Despite the rhetoric of digital government, past budgets have tended to deal with internal ICT initiatives quite separately from the broader digital economy. The 2020-21 budget has taken a different approach. More than $7bn in digital initiatives has been woven into the budget’s underlying fabric, creating a more cohesive approach that focuses on outcomes rather than administrative convenience.
When COVID-19 arrived in Australia in early 2020, the country was already reeling from a series of natural disasters – droughts, fires, and floods. These had weakened the economy, but COVID-19 hit it like a bomb. It sent Australia spiraling into recession for the first time in 29 years. In the Treasurer’s words, 2020 has had everything thrown at the economy “including the kitchen sink”. Desperate to reignite the economy, the federal government has planted its foot firmly on the accelerator.
A 21st century economy needs budget measures relevant to contemporary needs. Post-COVID, the Australian economy is more dependent on digital services than ever before.
The budget has made a significant investment in key cross-portfolio initiatives.
- JobMaker is a large package that invests heavily in internal ICT, the digital economy, education, and regulatory reform to drive government outcomes in a more coordinated way. It involves the efforts of 16 agencies.
- The government’s cyber security strategy also takes a broad approach across portfolios to keep families and businesses secure in the online world. The coordinated work of five agencies draws together a variety of initiatives into a $201.5 million budget measure.
Large agency ICT projects also feature in the budget. Together, these provide key investment in service delivery infrastructure, and address the challenges of technical debt in ageing government infrastructure:
- $539.6 million has been allocated for the 4th tranche of the welfare payment infrastructure transformation, for the long running upgrade project in Services Australia.
- $222.2 million has been allocated for the first phase of system modernization at Dept Agriculture, Water and Environment.
- The Government will provide $96.7 million over three years to commence the modernisation of the Australian Electoral Commission’s (AEC) ICT systems and infrastructure.
Smaller budget initiatives are sometimes overlooked in budget commentary, but cost is not an indicator of importance. It underlines the importance of taking a more forensic look at ICT in the federal budget. Public Safety Mobile Broadband (PSMB) is a good example. The Government will provide $8.0 million for a proof of concept trial. This is a key technology that could have a profound impact on Australia’s ability to prepare for and respond to natural disasters and emergencies.
The funding pendulum has swung a long way from treating technology as just an internal cost. The good news is that there is much more funding in the budget than ever before and an improved strategic focus, looking at government outcomes. However, there will be big expectations, and many critical eyes watching. Be careful what you wish for, the stakes could not be higher.