Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/09/02/australian_coalition_promises_digital_pigeonhole_for_all/

Australian coalition promises digital pigeonhole for all

Policy focuses on e-governement, pays lip service to startups and students

By Simon Sharwood

Posted in Policy, 2nd September 2013 03:44 GMT

Australian coalition promises digital pigeonhole for all Policy document outlines procurement, industry assistance plans Australia's government-in-waiting opposition parties have released their “Policy for E-Government and the Digital Economy”.

Available here as a PDF, the policy offers the following four “policy measures”:

The document is divided into two sections. The second, titled “The Plan” offers five sets of policies. We'll get to those later. The first is a long and rambling assessment of various issues underpinned by an assertion that the current government is obsessed with the national broadband network (NBN), which it has more or less botched, and that its slow rollout has placed worthwhile advances in e-government or development of the digital economy on hold.

Here's a sample of that argument from page 11:

“Over the past six years Labor has focused to such a degree on its NBN that many Australians believe the NBN is Labor’s digital economy strategy.

Vast resources have been used to promote the NBN’s technical merits and advertise to literally millions of Australians who are desperately waiting (in vain) for it to reach them.

But there has been limited discussion about how this costly project can add directly to productivity, employment and the economic opportunities available to individuals and communities.”

Another central tenet of the document is that technology equals productivity and that policy must therefore help Australia catch up with the rest of the world in terms of technology adoption. Cloud is advanced as one way to do so.

The document also suggests the federal government can do only so much to promote a digital economy, for philosophical reasons and because so much service delivery in Australia is done by States, Territories and local governments.

Turn to page six and you'll read that “... no government ever told Apple to build a particular product, or Facebook to supply a certain service, or Intel to fabricate and sell semiconductors of officially-determined specification. Consumers and markets have been sovereign.”

The coalition plainly intends to leave it that way in Australia.

There's therefore plenty of reference to working with other tiers of government to deliver policies and a suggestion that government's own IT services can lead the way for the private sector to follow. That idea becomes important later on in formal recommendations for many more government services to be delivered online.

The hands-off attitude means there's mixed news for those who would see Australia adopt policies that have helped to foster startups elsewhere. Here's a pair of revealing paragraphs:

“A more supportive environment for entrepreneurs and early stage ventures is a pressing need. It is apparent Australia’s venture capital sector lacks the scale (and record of returns) to be self-sustaining over the business cycle, and since the GFC there has been a steep fall in the availability of capital. Likewise, incentives for entrepreneurs and employees at startups are important but Labor’s punitive and unashamedly old-fashioned class war against employee shares in 2009 caused lasting damage.

While a vibrant startup community and growing pipeline of promising Australian technology companies (some of which might flower into global successes) would be very encouraging, there are limits to the capacity of governments to will this into existence, and, even if they could, it would not be material to the broader economy for years.”

Ongoing reform of IT procurement practices is also addressed, with the current government given marks for the Gershon Review but dammed for not following through effectively. An interesting policy recommends Commonwealth Agencies be divided into “heavy users” that need their own IT and will be allowed to have it and “light users” who should use either the cloud or shared services to get the tech they need. There's also a cloudward thrust evident throughout.

The document pays lip service to the need for more education in the STEM – science, technology, engineering and maths – subjects, but does not offer more than a review to see if existing programs improve outcomes.

In the prose section a few policies appear without being included later in the formal lists. For example, the page 12 pledge to update the National Digital Economy Strategy (NDES) “during its first term of government” isn't repeated elsewhere. Another dropped into the prose, on page 14, mentions the Gershon Review's recommendation to create a “Secretaries ICT Governance Board (SIGB)”. The SIGB is later referenced as something the coalition thinks is needed in the formal policies.

The policies

The bullet-point promises cover five topics. Here's the first lot, on government services.

  1. Designate the Internet as the default way to interact with users, other than for defined exceptions. We will look to establish a Digital Service Standard and Digital Design Guide, modeled on the UK equivalents, to ensure consistent design of current and future services.
  2. Give people the option to elect to receive material from the government in digital form or in hard-copy, depending on their circumstances. We will aim to provide all correspondence, documents and forms in digital form, as well as hard-copy, by 2017.
  3. Seek to ensure every Government interaction that occurs more than 50,000 times per year can be achieved online by 2017. Video-conferencing via technologies such as WRTC will be an acceptable substitute for physical proximity in most cases.
  4. Ensure Agencies report what proportion of their digital services are not mobile-accessible from 2015. Digital services and information should be platform-agnostic and useable from devices such as tablets and smartphones.
  5. Designate three agencies with high-volume client interaction to trial three services using next generation tele-presence, such as in-browser Web RTC, from 2014.
  6. Provide individuals and entities (on an opt-in basis) with a unique digital ‘inbox’ – a secure and permanent contact point for communication with government that can be used as a stand-alone ‘mailbox’ or on a ‘store and forward’ basis in combination with an email address, Australia Post Digital Mailbox or some other destination application. This service will build on the MyGov inbox but add flexibility to use in a redirect mode or integrate with existing and emerging commercial products (e.g. APDM or digital vaults). This will be delivered within existing ICT resources. We will accelerate take-up and value to users by opening this facility to State, Territory and Local government communications.

Vulture South cannot recall such a commitment to commonwealth government electronic services being made in the past, although the promises' insistence they can be delivered without new kit being required will worry many.

A national digital inbox also seems likely to raise hackles on privacy grounds alone. Australia Post and rival Digital Post Australia have already graced the nation's courts. Picking the postal office over a commercial provider raises competitive issues, while the privacy provisions needed to make this policy fly will doubtless generate criticism.

Here are the coalition's promises on “infrastructure for a digital, networked, economy”:

  1. Evaluate government-funded programs seeking to develop digital skills or awareness against the stated objectives of these programs and focus expenditure on programs/providers generating identifiable economic or social returns. We will seek alternative strategies to engage groups where such programs are not shown to be effective.
  2. Accelerate the transition to a more digital, networked economy by providing coordination and leadership in areas such as standards for verified online identities. We will work with the private sector to settle on common approaches or standards and hasten their acceptance and adoption, even if early choice means revisiting it later.
  3. Improve the quality of data on the digital economy available to decision-makers. We will review ABS ICT–related series (which are often criticised for lack oftimeliness or measuring the wrong indicators) and investigate scope for non-traditional inputs (e.g. relying on automated data collection instead of surveys).

“Standards for verified online identities” is a can of worms par excellence. Vulture South can sense incoming objections from privacy groups already!

There's a set of policies on Big Data, too, but as the bullet points below show there's no firm outcome being targeted:

  1. Request that AGIMO consult a range of private sector and community voices to identify value-adding public data sets that are not currently on data.gov.au. Where appropriate, work with agencies to expedite such access.
  2. Review the policy principles and actions in the 2013 draft Big Data Strategy and finalise a position by the end of 2014.
  3. Seek proposals from agencies, researchers and the private sector for joint private-public projects using big data that have promising efficiency or service quality payoffs (for example, analytics for welfare or medical benefits fraud detection; or predictive personalisation that reduces customer turnaround times). The highest-return proposals will be supported to proof-of-concept and beyond.

Federal government procurement gets its own set of bullet points, focussed on measuring reforms. Take a swig of something caffeinated before this lot:

  1. Request DoFD and AGIMO to undertake an audit across all agencies of spending, capex and outcomes generated by investment in ICT over the past three years.
  2. Increase ICT transparency with ongoing periodic collection, reporting and analysis of data on costs, assets, performance, utilisation and availability. Update the benchmarks and analytics introduced after the Gershon review to increase the value of this data to AGIMO, SIGB , other decision makers and taxpayers.
  3. Simplify Government ICT and eliminate duplicated, fragmented and sub-scale activities across agencies by requiring use of shared or cloud services where minimum efficient scale hurdles are not met. Set a default expectation that private or public cloud solutions will be used whenever efficient scale is not achieved at agency level.
  4. Allow heavy users to retain autonomy and control over ICT operations, but in return require increased accountability and transparency, including for major projects they initiate. Require them to provide and regularly update three-year investment plans to DoFD and AGIMO. The information will be used by AGIMO and DoFD to encourage coordination of investment across these agencies (and shared investment where this makes sense). It will also shape the development of centres of specialised capability and expertise within different agencies. The model is for ‘heavy user’ agencies to take on service-wide responsibility and leadership in fields that fit with their activities (as the ATO has done with big data analytics).
  5. Require ongoing external accountability for large ICT projects – external reviews should recur every six months until a project is fully implemented.
  6. Create a ‘dashboard’ publishing key metrics on Government ICT performance and progress on major new investments. Publish league tables of agencies ranking performance on online engagement, platform-agnostic services, availability of data sets and customer satisfaction.
  7. Trial the relocation of critical data to a secure government cloud using automated tools from 2014. New tools and techniques are needed to help agencies migrate essential services across from older infrastructure with low risk and low cost.

Lastly, the policy also calls for a “reboot of ICT leadership” with the following three policies:

  1. Focus AGIMO on its role as the Government’s key ICT policy advisor and SIGB’s secretariat.
  2. Create an Australian Government ICT Advisory Board, to provide the Government, SIGB and AGIMO with access to senior private sector ICT expertise.
  3. Consider proposals for the ICT Advisory Board to provide an independent external chairman drawn from the private sector to SIGB, and for how to most effectively leverage the ICT Advisory Board’s expertise in SIGB.

The coalition's policy is a big document and Vulture South hasn't had a lot of time to digest it.

Our first impression is that it is rather more comprehensive than anything the government has assembled. The government can point to numerous policy documents, but not a consolidated document like this.

The coalition's document also contains some decent new initiatives. A focus on electronic service delivery is worthy and welcome, especially for its targets on mobile services. Lip service to startups and educational contribute to an impression, for this reader at least, that the policy document does not aspire to be visionary. That's a status it shares with most opposition policy at this election, including a less-ambitious NBN. ®