Text size: A A A

Tom Burton: government is about to change, big time

Businessman activates the input fingerprint on blurred background.

The new digital strategy promises to cut through a century of federalism gridlock, offering to overhaul a suite of complex multi-jurisdictional life events that could fuel major economy-wide changes across the many domains governments operate in.

The Federal Government’s emerging digital strategy commits to completing the digitisation of services over the next seven years, outlining a roadmap that promises to enable a suite of life events to be managed online.

These services will be driven by data, which citizens have chosen to share, underpinned by a set of common platforms driving a new generation of personalised services and targeted programs.

The strategy, launched yesterday by Digital Transformation Minister Michael Keenan, has been developed by the Digital Transformation Agency and seeks to bring a coherent citizen-centric approach to the federal government’s large $6 billion annual investment in digital transformation.

The strategy focuses on Canberra’s major public-facing services — tax, benefits, medicare and immigration — and builds on previous announcements.

Enabling multi-jurisdictional, life-cycle services

“The strategy focuses on Canberra’s major public-facing services — tax, benefits, medicare and immigration — and builds on previous announcements.”

Importantly, for the first time, it commits the national government to enabling a series of complex, multi-jurisdictional, life-cycle services such as a single process for winding up the affairs of a departed loved one, the coming of age at 18, and the birth of a child — all by 2025.

Each of these services need the active cooperation of three tiers of government, as well as the involvement of a whole group of relevant private sector players. If successful, it will mark an historic and decisive attack on the federation gridlock that has thwarted so much policy reform.

And done well, it promises to open large swathes of the economy to major reform, as significant business systems are streamlined for citizens’ benefit.

For instance, in the case of a death of a relative, governmental involvement will include local councils for services like parking stickers, pet tags and rates, state governments for probate and state revenue, and the federal government for tax, Centrelink, Medicare services, among others.

Government is only a part player for someone dealing with the affairs of an estate. Services provided by private providers will also need to be mapped into the overall solution, to include private providers for funerals, estate management, banking, superannuation and whatever other services are relevant to the winding up of the affairs of a deceased person.

In a country where we can’t synch our public holidays or summer time zones, this represents a brave attempt to cut through the complexity of federalism. It implies a major overhaul of how all tiers of government interact and requires a whole new set of machinery of government arrangements, to oversee and coordinate what will be a fundamental remake of Australian intergovernmental relations.  

It also will need a major harmonisation of a whole suite of underlying state base services, holding out the allure of an end to the rampant duplication of technology, such as the eight different birth death and marriage systems Australian taxpayers now fund.

The newly formed Australian Digital Council made up of federal and state digital delivery ministers, but no local council representatives, suddenly emerges as a powerful pan-Australian leadership group that will profoundly shape the design and rollout of these highly sophisticated and integrated services.

“Each of these services need the active cooperation of three tiers of government, as well as the involvement of a whole group of relevant private sector players.”

The commitment to user-centred design means these services will need high-level coordination to ensure the development and delivery really meets the needs of citizens across the country. It also requires a sharp understanding of the whole citizen experience, which will inevitably involve private sector services.

Rather than simply “paving the cow path,” there is a huge opportunity to drive major innovation off the back of these new integrated services. The current process of winding up an estate is slow, cumbersome, mostly administrative, expensive, and very amenable to total digitisation — using, say, blockchain to manage the various interactions.

There will be winners and losers from this process — solicitors risk losing their lucrative estate services — so these services will need real political and policy weight put behind the process.

Designed so private service providers can easily integrate with the core governmental service, it also opens up the allure of an App Store-like model, where governments can drive major economic value creation, by enabling providers to play on the top of these new platform services.

Even more significant is the opportunity to build whole new export services based off these innovative platforms. The public sector is essentially the same across all countries. In a global service world, there is a real chance to offer these public platforms and applications to countries around the world. For example, births deaths and marriages is a service provided by all governments.

This is a huge leap from where we are now.

Canberra is only now starting to catch up with the big states around basic digital transactional service design and delivery. A barebones’ identity solution is in early pilot phase via the ATO. A new federal data sharing act is being cooked up, and the only attempt at unifying services across three tiers of government — a business incorporation solution being tested at Parramatta has struggled to get any traction.

The underlying technology reveals a horror of out-of-life legacy systems — much of it driven by the complexity of Australia’s highly targeted tax and benefits system.

At the same time, agencies are having to fund and skill up for dual tracks of digitally-enabled cloud solutions and maintaining a truckload of proprietary code and applications, running on old school networks and systems.

In Canberra, the Department of Finance is insisting all this be done from existing budgets, challenging agency leaders to find structural savings across their operating budgets.

To date, most federal digital work has been driven by CIOs — giving the whole transformation program an operational, rather than strategic, flavour. This strategy now gives secretaries a clear framework, but needs real SES-level ownership of the changes, much of which has been absent to date.

Major alignment needed with NSW and Victoria

There will also be need for major alignment with the two big states, Victoria and NSW, both of which have quite different approaches to digital transformation.

The NSW Government has focused very much on the customer experience and driven its changes through Service NSW, pushing ahead and letting the technology sort itself.

The Victorian government has tied its transformation much more to its agency leaders, aligning its services to broader business strategies, most which is being driven by the large delivery portfolio clusters.

Who pays for what, will be an immediate concern to all treasuries.

How all the underlying networks, systems and applications get tied together is going to take real and strategic thinking.

At a time where full-stack virtualisation is just around the corner, this will have to be a digital-to-the-core architecture, an entirely different operating paradigm to the legacy-plagued real world all government agencies and their CIOs are still lumbered with.

And that is before you get to the elephant in the room, data sharing.

“How all the underlying networks, systems and applications get tied together is going to take real and strategic thinking.”

All these services need data to be shared across jurisdictional boundaries, often in real time. In even the most advanced data sharing jurisdictions, like NSW, agencies are really struggling to meaningfully share data, other than for structured data science-type applications.

While secretaries in NSW have all greenlighted industrial collaboration, down in the engine rooms of the large delivery agencies it is very different, with worries about the pedigree, sensitivity and ownership of information and data, reducing large-scale data sharing to a trickle.

Introduce three tiers of government, with differing data sharing laws and protocols, and there is a decade of pain for Keenan’s new ministerial digital council.

This comes at a time where the fear among agency leaders around privacy and security is palpable. A failure to build high-level engagement strategies and programs to win the data trust of most citizens is seeing every service enhancement being driven by a set of micro-focused privacy and security controls.

Stunned by the controversies around Robo-debt, the e-census and the rollout of the My Health platform, agency CIOs are having to develop a gaggle of complex measures to enable citizen control of their data. All done in isolation to a broader trusted information sharing protocol.

Social licence for data sharing

There is a huge and urgent need for a much more holistic approach to winning social licence for data sharing, and the consequential seachange in the transparency, control and choices citizens have over their government-held data — and ditto for large private providers.

Where this leadership comes from is going to be challenging. There are precious few ministers or shadow ministers with the passion, knowledge and courage to stand up for what is going to be a highly contentious and longterm play.

More public agency leaders with the mandate and skillsets to develop the society and economy-wide consensus are needed, if the country is to enjoy the undoubted community and governmental benefits of data sharing and integration.

This social licence will necessarily need to encompass the rapid take-up of artificial intelligence in government systems. It is imperative AI does not become a black box, nor unleash a whole torrent of citizen anxiety.

Reflecting the current nervousness in Canberra around privacy, AI got a single mention in yesterday’s retail announcement — an APS version is being released next week. But with the public sector set to be a huge beneficiary of artificial intelligence, empowering frontline staff and offering powerful insights and recommendations to policy makers and regulators, governments are going to have to work hard at building citizen trust.

And to add to the complexity, all this has to be done against the very real threats of cyber espionage, manipulation and attack by a wide range of malevolent actors, including national states and well-organised criminality.

The primary defence for this is coming via the Australian Signals Directorate, which is insisting all sensitive data resides in Australia and is managed by nationals. With most of these next-generation services likely to be cloud-based, this really challenges the informational governance and management systems of all agencies.

This is especially so in the states, where a lack of classification controls and culture, means there are large swathes of sensitive personal data that will need to be managed across hybrid cloud and network topologies.

“If the DTA is to have any chance of herding the service delivery giants in both the federal and stare governments, it is going to need real budget authority.”

Bringing the whole show together is going to require a major upgrade of the DTA’s authority and mandate. The strategy brings an appropriate coherence, but the DTA is going to need real clout and whole-of-system acceptance if there is any chance of ensuring this is not another exercise in deckchair moving, bogged in bureaucratic minimalism.

This almost certainly starts with giving it portfolio ownership and control of all major ICT projects. DTA and the Department of Finance share this role, but if the DTA is to have any chance of herding the service delivery giants in both the federal and stare governments, it is going to need real budget authority.

For the time being, it will also need to be beefed up with a major policy and program design capability to capture the enormous citizen, society and economic values this strategy offers to the nation.

This is nothing short of a fundamental redesign of Australia’s public sector and will need, in my view, the imprimatur of a department of state, a Department of Digital Government, to succeed.

Author Bio

Tom Burton

Tom Burton is publisher of The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He has served in various public administration roles, specialising in the media and communications sector. He was a Walkley Award-winning journalist and executive editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. He worked as Canberra bureau chief for the Australian Financial Review and as managing editor of smh.com.au. He most recently worked at the Australian Communications and Media Authority.