Post-census digital government in Australia

Post-Census digital government in Australia

The lesson of the 2016 census was a serious one. It brought to light issues about big data, governance and the social contract. It also exposed how difficult it can be for governments to manage risk while striving for open and agile models of operation.

These issues and challenges were examined in today’s panel: Post-census digital government in Australia. Jacob Doyle Senior Adviser Cyber Policy, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Dr Lesley Seebeck, Deputy Director Information Systems and Services / CIO, Bureau of Meteorology and Dawn Routledge, Executive Director, Policy and Innovation, Department of Finance, Services and Innovation discussed how they see government agencies meeting those challenges.

Post-Census digital government in Australia


One of the biggest themes of the discussion was trust. Governments hold large amounts of citizens data and have a responsibility to ensure that they are using it transparently and guarding it safely. Dr Seebeck made the point that many people query why there is a higher onus on government than Google or Facebook. She replied that part of the debate is that ‘Google and Facebook have this information but as a government body we have a different relationship, a social contract.’ She went on to say, ‘that the social contract raises questions about protection and control. How we understand that contract is going to evolve significantly.’

One of the reasons for that is individual’s understanding of big data and its uses is becoming much more significant. Moderator Kevin Noonan noted,

‘We’re seeing a generational change in the community -- the community gets the nuances of data, it’s not a kindergarten discussion.’

He went onto say that data needs to be considered in the same light as policy, in that it requires community consultation. ‘There’s a furore when people feel like they are not included in a conversation. The issue is never about the act, it’s that the community feels like it doesn’t have a say.’

Another aspect of the debate is: how should governments be deriving value from data sets? Routledge queried, ‘how do you drive public value? In NSW you drive value by allowing others to use that data (not sensitive personal data). We to continue to create better data infrastructure, and be more open about sharing data between government agencies.’

Managing change

As this area continues to evolve at a rapid pace and data sets are becoming larger and the analytics becoming more sophisticated Governments need to manage growing risk files with being agile and meeting customer expectations, a task that can be difficult. Doyle acknowledged that change could be slow in government agencies, but also noted, ‘Changing behaviour and changing culture takes time, but like the other panellists, I am optimistic, I am seeing some really exciting things happening with the Digital Transformation Agency, for example.’

Seeback noted that with a generational change coming through the public sector, change was inevitable. ‘We are now witnessing a fairly large cultural shift. I think there are lights at the end of the tunnel. We need to catch up, but I am also quite optimistic. With a generational change coming through the public service, the younger generation are digital in their personal lives, and so expect to have digital processes in their professional life.’

This expectation is reflected in the wider community. Doyle observes, ‘we’re online and there is a citizen expectation that these services should also be online.’

The 2016 provided some valuable learning opportunities for Australian government agencies. If the lessons are to bear fruit then there needs to be a continued focus on changing culture, making smart investments and ensuring that cybersecurity and digital transformation remain a top priority.

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