‘We need a rapid paradigm shift’: Government leaders press ahead with unified digital philosophy

By Matthew Elmas

Friday November 20, 2020

Mike Pezzullo (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

A new set of digital policies, governance frameworks and investment strategies is about to change the way government departments all the way down to individual public servants build on and work within digital systems—as senior leaders prepare for a change-in-approach to ICT procurement.

If Australian governments are to emerge as leaders in a national digital metamorphosis spurred on by the COVID-19 pandemic, then there are going to need to be a rapid shift in approach and philosophy.

That’s the undeniable takeaway from the Digital Transformation Agency (DTA)’s 2020 digital summit this week, as senior leaders signal a paradigm shift in digital service and platform delivery across the Australian Public Service (APS).

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Home Affairs Secretary Michael Pezzullo did not mince words on Thursday, saying decision makers from the Prime Minister to the Secretaries Board agree rapid change to address ‘fragmented’ capabilities is required to ensure government is a leader in a nationwide digital transformation.

“We have to lead but unfortunately we’re not at the moment. In some respects, the government is lagging,” Pezzullo told the summit.

“It’s a strategy question, it’s a leadership question, it’s a management question … we can’t possibly operate in the fragmented manner in which IT and technology acquisition, procurement and deployment has evolved over the last 25 years.

“We need a rapid paradigm shift.”

For some time government leaders have been warned that overly agency-focused digital strategy has undermined the ability of government departments to deliver world class services, break down stubborn silos and develop consistent security policies.

It was one of the major findings of the wide-ranging Thodey review late last year, and since then the Secretaries Board, DTA and other departments have been working on whole-of-government architecture to develop frameworks for shared services and policies for service-wide security.

But as Pezzullo explained, while there will be some aspects of the new architecture which are mandatory—specifically identity and cyber security controls—statutory officers or departmental secretaries will still have ownership over their respective business requirements.

“Delivery, execution and business level requirements will always be delivered at the agency level, it has to be—you know your businesses in each of the agencies better than anyone,” Pezzullo said.

Unified systems, governance and shared capabilities

Randall Brugeaud, chief executive of the DTA, told the summit work is already well advanced on a set of policy frameworks, patterns and integrated governance advice to help agencies and departments deliver on a more unified vision for a digital APS by March, 2021, including:

  • A government business model, providing better information on where capability limitations currently are, and where future investment should be directed;
  • A platform operating model, which will enable a common strategy and sustainable funding models to ensure services remain reliable and that there’s ongoing support for maintenance;
  • A service catalogue, to make existing platforms and services more visible to officials; and
  • An orchestration and integration framework and standard, to provide a common approach for connecting services, capabilities and platforms across government, delivering a more seamless user experience.

“We’re currently pulling the various related strands together from policy through investment and alignment to delivery approaches oversight and assurance and benefits realization,”  Brugeaud said.

Earlier in the week APSC boss Peter Woolcott revealed the Secretaries Board is also establishing a new digital committee to support development of service-wide ICT infrastructure, underscoring the likelihood of new investments once the right governance policies are in place.

“My view is that the era of bespoke agency level digital systems and platforms has come to an end,” Woolcott said.

“We must take greater advantage of the economies of scale presented by an APS-wide approach to digital investment.”

Urban planning: A new metaphor for a digital APS

In practice, Brugeaud foreshadowed major changes in a raft of systems across government, drawing analogy with urban planning to explain how the philosophy of senior leaders has shifted.

Essentially, if we consider the APS as a network of towns and cities; they’re all making investment decisions about roads, public transports and buildings seperately, based on their own strategies.

But in reality, these ‘towns and cities’ operate in a broader, shared environment. One where siloed and fragmented approaches to digital administration frustrate service delivery for communities that move between areas of responsibility across government and duplicate work for administrators.

Randall Brugeaud.

“While in the short term, it’s simpler for each city or town to continue to operate independently. The approach is siloed, fragmented, and inefficient, and it creates issues in the longer term. It also creates friction, frustration and inconvenience for the people who need to access these services,” Brugeaud said.

Using the metaphor, Brugeaud said there are about 180 cities and towns (department and agencies) at the Commonwealth level, and thousands more if state and territory governments are included.

“Many [are] operating in perfect isolation with no visibility of what might be happening just around the corner,” he said.

“… The whole of government architecture will give us a view of what’s happening across the APS cities and towns and allow us to progressively design and deliver an integrated urban plan.”

Building secure systems: Pezzullo on the APS’ challenge

While high level governance work is underway to join-up many of the APS’ fragmented digital systems, Pezzullo noted transformation towards shared services and more seamless integration is also underpinned by security priorities.

Growing cabinet focus on government cyber security in the face of state-sponsored attacks and a growing need for data security to maintain community trust in government as services increasingly digitize remains ‘critical’ Pezzullo said.

“Digital cannot happen properly and cannot function properly and safely without cyber security,” Pezzullo said.

Pezzullo said Home Affairs is now working with the DTA and the Australian Signals Directorate to ‘look long and hard’ at data security across the APS.

“Where is our sensitive data stored? Both in terms of public networks, but also private networks. Who has access to that data? Is that data vulnerable? Can it be penetrated by hostile actors,  be they cyber criminals, foreign intelligence services, or others? Is data spilling into the dark web? Things like your identity, your credentials, are fake identities being created based on those credentials?” Pezzullo said.

Last month Macquarie University professor Dali Kaafar warned the APS remains vulnerable on this front, particularly in relation to public networks, finding many public-facing government websites are open to malicious meddling.

Elsewhere, the DTA is now expanding its digital identity program to a wider array of government services, enabling stronger whole-of-government capability when it comes to verifying who people are when they use digital services.

Ultimately, Pezzullo said a unified whole-of-government strategy makes strong security policy more achievable for government, something that will be a key priority over the next six months.

“If we get those three elements—right, cyber, data and identity—not only will this benefit government services … but also potentially, we can provide assistance to the private sector, to help them with cyber security, with identity assurance and with data security,” Pezzullo said.

In other words, government will emerge as leaders—not laggards.

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