More public consultation on big data and privacy, PM&C grabs taskforce boss from ABS

By Stephen Easton

June 26, 2017

Big data business scientist presenting the concept

The federal government is asking citizens for their views on how government policy should mediate the balance between big data and individual privacy, through a new website that explains the Productivity Commission’s recent report on the subject.

The PC concluded Australian governments could do a lot more to help organisations make the most of big data, but that consumer rights should also be strengthened and clarified.

“We are not going to miss this chance,” said Angus Taylor, the Assistant Minister for Digital Transformation, in a Friday statement announcing the new website, which allows the public to provide comments directly to a cross-agency taskforce established in early May to develop the government’s response to the PC recommendations.

Most ministers and public service leaders are keen to unlock the promised value of big data in government, academia and the wider economy and are well versed in spruiking it. Taylor says ground rules for data sharing and use “will improve delivery of government services, and deliver greater choice and outcomes for us all” but is not so strong on what dangers there are to individuals, illustrating the ongoing challenge with calming down the privacy concerns that threatened last year’s Census.

Taylor framed the taskforce’s work with four specific questions: “Do we collect the right data? Have we got the right privacy settings? Are we encouraging innovation from our data? Is our investment as a Government delivering the returns that it should?” And, he added:

“We must move our thinking on data and IT more broadly into one where investment is always focused on outcomes. And I don’t believe that has been the case in the Federal Government in the past.”

On the new website, the minister is similarly enthusiastic and goes on to describe the issue of individual privacy, albeit from a government’s perspective:

“Improving the way we use data will lead to significant economic benefits. We will achieve these benefits through driving innovation and competition with new and unanticipated business models, and empowering citizens as they seek the improved products and services they deserve.

However, we cannot do this without the community’s trust. This is vital for the successful rollout of any reforms to Australia’s data system.”

While it is useful to define the issue as a need for social license, as the PC and other agencies have done, and to propose solutions like the “comprehensive right” put forward in the commission’s final report, the public consultation and feedback website could do more to show the public that ministers and bureaucrats fundamentally get why privacy is even an issue in the first place.

There is a general consensus in the public sector that big data is a good thing, but there are real substantive issues that lie behind concerns about privacy and rights around data collection, including transparency across all organisational types and related cyber security issues, that must be addressed explicitly — not simply as a barrier to the primary aims of reforms.

The cross-agency group includes representatives from right across the Australian Public Service. From the centre of government there’s the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Attorney General’s Department, Finance and the Australian Public Service Commission, along with the Digital Transformation Agency.

The massive Department Human Services and the policy-focused Department of Social Services are also represented, along with Industry, Innovation and Science. The big data dealers, the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Institute of Health and Welfare, are also part of the group, while on the consumer rights side of things, there’s the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner.

The data taskforce is led by Gemma Van Halderen, who was recently brought across to PM&C from the ABS, where she led a lot of data sharing and data integration projects in recent years, most recently as first assistant statistician leading the statistical strategy and partnerships division.

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