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Driving a modernised bureaucracy: Turnbull’s lasting legacy

Malcolm Turnbull’s legacy includes a serious attempt to modernise the federal bureaucracy. Remaking the public sector to be relevant in the digital world remains work in progress and a major challenge for the government, no matter who their leader.

Every prime minister brings something to the machinery of government. For Turnbull, his lasting legacy will be the modernity he sought for the public sector.

At the launch of The Mandarin in 2014, a year before he became prime minister, Turnbull told the audience: “We’ve got to try new things and, if you try new things, a lot of them won’t work, but so what? If you smash people because they try something and it doesn’t work, then they’ll never try anything new again.”

Turnbull at the time was the minister for communications and, in many ways, this mantra has framed his relationship with the public service.

Settling an affordable rollout model for NBN was immensely complicated and the decision to hybridise the network remains highly argued. Many of the ongoing service issues and delays around NBN stem from this hybrid approach, and it is only in recent times that a serious attempt has been made to establish real service standards that consumers can insist on.

Driving industrial digital transformation

“Innovation and jobs may have failed to excite at the polls in 2016, but Turnbull continued to be an advocate for Australia to embrace the digital era and the industry 4.0 movement.”

The NBN preoccupied Turnbull’s then ministerial focus, but he had come to the Communications portfolio with ambitious targets to digitise government services and open the public sector to industrial digital transformation. The Digital Transformation Office was created and initiatives such as the ambitious open source platform, govCMS, were promoted via the Department of Finance. He was a sophisticated social media champion and had a natural feel for technology.

Turnbull took these instincts into the Lodge. Whereas his predecessor Tony Abbott had complained that Twitter was “electronic graffiti”, Turnbull rushed out the National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA), a multi-fronted program to drive industrial transformation across the economy.

The overall success of this work is hard to assess but NISA has remained a dominant theme across the APS. The report to government earlier this year by NISA’s advisory group, Australia 2030: Prosperity through Innovation, is a first-class roadmap for a modern Australia.

Innovation and jobs may have failed to excite at the polls in 2016, but Turnbull continued to be an advocate for Australia to embrace the digital era and the industry 4.0 movement.

Under NISA, industry growth plans backed by large investment funds were created in the medical and biotech spaces to remedy Australia’s poor record translating research into application. Universities now have to demonstrate the impact of their research and grant programs award industrial collaboration.

NICTA was rebadged Data 61 and given a mandate to promote the use of data across the economy. For government, data is proving to be truly transformative, opening up a wealth of integrated citizen services and offering a profound opportunity to rebuild major business systems such as energy, land, water and spectrum.

The federal government has been slow to understand and act on the data opportunity but, under Turnbull, his department rapidly stepped up to drive a strong data agenda. There is now a well-funded administrative data integration project, and a broader data governance framework is being developed, including a data commissioner to arbitrate on integration issues.

The decision to deploy a consumer data right (CDR) may well prove to be Turnbull’s most enduring contribution to the digital economy. Devised to promote consumer mobility in Australia’s bigger oligopolistic industries, it promises to give consumers control over their data. It will initially apply to banking, telco and energy sectors, and it will not be surprising to see the ACCC apply the same sort of thinking to the big digital platforms.

The ACCC is reviewing the competition impact of Google and Facebook as part of the media ownership reforms, which Turnbull also championed. The reforms tweaked the diversity rules to enable market consolidation, but failed to address the elephant in the room, the need for technology neutral regulation across the media sector.

Legislation for the CDR is now out for consultation and, more importantly, having imposed a consumer data right on others, governments going forward will almost certainly have to give similar rights to their own citizens’ data. This implies a major system redesign and a world of governance pain.

Of course, it has not been plain sailing. The cyber miscall on the night of the e-census sharply exposed the fragility and vulnerability of many federal government systems. Marrying tax and welfare data ended up a public affairs disaster, dubbed ‘robo-debt’. And the attempt to opt-in citizens to My Health Record has been a poster child for how to lose broad-scale support for an eminently sensible policy.

Governments desperately need to reconsider how they win sustained social licence for these types of data plays, a combination of governance, strategic public affairs management and frankly some common sense. Trust in public institutions including government is as low as it has ever been, and there is widespread citizen scepticism (verging on paranoia) about data sharing in government.  Mandating as a default, the sharing of the most sensitive of data sets, personal health, was always going to be a hard sell.

As PM, Turnbull’s attention to digital government naturally gave way to bigger issues of state and the DTO struggled to be effective at scale. It was rebooted to the Digtial Transformation Agency, with a new leader and mandate to oversee the $7 billion annual IT spend and to be a catalyst for quality digital change, but with the large agencies left in change of their own tech destinies.

“The decision to deploy a consumer data right may well prove to be Turnbull’s most enduring contribution to the digital economy. “

The DTA is now taking a very pragmatic approach to its role. It has a mandate and budget to finally sort out digital identity, a 20-year challenge that has defied all governments. Turnbull’s last budget has finally funded the rollout and a complex governance and operational framework has been settled. The first new govpass solution is expected to go live this financial year, via the ATO.

The other part of the puzzle is myGov, which now becomes the portal into the federal government’s main services. myGov remains permanently work in progress. Small feature upgrades and design improvements have significantly improved its usability. But it still feels clunky, a 90s-style top-level portal (especially on mobile), with little real integration with other government agencies and services, poor navigation, a cacophony of stylesheets and design palettes, and zero brand personality.

Cyber security as top priority

An area of real progress has been the elevation of cyber security as a major national priority. Like most western countries, Australia had been blindsided by the offensive cyber capability of criminal and nation state actors. Under Turnbull’s watch, a national cyber policy has been developed, cyber has finally been given a home in the new Home Affairs portfolio and there is now a sharp focus on hardening up key infrastructure and systems. Porous security remains the Achilles heel of any major digital transformation and implies a large-scale shift to resilient cloud instances.

While there is now a lot of talk about design thinking and collaborative citizen engagement, the conservative and relatively cloistered APS culture means agencies still really struggle to adopt modern media practices. While there has been some progress — Turnbull’s departmental website has gone from laggard to leader in how to drive an effective web channel — the reality remains few government agencies have a confident, well-formed, social media practice, let alone a strong working communication and brand strategy.

“The impetus for the APS review came from Turnbull’s department, and is a real attempt to imagine government for the next generation.”

The open government movement has made some progress, but on international measures we have been struggling to meet our commitments. Data.gov is now a mature archive of structured data, but with little rich metadata and taxonomies that would empower it as a resource.

The lack of a citizen-centric focus continues to dog the Commonwealth. There are little public-facing base analytics to monitor web and daily service performance, and there are still large areas of citizen interaction with government systems that remain unnecessarily slow, costly and frankly old school. There has been no whole-of-government framing of the government’s digital priorities into demonstrable citizen improvements. Major lifecycle events like the birth of a child cry out for digital reform, and there are dozens of messed up multi-government business systems, like winding up estates and land sales, that are ripe for digitally-driven economic reform.

The federal government is uniquely placed to reform major government-led markets such as health, education, energy, water and spectrum and has a critical leadership role to play in deployment of the internet of things and blockchain across national infrastructure.

Government underpins over a third of the economy and, if these reforms are well designed, they have huge potential to tent-pole major new public economies. Strategically framed, government platforms can be the foundation for major ecosystem development. This is a huge economic opportunity to leverage the digital investment in government to build real value and thriving public ecosystems around each of these key government systems.

Reimagining government for the next generation

This type of broader strategic thinking is only just beginning to emerge in government, and is a major opportunity for David Thodey’s APS review to explore. The impetus for that review again came from Turnbull’s department, and is a real attempt to imagine government for the next generation.

An important ingredient for this future will be the application of artificial intelligence. AI has captured the imagination of many, but to date federal (and state) agencies have struggled to frame up use cases that begin to apply cognitive power to the massive data sets that sit within government.

There has been solid AI work around the systems that watch over immigration, smart immigration gates at airports and in some health spaces, but to date there has been no high-level push to really focus AI on wicked problems, like child poverty or family violence.

Nor to bring the power of AI, advanced analytics and algorithms to the vast number of compliance and enforcement systems government has with industry. Many of the major regulatory agencies feel like bureaucratic dinosaurs, purporting to oversee sectors that can be well regulated by machine-to-machine systems, all in real time.

AI, blockchain and quantum computing are now being explored, but the real challenge is to assemble the use cases against the technology.

The lack of an institutional agency with real authority and remit to drive major government service integration and redesign across all tiers of government, is obvious to everyone who considers how to organise all three tiers of government for the era of digital government. This ideally would be part of a major economic and community agency that has a strong remit to plan and build for the broader digital economy, to empower regional development and drive the development of smart cities.

Much of this rethinking is not complex. We continue with eight different birth, death and marriage systems, and a thousand other duplicated services which all taxpayers fund. And apart from COAG, there is no organisational structure to even host these types of profound design questions.

Turnbull offered enthusiastic support for agile and innovative government. There has been material progress in changing up the operating model for agencies, but large parts of public sector still remain caught in mind-numbing, treacle-like processes and snail-like change-by-committee approaches. This is true for the engine room of many public agencies and is the layer of government that remains most impervious to change.

If anything, what we have learned from the Turnbull era is that steering major transformation will need strong ministerial leadership and a real willingness to drive the fundamental change to the design and basic operations of government.

Politics may have been whiplashed by the new digital world, but the public sector has to date been relatively protected from digital disruption. Whole swags of government are built on codifiable rules and only the purposely blind would deny the inevitable virtualisation of government systems will profoundly transform the public sector. That is an opportunity and challenge for whoever is the government leader.

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.