PRODUCTIVITY SPECTATOR: Public services in the app age

As governments across Australia look for ways to cut expenditure, the introduction of new tech tools will change the way public services are offered.

Productivity Spectator

There are big changes approaching for the way government services are going to be provided, matching the impact technology is having across corporate Australia.

And if the heavy cost cutting by state Liberal governments is any indication, we are likely to see this change accelerate if Tony Abbott is elected.

In anticipation, bureaucrats across the country will be taking a slide rule to any non-essential expenditure and hoping to prove they can at least demonstrate the kind of productivity gains that will protect them from wage or job cuts.

A lot of those gains may come from shifting services online, or sharing services between departments. One of the key public officials at the forefront of this change is Ann Steward of the Australian Government Information Office. Effectively the nation’s chief information officer, Steward is tasked with the job of finding ways for departments to find ways to get their services online, or improve the way they work together.

Steward says that a number of IT tools are already being employed across government departments. Some government agencies have already moved to a shared private cloud, hosted by the Department of Human Services. This technique reduces the spend on maintaining individual servers in each department by optimising combined usage across the participating departments.

The Australia.gov.au portal, which provides a single login for a range of government online services, already has 500,000 users, with thousands more joining each week, Steward says. The provision of e-services, particularly for highly labour intensive 'shopfronts' like Centrelink and Medicare, is one area where user demand and cost reductions complement each other. AGIMO is working to boost take-up of such portals, and is looking at providing such services through mobile platforms, following consumer trends. Ann Steward is understandably sensitive about how these changes might lead to reductions in headcount at various departments, but she does expect the growth of e-services to reduce the number people working in customer service roles.

AGIMO is also embarking on a fascinating new approach to services by effectively borrowing a model from Apple. The explosion on applications, and the vast changes they have made to the way we conduct activities online and using smartphones has shown the potential benefits of allowing third parties to provide services. At the start of the month, the department invited developers to HackGov in Canberra, where teams competed to turn the reams of non-sensitive government data into innovative services.

Amongst the winning submissions, was a terrific graphical representation of the federal budget called ‘Where are my taxes going?” that enables users to drill into different government services and determine what the average tax contribution you make to them. Another application aggregates real-time bushfire data and allows users to determine the best possible evacuation route. By crunching information already run by Geoscience Australia and overlapping it with Google maps, hopefully this service can take some strain off emergency services and help save lives. (The presentation can be downloaded here).

Steward hopes that the wealth of non-critical data held by agencies will increasingly be crunched, mashed and turned into apps by developers. Through data.gov.au, developers can access information on everything from ACT Supreme Court judgements to Victorian microbreweries.

"Who knows what it might add to the national productivity and growth in niche markets… and product offerings” Steward says.

This may be the way of the future for many government services. With the cost of providing pensions, healthcare and other basic payments mounting, finding cost reductions in the delivery systems will increasingly be needed.

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