Government and governance, National security, Science and technology | Australia, The World

13 August 2019

Australia’s government should focus on increased accountability and greater transparency, including on the data it holds on citizens, to strengthen both Australian democracy and its global position, Lesley Seebeck writes.

On 25 July 2019, Prime Minister Scott Morrison made clear his expectations of the Australian Public Service (APS): the APS was to be “a very public-facing public service. A public service that is very focused on the delivery of programs.”

The public service’s ability to deliver on the promises of the parties elected to govern has long been a sore point with ministers. Ministers quite rightly consider they have been voted in on an agenda, and are increasingly prone to see the APS as a barrier to their success rather than an enabler of it.  That’s been especially true in relation to digital, IT delivery and cyber. And indeed, there is much to be gained from digital technologies done right and well and in the individual interests of citizens.

But caution—and deliberation—is warranted.

Information technologies and digital delivery systems inherently disrupt things—including the relationship between government and citizens.

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Government’s levers of influence and control in the digital space are less varied and more ungainly than appreciated. And the APS isn’t well equipped to help.

Decades of focus on efficiencies in government has eroded capability. Some core functions have been deliberately transferred—the privatisation of critical infrastructure and outsourcing of technical skills. In other areas, such as the public’s use of platforms for news and communication or the democratisation of cyber tools, government capability has simply been overtaken by circumstance.

There are troubling discontinuities between the public’s workaday world, government’s lagging conceptual frameworks of how society and the economy works as well as its waning expertise, and politicians’ desires to be effective and re-elected.

Focusing on a single point of interaction, the interface between government and citizens—and implying that the only value of government to citizens is the delivery of services—does dangerous things to political institutions.

Relying on digital technology as the primary means of interaction changes the relationship between government and the citizen. Citizens are reduced to one-dimensional ‘users’ that generate data in exchange for a transactional return. People, in turn, become less engaged with the heavy lifting of democracy: they are less likely to participate in, understand, contribute to, or trust institutions. And Australia itself becomes less resilient as a society.

We also know that if time is not spent on understanding needs and underlying data structures and integrity, on engaging in security and privacy by design, and on ensuring the right governance and policies are in place, systems and data will be increasingly vulnerable. Cybersecurity, trust and digital systems are all intrinsically linked.

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In this, the Australian government should hold itself to higher standards than those it urges on the private sector—the same private sector it admires for its perceived speed and responsiveness. Government has inherently broader functions, deeper responsibilities and more absolute accountabilities. It may be awkward to do so, but one can opt-out of the private digital platforms. It’s much harder to opt out of government systems: laws and policies may prevent that option.

Australia faces an increasingly challenging environment. Decision-makers—the stewards of Australia’s security, prosperity and well-being—should be seeking to strengthen the APS’ capability in deep expertise that cannot be readily found or supported reliably in the private sector.

Government needs sustained investment in its own ability to think long-term about global trends, Australia’s own strengths and vulnerabilities, and the governance and administrative arrangements needed to brace the country as a liberal, capitalist democracy. It’s a ministerial responsibility to grow and support, not shun or diminish, such capability in the APS.

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Rather than demanding that the APS ‘just do it’, I’d suggest the government focus on rebuilding trust and resilience. That means greater accountability by government, ministers, agencies and senior officers, and greater transparency around the data government holds on individuals and its protection, access and use.

Issues around the security of personal data, over-reach in the use of meta-data, difficulties in managing privacy concerns, and erosion of individual protections, liberties and press freedoms (Australia is now ranked below Surinam in the world press freedom index) are worrying and suggests a certain inattention.

Little wonder there’s a growing cynicism around democracy, government and its activities.

Greater accountability—and social empathy—will also spur policy advisers and decision-makers to understand and invest in technology. It will help rebuild an Australian-based and centred capability, leaving the Australian government much less vulnerable to the whims, business models and costs of overseas-based vendors. In a world of technologically-based global competition, it will also strengthen Australia’s own strategic understanding and capability.

Moreover, it’ll sharpen decision-makers’ desire, and hopefully their ability, to build a narrative that brings the Australian community together, better positions the country for the challenges of building a strong, individually-centred digital democracy and strengthens its position globally. That would be win-win-win.


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