public sector

What would happen if you designed services for the disabled to look and feel more like Uber? Imagine if people with a disability were able to control the process of finding the carers they needed to match their interests, needs and circumstances? And what if, in the process, people who wanted to support people with disabilities could find the right mix of time and commitment to suit their needs and have all of the insurance, tax and payroll issues taken care of — and have their pay and conditions protected as well?

That’s the kind of thinking that inspired Hireup, an Australian venture started by brother-and-sister social entrepreneurs Jordan and Laura O’Reilly. They’ve harnessed the power of cloud-based digital platforms and human-centred design to make the process of finding and employing carers for people with disabilities faster, cheaper, better paid and centred on the person with disability. During the past five years, that equates to 1.9 million hours of support provided, 21,000-plus connections made and $13.3m saved.

How do some of the basic interactions with government get to be not just faster and more convenient, but redesigned around the needs and preferences of the people who use them?

Service NSW has grown over the past seven years to be one of the world’s most effective customer service platforms (physical and virtual). It has stripped out costs, improving quality and often exceeding the expectations of customers. It consolidated 100 websites, 400 different shopfronts, more than 100 call centres and 8000 phone numbers. In August, it was listed in the top 10 of the “Great Place to Work” rankings — a first for a government agency.

Globally, Denmark, Singapore and the UK are the governments Australia is looking to for inspiration. The Danes have a common identity platform and have mandated the use of digital services — no printing of paper forms for them. Singapore has invested heavily in the use of connected data and upskilling their public servants in digital tools and techniques. The UK has built, it says, “digital services so good that people prefer to use them” — gov.uk is a central portal for all online government services. These are stellar examples that Australia could well emulate.

These are all instances of digital transformation in government and the public sector. They are vital to Australia’s economic and social progress — as well as strengthening democracy and accountability, we argue they should be the subject of a “national mission” to dramatically step up the pace, intensity and impact. In Australia, the digital transformation story for government and the public sector is missing half its plot — the most interesting half. We have defined “digital transformation” as a way of rethinking the entire business of governing, government and the work of the public service; to better serve citizens and customers in a democratic society, and across all levels of government.

While there are great examples of digital technology making big improvements to current government and public sector services and practices, there aren’t as many where digital disruption has forced bigger changes to the way we do government in Australia, as it has in areas such as retail, entertainment and banking.

As Peter Shergold AC FAICD, former head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and chancellor of Western Sydney University puts it: “Billions of people can stay connected through pervasive mobile devices, access vast amounts of newly created data, be assisted by capable machines and robotic process automation, and yet find it ever harder to talk to each other about how to find solutions to the wicked problems of human existence.”

We agree and have mapped out some of the ways in which, by taking a more ambitious look at what technology and digital tools can offer, we can change the way we develop policy, impose regulation, and design and deliver services.

What we should be seeing are much bigger changes in both the work of the public sector and the way the public sector works. What we ought to expect — through the imaginative use of new technologies already impacting how we learn, are entertained, shop, travel, and exchange trust with business and each other — are improvements in levels of integrity and legitimacy in the role, purpose and function of government and the public sector.

These are technologies becoming more familiar and pervasive — such as websites that serve up personalised content, chatbots, cognitive assistants such as Siri, Alexa and Echo, and customer improvements and data insights using AI and machine learning. They are making their way into government and the public sector. Their full potential — and learning how to handle the risks as well as the opportunities they bring — needs to be tested more urgently and at scale. This has to match digital transformation’s significance for success in the digital global economy and for a stronger and more accountable democracy.

What to do?

  • Declare a “national mission” to dramatically up the ante on the collective efforts of governments across Australia to speed up and intensify investment and invention in our digital government journey.
  • Match that with more and better-focused investment, especially in the necessary shared public digital infrastructure, which ought to serve a national purpose.
  • Change the way digital tools, platforms and services are designed, procured and implemented to maximise speed, value and reuse.
  • Lift the skills and capabilities of digital ways of working, something the NSW government is now starting to do.
  • Bring together clever, inventive and experienced leaders, thinkers and practitioners in policy, technology and innovation to take a collective approach — not so much to digital transformation but, more fundamentally, to the transformation of government itself.

Getting this right is about a lot more than saving money and time, and making life more convenient for citizens and customers of government services. There is nothing wrong with that, of course. We need more and better ways to keep improving how we “do” government.

But what’s really at stake is something much bigger — inclusive prosperity, trust and confidence in good government, and finding solutions to some of the big challenges we face so people live their best lives with hope and opportunity.

It’s that important.

Martin Stewart-Weeks is principal at Public Purpose advisory, a non-executive director, and chair of the NSW Digital Government Advisory Panel. Simon Cooper is director of strategy at Deloitte Digital. They are co-authors of Are We There Yet? The Digital Transformation of Government and the Public Sector in Australia (arewethereyetdigital.com).