Peter Harris: finding data a 'task for Sherlock Holmes'

By David Donaldson

June 16, 2016

An Network servers in data room .

Figuring out what data sets government holds and where they are “is a task for Sherlock Holmes”, says Productivity Commission chairman Peter Harris.

What is clear, however, is that despite their ability to reveal trends and service inadequacies that aren’t even on the radar, governments data sets are currently being woefully underutilised.

So the Productivity Commission is seeking the help of departments to discover who owns what and develop an understanding of how to use data to make government work better.

The PC’s report on disruptive technologies, released Tuesday, is in part a prelude to a major inquiry into government use of data, Harris told The Mandarin.

“The public service has the capacity to invest more in utilisation of its data than it is today,” he says.

Although departments aren’t traditionally active participants in PC inquiries, Harris explains it’s difficult for the agency to know what’s going on without their help in this instance.

“Unless the departments tell us where the data sets are, we don’t actually know. They know what they’re not doing. We can guess, but they actually know.”

Health will be a big area for the upcoming inquiry. “We’ll try and show in quite specific ways how agencies in health — and not just departments, but hospitals and academic institutions as well — can develop their data sources to identify better responses, things like adverse drug reactions, all the sorts of things we think are happening today but in an ad hoc way,” says Harris.

There are a handful of great models around that that are useful for the rest of the country. Western Australia, for example, uses its epidemiological data very effectively, linking up a range of information about births and deaths.

“We know these models exist and don’t have to create privacy issues,” he explains.

And for departments that do want to play a part, the commission asking them to read through Tuesday’s report — chapter four specifically, on government roles — to get an idea of what the key issues are.

Digital disruption report

Tuesday’s report includes a brief (for the PC at least) look into how government is faring with adapting to technological change.

“It’s about trying to point out some basic commonsense principles for people to adopt internally, approaches for how to manage improvements for how to get digital disruption,” says Harris.

Among the PC’s findings are that making it easier to fire those without the skills needed to do their job would help the public service adapt to constant technological change better.

The public service’s “often cumbersome” workplace relations setup is “not suited” to shedding those whose performance is inadequate, limiting new hires, it argues.

While it acknowledges this is a “relatively modest” obstacle to adaption to new technology, and that changes would incur “some cost”, the commission reiterates its finding last year that “the removal of terms that specify unnecessarily lengthy, costly and inflexible performance management and termination processes from agency enterprise agreements would better enable workplace restructuring.”

The key challenges for government to tackle in dealing with technological disruption are:

  • Changing a risk-averse culture.
  • Reforming procurement processes to ensure competitiveness and make compliance simpler.
  • Development of skills in fast-changing technologies.
  • Better coordination between agencies within governments.
  • Using technology and data better to improve policy making processes.
  • Using digital technologies to make government more accountable.
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