Is 'competitive federalism' driving Australia's digital govt revolution?

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Is 'competitive federalism' driving Australia's digital govt revolution?

NSW's finance secretary thinks so.

Competition between state and territory governments is driving improvements to service delivery the same way as it would in the private sector, according to NSW Department of Finance, Services and Innovation secretary Martin Hoffman.

With the 'one-stop shop' becoming a common theme to bring together various transactional services, jurisdictions are increasingly replicating and adapting successful practices.

Many have looked to leading customer service delivery agency Service NSW as a model to beat - or at the very least copy - because of its success shifting the state’s service transactions online, which are on track to be 70 percent digital by 2019.

In some instances this has led to shortcuts for those slow to pick up the baton, such as Victoria, which is only now getting around to improving the number of government transactions that can be completed online, which currently sits at just 1 percent.

Victoria’s government chief customer officer Darren Whitelaw recently said Victoria’s slow start gave it the opportunity to leapfrog digital government progress made by its counterparts in NSW, Queensland and Tasmania.

A similar approach has been embraced in Western Australia, with the former state government choosing to cherry-pick a number of successful projects from other jurisdictions for its first ICT strategy last year, rather than reinvent the wheel. 

Speaking at a Trans-Tasman Business Circle briefing in Sydney last week, Hoffman said having different approaches to the same end goal is one of the strengths of the federation, as long as states and territories are constantly learning from similarities and differences and coordinating where possible. 

"I think Service NSW is a good example [of where federation works] in the sense that – and this is where the whole idea benefits a federation – you can have different approaches in different states, as long as you’re harmonising the things you should," he said.

"But you do honestly learn from what different states are doing well, and Service NSW is an example. You know, Victoria has announced Service Victoria, and they're off doing that and we’re talking with them. South Australia is doing something similar and were certainly talking with them about it as well.

"So that sort of competitive federalism - in the sense of trying different approaches as long as the learning and the willingness to pick it up is actually there - is one of the strengths of our system."

NSW has championed this approach with the federal government, signalling its intention to tap into the whole-of-government GovPass digital identity platform being developed by the Digital Transformation Agency so NSW citizens can access both federal and state services through Service NSW.

Elsewhere NSW has gone against the grain, such as its decision not to introduce a single whole-of-government website – like the one the DTA had planned, or South Australia's single government website sa.gov.au. It will instead work to create a whole-of-government experience around select functions, such as feedback forms and data visualisation.

NSW is also racing SA to be the first state to introduce digital drivers licences. NSW is preparing to kick off its trial ahead of a state-wide rollout in 2019, while its neighbour has promised the licence for the second half of 2017.

Not the same on the inside

While it has been a success story for NSW on the frontline, Hoffman said the experience internally was less than desirable.

He said outdated process were stifling public sector efficiency, making what is an already difficult era for public administration even harder.

"We’re digitally poor on the inside," he said.

"We literally still move a lot of paper around collecting autographs from floor to floor within our building, and then having signed the paper, it comes to you on the screen.

"We’ve got buildings full of people, knowledge workers, using basically the same tools as at the turn of the century – emails, shared drives, and Office, with some exceptions in some places."

The digital transformation bill passed by the NSW parliament in June should go some way to changing this, with more than 50 acts modernised to "enable digital transactions between government and citizens, businesses or other organisation".

The government is also hoping that new tools for sharing and analysing of data, such as the new whole-of-government data visualisation and dashboard tool to support its Trends NSW initiative, will give public servants an improved ability to achieve the digital strategy’s goal of creating a “data-informed and agile public service”.

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