Digitally transforming NSW: what public sector executives really think

In mid-2017 The Mandarin’s executive learning seminar series on digital transformation information governance hit the road, starting in Sydney, candidly revealing real-world challenges and urgency for change.

Digital technology is spearheading a profound transformation of the public sector, challenging traditional public agency governance models which are still often based on ‘analogue age’ frameworks that require modernisation for a rapidly evolving operating environment

While many of the key philosophical pillars of governance – transparency, accountability, auditability and confidentiality – remain constant, the underlying mechanisms and systems have not always kept pace.

An area of increasing urgency for agencies and their leaders, as well as industry and expert advisors, is information governance as modes of engagement evolve to reflect the needs of government and stakeholders.

The context

In mid-2017 The Mandarin in conjunction with subject matter expert Objective Corporation held an executive learning and development seminar in Sydney to tease out pertinent themes and issues surrounding digital transformation and information governance.

Attended by executives from key New South Wales and federal agencies with a passion for the impact of digital transformation on governance and information management, the collaborative event produced a frank and practical discourse. It identified crucial new challenges, real world solutions, approaches and skills in navigating a rapidly evolving agenda all workshopped from the floor.

Moderated by The Mandarin’s publisher Tom Burton and held under Chatham House rules, the expert panel included NSW Information Commissioner Elizabeth Tydd, NSW Department of Justice chief information officer Aaron Liu and Objective Corporation’s public sector solutions director Sonya Sherman.

Pertinent themes very quickly emerged from the discussion:

Information governance, organisational governance and outcomes must connect

A mission critical challenge immediately cited is that governance and agency outcomes do not and cannot exist in isolation. This extends right across information governance, corporate governance, privacy, data collection and utilisation and the pursuit of improved services and administration.

Good information governance was repeatedly referenced as a key enabler to improvements because it addressed the ‘silo’ effect of disparate information systems and standards that impede progress. Equally it also fostered a culture of more trusted and transparent corporate culture, collaboration and organisational governance.

Examples ranged from automating access controls over documents and files to better and more secure management of information across multiple organisations, networks, devices and locations.

Focusing on the transformation challenge.

In terms of best practice, participants cited examples where automated governance had enabled secure sharing or automated release of information to the public, without the need for government staff to navigate complex policies or repeatedly make manual decisions around the same types of information.

There was a strong concurrence that a key learning to date has been all governance measures need to pragmatically improve outcomes and delivery while still balancing a number of interests. Process for processes’ sake is simply no longer an option in a modern and technologised public sector.

Taking trust to heart

Senior executives readily acknowledged governments are moving irreversibly to a ‘digital first’ posture; yet to make this work, skilled management and the appropriate tools are needed for government to deliver outcomes for citizens. Lack of access to ‘governance grade’ tools and systems introduced new risks through phenomena like ‘shadow IT’.

Participants frankly called out the rising tempo of digital transformation activities as agencies adopt a deliberate outward focus to engage with citizens and stakeholders more directly. While silos no longer ‘cut it’ in a collaborative public sector, key principles and business rules must still apply.

Solid information governance quickly emerged as a core foundation for successful digitisation of government services – both internal and external.

Top challenges for participants included:

  •         Making information governance an integral in creating accountability frameworks for creating, valuing, using and managing data.
  •         Competing expectations of service convenience (eg instantaneous, intuitive access) and privacy, information assurance and confidentiality.
  •         Necessity for trust to be earned by government rather than taken for granted.  

Participants called out that enhanced trust provides government greater efficacy in service delivery and creates a symbiosis in advancing citizen priorities and the democratic process.

Conversely, lack of trust can produce ‘information asymmetry’ underscoring why good information governance foundations are needed to prevent erosion of confidence.

Culture must rise to context

Panellists and participants observed government now faces differing expectations from customers and stakeholders in how information and data, especially in the digital context, is collected, utilised and managed.

Trust and privacy have become both essential yet paradoxical: people increasingly share their private lives and personal data online through social media, yet remain cautious about how government agencies collect and share information and for what purposes.

There was solid agreement citizens expect ‘joined-up’ services from government on par with commercial experiences that deliver simple and seamless services.

Yet a heightened public expectation exists that personal information and data will be held even more securely and subject to stringent safeguards especially around social services, health and common transactions.

Governance is about appropriate access, not barriers

A case in point raised in the discussion was that repeated requests for similar data between agencies (a consequence lack of secure information management and sharing) is increasingly viewed as ‘over collection’ and has become a friction point for services.

The ability to manage interactions across multiple agencies from a single point or account is a major focal point for most jurisdictions, but progress can be undone if good information governance foundations are not present from the start.

  •         Risk management of information needs to be intelligent and informed. Compliance should not be an obstacle to service improvement.
  •         Good governance involves understanding the rules, roles and responsibilities for managing data and information — and why contexts can be both specific and variable.
  •         Codifying rules allows automation that accelerates and improve services. The burden of highly manual and repetitive decision making, which can be inconsistent, is reduced producing efficiency and service improvement.

Room for improvement: channelling information flow

The theme of ‘digital by default’ was persistently cited by executives as both a top-line expectation and operational mindset for government.

This translates to secure accessibility across a range of touch points and channels that were ‘always on’, it was brokered. To achieve this, information and data has to flow more readily. Information governance facilitates and regulates this flow, but many improvements are needed at a number of levels.

Executives were adamant that a number of key areas still need to be addressed in terms of improvement.

Specific pain points included:

  •         There is generational change in the public sector workforce with 70% of staff soon to be digitally native Millennials. Re-teaching manual or paper based processes will not succeed at either organisational or service delivery levels.
  •         The speed at which data and information is needing to be accessed has increased sharply. It’s no longer static or historical but dynamic and real time.
  •         The range and types of information and data now being used and included in digital interactions is increasing and will continue to do so.

While senior executives were highly cognizant of the challenges at hand, there were also candidly pragmatic suggestions. One participant observed that although information governance increased speed, in reality customer trust is still built incrementally. Successful smaller steps are first needed to build confidence allowing bigger ones.

Equally, there was frank recognition that understanding end user needs is still imperative. ‘Digital’ cannot merely be applied as a label. Essential principles remain and must be applied. This included retaining control over the creation, access to and distribution of information and data.

Conclusion: Governance as a platform for innovation and change

Our understanding of information governance needs to move beyond compliance – it enables both digital government and open government, and is simply good business.

It was strongly agreed continued collaboration between the public sector, subject matter experts and stakeholders must continue to deliver improvements for the public good.