Newly-minted government services minister Bill Shorten has charted the federal government’s vision for ethical, linked-up digital government services as a way of helping to “restore citizen’s faith in democracy”.
The minister charged with overseeing Services Australia used a keynote address in Canberra on Tuesday morning to outline the government’s expectations for service delivery policy over the next 10 years.
“The election result shows citizens are hungry for better government, they expect to be heard, they expect reforms, and the delivery of effective and ethical digital services can play a vital role in these reforms,” he told the AFR Government Services Summit.
While access to major online government services has been available through myGov since 2013, Shorten said there is still a disconnect between the citizens and government, requiring citizens to “grapple with the complexities of machinery of government”.
“While agencies continue to create digital silos, with their own disconnected apps and websites, ordinary Australians will remain rightfully frustrated,” he said.
“Imagine a myGov that unifies government digital services – by making it more valuable for the Commonwealth, states and service providers to interface with myGov to offer better service delivery to Australians.”
Shorten said there was no reason why myGov could not be used for simple conveniences, as well as more proactive activities such as nudging people to consider health screening and other treatments as they age.
“Image the simple convenience of pharmaceutical prescriptions being accessible within the enhanced myGov, for instance. If Priceline can do it for their customers, why can’t government? he said.
“Imagine with aged-base life events – throughout life, but particularly after 40, we could nudge people to engage in preventative screening and treatments.
“We could nudge people to book in for cancer screening, commenced from within the enhanced myGov app (interfacing with GP software platforms for bookings). Imagine if that simple and effective nudge saved one of our lives.”
myGov nudges could also be used to help people “top up training and education”, which in turn “boost[s] productivity and wage growth, and insures against individuals becoming obsolete within their industry”.
It is not clear whether these are blue-sky improvements or if they form part of the $200 million overhaul of myGov that has been underway for the past two years in concert with Deloitte, Accenture, IBM and Arq Group.
The extent of the changes will become clear through the myGov audit, announced by the now-government in the lead up to the election to deliver reliability and useability improvements for users.
Shorten said the audit would commence shortly, providing an “opportunity to get a deep understanding of what our citizens want and expect” so to “collectively plot out, the ‘how’ and ‘what’ that sets us up for success for many, many years”.
“Not just a once-off digital blueprint, a reset in thinking,” he said.
“By delivering through myGov we must consider how we continuously improve our services.
“Australians deserve more than an uplift of their services every 10 years; they deserve them to be contemporary and world-class all the time.”
The trust equation
What is clear, however, is that trust will be central to any changes, with Shorten noting recent developments in South Korea that allow citizens to directly manage personal information held by government as an attractive “level of transparency and agency”.
“When new technology is used to make important decisions, especially in the sphere of government services, it must be fair,” he said.
“It is right the Australian public values their personal rights, pluralism and accountability. In practice that means decision, designs and services are fair,, accurate, accountable and efficient.”
Shorten pointed to the damage of the former government’s unlawful robodebt program as one of the reason people distrust the government.
“In my opinion, another thing about robodebt is that the government was beta-testing a new form of technology on literally the most vulnerable people in our country – people who rely on social security,” he said.
Shorten said the Royal Commission would “help us understand how such a failure of public administration could happen, for the crucial reason of ensuring it will never happen again”.
“The commission could quite possibly find that the decision makers had their assumptions back-to-front. We should assume that AI and similar new technology will make mistakes, and that we should design services around that assumption,” he said.
Laying down the gauntlet to public servants, Shorten added that it was time to overcome a “long period of an ineffective, arrogant and at times malicious digital transformation”, which has erroded trust in government and democracy.
“Imagine if humble government services could help restore citizens’ faith in democracy as an operating model. Imagine that!” he said.
“I want us to return to a respectful relationship between the government and the Australian Public Service, that has the safety to be and truly frank and fearless.”
“I want you to know it is time to be bold, to innovate.”