CIO exit interview: Steve Hodgkinson, Victoria Department of Health

Mar 29, 2022
IT Leadership

Hodgkinson reflects on the seven years with the Victoria health department, both what worked well and what didnu2019t.

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Credit: iStock

It’s been seven years since Steve Hodgkinson began the task of leading complex digital transformation programs at the Victoria Department of Health as CIO. “Seven years is a long time in the CIO game,” Hodgkinson says, “so I think it’s time to step aside and let somebody else lead the next phase of the digital transformation journey for the Department of Health. The department is charting a new way forward, changing gears on the COVID-19 pandemic response and embarking on new reforms in mental health, so it’s a good time for a fresh broom.”

Hodgkinson is leaving the department in April 2022 to join Victoria Police as its new chief digital officer. He replaces Brett Giles, who has been in the role since August 2016.

“Victoria Police is a large and complex front-line service delivery organisation,” Hodgkinson tells CIO Australia. He says that digital technologies are at the centre of modern policing, so there will be a lot for him to focus on. “The role is to be an effective member of the police command by shaping the organisation’s digital systems and technology management for the better. This includes working with the in-house team to develop productive and sustainable ways of delivering and supporting modern digital solutions.”

What Hodgkinson accomplished at Victoria Department of Health

At the Victoria Department of Health, Hodgkinson championed agile methodologies — which were recognised across the Victoria public sector. He managed about 450 staff and 110 contractors with an operating budget of about $100 million, and annual project spend of as much as $160 million.

During his time at Victoria health department, Hodgkinson implemented a new ICT strategy and governance and planning processes that grew the annual ICT project portfolio from about $30 million in 2014/15 to $160 million in 2021/2022.

His teams delivered an annual portfolio of more than 100 projects totalling $80 million to $100 million year-on-year with no project failures and minimal budget/actual variance, he says. “A lot of changes along the way were caused by restructuring, but I’ve been lucky to have led the business technology and information management branch for the whole of the time, which has been a real privilege,” he says.

The past two years have been a challenging time for the Victoria Department of Health, which has been at the epicentre of the Victoria government’s COVID-19 response, the creation of separate departments for health and families, fairness and housing, as well as a new shared services approach for IT between the two new departments.

Steve Hodgkinson profile photo

Steve Hodgkinson

Hodgkinson says there have been some “fantastic successes” at Victoria Department of Health. At the top of the list is the Platform + Agile approach, which improved policy and service delivery innovation by helping in-house teams to embrace cloud services, agile methods, devops delivery, mobile devices, and vendor partnerships. This approach enabled the delivery of a program of more than 50 new business systems, including for multi-agency information sharing.

Victoria Department of Health shifts the dial on public sector performance

Hodgkinson is adamant that his team “shifted the dial” on the performance of IT in a large public sector organisation. They did this by replacing a transactional, outsourced, project-by-project approach with one based on a flow of projects implemented by in-house teams to a high cadence using strategic platforms, agile methods, and vendor partnerships.

“The goal was to reduce project delivery risk and cost to increase productivity — and it worked,” Hodgkinson tells CIO Australia. “This was reflected in the delivery of a very large number of new digital solutions that enabled critical policy reforms and transformed service delivery for the better without creating the project dramas and the cost and time blowouts that are accepted as normal in the public sector.”

One measure of success is the breadth and depth of investment confidence, Hodgkinson says. In 2015, about $30 million of the department’s IT project portfolio was focused on a few large, risky projects. This year, $160 million is being spread across more than 120 projects with a high confidence that they will all be successfully delivered, he says.

Hodgkinson says the one system that he was most pleased with was the COVID Test Tracker. This solved a critical problem in the end-to-end test, trace, isolate process by collecting data at COVID-19 testing sites across the state and tracking the sample through to 19 pathology labs and then into COVID-19 contact-tracing systems.

The system was created by Hodgkinson’s team using an in-house software-as-a-service delivery platform on Microsoft Azure. The team created Test Tracker over more than 45 weekly sprints using automated devops processes, he says. “This agile approach enabled the system to be launched in weeks. As the pandemic evolved, we received feedback from users on the COVID-19 testing front line.”

Another success: “Because this was public sector intellectual property, we were able to share the system at no cost with [health departments] in South Australia, Western Australia, and Canberra Health,” he says. “To me, this is a shining example of the power of the Platform + Agile approach: affordable, adaptable, highly secure, sustainable, and capacity-building.”

Another measure of success was reflected in the personal and professional growth of the in-house tech team. “The way my branch remained stable and loyal over so many years is a testimony to the fact that they felt they were part of something good, which always pleased me,” Hodgkinson says.

Hodgkinson wished he had fought his corner

Hodgkinson tries not to dwell on his mistakes, admitting that there are “too many to mention”. But he does regret “not fighting my corner more strongly sometimes” — that is, not explaining himself and defending his ideas.

“However, this is difficult in large, complex organisations. There are many people with strong opinions on technology choices and IT management. Sometimes, it’s a matter of choosing your battles. It’s not always possible to win them all when there is so much going on, so battles lost can be viewed retrospectively as mistakes,” he says.

A key mistake that Hodgkinson says he made was deciding to separate IT operations and support from core IT strategy and development teams as part of a restructure of corporate services functions in 2017. “Big mistake. That was a battle that I wish I had dug in more deeply on,” he says.

Still, Hodgkinson is pleased with the overall trajectory of the results he and his team achieved at the Victoria Department of Health, with the wins outweighing the mistakes.

Hodgkinson says he will approach a new organisation like Victoria Police with “beginner’s eyes” and apply everything he has learned over his career to drive digital innovation in policing and build strong IT capabilities in the team.

“This won’t be by mechanistically applying the same model that we have implemented at the Victoria Department of Health. It will be by working with the team at Victoria Police to design an approach that applies the best ideas in a way that works for the team in that organisation,” he says.