince people within the organisation and outside that this is worth it. The best way to do that is to show the thing and that’s what you’ve been doing by sharing all the news and standing behind your product. This has been a wonderful conversation, I can’t thank you enough, what you’ve done is you’ve given all large organisations, large complex organisations, distributed and consolidated, but also more importantly those SMEs, those family business who are now confronted by a global digital competitor, you’ve shown them that we can all do this and you’re doing it in NSW and you’re giving NSW and those who want to look at it, an opportunity to experience a better service. So thank you very much Minster. 

VICTOR DOMINELLO: Thankyou Maria, thankyou for your leadership, for mentoring me along the years we’ve known each other a long time. I constantly look to you for guidance and council so thank you.

MARIA MACNAMARA: It’s a privilege thank you.