Australian government datasets reveal widespread use in policy, service delivery, enforcement

By The Mandarin

Monday July 30, 2018

A whole-of-government survey has put a price tag on the design, collection, governance and use of data by Australian government agencies — but, ironically, the survey is not data you can trust due to a string of problems with its collection.

On average, a third of the work of government agencies is dependent on public-held datasets, according to a first-of-its-kind survey published last week. 

The inaugural Review of Australian Government Data Activities revealed the annual government expenditure on data activities exceeded $2.4 billion in 2017-18. At least, that’s how much the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet has managed to identify so far, and if fully recorded would likely be much higher, it admitted.

Compliance and general administration were excluded, so was data collected through routine stakeholder engagement, consultation and communications. Government corporations were also excluded. Further, agencies had little time to provide responses to questions they had never been asked before, and there was little guidance on what was meant by key terms.

The PM&C team running the survey claim the exercise has provided a richer picture of the Australian government data system than has previously been available, but would like more time in future — two years to be precise — by making it an two-yearly survey to provide information on how that system is evolving in response to policy reforms. With feedback from agencies and a longer format that could include both qualitative and quantitative questions, the review would give a better a better snapshot of the existing system, they say.

Teething problems aside, and it is still early days for the national data strategy, there were some interesting generalisations from the information PM&C did collect. Most intensive data use agencies (where more than 40% of their activities relied on data) reported similar splits of expenditure across design, collection, use and governance of data:

  • around 10% of expenditure goes to data design;
  • around 25% of expenditure goes to data collection;
  • around 60% of expenditure goes to data use; and
  • around 5% of expenditure goes to data governance activities.

While the highest rate of data activities are exactly where you’d expect — Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Australian Bureau of Statistics, CSIRO and Geoscience Australia — the work undertaken by these agencies has flow on benefits to other parts of government and the broader economy, the report finds.

Agencies also identified a broad range of data partners, including fellow Commonwealth bodies, state and territory agencies, as well industry, where data collaboration is used on policy, service delivery, program management, regulatory and technical activities.

Below are the key ways agencies are using data, broken down by policy, service delivery and compliance focus:

Building a strong evidence-base is key to informing better government decisions

Agencies reported, on average, a quarter of their policy development work relies on data. A number of agencies highlighted more policies are now better informed because they are underpinned by evidence, including:

  • Better transport and infrastructure development by using data for targeting future investments and addressing needs, as well improving safety across different modes of transportation.
  • Building sustainability in the use of environmental resources through taking a data-driven approach to inform decisions such as the allocation and delivery of water and building efficiencies in the energy use.

Effective data use helps improve service delivery to all Australians

Agencies with a service delivery role reported, on average, around a third of their service delivery work relies on data, including:

  • Managing demands for telephony and processing services for health and aged care services.
  • Planning resources and workloads for service delivery, including refining business operations to improve outcomes and productivity for delivering social services.
  • Using data, combined with user insights, to inform user-centric design decisions and enable delivery of positive user experience outcomes.

Using data to inform compliance is key to ensuring policy goals are met

Agencies with a regulatory and compliance role reported, on average, regulatory and compliance work relies on data over 30 per cent of the time. Effective data collection enables agencies to ensure rules are being adhered to and regulation is meeting its policy aims:

  • The Clean Energy Regulator (CER) administers legislated schemes for measuring, managing, reducing or offsetting Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. It collects and uses a range of data to inform government policy making, meet international treaty obligations, inform regulatory decisions, detect and respond to non-compliance and fraud, and support statistical services and data publication. To ensure compliance, these datasets are cross validated against external sources. Additionally, the CER is looking into machine learning to further improve compliance controls.
  • The Australian Electoral Commission uses data to investigate electoral fraud, electoral advertising, non-voter prosecutions and multi-voter prosecutions.

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