As a public entrepreneur, I need to get something off my chest. As someone who has worked with people to deliver things to government over decades, as a global technology leader, company owner and AIIA board director, I would like to tell Australia and its children what an amazing future we have to look forward to.
I would like to tell Australia of the remarkable people working in and with the public service – including technologists and innovators – who see their life’s work as a calling.
They are no less innovative because they are public service technologists. They are the stewards of systems that touch all Australians and millions of visitors to this country – systems that safeguard our economy and society.
Australia is not a screw-up nation. And it is not facing cataclysmic failures of its public services.
The Australian public deserve to know that our public services are world-leading. That is not to say that things can’t be improved – things absolutely need to be improved. And it is also not to say that we don’t face very profound challenges, because we do.
But there needs to be a different public discourse to the stone throwing and hand-wringing being played out in the media over government IT. ‘Blame IT’ is apparently what is meant by frank and fearless advice – it’s a race to the bottom in a grab for alarmist headlines baying for retribution.
None of this contributes to public discourse. None of this builds confidence in the future.
Yes, there are challenges – there always will be. But that doesn’t mean that we are facing a cataclysmic failure and that Australians screw things up. We face up to the inevitable challenges – and at the same time we continue to deliver, to improve and to radically innovate.
The public sector is a complex system – each part is interdependent and continuously evolving. A change or innovation is one area flows through the system. You don’t need to change the whole system for the whole system to change.
There are anchors or pivot points in the government and economic architecture that shape and change this complex system. For example, the Australian Business Number (ABN) – implemented in 2000 – was a change far more profound that simply rolling out another ‘IT system.’ It was policy that touched every part of the economy and it was seamlessly implemented.
The ASIC Company Check is another pivot point. So is the Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s Visa Entitlement Verification Online (VEVO) service, online payment services, and anti-money laundering legislation requiring the financial system to implement Know Your Customer (KYC).
Digital government has been happening for decades
Indeed, digital government has been happening for a lot longer than 16 months – for many decades in fact. Digital government is not a recent phenomenon. Australia has been and continues to be in the lead in many of these areas.
The Business Entry Point – an initiative of the three levels of government in Australia – has been in place for 18 years, including the prestigious recognition of the 2006 United Nations Public Service Award in the category of e-government.
What other innovations have been delivered by our government? A unique business identifier (ABN), chip cards, smart forms, syndicated content, transaction management, online accounts, advanced passenger processing and sophisticated biometrics strengthening border entry.
Agencies have also provided remote and mobile service delivery, indigenous language, geospatial and online translation and interpreting services, and predictive analytics. The list goes on.
The digital ecosystem of social media channels, video, apps, point-of-sale, digital platforms and services platforms is shared with other governments globally. Digital government is not the same as IT and should not be mistaken for IT. It is not a portal nor a pick-list of beta projects.
Digital government describes the phase change that has been underway for several decades and that is deeply changing the underpinning architecture, challenging policy and reshaping the concept of service delivery and the engagement and relationship with citizens.
The point is that Australia has a very advanced digital service delivery architecture and services infrastructure that enables the phenomenal interaction across this complex ecosystem and throughout the economy.
Australia is not a screw-up nation.
Yes, things will not always go to plan. And because of this inter-dependence, system-wide strategy, policy and governance is critical. The government has rightly placed a strong emphasis on digital governance.
But we are not alone in the world in the challenges that we face – although recent commentary would have the Australian public believe that we are the world’s dunces.
I have worked with many governments around the world. In 2006, I worked with Microsoft on the ‘New World of Government Work’ strategy, which described some of these challenges.
All countries face these challenges. Britain has also long faced similar challenges.
In 2014, I co-authored a paper with Jerry Fishenden (from the UK) comparing the online and e-government strategies of the UK and Australia over the past 20 years.
The similarities of the challenges are confronting. In that paper, we referred to a Manchester Centre for Development Informatics working paper that found an estimated US$3 trillion was spent during the first decade of the 21st century on government information systems.
Author Carolyne Stanforth said that “60 per cent to 80 per cent of e-government projects have failed in some way, leading to a massive wastage of financial, human and political resources, and an inability to deliver the potential benefits of e-government to its beneficiaries."
It is critical to public policy and public discourse, that the dynamics of these complex systems are understood. It is equally important to understand what has worked well and why.
The systems of society are undergoing a phase change – driven by digital technologies and pervasive intelligent computing. This phase change is throwing up unanticipated challenges and phenomenal opportunities.
What counts is understanding what we see; our readiness and creativity in response and building confidence in the future that is fair for all Australians.
The skills desperately needed by the public sector now and into the future is part of Australia’s broader human capital challenge. The public sector skills deficit cannot be solved by the public sector alone. Strong industry relationships and strategic collaboration is essential.
We need to assemble capability differently – like the DARPA model, which Peter Shergold referred to as the “Hollywood” model where talent from government, industry, and research institutions coming together for intense periods to work on breakthrough challenges.
This is where the AIIA plays a really important role across industry, government and academia. The AIIA is strategically focussed on galvanising action on skills and STEM education through its collaboration with governments, other peak groups, and through its Special Interest Group network.
But the skills and imagination pipeline needs to be primed for decades. Long gone are the days when it was enough to do an IT degree or any degree, and jobs would come.
It’s now about life-long learning, intentional diversity and taking personal responsibility to feed the thirst for new knowledge through platforms such as MOOCs that democratise access.
Kudos therefore to organisations such as the Department of Human Services and other public sector agencies investing in STEM graduate programmes.
Still the statistics are confronting given the challenges and that’s why headlines such as “Australia is a screw-up nation” are so damaging.
We have a duty to change the story. We have a duty to tell the real story – that Australia does amazing things. For example, the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is remarkable public policy – a world first. And this remarkable policy is driving remarkable innovation and the human potential being unlocked is almost unfathomable.
We need to tell the story to attract the best and brightest into the public sector. To be at the forefront of innovation. To be the future stewards of our complex systems.
Challenges are guaranteed and there will always be stone throwers.
Marie Johnson is recognised internationally as an entrepreneurial leader in technology and digital innovation. Marie has led the strategy and implementation of very significant reform programs to the digital machinery of government across service delivery, revenue, identity, payments, authentication and whole-of-government architecture. She is currently head of the technology authority for the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) and an AIIA board member.