Canberra's digital dreaming

The 'digital by default' initiative proposed by the Commission of Audit report has plenty of merit but turning words into action could be a challenge.

The Commission of Audit exercise was always going to be much more than a simple performance review of government agencies and it did not disappoint. With the report released to set the tone for the upcoming federal budget there’s evidently plenty of pain to be shared around.

Health, welfare and the deficit levy have garnered most of the attention but the audit report does hold some interesting thoughts for the long-term future of e-government in Australia and whether Canberra can truly give shape to its ‘digital by default’ strategy.

One key area highlighted by the report is the push to implement an open data policy. While successive federal governments have maintained a commitment to open data, Ovum Research analysts Kevin Noonan and Steve Hodgkinson say that opening public data has been a lot easier in theory than in practice.

The report outlines the need for stronger leadership on that front and recommends accelerating the publication of anonymous administrative data, as well as several Big Data projects in major service delivery agencies. There’s also the push to embrace the 'digital by default' strategy, with myGov to serve as “the centrepiece of an aggressive new approach".

Australian citizens are substantially ahead of the curve when it comes to using online government services, according to a recent Boston Consulting Group survey, and they are only becoming more demanding.

The BCG survey of almost 13,000 internet users found that 96 per cent of regular internet users in Australia have used online government services in the last two years, slightly higher than other developed countries surveyed.

Overall satisfaction with these services was 57 per cent, ranking lower than the satisfaction levels of online government service users in the United States (61 per cent) and the United Kingdom (60 per cent).

But while satisfaction levels are ticking upwards, ease of use continues to be a major deficiency.

The audit report recommends that this ‘digital by default’ transformation should be run by a chief digital officer and a senior minister to champion the agenda.

While there’s a lot to like about the intent on display there are some caveats to be considered, warns University of Technology Sydney fellow Rob Livingstone.

According to Mr Livingstone, an aggressive and wholesale move to a comprehensive eGovernment platform for all services risks a high probability of project failure -- not to mention the increased cost to the taxpayers.

He's particularly concerned about the “aggressive new approach” tone set by the report, saying that while these aspirational statements have a valid role in setting a direction, they do little to foster cross-organisational collaboration and integration.

“First, the road to comprehensive, successful, secure and effective eGovernment is seeded with multiple traps, the most dangerous of which has little to do with technology, paradoxically,” Dr Livingstone said in his recent post at The Conversation.

The real issue, according to Dr Livingstone, is the conventional approach to managing IT vendors may not be adequate in the delivery of new, emerging and disruptive technologies.

“It is imperative that governments internally retain the necessary levels of IT strategic expertise and process probity when engaging with external IT service providers. Taxpayers have a habit of helping strengthen the balance sheets of major IT and consulting organisations with no measurable benefit as a result of inappropriate decision making.”

Apart from the enthusiasm for digitisation, the audit report is keen to highlight the need for a stronger policy stance on cloud computing through the introduction of a mandatory “cloud first” policy for all low-risk, generic information and communications technology services.

It also calls for the formation of establishing a whole-of-government cloud computing provider panel but Ovum’s Noonan and Hodgkinson say that the efficacy of such panels remains somewhat unproven.

According to the analysts, creating an environment in which agencies are empowered to collaboratively buy cloud services “without necessarily needing to do so as part of a potentially constraining whole-of-government approach” might be a more effective strategy.  

“Cloud services adoption would be best accelerated via peer-to-peer experience sharing between agencies that have 'hands-on' experience."

There’s plenty of food for thought here for the Coalition government and while there’s no denying its digital ambitions it does have a lot on its plate as it strives to bring the books back into the black. We will have to wait and see just how many of the words are turned into action.