Privacy concerns have long trumped efforts by Australian politicians to make better use of public data.
The NSW government’s Digital Plus strategy - under which NSW government is looking to appoint a whole-of-government ‘data broker’ to drive the use and exchange of public sector information across the state - suggests the tide is turning on that debate.
The public - or at least the government's perception of it - now embraces the idea that efficiency should be the overriding principle in any decision about public data.
It would be unimaginable that NSW Finance Minister Dominic Perrottet could have said in the 1980s what he told an AIIA event last week:
Digital government... is a shift of focus from us in government using technology to instead thinking about how government is designed so that our citizens can interact with us in a seamless way. In fact, digital is less about technology and more about an experience – of everything working together, being connected and joined up.
Citizens who regularly engage with government tend to welcome the idea that our interactions might become more efficient by not having to repeatedly provide to government information they already possess.
Equally as the people who fund government, we should welcome the efficiency that better data usage represents. But we haven't always been that way inclined.
A short history of privacy and public data
The public embrace of better use of public sector data is is a surprising twist given its long history in Australia.
In the the 1980s and 1990s conspiracy theories focused on big data centres where government data about citizens was supposedly being exchanged.
Radio personality Brian Wilshire of 2GB was one person who promoted this theory, focusing on the Deakin Exchange in Canberra and Telstra’s data centre - RMC-02. He combined his conspiracy theories in a book Fine Print: Australia’s special role in the new world order.
The basis for both theories was interesting.
The Deakin theory was a consequence of Telecom building a new exchange in an area targeted for growth that in the end it didn’t require. Opportunistically it rented out the space as an early “data centre”. As a consequence a number of government departments took up space in a building that had the essential air-conditioning, fire protection and power continuity requirements for installing computers. The building had the additional benefit of being well served by communications cable.
The St Leonards building was more mundane - RMC stood for Resource Management Centre and was also a Telecom building. RMC was, however, interpreted as Regional Monitoring Centre by the theorists. The building carried no external branding - in common with most data centres - adding to the conspiracy.
That marrying up data was beyond the technical capabilities of the time was a detail beyond the conspiracy theorists, but not government.
That’s why the Hawke Government proposed the Australia Card in 1985. The Bill to introduce the Australia Card was twice defeated in the Senate and was a trigger for the 1987 double dissolution election. However, because of a previously unnoticed drafting error the Bill could not be submitted to a joint sitting (as provided for under the Constitution - and as the Whitlam Government used in 1974 to introduce Medicare).
The next effort was the Howard Government’s Health and social services access card. The card struggled in technical implementation and was criticised on privacy grounds. Lack of progress as much as anything else led to the card being abandoned by the Labor Government in 2007.
It's replacement has been MyGov - a single entry point for online services. Anyone using e-Tax this year - and that is now the default means - will have noted that to pre-fill you are required to link your tax details to MyGov.
It is an efficient way of doing database linking: to get the client to do it because of the benefits that flow to the client. The National Commission of Audit earlier this year found that:
e-Government services are often preferred by citizens, businesses and other government customers because they are more convenient and generally cheaper and more accurate. The Commission recommends that the government accelerate the transition to online service delivery.
Do we require a national approach?
Under the next phase of the NSW IT strategy, called Digital Plus, NSW will be pursuing a state wide implementation of that recommendation.
“Digital plus for our citizens means they can access easy to use government services that are available anytime and anywhere," the Finance Minister noted.
The question is whether we need one easy to use government entry point, or one for each level of government. I would suggest that for the objective of easy digital access to government services to be realised, the state and federal governments need to work together in creating one entry point.
The biggest impediment may not be a revival of the various conspiracy theories, but the shape of the Federation itself.
The Coalition’s e-Government policy going into the Federal election promised to trial a digital pigeonhole in 2014. The policy said this would build on the existing MyGov service and they would “accelerate take-up and value to users by opening this facility to state, territory and local government.”
Given the overlaps that exist between government responsibilities, single digital entry points will have maximum use if they encompass all levels of government.
The efforts of the NSW and federal government are to be applauded. But the real benefits to citizens and Government will come if we build one comprehensive digital entry point to all Government.
Let’s hope the Prime Minister’s new found interest in reinforcing the state's separate functions does not make this harder.