Does myGov need a new bureaucratic supremo?

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday June 28, 2016

Has the Digital Transformation Office really taken control of myGov from the Department of Human Services, or will it if the federal government is returned in the looming election? It’s hard to get a straight answer, but that might be because it’s the type of question that means more to the media than anyone involved.

The supposed takeover first came up in January in a news article reporting overall management of myGov would be taken from DHS and given over to DTO some time this year.

At the time, digital government observers and sources with substantial knowledge of the long-running project told The Mandarin this suggestion was likely to be a simplistic interpretation at best, given the substantial infrastructure and staff resources involved in keeping myGov running.

Another article last week reported a spokesperson from Coalition campaign headquarters had confirmed “the DTO has now taken over the technical operation of the platform” under a heading that referred to the small office seizing control of myGov.

Our own efforts to clear up the situation also led The Mandarin to a spokesperson from campaign central. Their answer provides a distinction between the roles the two agencies would be given if the government stays in power, but isn’t clear on who is or would be the boss:

“Under the Coalition’s plan to deliver better and more accessible digital services, the Digital Transformation Office will be responsible for the user experience and customer facing services for myGov.

“The Department of Human Services will continue to operate the IT infrastructure.”

The campaign team didn’t comment on how accurately their spokesperson’s statement was reported last week. Nor did they take up our invitation to clarify whether DTO had already taken over an overall leadership role from DHS, or whether such a takeover is mapped out in the government’s election platform.

Their disinterest in the media’s reporting — highly unusual in most policy areas — would suggest the narrative that DHS has dropped the ball as myGov’s supreme bureaucratic ruler, leading to this role being usurped by DTO, does not fit with any explicit part of the Coalition’s policy.

Measures announced in the recent federal budget, which still effectively have the status of election promises at this stage, would provide $45.1 million to DHS to run myGov for another four years and another $5.4 million to improve the service over two years.

Referring to the latter $5.4 million promise, the large service delivery department simply says it is “working closely” with DTO, customers and other participating agencies. The government’s digital service delivery policy lists a few specific goals for the user experience improvements, including the ability to sign in to agencies directly, without going through myGov, and general improvements to “usability and design” especially on mobile devices.

Ultimately, myGov is a collaborative project between multiple agencies, despite the lead role played by DHS, which has been its largest and most active user throughout its development. But the role of the Australian Taxation Office, for example, has been significant too.

In this context, focusing on the idea that one agency needs to assert executive leadership over every single aspect of the project and take sole responsibility for its success or failure is of little relevance. The implication that giving DTO responsibility for improving the frequently disappointing myGov user experience equals a loss of power for DHS or an opportunity for DTO to get some much needed runs on the board is far less important than whether the improvements are made quickly, efficiently and successfully.

Meanwhile, the opposition is cagey about what role the DTO would play in a Labor government and it has a digital policy that focuses mainly on big data and keeping personal information secure and doesn’t mention myGov at all.

In April, Labor MP Ed Husic suggested the DTO should stop working on projects to assist state and territory governments and focus on concrete ways to make service delivery from federal departments quicker and less painful, through any channel citizens use. Labor has been a vocal critic of the declining customer service performance of DHS agencies, like Centrelink, Child Support and Medicare, which it generally attributes to budget cuts in the service delivery agencies as much as a lack of digital innovation.

Labor pledges that if elected, it would establish a new centre for data analytics within the DTO and pursue data integration in a similar way to New Zealand. Labor says its Integrated Data Infrastructure would combine a wide range of anonymised information to inform policy:

“An IDI is not just a portal that makes data sets accessible, it is a platform that allows different data sets to be integrated and new insights to be drawn for policy evaluation and research.

“The New Zealand IDI currently includes economic, education, justice, health and safety, migration, tenancy, tax and business data. All data IDI is anonymised and unique identifiers are encrypted.”

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