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Catering to the digital age — the road ahead for agencies

Government increasingly needs to cater to digital natives in the way they expect service delivery, and with new innovations such as voice-search and intuitive computer generated responses available, the task is set for agencies to adapt.

If the parameters are for agencies to operate with fairness, efficiency and effectiveness, however, the road ahead to best practice digital operations is long, explains Maddocks partner and non-executive director of the Internet Society of Australia Rob Gregory.

“Any strategy that focuses on one or two channels is probably going to miss a segment of its market,” he said.

No agency can simply abandon direct mail, print advertising or call centres while focusing on digital interfaces, but undoubtedly the older communication forms will diminish and an organisation’s digital identity will become far more important.

Agencies have opportunities to engage new technologies to fulfil their service delivery goals in the future, says Gregory, but new technology means new risks.

In July 2011 a Victoria Police media officer tweeted a mock score count of soccer fans being ejected from the stadium, ending the five-tweet sequence with: “Game over. Celtics 1- Police 14.” Gregory says this was an example of the change in risks — such as reputation damage, breaking privacy laws, or even damaging the reputations of identifiable MPs, trade union leaders, or business leaders.

“It carries with it legal risks that probably didn’t exist in the past, not because the technology is inherently new and different, which of course it is, but because without the role of intermediation the media used to play, there’s less opportunity to proof and correct errors before they’re published,” he said. While it didn’t occur in this case, Gregory says, “it may be that an agency breaches its own secrecy obligations inadvertently by the way it communicates”.

Victoria Police acknowledged a day after the soccer tweet issue that their processes needed to change.

[pullquote]”The risks shouldn’t prevent the building of a digital delivery mechanism and a digital profile through that …”[/pullquote]

Another risk of maintaining a social media presence is the unauthorised use of its account, which an agency could be held responsible for.

“There is certainly a risk, especially under the Australian Privacy Principals which require information to be held reasonably securely, that hacking use could amount to a contravention of the act by the agency, even though it is clearly not the agency,” Gregory said.

“The risks shouldn’t prevent the building of a digital delivery mechanism and a digital profile through that, but on the other hand they shouldn’t ignore those risks either.”

But four years is a generation on the internet, and now it seems that the risk of damaging an agency’s digital identity could come from not adapting to new delivery mechanisms — which the private sector installs in their customer service arsenal — soon enough. Think Google Now or Siri for government.

“People will get used to that sort of convenience and flexibility in their life but they will expect it from their Government as well,” Gregory said.

Robotics, dialogues with computers and unimagined innovations could move from science fiction to science fact in the next 15 years.

“So at the moment you deal with an automated teller machine which is effectively a small, stationary robot bolted securely to the floor of a bank. Increasingly I think you’ll probably see small devices like that being deployed across a whole range of things and not just static, stationary applications but mobile ones as well. And the whole concept of the way people interact with technology through those two kinds of interfaces will radically change over the next five to 10 to 15 years,” he said.

The Mandarin posed the question: what lessons can be learned from government hackathons, such as GovHack, where the masses of data that government accumulates on death rates, health, food safety, the weather, and much more is safely made available for programmers to output in new forms, such as a map of where shadows will make solar panels less efficient using government-collected satellite imagery.

Asked specifically about whether the Tax Pack from the Australian Tax Office could one day be opened up to hackers to rethink its design, could it be turned into a gamified style form, which leads users through steps and offers feedback along the way?

Robert Gregory
Robert Gregory

“People will get used to filling out online insurance applications for example and say ‘why can’t I do this for my tax?'” he said, but thinks drastic, prominent changes would be a long way off — if they happened at all. “Something the technology could be employed to do…is it could become much more contextual based on your past activities.”

He suggests opening up the user experience of government to hacks could happen in small ways and if it works it might build trust among users. He points to initiatives under the former Victorian government that made a policy of being open to unsolicited suggestions.

“That’s essentially what pluralist politics is about, having good politicians that have good ideas themselves but also listening to good ideas from their constituencies and putting them forward,” Gregory said.

Managing risks of corruption and simply filtering out bad ideas is a must, says Gregory. And as government is forced to work as all the various age brackets expect, in an environment where audiences have fractured into ever-smaller groupings on social media, the task is expanding to live up to its digital expectations.

However, Gregory offered a point that could mean we won’t see the end of letterbox drops yet: “People should have the right to choose not to engage online.”

Robert Gregory is a partner with national law firm Maddocks and a specialist in advising and acting for Australian and international government and corporate clients in the technology, media and telecommunications; advertising, brands and marketing; and competition (anti-trust) and consumer law sectors.

Written by Dan Moss

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The Mandarin

The Mandarin staff journalists.