“It is an enormous journey — one that will ultimately impact every government department, and every Australian.”
So says the federal government’s new Digital Transformation Strategy, which sets an ambitious goal of making all its public services available online by 2025 with as little need for phone lines and shopfronts as possible.
“You will have access to alternatives if you are unable to access services in a digital way,” promises the new policy brochure, launched yesterday at the National Press Club by the Minister for Human Services and Digital Transformation, Michael Keenan.
The minister hopes the vast majority of everyone else, however, will see the benefits of “seamlessly integrated” services, organised around their “needs and life events” so they don’t have to deal with as many government bodies separately, and flock to them.
He imagines Australians being so impressed with the convenience, logic and simplicity of these new ways of interacting with the state – and so confident that the government respects their privacy and is capable of keeping their personal data secure – that they get themselves a myGovID digital identity credential, and happily interact with increasingly advanced robotic assistants that already know all about them.
Working through the new Australian Digital Council, the federal minister and the Digital Transformation Agency are also linking up with state and territory agencies more than ever, towards replacing the forms and phones calls associated with births, deaths, marriages, new business ventures, name changes and so on, with a few clicks or taps on a touchscreen.
This optimistic vision of “government that is easy deal with” is the first of three elements that make up the “Vision 2025” of digital government, which has finally coalesced almost four years after the digital agency was first established inside the Communications portfolio.
An optimistic future and a difficult present
Of course, Keenan and the Coalition may not be in government in seven years, or even at the end of the two-year “roadmap” attached to the strategy. There isn’t much that a Labor government could reject as a terrible idea; the opposition are more likely to question whether it is realistic and achievable, based on the current state of play in federal service delivery.
In Keenan’s main portfolio of Human Services, there is massive room for improvement right now by any reasonable standard, especially in call centres, and has been since before the Coalition came into office, but the investment it would take to fix this completely is unlikely to materialise.
The opposition makes a general promise to “ensure that government service delivery is appropriately resourced to deliver quality and timely services to Australian citizens” in its national policy platform and says human service delivery must be “fair and equal” above all. It says it also intends to make savings through digital delivery, and redirect them to “intensive case management” for people who need it and support for “digitally excluded” citizens.
It appears the current plan is to continue outsourcing more call centres, throw as little funding as possible at solving the difficulties of phones, counters and desks, and move ahead into a much cheaper era of digital virtual assistants and quick transactions done entirely online, as soon as possible. Keenan emphasised that the cost of paper-based processes can be orders of magnitude higher than fully digital versions and they take much longer.
The digital strategy document contains various narratives that purport to explain what things are like now, and what they will look like in 2025, if the strategy comes to fruition.
There’s one about “Alison” who needs support from Centrelink while looking for work, which is surprisingly honest about the fact that going through this process in the present is often difficult, frustrating, confusing and anxiety-inducing.
On the other hand, Alison’s experience still glosses over how bad Centrelink customer service has become, according to audits, advocates for welfare recipients, opposition members and members of the public sector union. If Keenan’s critics wrote her story, she would repeatedly hear a busy signal on the phone, before eventually getting through but then waiting for an inordinate amount of time, and hanging up before she ever gets to speak to someone.
The ‘trust deficit’ is real and must be overcome
The second pillar is “government that’s informed by you” — which refers to making better use of the information citizens provide, and linking up the data about them already held by government agencies. This very quickly leads to back to biggest issue of all: privacy and security.
“Let me assure you from the start, we will go about this the right way,” Keenan said in his speech.
“We will ensure that privacy, safety and security are built into the very core of every single thing we do. Privacy and digital transformation are not mutually exclusive: in fact, digital transformation can strengthen privacy.”
Not everyone believes him, of course – a point Keenan acknowledged more openly than any of his predecessors, agreeing with Press Club director Steve Lewis that the government clearly has a significant trust deficit to deal with.
“Believe it or not, the government does have your best interests at heart, but clearly not everyone in the community accepts that and we need to work very hard to make sure that we remind people that security and privacy is at the heart of everything we do,” the minister said.
“When we talk about a new service or a new platform, that is where we start. It needs to be secure, and we need to be able to say to people that it absolutely protects their privacy.”
Keenan also argued the government had a very good “track record” in this regard – but also made it clear he is aware that others don’t see it that way, and accepts it is the job of politicians to back up those arguments, not simply assert them and refuse to engage with other viewpoints in the community.
He noted “if that trust deficit can’t be overcome” then the whole vision for 2025 will be extremely difficult to realise.
Later, asked about the MyHealth Record, he defended its privacy safeguards but again acknowledged the backlash against the opt-in system showed the government had “work to do” convincing a significant section of the community that the government had both the “intent, but also the ability” to protect their data.
“We are actually very good at this,” he added. “The Australian government employs some of the best people you’ll find anywhere globally, enabling us to do this.
“So, you know, the MyHealth Record has been a reminder to me that we do need to continue to make the arguments about why you do need to trust us with your information and also that we do take your privacy and security incredibly seriously.”
In the speech, the minister said privacy and security were now “non-negotiable” in all digital transformation projects and promised new legislative protections would be considered.
“The DTA has consulted with thousands of people as it has developed new platforms, including with privacy advocates and community groups. Our approach is always security by design. We make sure security is built into the very foundation of every single project and digital platform.
“Where questions do arise, we will put robust legislation in place and protect the privacy of Australians. Given the recent high-profile revelations about the behaviour of some private corporations, like Facebook, it is understandable that many Australians are concerned. Government hears these concerns and we are acting on them.”
Keenan also said it was important for the government to “draw a distinction between rational concerns and fear-mongering based on false information” which prompted another privacy question from another Press Club director, Misha Schubert, asking where he would draw the line.
“I don’t want to be too harsh on people who don’t trust us, because I mean clearly there’s some in community that don’t accept that we have the wherewithal or maybe the intent to protect their privacy, and I certainly wouldn’t want to attack those people, because I think their concerns are legitimate – and as a politician it’s actually your job to bring people with you” he replied.
He said the government had to “accept there’s going to be a section of the population that … we might never win over” but should still try to address the concerns of the vast majority.
“We are taking a robust approach to making sure that stringent data privacy provisions are maintained as we tap into the social and economic benefits of data,” Keenan said in the speech.
“We’re investing $65 million dollars to reform Australia’s data system, including establishing a National Data Commissioner. We are developing new data sharing legislation to simplify the complex web of more than 500 secrecy and other provisions that currently exist across government departments.
“We are establishing a Consumer Data Right, so that people can benefit from the data held about them by companies, such as banks, energy companies and telcos.
“A National Data Advisory Council will advise the Commissioner on ethical data use and technical best practice. I will be announcing the membership of the Council soon. We believe that data collected by government is a vast national resource that shouldn’t be locked away. Instead, by having the necessary safeguards in place, it can be used as a force for good.”
Inside the public service, culture change and capability
Behind the scenes, the Digital Transformation Agency is charged with encouraging a continued shift in the mindset of public servants, providing useful advice on IT investment and project management, and guiding agencies on meeting the relevant capability needs – whether they invest in building them in-house, borrow expertise that is more-or-less freely available, or buy it from vendors.
In the glossy brochure, this kind of work is mainly covered under “government that is fit for the digital age” — the third pillar of the “vision” of public services in 2025.
Of course, the DTA has been explaining in more detail what the strategy means to public servants behind the scenes and will be for many months to come. The final element is broken down into four statements in the version for public consumption, the last of which sounds more like an order:
- Services will be smart and adapt to the data you choose to share.
- Policy and services will draw on data and analytics.
- Advanced technologies will improve decision-making and be transparent and auditable.
- Earn your trust through being strong custodians of your data.
Top image: Michael Keenan at the DTA.