Dr Steve Hodgkinson, CIO for the Victorian Department of Health & Human Services, is frank about the organisation he joined three years ago; “They’d lost their ICT mojo.”
Today the Department’s ICT mojo is back in spades, thanks to visionary digital leadership and a transformational strategy that Hodgkinson describes as Platform+Agile.
Instead of lengthy IT projects designed using waterfall methodologies, Hodgkinson has taken a completely fresh approach.
He re-energised the Department’s relationship with the Victorian Government’s shared service provider CeniTex, secured funding and percolated his Platform+Agile strategy to transform “the art of the possible for IT projects.”
Call it a mojo mobiliser if you will.
“It means we deliver results more quickly, it means unpacking the logic of the way government has traditionally gone about projects and recognises the distinction between waterfall and a more Agile approach where you get started, deliver, learn, adapt,” says Hodgkinson.
“Platform+Agile says that you stop treating each new business system as an independent event. Instead we make strategic decisions about platforms that we use as the basic environment to build business systems, then reuse those platforms. The starting point is asking ‘how do we do the project using one of our proven platforms?’” he says.
The department’s platforms comprise a range of public cloud service solutions from Microsoft, Salesforce and ServiceNow.
“It’s relatively straightforward enterprise architecture thinking but the combination of emerging maturity around Agile and large scale cloud services platforms meant that there was genuinely a catalyst for a fundamental rethink particularly in the public sector about how we go about doing projects,” he said.
With cloud platforms such as Azure in place Hodgkinson said that when a project is underway; “You are starting 90 per cent of the way up the stack.
“If you are smart about how you use those products you can get up a minimum viable product (MVP) pretty quickly at low cost, low risk. Then get the MVP in front of users, get feedback and start the iterative co-design. It’s much less costly and it’s much less risky.
“Compare that to projects where you might go 12-18 months or multiple years and deliver nothing more than design and procurement documents. Platform+Agile delivers a working MVP in three or six months.”
It means, he says, that the entire game of digital transformation has changed as people see progress, quickly realise what requirements originally specified are unrealistic, and ensures a more “commonsense” approach compared to older waterfall methodologies.
DHHS leverages Microsoft Azure Infrastructure as a Service as one of its key platforms and is also easing into more Platform as a Service solutions to make use of the Azure stack “so we can automate and not have to reinvent the wheel,” says Hodgkinson.
It is also using Dynamics CRM and planning a migration to Office 365 across the Department.
According to Hodgkinson; “It’s a fair commitment to the Microsoft stack and also Agile project delivery and dev-ops where microservices have been created by our teams and are then available for reuse in the PaaS environment.
“When a use case comes up we genuinely make a strategic decision about which is the best platform – for costs, availability of skills, reuse of microservices and so forth. That preserves competition and contestability of the platforms so we don’t become overly locked in but take advantage of the strengths of different platforms,” he adds.
The digital leadership that Hodgkinson has shown has resulted in genuine digital difference being created – both for the Department in terms of operational efficiencies, but even more importantly for the people it serves.
For example the Platform+Agile approach has led to the creation of an online housing application system which is available as a smartphone app or through the MyGov portal.
Developed in Microsoft using Azure PaaS, dev-ops and an Agile development approach the solution has been “Transformational at changing people’s dealings with quite complex service delivery being handled on a mobile phone,” says Hodgkinson. DHHS was also the first State department to leverage the Federal Government’s MyGov portal.
Being first wasn’t the prize – it was just a strategy that made sense to Hodgkinson who reasoned that many of the people seeking housing support in Victoria were probably also using MyGov to connect to Centrelink.
“Why make them go through another authentication process when they are already using one that is trusted by the Federal Government?” he says.
A second major project involved transforming the way the family violence triage referral system operated. In the past police attending a domestic violence incident needed to complete a faxed referral to the social services sector to request a service response – such as a drug and alcohol, child protection or domestic violence service. Faxes were sent out to multiple agencies for action – an inefficient process bottleneck.
There are over 70,000 such referrals a year – with the faxed referrals process having been in place for over a decade.
Over six months DHHS created a new cloud based, mission critical online triage process for the referrals, which accounted for the protected status of the information in the reports and navigated the needs of multiple agencies involved in the initiative, including agencies with stringent security requirements like Victoria Police.
“It was a revelation to everybody about how a project of that scale and complexity could be implemented so quickly with no fuss, no bother,” says Hodgkinson. The system has been refined further and is now fully integrated with the core client and case management system and will soon be used by Victoria Police to ‘close the loop’ on referrals for the first time – providing Police with visibility of how referrals were actioned by social services agencies.
One recently deployed citizen-facing service is a thunderstorm asthma early warning system developed by the Department’s Digital Engagement & Strategy Unit team following the November 2016 epidemic thunderstorm asthma event in Victoria where nine people died and thousands were hospitalised.
DHHS wanted a reliable and accurate early warning system for citizens, hospitals and first responders.
Leveraging Azure and working with the Bureau of Meteorology, the University of Melbourne and Deakin University, to perform computer modelling on grass pollen counts and weather data and forecasts, DHHS has rolled out the early warning system.
Using Azure stream analytics and Power BI the resulting insights are presented on the MelbournePollen website providing up to three days’ warning of a likely event while push notifications are sent to citizens who download the free smartphone app, allowing them to take precautions when an amber or high risk has been identified.
Hospital emergency departments also input data to the system information about asthma presentations they are experiencing to help the State better manage future thunderstorm asthma events.
Additional business systems are being developed all the time – one, for example, to regulate medicinal cannabis, one to register combat sports organisations, another to register companion cards so that companions for people with disabilities can get free access to events where their support is needed.
“These small to medium projects take six weeks, and involve collaboration with teams across the department. No worries, done, then on to the next one,” Hodgkinson says.
Again he credits the Platform+Agile approach. “Cloud services platforms are scalable, secure, trusted, have security certification, you can iterate, and we have in house teams who know how to do these things and we have partners. It’s a kind of finely tuned factory type process once you set it all up.”
With strong foundations in place and a radically different innovation culture now established at DHHS Hodgkinson is seeking additional impact through advanced technologies.
Artificial intelligence is of interest for the medium term. The department’s Systems Intelligence and Analytics team is showing that predictive analytics has great potential for performing risk assessment for child protection according to Hodgkinson.
One of the bi-products of the growing array of cloud based applications is the concentration of data which is now available to the DHHS.
Hodgkinson describes this as; “Platform+Agile = Application + Data + Insight.”
He offers the example of the domestic violence referral application. “This is the first time in a decade that the department and agencies have had transparent visibility of data that was in all those faxes. They can immediately apply reporting and analytics to get insights – what is happening with referrals? Where are they going to? How quickly are they being closed out? If they are not being closed out why is that?”
Armed with that information and predictive analytics it’s possible to identify and share best practice and also apply additional resources where required.
The Platform+Agile approach enables the department to deliver more new applications. The applications create new data. From the data comes insight, from the insights comes the impact. This formula, says Hodgkinson, “is how the department got its ICT mojo back. “And that makes the digital difference.