Tom Burton: the case for the Department of Digital


The digital revolution is well under way, rapidly causing massive change, challenges and opportunities. Yet there is no consolidated policy agency with deep digital smarts to advise governments of their best options.

Is it time for a Department of Digital?

While the Senate debates the winding back of long out-of-date media diversity rules, there has been precious little consideration of how Australia manages its local media landscape, in the face of the massive global technological changes.

There have been lots of self-serving calls by commercial media incumbents to protect themselves from competition and superior marketing solutions, but virtually no deep consideration of what, from a policy perspective, we want the Australian digital media world to be. If anyone thinks letting TV stations share newsrooms — true artefacts of a previous analogue era — with their print brethren is going to save civic journalism, they are deluded. There will inevitably be a bunch of small-scale, private side-deals, to attempt to win minority party support in the Senate, but nothing that goes to a real, long-term sustainable growth plan for the media industry. Which, for a sector many consider to be a pillar of modern western neoliberalism, is plainly absurd. 

This lack of any coherent digital media policy points to a much wider problem, where we are essentially clueless, at a policy level, about how to deal with the profound impact of highly disruptive digital technologies as they roll out across the full economy. By deal, I mean take advantage of the extraordinary opportunities digitisation offers, not the fear mongering and piecemeal regulatory sabre rattling, that to-date has characterised much of the Australian digital policy debate.

Media is easily digitised, and with its once 40% profit margins, was always going to be a front runner for digital disruption. But there is virtually not a part of the Australian economy that digital is not disrupting. At a personal level, every person over the age of one seems to have access to a powerful personal device, be it a top line smart phone, or a tablet passed down to ‘youngins’. This has opened up a plethora of issues ranging from cyber bullying to identity theft, copyright fraud, deep and real cyber criminality, not to mention the rise of highly disruptive political tribalism, as we all come to terms with every citizen (and leader of state) having a public megaphone.

At the firm level, the rise of the global techs, with their massive winner-takes-all platforms, has seen rapid and deep changes that are profoundly reshaping investment flows, employment economics, and industry structures. Digital commerce is already driving massive changes in retail — witness the demise of shopping malls. Automation and straight-through processing is transforming sectors such as finance and insurance, and there is not a consulting firm in the country that is not predicting huge employment changes driven by cognitive computing over the next decades.

No sector is immune, with traditional government led domains such as health, education, transport and security being the most impacted by the digital revolution. Australia is a relative leader in first mover digital applications in these sectors — witness cognitive applications in ‘bad guy’ detection at our borders and oncology therapies. But the many policy issues rapid technology change throws up in these sectors — DNA manipulation, rampant plagiarism, driverless cars, state sponsored cyber manipulation to name but a few — means we are essentially committing ourselves to a giant experiment with real existential risk.

And it is at this grand level where we seem most unprepared. If there is a lesson from previous periods of rapid economic change, it is the downstream social impacts of disruptive technologies that are most problematic. It is not dumb to connect the dots from Karl Benz’s combustion engine, to freeways and urbanism, to the rise of fast food, to the obesity epidemic that many so-called developed countries are now suffering from.

Government itself is a poster child for the type of deep change we are unprepared for. Trumpism has given us all a sharp reminder of how quickly digital is reshaping the fundamentals of democracy. And I am not referring to the almost daily digital rants emanating from the leader of the world’s greatest ever military power.

But it is at the professional public sector level where we seem so unprepared. In the mid-2000s we had a department of the digital economy in Canberra that began to draw together the bigger policy issues even blind Freddy could see would need to be addressed. And digital was central to the Department of Communications, when its brief was reset in 2013 by then-minister Malcolm Turnbull, and his then-secretary Drew Clarke.

This lasted precisely one machinery of government change and since then the missteps around the roll out of the Digital Transformation Office and the shift in focus to infrastructure assurance and investment has left the Commonwealth with no central repository of digital advice, let alone a depth of policy capability, able to guide and inform some of the big policy issues that need to be sorted.

Nor any place for the urgent need to rethink the very role and design of digital government. Witness our hopelessly hard-wired regulatory system, which sees many of our regulators managing totally out-of-date regulations. Lots of reasons for that — the media sector being one of many where the incumbents have effectively used regulation to protect themselves from innovation and consumer benefit. But a clear cause is also the inability for policy and regulation to keep up with technology change. That means many regulators are essentially powerless to drive real modern policy outcomes, instead keeping themselves busy with what many senior regulators know is nothing more than painting rocks white.

There is of course interesting work happening piecemeal in various (typically small) think tanks, research agencies, and pockets of government, but this usually domain-specific thinking and with little depth or oversight. The Productivity Commission’s data rights report is a rare example of bigger picture thinking — that recommendation for a comprehensive citizen right to control the data created about them, now in front of a PM&C interdepartmental committee, with every business lobbyist in town looking to kibosh the report.

Digital identity is a good example of this narrow thinking. New DTA chief Gavin Slater is right to call out the critical importance of identity. In a world of real-time data matching and increasingly powerful APIs, smart algorithms and connected devices, identity becomes critical. Over a decade, report after report has called for a coherent policy response amid predictions of the huge cost of getting it wrong. And the massive economy wide opportunities of getting it right (8% of GDP upside) .

Every state government is investing heavily in service portals that require a robust identity regime if we are to move forward from simply providing a pdf of our plastic card licences. In Canberra the attempt to build an identity solution went off the rails last year amid the noise around the bungled census. The large agencies — most notably the Australian Tax Office — are nervous about the real security issues around a centralised identity play. This has now been reset as an authentication and verification play, with focus on cleaning up the obvious usability issues for myGov (much much improved, but still a set of disconnected service cul de sacs).

Yet for all the talk and energy on this issue, the public debate has been largely focused on the the issue of a single identity number and related privacy concerns. A real issue, but very much a focus on the solution, rather than trying to understand the real problem.

It is arguable, but most of our modern government identity issues derive from a dated technology architecture that has government organisations managing identity across a patchwork of new and legacy systems, spread across multiple agencies, clusters and jurisdictions.

Paving the cowpath thinking pushes to move it all to the more secure cloud and tighten up APIs and security controls and say a hail Mary. Enter two Australian start-ups — Sydney based Meeco and Melbourne based Vero Guard — who have developed smart micro technologies that suggests there is different approach that could save literally billions in back-end technologies, and more importantly put the citizen in control of their own identity management. The proposal is that if citizens control their own identity, then governments (and banks, telcos, airlines, etc.) do not have to spend billions pretending they can securely manage identity through a spaghetti of inchoate systems.

In this scenario governments (and private entities) could arguably exit the ID management game, while also giving citizens control over their digital identity and footprint. I am sure there are arguments for and against, but my simple point is there is no consolidated policy consideration or obvious venue with the deep skills for thinking through what is essentially an architecture issue. Instead the identity issue is pushed around multiple agencies and jurisdictions, each with their own take, but with limited system-wide thinking.

The same goes for society-wide issues such as privacy, IP, genomics, autonomous vehicles, algorithmic over site and a long string of digitally inspired changes we are only beginning to comprehend. And a whole host of infrastructure issues s. Who for example is the responsible adult sorting the NBN pricing mess up? Which party will be the first to create a Department of Digital?