Public servants urged to give feedback on new data sharing legislation

By Shannon Jenkins

Tuesday September 10, 2019

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Public servants have a chance to give their opinions on the development of new public sector data sharing and release legislation.

The government has released a discussion paper on its plans to modernise how data is shared and used across all levels of government.

Minister for Government Services Stuart Robert says it is important for public servants to aim to deliver the “best experience” possible, because they often provide services during “important life events” in an evolving market.

“Now more than ever, Australians expect government services to be simple, seamless, and secure — because that’s their lived experience of other services like shopping and banking,” he said in a statement.

“Unlike a bank or a business, when Australians face an unsatisfying experience [with government services] they aren’t able to shop around — they aren’t able to look for a different service provider.”

Robert made the case for giving government agencies more authority to share data with each other on the weekend.

“The systems, policies and processes are all too often the cause of friction when it comes to service delivery,” according to the minister, who said he dropped into federal shopfronts unannounced to talk to frontline staff, “much to the chagrin” of Department of Human Services senior executives.

“The public servants I have met with just want their jobs to be that much easier; mirroring in many respects the citizens they are seeking to serve.”

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While data can be utilised to make simple enhancements to services, there are many barriers to its use, Robert noted.

“Improvements such as fewer questions on an aged care form, making it easier to report income online, or even a single, clear point of access — such as an app on your phone — can all have an immediate and lasting positive impact,” he said.

“Too often there are seemingly arbitrary blockages that inhibit the effective passage of information that could make service delivery more straightforward and improve the experience of our citizens.

“Through better use and sharing of public sector data across government, Australians will no longer have to tell us the same basic information over and over again. It will mean less time on the phone and less forms that need to be filled out.”

He argued better data sharing would also benefit research that would, in turn, lead to the development of solutions to public problems.

“The sharing of public sector data has incredible potential at both the national level and at the individual level, but it must be done prudently and safely to maintain the hard-won trust our public service has with the Australian community.”

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National Data Commissioner Deborah Anton said the new data sharing legislation would consider privacy impact at every stage of development.

“These changes will require careful consideration of data safeguards to ensure the privacy of Australian’s data remains protected,” she said.

It is “difficult to contemplate undertaking research on how the environment, health practice, and individual behaviour impacts on the health of the community, without access to public sector datasets” in the view of Professor Ian Frazer, president of the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences.

“Publicly gathered datasets have a huge potential impact on health through research but there are challenges caused by statutory regulations, a risk averse culture and lack of understanding of how datasets can be used without compromising individual privacy,” Frazer writes on Anton’s website.

“Privacy concerns can be particularly difficult to allay, in the case of datasets concerning rare diseases. We have to ensure that we do not lose the value of the dataset but at the same time the data must not be so specific that you can identify an individual in a community simply because they are a rare data point in a data collection.”

The discussion paper is open for comment until 15 October.

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