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Tom Burton: myGov shopfronts open doors to digital federalism

The opening of a new myGov shopfront in Sydney’s Martin Place this week represents a major shift in the delivery of public services — and a possible model for a major rethink of the whole architecture of government.

At surface level the shopfront brings together a series of federal government services under one roof, with staff from the Department of Human Services, Australian Tax Office and Medicare offering tax, job search, e-health, veterans’ affairs and disability services. All staff are in generic office uniforms and are trained to handle a multiplicity of services now being offered under the banner of myGov, the federal identity portal linking Australian government services.

The shopfront follows a successful trial in Brisbane of a similar concept and emulates the work the New South Wales government has being doing around Service NSW and the bringing together of over 400 different applications into one system.

Both provide what the industry calls “self service” — digital applications which enable citizens and customers to manage their own affairs with government through the internet, with human assistance where needed.

So while the shopfront is really just that, it is the ability to deliver all services through a unified digital system that is the big win. The best example is the ability to complete a tax return electronically through myGov.

All of which is eminently sensible and part of the e-government push for more efficient delivery of government.

But for those interested in the architecture of government, the bigger gains and more profound reforms come from the decoupling of services from traditional institutions and the potential to really rethink the whole federal delivery model.

As Service NSW boss Mike Pratt is fond of observing, citizens don’t really care which agency manages the service, they simply want it to work. Citizens have little interest in the spaghetti soup of government acronyms and often changing names of various agencies. And in many cases are ignorant or agnostic about which tier of government is actually responsible for the service.

[pullquote] “For far too long the public sector has allowed bureaucratic rivalry drive service delivery.” [/pullquote]

For far too long the public sector has allowed bureaucratic rivalry to drive service delivery. Enter Australia through an airport and watch the multiple queues lining up for quarantine (the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade) and (half-hearted) Ebola checks (the Department of Health) after Immigration and Customs have done their work and you can see first hand the silliness of allowing organisational politics to drive service design rather than users.

More relevantly, take the case of a recent widower seeking to navigate the multiplicity of government organisations to change their status and close the affairs of their partner. One-stop shops potentially end that nightmare, but also open up real possibilities for government reform.

In a recent paper for the Committee for Economic Development of Australia’s series on federation reform, ex-NSW Treasury boss Percy Allan explored the concept of local government virtualisation — where councils share common (sometimes privately delivered ) services for councils. These can range from debt collection to dog tag applications.

Allan argues this enables local government to remain small, nimble and relevant while offering best-of-breed services through a shared service arrangement with other councils.

Again, all common sense.

The big gains come from taking a much more logical and commercially savvy approach to service delivery. Take, for example, the collection of revenues.  Immigration, Customs and the regulators (the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, etc) together raise billions of dollars in duty, licence fees and various charges ranging from wood levies to spectrum licences.

All these agencies have a variety of systems and processes — many which are ridiculously clunky, switching users back and forth between a variety of sites and paper-based invoices. If logic prevailed these would all be managed through a common transactional platform. This platform would presumably be managed by the biggest revenue collector of them all, the Tax Office — but arguably could equally be powered by one of the banks. The Commonwealth Bank, for example, has a state-of-the-art transactional platform which could manage all the security and underlying feature sets required in a modern 24/7 multi-device transaction system.

Using outsourced digital platforms to deliver more efficient services is very much a first generation web construct, and in many ways is government playing catch-up with what has been widely accepted in the commercial world. It’s been a long time since the airlines ran their own booking engines.

More provocatively, it also opens the possibility of, say, moving the revenue collections of the states and councils onto the same platform, removing the duplication and cost of developing and maintaining the numerous government payment platforms across the country.

The new myGov shopfront in Sydney's Martin Place
The new myGov shopfront in Sydney’s Martin Place

Big wins from a holistic user view

In the context of the current debate around federation reform, it suggests many services can be delivered virtually with the end-user agnostic if it is a local, state or national agency actually delivering the service.

This in turn offers a very interesting innovation option, with the base platform managed centrally, but with developers and providers able to offer applications off the platform. We have seen some early examples of this type of open source development with the various transport apps that hook into bus and train movement data.

The wins from taking a holistic user view are potentially huge. While a lot of second-generation web applications are micro plays — point solutions to do stuff such as search for real estate, cars or jobs — we are starting to see horizontal platforms emerge which present a very different policy and industry options.

Senior Boston Consulting partner Phillip Evans has written how this type of third-wave digital disruption is opening up huge opportunities, but also challenging regulatory paradigms which assume traditional vertical supply chains.

Evans cites energy platforms as an example of this new thinking, where devices seamlessly consume or provide energy to the grid. This has big downstream impacts. Electric cars become hugely viable once there is a robust system for selling their surplus power real-time into peak periods.

Another obvious win for policymakers are the insights that come from accessing the data from these platforms. In healthcare, a system which collects and manages the data sets in a more integrated platform offers big gains for managing heath outcomes and costs.

Google’s Android system and Amazon’s AWS server infrastructure are early examples of the organic development of global platforms.

[pullquote] “This type of thinking requires real vision and ambition to rethink our public sector.” [/pullquote]

The issue becomes one of leadership. This type of thinking requires real vision and ambition to rethink our public sector. Mantras like e-government and “digital by default” are useful slogans but don’t address the architectural issues.

Governments also need to talk with each other and give up traditional animosities and rivalries. NSW, for example, is historically its own player, as any one who has been involved in a Commonwealth-state negotiation (housing, health, ageing, etc) will attest. Victoria, in contrast, is much more a co-operative player and has, for example, said it will look to use myGov to manage its front-end authentication.

In Canberra, the arrival of Michael Thawley as secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Jane Halton as the boss of Finance and John Fraser in Treasury presents a unique opportunity for some fresh thinking and determination to change.

That said, we are still seeing old vertical supply chain thinking dominate competition and regulatory policy and utility pricing. The Harper competition review got sidetracked by the politics of chemists and dairy providers, suggesting a complex regulatory fix for a problem we have been arguing about since the 1970s.

Real-time instant pricing becomes very doable using technology, yet the state utility pricing regulators are still managing the system as a set of vertical plays between the generators and distributors, again in much the same way as the ’70s.

Watch any 20-something communicate using Viber, Facebook, Snapchat, Skype or WhatsApp and you realise we are caught in a time warp of old-school telco regulation managed by a regulator (ACMA) that is stuck with a foot-high stack of arcane media and communications rules.

To embrace the new platform thinking will require strong strategic leadership among the federal and state central departments. Public agencies innately protect their turf and are especially astute at out-waiting or filibustering change programs. Witness the much-vaunted federal red tape reduction program where civil servants have been able to give politicians their bonfire of regulations without any real repeal of major sectoral regulation and associated bureaucracies.

One of the reasons NSW has been able to move so quickly to bring together over 400 back office processes is that Service NSW was set up as complete new entity. This meant it was unencumbered by the politics of the current bureaucratic empires; it’s been able to build a whole new culture and a clean, cloud-based, back-end platform (Salesforce) to support its front-end services.

An early win would be to use the myGov portal to unify all government services around a single identity system rather than creating a whole series of authentication systems with different log-ins and password controls.

The shopfronts are a first step in that direction. Interestingly, the main driver of Canberra’s unified service delivery push has been Ben Rimmer, until recently an associate secretary at the Department of Human Services. Rimmer has been head-hunted to be the new CEO for the City of Melbourne and is a real loss to the federal government — which has a dearth of senior executives who get the digital world.

His new job, however, positions him well to apply some practical digital federalism into the local government world.

More at The Mandarin: How a banker delivered happy customers to the NSW govt

Author Bio

Tom Burton

Tom Burton is publisher of The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He has served in various public administration roles, specialising in the media and communications sector. He was a Walkley Award-winning journalist and executive editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. He worked as Canberra bureau chief for the Australian Financial Review and as managing editor of smh.com.au. He most recently worked at the Australian Communications and Media Authority.