news The new Coalition Government’s Commission of Audit (CoA) has strongly recommended the Federal Government adopt a “transformative” strategy to make all its interactions with Australians online by default, with a new chief digital officer to spearhead the strategy and report to Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Section 10.6 of the the CoA report (available online in full) points out that with the advent of digital and mobile technology, many government services have become available online, delivering several benefits to both Australians and the Federal Government.
“Citizens, businesses and other government customers often prefer these e-Government services,” the report states. “For departments and agencies, e-Government transaction costs are substantially lower. They also provide a level of transparency that militates against the risk of fraud and corruption.”
However, the report acknowledges that progress towards developing and executing an e-Government strategy in Australia has been slow, with a range of legislative barriers to greater provision and uptake of digital transactions.
To address the issue, the CoA report recommends Australia follow the lead of the United Kingdom and implement a “digital by default” strategy, using the Department of Human Services’ myGov platform as a basis. myGov currently allows people to access government services from Medicare, Centrelink, Child Support, the Department of Health, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the National Disability Insurance Agency using one user name and password online and via mobile apps. The Australian Taxation Office is also scheduled to join the platform this year through its e-tax product, and a new digital mailbox service has also been recently added to myGov.
“The Commission has been advised that the myGov service has around 2 million registered members and is accessed by over 150,000 users each week,” the report stated. “A further 2 million users are anticipated to register by mid 2014, with the service further expanding to link with State, Territory and local government services.”
If the platform could be used more widely, it would save the Government substantial sums. In In 2012, for instance, 50 per cent of services provided by the Department of Human Services were not conducted online. The Australian Taxation Office has reported it is required by legislation to send over 10 million notices of assessment in hard copy. It sends a further 17 million letters each year relating to activity statement material.
Take-up rates for the government’s business platform, Standard Business Reporting, are also substantially below original targets and the Department of Immigration and Border Protection maintains a significant proportion of visa categories which are not electronic.
“The Government should adopt a transformative strategy to become digital by default for all transactions,” the CoA states. “The strategy should specify an explicit savings target to drive change. It should act decisively to remove legislative barriers to digital transactions. It should set concrete milestones, including switching from an ‘opt-in’ arrangement for myGov to a default ‘opt-out’.”
“The strategy should require agencies to make services available through mobile applications. It should have clear and ambitious timelines. It should aim to simplify departmental processes – there is limited value in collecting electronic information from citizens to feed into manual processes in departments. The strategy should also strengthen the myGov online credential. This could be done through the addition of face-to-face verification or biometric information. It would result in a credential that could be used to prove identity in both the public and private sectors.” And the strategy should cover both citizens and business.
To implement such a strategy, the CoA recommends a new unified structure and champion be set up.
“Australia’s slow progress is partly attributable to the fragmented arrangements for e-Government across multiple agencies, including the Australian Government Information Management Office, other parts of the Department of Finance, the Attorney-General’s Department and the Department of Communications,” it states.
“The transition to e-Government would have far more traction if core expertise was consolidated in a single team led by a chief digital officer. This would be a senior role filled by an accomplished private sector leader who has driven a major digital transition process. This person should report directly to the Minister for Communications. Ultimately, ministerial leadership will be required. The Commission encourages the Government to embrace a digital by default policy, led by a senior minister such as the Minister for Communications.”
The document stated that it may also be appropriate for the chief digital officer to lead the development of the billion-dollar new payments system at the heart of Centrelink’s welfare payments at the Department of Human Services, outlined elsewhere in the CoA document.
The issue of digital delivery of services by the Federal Government has been one which has been recently discussed at length in Australia. In late March, for example, Delimiter published an article by Marie Johnson, managing director and chief digital officer of the Centre for Digital Business.
Johnson has previously led the strategy and implementation of significant reform programs to the digital machinery of the Australian Government, such as the Business Entry Point, the introduction of the Australian Business Number and the Access Card. Johnson also led Microsoft’s Public Services and eGovernment initiatives worldwide.
In the article, Johnson used examples from the private sector to argue that the Federal Government should be aiming for precisely the kind of “moonshot” (ambitious goal) which the CoA outlined last week: Putting all government forms and serviecs online.
With the exception of the CoA’s speculation that a chief digital officer could also oversee the re-development of Centrelink’s core IT platforms, which is clearly ridiculous (as I will explain further in a separate piece later today), I highly agree with the recommendations included in this section of the CoA’s report.
Australia does indeed need a chief digital officer to help coordinate e-Government efforts. AGIMO has proven itself incredibly ineffective at this task, the Attorney-General’s Department would only try to shut it all down on security concerns, and the effort needs to be cross-departmental and sit under the Communications Minister’s portfolio. Current Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull is completely bungling Labor’s National Broadband Network policy, but he has shown he understands the broader e-Government issue in the past, and I have some hope that he would be able to act as a political evangelist to support a chief digital officer in his portfolio.
The myGov platform is also a great focus point. Although I have personally seen no need to use it yet, I do know that it is gradually become a centre of gravity for e-Government services. That momentum must be harnessed and pushed forward. It must be made opt-out, rather than opt-in.
And all of this will take a great deal of political willpower. The effort to shift the ATO away from paper tax assessment notices alone will be a huge one, and every department has similar bureaucratic structures set up for things that could easily be delivered online or via email.
Of course, there are risks. Service delivery risks, privacy risks, security risks. But in the long-term, there is no other choice. As Johnson points out, by 2025 we will not be printing forms constantly on bits of dead trees. Everything will be delivered electronically. The private sector (think Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Sony, the banks and so on) have been able to largely navigate the risks in online service delivery. Government should eventually be able to do the same.
This journey will take several decades. It needs to start now.