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Tom Burton: politicians missing in action on real public sector change

The major political parties need to get serious about the shape of digital government, if the review of the APS is to be effective.

The review of the Australian Public Service is timely, and well done offers a unique opportunity to deeply consider how best to redesign central national government for the modern, global, digital era.

It is disappointing, if predictable, that most of the early political commentary about the review has been around staff numbers, work conditions, outsourcing and resourcing levels. These are important issues for public sector workers and their industrial backers, but do not address the fundamental design challenges, now confronting the contemporary public sector.

It passes strange how little attention the major political parties pay to the engine room of government. Depending on the measure, the public sector drives somewhere between 20% to 40% of the economy and profoundly shapes vast swathes of our lives across major domains, including health, education, safety and security, justice and infrastructure. It directly employs over 1.2 million Australians and is a major national resource. The APS sits at the apex of the Australian public sector, driving national priorities and providing leadership to the many areas that require an integrated policy response.

Designed and operated well, the public sector can create enormous amounts of economic and societal value, yet none of the major parties have framed a larger detailed vision for the design of a public sector fit for the modern world.

A sector that sits at the edge of what is almost certainly going to be profound change.



I am fond of saying the Australian public service feels like the Fukushima nuclear plant. Just a matter of time before a tsunami knocks it flat. It is an exaggeration, but if ever there was any sector ripe for disruption, it is the modern bureaucracy, Australian or otherwise.

The vast amount of public administration is made up of rules. These come in the form of statutes, common law, regulations, codes, and a whole suite of administrative business rules that drive case management and work flows and typically frame the operation of most public programs and services. These services are delivered either directly by government agencies and regulators, or through non-government service providers.

These rules are easily codified and managed automatically through well-designed digital solutions. The first phase of this transformation is well underway in the form of large scale digitisation of core transactional services.  But it is the imminent perfect storm of super powerful computing, intelligent self-learning programs, high performance networks and the harnessing of the data from these platforms that is expected to bring forth the type of fundamental change we have seen in so many other industries and sectors.

In this world many of the core work flows and processes will almost certainly be subsumed into powerful intelligent networks and systems, that will support a whole suite of highly personalised integrated services and programs. Initially this could be around the death of a parent, or a divorce, but given the breadth of government, the bundle of potential integrated services is almost limitless and will be drawn from across multiple portfolios and jurisdictions. This will almost certainly require robust interaction with the non-government sector.

Personalised, intelligent, helpful human services

The same type of focussed personalised services can be built around intelligent case management and the delivery of so called “soft” human services, such as the oversight of children at risk, and family violence. These types of complex and demanding services require high levels of co-ordination across multiple providers to ensure case workers are empowered to effectively deal with clients, some thing modern intelligent systems are well designed to do.

Rapidly this introduces a world where the government knows everything about everyone, all the time. This rightly worries many who fear what this post-Orwellian world of big government could be. But it also opens an amazing opportunity to precisely design services based on a forensic understanding of people’s needs.

In health care, for example, we are already seeing the benefits of precision medicine, with highly targeted immuno-therapies showing impressive results, using the data from personal biomarkers to identify the best candidates.

Managing the security and access to this type of highly sensitive data is just one of a bundle of challenging policy issues this scenario raises. But the same type of precision thinking can be well applied across many domains in government — from transport, education and public safety to call out but three —to better personalise and target programs and services.

The management of this data is not trivial and strongly suggests government will eventually consolidate around a core group of platforms that are central to government —govOS if you like. Crudely these could be around the functions of revenue collection, benefit payments, transactions, human services, safety and security, health, educational and transport.

Designed well and with strong governance, these platforms can be the incubators of innovation that so many seek from government.

In my view, governments simply are not set up for rapid and large scale innovation. Bureaucrats the world over are innately risk averse, because there is no upside in taking big risks in government. And plenty of downside. Governments do not flash outside off stump, so this is not about to change. Which means the public sectors best chance of innovation is going to come via the vast eco-system of providers and suppliers that interact with government every day.

If these platforms are conceived like large app stores, there is real opportunity to introduce real service innovation through providers who are integrated into these core government run platforms.

We have already seen this type of ecosystem development around public transport and GPS location data, providing the foundation for a whole suite of innovative applications. These include smart maps, congestion control and a bunch of public commuter apps.  The same type of “over the top” innovation can be developed across the tax and  welfare systems, not to mention the safety, education and health domains.

The economic opportunities around these platforms are enormous.  Governments are broadly the same everywhere —they issue dog tags and  passports —and everything in between. Many of these services can scale internationally, government-as-a-service, if you like. Which is why countries like Estonia, Singapore and Israel are actively looking to see how they can “export” their digital government solutions.

Consolidation will create real value

There is also the prize of consolidation. Instead of having eight different birth death and marriage systems, we could create one modern platform capable of servicing many governments, locally and abroad. The list for back-end consolidation is almost endless, again creating enormous opportunity to create real value. The corporatisation of the back-end of the east coast conveyancing system via a public-private vehicle known as Pexa, has turned this back office function from being a government cost centre to a potentially major asset capable of being floated to the private market.

This type of change implies are very different architecture for government from the current portfolio approach to government, and needs parliament and its executive to take a real interest in the strategic direction and architecture of the public sector.

This is also true of the important advisory component of government. The speed, complexity and transparency of the modern world, driven by an empowered, and often angry citizenry, is befuddling most governments, including our own. Across the globe, it is proving hugely challenging to build an advisory capacity that is effective in this modern “polygot” world.

Public policy is really struggling to stay in touch, as rapid changes collapse time lines, and make the simple task of understanding what is happening so challenging. The rapid growth of the mega-tech platforms is a good example of where the tech is well ahead of public policy. Not helping is that many of the current generation of public sector leaders were broadly bred on a notion that government knows best and in a world that was far more predictable and agreed. This is exaggerated in Canberra, where the policy experts sits a long way from the world they are seeking to redesign, and where there has been a tendency to clone each other.

Rapidly building out the capabilities of the APS to make it fit for a modern world will undoubtedly be a central focus of the review.

These will include an ability to be effective in an open and contested world. A world demanding real and effective collaboration with users, rather than centrally driven top-down models of old. And one absolutely built around the management of powerful and intelligent information systems and applications.

This is essentially the pivot to real digital government. It raises a ton of whole-of-government issues and requires a strong, central vision and this demands real political commitment to be part of the deliberation around the choices we now have around the design of our public sector.

These can’t be made in isolation of cabinets. Off a burning platform in 2010, the NSW government has driven a renaissance in its public sector. This involved strong ministerial support for the many tough changes that were needed. The same is vastly more true for our national government.

Top photo by fir0002, GFDL 1.2, Link.

Author Bio

Tom Burton

Tom Burton is publisher of The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He has served in various public administration roles, specialising in the media and communications sector. He was a Walkley Award-winning journalist and executive editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. He worked as Canberra bureau chief for the Australian Financial Review and as managing editor of smh.com.au. He most recently worked at the Australian Communications and Media Authority.