Opinion: Australia’s public sector yearns for collaboration

By Simon Vatcher

Tuesday December 15, 2020

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Australia’s public service yearns for connectedness and collaboration.

Multiple royal commissions, a prolonged bushfire season, and the COVID-19 pandemic have exposed ongoing operational shortcomings resulting from outdated and fragmented approaches to technology adoption within government departments.

Most recently, there have been critical examples where federal, state, and local government agencies struggled to fulfil their duties, in part due to the absence of effective, connected technologies.

They have been restricted by confined, legacy platforms that prohibit collaboration between departments beyond voice calls and fax machines, created by an inherent lack of interoperability.

In October, the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) indicated that ‘archaic’ information systems’ impeded patient care and exacerbated staff woes in Tasmanian hospitals amid COVID-19.

Despite shouldering heightened responsibilities at the peak of the outbreak, nurses were among those overburdened with paper-based tasks, draining productivity intended for critical care and client-facing work.

Separately, Auditor General Rod Whitehead’s report into the Apple Isle’s ICT infrastructure noted agencies were mostly operating on their own, taking different approaches resulting in variable outcomes.

Of course, these traits are far from unique to Tasmania, and the state government recently responded with a $57m allocation for whole-of-state digital transformation, part of a broader $134.5m ICT investment.

 The patchwork problem

The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened and accelerated interest in digitisation within government.

It has triggered a flurry of investments into communications platforms which provided some relief in the short term. However, this patchwork of stop-gap measures is unsustainable.

What is still missing is a common technology foundation, connecting agencies at all levels of government to coordinate Australia’s public service in the face of any challenge, be it local or national while respecting the jurisdiction that governs it.

Siloed agencies are a hangover from decades of rigid technology strategies defined by a standard set of symptoms: a huge, up-front capital expense to acquire a single, all-in-one software platform, as well as the hardware to run it in-house. If it cannot do what you want it to – now or in the future – then it is lived with. This is repeated every few years.

The preference to own and manage digital assets internally is a perfectly valid security and sovereignty measure. But advances in cybersecurity have seen newer technologies – including cloud computing and the resulting app economy – provide that protection, particularly when managed by multinational technology partners – not to mention local cloud-providers – in their certified Australian-based data centres.

Today, agencies don’t need to oversee every single digital asset themselves. In fact, this attitude has all but restricted the catalogue of systems available to agencies in the first place, while prohibiting the introduction of new software and services.

In a bid to quell agency siloes, the Australian Public Service (APS) recently revealed it would establish a digital committee in the push for service-wide ICT infrastructure.

Signalling the end of the era of bespoke, agency-level digital, APS Commissioner, Peter Woolcott, said the COVID-19 crisis response demonstrated the need to work together, particularly in deploying and mobilising resources, and that this approach must be embedded into business as usual across the APS workforce.

Moreover, initiatives such as the Digital Transformation Agency’s (DTA) Telecommunications Marketplace and Secure Cloud Guidance – which aim to streamline adoption of communications and cloud services across the public sector – are key to optimising technology systems to the needs of government.

But going further to enable the collaboration of the nation’s public service needs is required and that starts with an open architecture.

An open approach doesn’t mean giving up security. Instead, it refers to systems that offer customisation so that agencies can implement exactly what they need while establishing channels between different organisations (which can also extend to contractors and private sector suppliers).

For example, that could be a application framework to align emergency services systems with ambulance units and the broader health network to optimise allocation of resources, expedite the treatment of patients, and manage surge capacity during crises through collaboration and shared data.

Burning platform for change

Unveiled last month, the need for improved collaboration across jurisdictions – between agencies and beyond our borders – underscored the Bushfire Royal Commission’s 80 recommendations to governments, all of which were accepted.

The commission called for common information platforms and shared technologies between federal, state, and territory governments, as well as consistent data standards to measure disaster impact, and a greater capacity to collect and share standardised and comprehensive natural disaster impact data.

Commission chair Mark Binskin stressed the need for a system which “must have unbroken linkages in place from the highest levels of government to individuals in the community; provides decision-makers with timely, consistent and accurate information, be structured for decisions to be made at the most appropriate level; allow decision-makers to understand and mitigate all risks as far as reasonably practicable; enable stakeholders to understand the residual risk and inform others so that they may take appropriate actions; and it must be resourced to fulfil these functions.”

The recommendations also suggest federal government agencies work together across all phases of disaster management. This could well be extended to create visibility with state and local bodies, allowing public resources to be allocated in the most practical way.

Moving down an open path will foster the connectedness and collaboration Australia’s public service needs. While the pandemic situation has drastically improved, we are moving closer to the next bushfire season while managing the daily challenges of our nation. There is no room for historic habits and digital barriers to inhibit the public service leading our response efforts.

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