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Trust, privacy and accessible data: can you really have it all?

As Australia’s public sector embarks its biggest modernisation and reform program in two decades, the theme of how digital transformation can improve responsiveness and service delivery is never far away.

Amid the raft of mandated changes, a central theme has emerged: new systems must be founded on transparency, accountability, auditability and confidentiality – or what the public, policymakers and stakeholders expect.

In late July 2017 The Mandarin and subject matter expert Objective Corporation held executive learning and development seminars in Adelaide and Sydney to uncover the key issues propelling digital transformation and information governance.

[pullquote] The bottom line was even though agencies can and do cop flak, this doesn’t diminish public and political expectations for public sector leaders to ‘do the right thing’… [/pullquote]

Moderated by The Mandarin’s publisher Tom Burton, Adelaide’s expert panel included:

Dr Tahnya Donaghy, deputy chief executive, Department of Premier and Cabinet (SA);
Peter Worthington-Eyre, South Australia chief data officer, Department of Premier and Cabinet (SA) and;
Sonya Sherman, director of public sector industry solutions at Objective Corporation and former NSW DFSI knowledge manager.

Held under Chatham House rules, the seminar was attended by key executives from South Australian agencies.

This is what we heard…

No two states are ever the same, even if the strong commitment to improving peoples’ lives through better government services is a constant.

Our previous forum report from NSW illuminated how trust, culture and context intertwined in that state’s public sector’s transformation journey.

Those themes also resonated strongly in South Australia — yet what’s striking is how passionately senior agency executives in Adelaide argued sound information governance must become a reality for both stakeholders and the public good.

We heard improved protection of the vulnerable simply has to overcome a tick-box ‘compliance mentality’. It requires ‘real world’ thinking around trust, privacy, data and identification — an imperative for the performance of agencies.

Many participants felt more work must be done to shift mindsets — but that things are moving in a material sense.

So what did we learn?

Performance with integrity is core

The growing challenge of public and organisational trust — and the behaviours and systems that underpin it — quickly formed a focal point.

Recently publicised compromises of government-held data (including personal identifiers) were cited as a public concern, but there’s a bigger day-to-day issue: technical and process obstacles (and mindsets) that prevent crucial information or data being shared when it’s urgently needed — like utility disconnections signalling financial distress for vulnerable families.

An acute pressure is resolving information sharing problems that generate negative consequences. The forum heard that timely, authorised and appropriate access to information and data by government is a now fundamental public policy and social concern.

Recent serious shortcomings cited included access to information crucial for the protection of the vulnerable, which has produced a catalyst for a change in how information and data is made available, managed, shared and protected.

Put simply, expectations of government have changed and created a much stronger imperative for agencies to work together.

Trust and privacy shouldn’t diverge

Some of the biggest information governance challenges are faced by frontline agencies that need to access sensitive information as much as they do protect it.

We heard that even though privacy and confidentiality remain a real concern in information and data governance, they must not obstruct citizen safety. An important point that aroused passionate discussion was the potential for criticism and its overarching effects.

The bottom line was even though agencies can and do cop flak, this doesn’t diminish public and political expectations for public sector leaders to ‘do the right thing’ when it comes to breaking through information silos or addressing a ‘disconnect’.

Weighting competing expectations takes skill; sometimes a judgement call needs to be made. But compliance must facilitate integrity and good business and must not impede appropriate action.

Something needs to be done

Crucially, there was consensus that the risk of ‘not doing something’ must firmly be taken into account. In short:

  • Compliance must facilitate integrity and good business and cannot impede appropriate action.
  • Good information governance, including personal information and data, must balance different interests – privacy, social benefits and policy outcomes.

Expectations on government and risk management

Another hot topic was how government collection and use of information and data changes amid digitisation. Public sector leaders navigate a paradox between popular expectations around how information is used and governed that can diverge between government services and the private sector.

We heard of an immediate and acute pressure for digital government interactions to be as convenient private sector ones — even if government’s obligation to protect citizen data and personal information and guarantee its integrity is far higher.

Many felt there is still a learning curve. Better awareness of how information can be appropriately shared and controlled for public benefit is needed.

Overcoming frustration

At the same time there is growing frustration if citizens are required to repeatedly provide the same information to populate multiple silos. Good information governance, combined with collaboration and automation is the crucial link here because it can remove citizen friction and increase trust.

Key challenges and essential factors in improving services and outcomes cited included:

  • Confidence staff can work ‘as their job requires’ is sharply increasing in importance.
  • This confidence must extend to information sharing, workflow processes and contextual safeguards.
  • Demonstrating the value of information sharing to the public in a ‘real world’ scenario is vital to win support. Beneficial outcomes like ‘tell me once’ need to be communicated as real progress.

There were also strong views on how information governance must be at the foundation of customer and citizen centric services. Designing governance in from the start means moving from citizens’ information being the ‘property’ of an agency or service to revolving around an individual across multiple agencies.

At the same time information and data must move through government as required — but still be well managed and protected.

Today that includes actively embedding considerations and compliance with regulatory requirements that include the recently toughened Privacy Act for Australia and the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Both deal extensively with how personal information is handled and managed by government, with GDPR holding serious implications for Australian government agencies that have overseas dealings including research, commercial and trade entities as well as social security and health organisations.

Accelerating better government: staying persuasive

One of the strongest imperatives participants voiced was being able to persuade stakeholders of the real benefits and changes digital government can bring. It has to be kept real.

The forum heard that outcome based arguments won hands down over process or technical pitches and that customer frustrations and agency pain points are a natural driver for change because differences can be seen and felt.

There’s no standard recipe for success, but the techniques are consistent. Timing matters, so be opportunistic and anticipate change is not always a ‘linear path’ and circumstances cannot always be controlled.

Change usually comes in waves, so allow ‘political dust to settle’ and be prepared for the next opportunity.

Successful arguments cited include:

  • High impact and high value issues carry the most resonance. Start with these.
  • ‘Burning platforms’ generate strong interest and can be a springboard for change. Use them to tactical and strategic advantage not otherwise available.
  • Harness natural demand for improvement. People are tired of repetitive, slow processes to achieve the routine. Basic medical information was cited as an example.

Identity, trust and data

Forum participants were not shy about calling out that digital transformation in government necessarily touches on trust and identity and will continue to do so.

The creation of identifiers has historically generated robust public discussion, especially at the federal level. The abandonment of the 1980s Australia Card and the subsequent Access Card were cited.

Identity and customer verification requirements and solutions will continue to be debated, especially as services become more connected in the digital realm.

Forum participants strongly advocated there were real lessons to be learned:

  • Requirements of citizens must by balanced by benefits they understand.
  • Many existing identity credentials from government are used beyond their original purpose, like drivers’ licences. Inconsistent identifier verification requirements degrade service.
  • New verification and identity requirements must be articulated up-front and ‘make life easier’ rather than a being a ‘process description’ for customers.


Participants agreed digital government and good information governance facilitate improvements in services to the community at large, even if agencies are at different points in their journey.

Communicating the primary benefits to the community rather than process and procedure was regarded as a key step in generating high-level and public support.

Participants expressed a desire to learn of new developments, especially real-life lessons and experiences – including challenges — of actual deployments of information governance across jurisdictions.

In October The Mandarin travels to Brisbane to gain a Queensland perspective on how information governance can improve government. If you’re a public sector executive who’d like to attend and participate, please drop us a line.

Author Bio

Julian Bajkowski

Julian Bajkowski is an award-winning journalist, editor and adviser who specialises in explaining developments in business, technology, policy and finance. Prior to becoming managing editor of The Mandarin, he worked in senior editorial roles at the Australian Financial Review, ACP, IDG and the Intermedia Group, and has been a public policy and corporate affairs adviser at MasterCard.