Friday, May 02, 2014

The thin Gov 2.0 silver lining in the Commission of Audit report

Amongst the "crazy brave to politically suicidal" recommendations in the National Commission of Audit report, there are three recommendations for Government 2.0 and eGovernment initiatives that should bring a glow to the heart of digital enthusiasts and pragmatists.

Recommendation 61: Data says that the Australian Government should improve its data management and analytics capability, also improving the timely access to data as well as its general availability for reuse.

The recommendation makes a strong mention of open data and its ability to drive transparency and accountability within government, as well as business opportunities and social improvements.

It does, however, stop short of a strong position on opening up data. While it does recommend requiring agencies to maximise their own use of data, having the ABS and Chief Statistician develop a 'data strategy' for government and ask that agencies extend and accelerate "the publication of anonymised administrative data", it doesn't reach as far as US and UK position on ensuring data is appropriately repackaged for reuse when released, or that data beyond "administrative" is also released.

One thing the Commission of Audit did not mention in this recommendation was Australian membership of the Open Government Partnership - which the government says is currently "under re-evaluation". This is a no-brainer if the government is serious about transparency and accountability (which I know many currently doubt), and having the Australian Government confirm it was joining the OGP would support a commitment to implement this recommendation, if the government so intended.

Recommendation 62: e-Government states that the Australian Government should adopt a digital-by-default approach to citizen and business engagement, going beyond the current policy ambition (for services having 50,0000 or more transactions per year) and turning the approach to digital on its head, from opt-in, to opt-out. 

This could change the entire cultural outlook of government, leading agencies to design services for digital first and having other channels as secondary, rather than the current flawed model of taking existing paper processes and converting them to digital without transforming the services to be digitally native.

The current approach has largely led to digital services that are difficult to access, use and often seem illogical to role - prompting increased calls to service centres to understand processes, rather than reducing calls by providing online services easier to use than paper forms.

The recommended approach instead mirrors the current UK strategy of transforming services to be easier to use online than via other channels, thereby supporting a 'pull' effect whereby people choose digital because it is easier and faster to provide the outcomes required.

In fact this attention is required if the 'opt-out' strategy is to work. If the government simply forced people to use digital channels to engage by government without totally redesigning both customer-facing and back-end systems for a digital-by-default world, it would create significant pain and additional cost for citizens, businesses and public servants on an ongoing basis as systems failed to provide the experience that modern consumers expect from digital channels.

This recommendation also suggested the creation of a Chief Digital Officer for government, to be positioned in the Department of Communication, who would lead the approach, with the oversight of a Senior Minister as a Digital Champion (presumably the Communications Minister). This again largely mirrors the UK approach, although makes no mention of how the Officer would be resourced and supported to be effective in the role.

Given the resourcing committed to the Government Digital Service in the UK, it would be disappointing and counterproductive to see any Chief Digital Officer receive proportionately less resourcing to take on this type of role to transform the Australian Government.

There is also a big question mark over whether the Department of Communication would have the right levers and influence to lead a whole-of-government transformation of this type. Over the last six years we've witnessed a number of occasions where agencies with a policy bent were given service delivery obligations and failed to carry them out due to a mindset and skills mismatch. There's several good reports from the National Audit Office highlighting this issue and providing recommendations on a better way to structure these processes.

Recommendation 63: Cloud computing says that the Australian Government should take a cloud-first approach for "for all low risk, generic information and communication technology services".

This is a good step, however may require some rationalisation of ASD and AG requirements around cloud-computing to manage the administrative requirement for two Minister sign-off of most cloud-computing requests (a practice a number of agencies still appear ignorant of or are ignoring).

The second part of the recommendation, to establish a cloud-provider panel, is also a good step. The DCAAS panel is already in place, however there is room to grow.

However there does need to be some balance in that 'cloud' is merely a method of hosting software and storing data - many types of digital services can be delivered in a 'cloud' manner, or utilising some other form of (in-house, dedicated, virtual) hosting approach. Cloud gives no indication as to the type of service, so any cloud panel could end up as a hotch-potch of different services that can also be accessed through other panels and providers when delivered in different ways.

This could lead to confusion or the cloud panel becoming the 'every digital service' panel - which may not be as manageable or useful to agencies.

While I have no real issues with any of these recommendations, the fact they are included in the National Commission of Audit gives me some concern.

Given the Audit recommendations are already creating a strong backlash, despite no indication from the government on which will be accepted, I believe there is a risk that the eGovernment and Gov 2.0 recommendations, despite being steps forward, may get tarred with a negative brush simply by being included in the document.

I hope that the government can successfully navigate the communication jungle to implement them appropriately, and I expect we'll see whether this is the case over the next few weeks.

If it is not, this would become a lost opportunity for digital government in Australia, and we might not see further political leadership in the area for several years, despite the hard efforts of a number of public servants.

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