Introducing integrated e-government in Australia

| December 2, 2018

During the initial wave of digital-transformation efforts, Australia developed an international reputation as an early leader. That peaked in around 1999.

While the different tiers of government (local, state and federal) and individual agencies have developed some impressive e-government platforms, a joined-up approach to e-government has so far remained elusive.

In a policy brief released by ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre co-written with Estonia’s eGovernance Academy—the world leader in this field—we argue that it’s time for Australia to develop an integrated approach to e-government that joins up all services from all three levels of government. In Estonia, where e-government is something of a national passion, officials estimate that efficiencies derived from e-government reforms lift annual GDP by 2%.

The efficiency gains also make life easier for people and businesses. We’re all familiar with examples of government services that have been made things easier for us—whether it’s not having to go to a physical office to renew a driver’s licence or the ease of having your tax return populated automatically by the Tax Office.

But there’s still plenty of clunkiness around. If you move from one state to another, you hit a bureaucratic brick wall. If you update your address details with your local council, the federal government agencies you deal with have no idea. Myriad other small efficiencies that would cumulatively save a huge amount of time are there to be made.

Some of the infrastructure needed for integrated e-government is already in place.

Two key enablers are mechanisms for digital identification and digital signatures.

Australia Post has already built an operational digital identity scheme known as Digital iD, and the government is trialling a second scheme known as Govpass. A separate ICPC policy brief has identified issues that need addressing in both these schemes, but the challenges are not insurmountable and digital identity remains essential for a 21st-century economy and integrated e-government.

Digital signatures are a little further off. The Electronic Transactions Act 1999 went some way towards introducing digital signatures in Australia, but we still lack a unique and hard-to-forge identifier that can be checked by the recipient. This is certainly on the radar of officials in Canberra but remains a work in progress.

The establishment of the Australian Digital Council, which met for the first time in September, is another useful piece of architecture. It is working to drive better federal and state government coordination on digital initiatives and could be a platform to begin discussions on full integration across all three levels of government.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to integrated e-government, but there are some good principles that can be drawn from experiences abroad. One is the value of a decentralised approach, which was the route taken in Estonia. Facilitating secure data exchanges and interoperability between different government agencies doesn’t require the creation of a single database (a so-called superdatabase) that consolidates all the data from multiple databases.

In fact, doing that poses serious security risks. A decentralised approach enables different databases and IT solutions in the different levels of government to ‘talk’ to each other securely and solves the problem of how to integrate the myriad government databases and systems that already exist.

Ensuring public trust is another, and here there’s obviously a bit of work to be done. When scheme after scheme falls over or the ground rules change (for example, opt in becomes opt out) people get frustrated. There’s also a deeper issue. Digital transformation is being developed from an agency- rather than people-centric viewpoint.

The mission at present is to help a government agency do something more easily or to get more information. User experience is then designed through this narrow lens. The long-term effect of this approach is to gradually disempower people as more of their lives move beyond their control and they are effectively forced to participate in these disempowering schemes as other alternatives become too inconvenient.

A different approach would be to design digital transformation initiatives from the citizens’ perspective. What does that look like? It would mean providing people with easy and meaningful control over their data. It would mean giving citizens an online log every time their personal information is accessed by any arm of government or the private sector, with a one-click process for contesting any access they believe may be unauthorised.

It would allow them to decide who can access different components of their data (such as individual records) and provide strong default settings to protect those who don’t bother to adjust their settings. It would mean amending the Privacy Act so that personal information can be reasonably protected in a 21st-century world. In short, it’s about getting in the corner of everyday citizens and empowering them, not the departments who serve them.

The vision across Australia to move government services online and create enabling infrastructure like digital identity is the right one, but we need to think bigger and go further. Launching a national effort to integrate service delivery across all three tiers of government would be a political challenge but it would deliver benefits for every Australian.

We should try it.

This article was published by The Strategist.

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Fergus Hanson

Fergus Hanson is the Head of the International Cyber Policy Centre. He is the author of Internet Wars and has published widely on a range of cyber and foreign policy topics.