A Tale of Two Countries - the Digital Disruption of Government

A research paper analysing the differing experiences of the UK and Australian governments in attempting digital transformation finds there is an urgent need for a change of vision and strategy, with Australian agencies bogged down in the past and burdened by thousands of PDF forms.

“Notwithstanding the $A5 billion spent on technology every year by the federal level  of  government  in Australia (just at the national level), reform of the Australian government administration and service delivery arrangements is impeded by an out-dated operating model that undermines the broader policy objectives of government,” the report notes.

The report was authored by Marie Johnson, Managing Director and Chief Digital Officer of the Centre for Digital Business and Dr. Jerry Fishenden is an independent technology advisor, including to the UK Government.

Marie was the Chief Information Officer of the Australian Government Department of Industry, Tourism and Resources and was recruited by Microsoft to head up its global egovernment business as the World Wide Executive Director, Public Services and eGovernment based in Redmond, WA, USA.

The report found the United Kingdom and Australia offer interesting insights into administrations that have long seen the opportunity to be seized, but which have repeatedly struggled to deliver the scale of improvement required in the way their public services are designed, operated and maintained.

It contrasts the objectives and approach of the “Coalition’s 2013 policy for E-Government and Digital Economy” in Australia to the objectives and approach of the “Government Online Strategy 2000”: to ask what has changed in the last 14 years.

“The “Government Online Strategy 2000” spoke about “online action plans”, putting all “appropriate” services online by 2001, delivering all “appropriate” services electronically by 2001, ensuring the online availability of printed forms and the desirability of “online forms”, and articulated the concept of “integrated services”. Enablers such as authentication and metadata standards were called out, as well as the ground-breaking achievements of the delivery of the Australian Business Number (ABN) and the successful multi-jurisdictional online platform to business, the Business Entry Point (BEP). Despite the progress that was made, a check of any government website soon reveals listings of many hundreds of PDF forms. An inventory across government would measure thousands of forms. And peering inside agencies would soon reveal an unspeakable treasure trove of all sorts of forms lurking on internal networks.

“Three essential components were missing from the “Government Online Strategy 2000”. Firstly, meaningful outcome-based targets were absent: the Strategy was heavily qualified by evasive references such as “appropriate’, “pragmatic” and “agency based approach”. Secondly, citizen centric was defined in terms of the agency e.g. “agency’s clients”. There is nothing citizen centric about having dozens of agencies each having their individual specific views of the citizen. Of course, “client centric” is not the same thing as “client experience”: just ask the clients (citizens). And thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it was not about transformation – it explicitly ruled out replacing services or channels. The objective was to “…deliver all appropriate Commonwealth services electronically…complementing – not replacing – existing written, telephone, fax and counter services.” Doing so would simply add another silo service channel, increase costs and hence fail to deliver any meaningful benefits.

“The “Government Online Strategy 2000” vision of “a seamless national approach to the provision of online services… [where]…a user of these services should not need to understand how government is structured…” remains a noble but as yet unrealised vision. 

“For all the efforts, the question is “Why?”. Those initiatives that were successful and enduring – the Australian Business Number, the Business Entry Point and later Vanguard and Standard Business Reporting – were driven by a political and economic agenda. These initiatives took a whole of government – not agency specific – multi-disciplinary delivery approach and were greenfields. They were new and transformative business models; and importantly, they were based on metrics and analysis to demonstrate the economic impact and benefit – the target was to reduce the estimated $A17 billion per year red tape impact on the Australian economy.

“One area of concern in the Coalition’s “2013 policy for E-Government and Digital Economy” – and similar strategies in other jurisdictions – is an apparent ambiguity between “digital” and “ICT”. It is essential that the difference between “digital transformation strategies” and “ICT strategies” is understood. As currently articulated, the policy needs to better differentiate between “ICT Strategy” and “Digital First”. Though clearly related, “digital” and “ICT” are different concepts and the accountabilities, objectives and measures of success are different. 

 “Digital” spans a wide brief, including the transformation of the organisational model and culture, radical process change, accountabilities for citizens’ experience, new models of service delivery, realtime feedback, tangible operational efficiencies, measurable business value, and the use of data driven insight to improve and inform policy formulation. ICT strategies partly enable this transformation – but in the legacy environment, siloed approaches can impede it.

A failure of capability?

“Both in the UK and Australia, the gap between vision and reality over previous decades remained largely consistent. There was a significant failure of capability, characterised by the idea that the transformation of government administration and service delivery could be achieved by simplistically throwing “IT projects” at some of the public sector’s most ingrained problems. This failure has often been wrongly legitimised by numerous audit reports, capability reviews, and various inquiries and media reports In the decade preceding these capability reviews, the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) and various audits of inquiry dealing with “IT projects” have variously pointed to the complexity of systems, the lack of an architecture, the lack of business engagement, inadequate or scarce skills, and problems of “IT” procurement. “IT projects” are identified as costing too much, delivering too little, or failing. Standing back from all the individual Capability Reviews, audit reports and various inquiries – and looking strategically and systemically – there appear to be some fundamental governance and assurance questions to be addressed.

“Why are new capability or reform initiatives persistently described by various audits, reviews and reports as “IT projects”? Responsibility and accountability cannot be understood or attributed within such a segmented frame of reference. And how can it be, that after a decade of such audits and massive investments, recent Australian Audit Office and Capability Reviews continue to point to persistent “IT issues” rather than looking below the surface at the actual causes that lie beneath the skin? Is it merely that keeping “IT projects” at arm’s length provides a convenient scapegoat for more damning failures of leadership, management, governance and reform in our public sector organisations? The poor results of this broken approach speak for themselves: a comprehensive comparison of several countries’ performance undertaken by a distinguished group of UK academics found a wide range of results when it considered how effectively IT was being implemented by governments around the world.”

The report found promising signs of progress in the UK, with the establishment of the Government Digital Service (GDS) and the move towards a “digital by default” public service strategy

Although in Australia, it claims much work remains while almost 35 per cent of government transactions are still carried out manually (face-to-face, over the phone, by correspondence, etc.). “Of those that are carried out “digitally”, it is unclear what percentage of these are actually completed end to end online:

• Government agencies still manage over 105 million voice calls per year

• Many of the 170 million face-to-face transactions were to prove identity (this is up from 110 million 8 years ago)

• Only four agencies provide interviews and/or customer services by digital video

• Some 250 million letters are still sent by the Commonwealth each year

Equally, it found the “technology” acquisition arrangements in the Australian Government are overly bureaucratic and process-focussed. 

“The Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO) for example has no less than 50 ICT procurement panels. There are companies – large and small – who in order to deal with government are registered on up to 60 panels across the federal level in Australia. These processes do not strengthen governance – but add to cost, risk and impact delivery. These industrial age procurement processes are not only a significant driver of red tape but are out of sync with the dynamics, timeframes and innovation required in digital government administration.

“In a more positive move, the Victorian, New South Wales and Queensland governments are all pursuing the development of better service business models. However, in the federal government sphere, there is still very much a prescription of technology – which is not only an outdated approach, but highly risky given the pace of innovation. And because there is no digital capability architecture, agencies are each procuring the same or similar capability from an agency-specific perspective. This “process” focus rather than “architectural” focus drives multiple costs and risks across government without achieving interoperability, agility or an improved service and experience for citizens.

“The proposed Welfare Reforms and the new conceptual architecture of welfare reform in Australia will be severely constrained and compromised by the lack of a whole-of-government architecture, the lack of a strategy for the digital age, profound technology obsolescence, and the lack of open interoperability design, when interoperability is the very essence of service innovation in the digital age.”

The full version of A Tale of Two Countries: the Digital Disruption of Government — a comparative review and discussion of the e-government/online programs of Australia and the UK over the past 15-plus years, is available HERE. The paper in part draws on the forthcoming book “Digitizing Government: Understanding and Implementing New Digital Business Models” by Alan Brown, Jerry Fishenden and Mark Thompson.