Feds plan to join up government using computer science, on the way to service delivery ‘Nirvana’

By Stephen Easton

Monday December 2, 2019

Minister for Government Services Stuart Robert at the National Press Club in Canberra, Thursday, November 14, 2019. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

The federal government wants to create whole-of-government information technology architecture to underpin its ambitious plans to improve service delivery.

Eventually the outcomes of going down this path could be fairly profound. More advanced information architecture could enable many new examples of joined-up government, depending on how far the government takes the idea.

Minister for Government Services Stuart Robert revealed the bold plan on Friday, and also lifted the lid on the public service’s work towards transforming the Department of Human Services into Services Australia. He said he aimed to attain a state of service delivery “Nirvana” where dealing with agencies like Centrelink or Medicare was easy and enjoyable.

“This is not simply tweaking the way we deliver our services, it is a fundamental reorientation of government from processing forms, payments and entitlements to delivering world-class connected services, tailored to individual circumstances, needs and life events and delivering a delightful customer experience,” he said in a landmark speech sprinkled with technical jargon and addressed to the IT industry.

“Why? Because Australians expect — and indeed deserve — nothing less than that.”

The minister also released an update on the general Digital Transformation Strategy but said the “individual projects and initiatives” it contained were not enough.

He wants to take on the “bigger and more complex structural, whole-of-government issues” in the back-end IT, and succeed where others have struggled to achieve such transformative change.

A taskforce has been formed by the Digital Transformation Agency and the four IT giants of the public service – Defence, Home Affairs, Human Services and the tax office – to explore what whole-of-government information architecture might look like.

The overall aim is to bring the full detailed picture of what is going on inside the whole government into focus, first with respect to capabilities.

“[The taskforce] will start by identifying critical technology capabilities that support broad business outcomes and progressively develop a more nuanced view of strategic capabilities across government,” Robert said.

“This will help us understand both the common functions we need to perform across the whole of government as well as discrete capabilities specific to the business needs of individual agencies.”

Putting this in the terminology of computer science, Robert said the aim was to “build an ontology of capabilities across government” – ontology here meaning a framework that defines various properties of government capabilities and how they relate to each other. The purpose is to map out the whole interrelated web in a way that is machine-readable and searchable. In recent years Google has demonstrated how powerful this can be, when done well.

This same approach could be applied to more than just capabilities. Done well, it could enable many forms of joined-up government, not by breaking down silos but by making their contents available for perusal using computer software.

“The current siloed approach to technology architecture, investment and delivery across government departments makes it difficult to deliver interconnected services that span agency boundaries, address people’s complex circumstances and life events,” said the minister.

“… The lack of a sophisticated whole of government portfolio view of ICT projects, capabilities, needs and, dare I say, liabilities makes it difficult to develop scalable platforms and capabilities.”

New funding models are also needed, he added, because IT is now more like operational expenditure than capital investment, due to the rise of subscription-based cloud computing as well as the agile and iterative ways modern services are designed, in the age of digital interaction.

The DTA is working with Finance, Defence and other agencies on that challenge.

“We need to move to a much simpler, faster and agile way of releasing funding for digital projects,” Robert said.

“We must enable agencies to try things, learn and scale up or share their learnings before significant amounts of money and reputation capital are sunk into projects that may not deliver what they set out to do.”

The funding model and the whole-of-government archictecture will allow the public service to “move more quickly when trying new solutions and capabilities or scaling up platforms to address emerging needs”, he added.

Read more: The big reveal: Services Australia reforms linked to data sharing and digital transformation

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