Australia is not a screw-up nation

By Marie Johnson

January 16, 2017

Flying starling birds

I feel compelled to write this — as a public entrepreneur, someone who has worked with great people to deliver big things in government over decades, as a global technology leader, company owner and AIIA Board Director.

I would like to tell Australia and our children how great Australia is and what an amazing future we have to look forward to.

I would like to tell Australia of the remarkable people working in and with the public service — including technologists and innovators — who see their life’s work as a calling. No less innovative because they are public service technologists. They are the stewards of systems that touch all Australians and millions of visitors to this country — systems that safeguard the Australian economy and society.

“Blame IT — that is apparently what is meant by frank and fearless advice. ‘Blame IT’ is a race to the bottom in a grab for alarmist headlines baying for retribution.”

Australia is not the screw-up nation.

And it is not facing cataclysmic failures of its public services.

The Australian public deserve to know that our public services are world-leading.

That is not to say that things can’t be improved — things absolutely need to be improved. And it is also not to say that we don’t face very profound challenges — because we do.

But there needs to be a different public discourse to the stone throwing and hand-wringing being played out in the media over government “IT”. Blame IT — and that is apparently what is meant by frank and fearless advice. “Blame IT” is a race to the bottom in a grab for alarmist headlines baying for retribution.

None of this contributes to public discourse.

None of this builds confidence in the future.

Yes, there are challenges and there will always be challenges. But that doesn’t mean that we are facing cataclysmic failure and that Australians screw things up.

We face up to the inevitable challenges — and at the same time we continue to deliver, to improve and to radically innovate.

For those who understand complex systems — and by this I do not mean “IT” systems — the public sector is a complex system. Each part interdependent. Continuously evolving. A change or innovation in one area flows through the whole system. Complex systems wherein there is simplicity, common patterns and phenomenal innovation potential.

You don’t need to change the whole system for the whole system to change.

There are anchors or pivot points in the government and economic architecture that shape and change this complex system. The Australian Business Number (ABN) for example – implemented back in the year 2000. A change far more profound than any “IT system” — policy reform that touched every part of the economy and seamlessly implemented.

The ASIC company check is another pivot point. As is the Visa Evidence Verification Online (VEVO). Online payments. Anti-Money Laundering legislation requiring the financial system to implement Know Your Customer (KYC).

Digital government has been happening for decades

Indeed, digital government has been happening for a lot longer than 16 months — for many decades in fact. Digital government is not a recent phenomenon.

Australia has been and continues to be in the lead in many of these areas.

“What counts is understanding what we see; our readiness and creativity in response; and building confidence in the future that is fair for all Australians.”

The Business Entry Point — an initiative of the three levels of government in Australia — has been in place for 18 years (yes, that’s YEARS), including the prestigious recognition of the 2006 United Nations Public Service Award in the category of e-government.

A unique business identifier (ABN). Chip cards. Smart forms. Syndicated content. Transaction management. Online accounts. Advanced passenger processing. Sophisticated biometrics strengthening border entry. Remote and mobile service delivery. Services delivered in Indigenous languages. Online Translation and Interpreting Services supporting organisations nationally. Predictive analytics. Geospatial services.

And more.

Beyond websites.

The digital ecosystem of social media channels, video, apps, point-of-sale, digital platforms and services platforms shared with other governments globally. Innovation in payments. Omni-channel. Cognitive intelligence.

Digital government is not the same as IT and should not be mistaken for IT.

Digital government is not a portal nor a pick-list of beta projects.

Understanding the complex systems of society and phase change

Digital government describes the phase change that has been underway for several decades and that is deeply changing the underpinning architecture, challenging policy and reshaping the concept of service delivery and the engagement and relationship with citizens.

The point is, Australia has a very advanced digital service delivery architecture and services infrastructure that enables the phenomenal interaction across this complex ecosystem and throughout the economy.

Australia is not the screw-up nation.

Yes, there will continue to be challenges and things will not always go to plan. And because of this inter-dependence, system-wide strategy, policy and governance is critical.

The federal government has rightly placed a strong emphasis on digital governance.

But we are not alone in the world in the challenges that we face — although recent commentary would have the Australian public believe that we are the world’s dunces.

I have worked with many governments around the world, and the “New World of Government Work” strategy I collaborated worldwide on at Microsoft back in 2006 described some of these challenges.

All countries face these challenges. Britain has also long faced similar challenges.

In 2014, I co-authored a paper with Jerry Fishenden (from the UK) comparing the online/egovernment strategies of the UK and Australia over the past 20 years: “A Tale of Two Countries – the Digital Disruption of Government”. The similarities of the challenges are confronting.

“…an estimated US$3 trillion was spent during the first decade of the 21st century on government information systems. Yet 60% to 80% of “e-government” projects have failed in some way, leading to “a massive wastage of financial, human and political resources, and an inability to deliver the potential benefits of e-government to its beneficiaries”. (Manchester Centre for Development Informatics, iGovernment Working Paper 20. 2010. Carolyne Stanforth.)

It is critical to public policy and public discourse, that the dynamics of these complex systems are understood. It is equally important to understand what has worked well and why.

The systems of society are undergoing a phase change — driven by digital technologies and pervasive intelligent computing.

This phase change is throwing up unanticipated challenges and phenomenal opportunities.

What counts is understanding what we see; our readiness and creativity in response; and building confidence in the future that is fair for all Australians.

But who are the future stewards of the complex systems?

The skills desperately needed by the public sector now and into the future is part of Australia’s broader human capital challenge.

The public sector skills deficit cannot be solved by the public sector alone. Strong industry relationships and strategic collaboration is essential.

We need to assemble capability differently — like the DARPA model. Peter Shergold referred to this as the “Hollywood” model. Talent from government, industry, and research institutions coming together for intense periods to work on breakthrough challenges.

This is where the AIIA plays a really important role across industry, government and academia. The AIIA is strategically focussed on galvanizing action on skills and STEM education through its collaboration with governments, other peak groups, and through its Special Interest Group network.

But the skills and imagination pipeline needs to be primed for decades.

Long gone are the days when it was enough to do an IT degree or any degree, and jobs would come.

Life-long learning. Intentional diversity. Taking personal responsibility to feed the thirst for new knowledge through platforms such as MOOCs that democratize access.

Kudos therefore to organisations such as the Department of Human Services and other public sector agencies investing in STEM graduate programmes.

But still the statistics are confronting given the challenges.

And that’s why headlines such as “Australia is a screw-up nation” are so damaging.

We have a duty to change the story. Actually, we have a duty to tell the real story — that Australia actually does amazing things.

The NDIS for example, is remarkable public policy — a world first. And this remarkable policy is driving remarkable innovation and the human potential being unlocked is almost unfathomable.

We need to tell the story to attract the best and brightest into the public sector. To be at the forefront of innovation. To be the future stewards of our complex systems.

Challenges are guaranteed. And there will always be stone throwers.

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Geoff Edwards
Geoff Edwards
5 years ago

It is nice to read of your optimism, Marie Johnson, but the screw-ups our mounting. VET Fee-Help and the destruction of TAFE generally. Chronic underfunding of Landcare. Wet-lettuce ASIC. Dismissal of staff from the ATO followed by non-pursuit of taxes from multinationals. Kneecapping of CSIRO. White spot disease in prawns, apparently now escaped into the wild – the undermining of the quarantine barrier generally in the name of free trade. Shifting APVMA to Armidale. Defunding of Trove. Centrelink automated data matching: even the government admits to a 20% error rate! (Good grief. I’m glad that my bank doesn’t have a 20% error rate.)

To this outsider, the capacity of the APS to craft and deliver good programs in the public interest is being undermined continuously, in the name of fiscal austerity or neoconservative ideology or something.

In no way do I suggest that the public servants involved or the IT systems are responsible for these proven and emerging failures. I absolutely agree that the public service is capable of pioneering world-leading initiatives. But still the annual efficiency dividends keep coming around to extract DFA’s revenge.

5 years ago

The debt collection fiasco pales into insignificance compared to the 90 day periodic return filing submissions to which grant recipients are subjected, the most cumbersome and ineffective on earth:

1. An online submission system which crashed months ago and now will not even go to the next page – and has meant that all those individuals required to complete the return have no option but to file the return manually at a Centrelink office, first printing out copies of all the necessary supporting documentation insisted upon (leases; bank transaction statements, etc.).

2. Requesting that bank transaction statements be attached (via the inoperable online submission system) strictly in formats which banks do not provide and for periods to match the Centrelink submission date requirements, when banks only generate statements at periods to suit their own customer management guidelines.

3. Requesting bank transaction statements at all, when Centrelink, as a condition of granting allowances, already has direct access itself to all customer banking facilities at any time it wishes.

4. Requesting copies of ongoing beneficiary residential accomodation leases at 90 day intervals, when such agreements are entered into and remain unchanged for years on end, as specified under the lease terms.

There is no apparent reason why such confirmation of circumstances documentation could not be required annually, rather than at 90 day intervals, or indeed that no periodic returns be required at all and the responsibility for reporting changes be left to the individual (possibly with institution of penalties for non-compliance if such should prove necessary).

Millions of man hours (currently wasted by both Centrelink employees and the submitting beneficiaries) could be saved annually, or the entire process rendered unnecessary, by rationalisation of this system alone.

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