The transformative role of data and digital in next gen public sector

Chris Fechner considers himself a lucky man. Along with heading up the Australian Government’s Digital Transformation Agency, he is also Head of the Digital Profession – a role that promotes building the digital capability across the Australian Public Service to deliver government services fit for the digital age. At last week’s Innovate Australia 2023 conference in Canberra Chris delivered the government keynote address on data, digital and the next generation public sector. Keep reading for key takeouts.

Data and digital

Data and digital are inextricably linked to the delivery of government services

Australia has always been an earlier adopter of technology to deliver on its capabilities as a government. As early as the 1950s, government began automating back-office functions in the bureaucracy.

This ultimately ushered in a more automated and innovative public sector workforce, with people beginning to think about the possibility of moving the ‘back-office transformation’ to front-line services. This was realised, and accelerated, as technology changed and mainframe services appeared on the scene. Once again, Australia proved to be an earlier adopter – this time of ‘big systems’ around our complex functions, for example, our tax and social service functions.

As we moved into the PC era and the distributed nature of public sector service delivery, we moved closer and closer to the front line. Information was now immediately available at the counter, resulting in richer interactions between government and people and businesses.

Then, enter the web – and government really changed forever. These rich interactions now occur in both directions, between government, people and businesses – from anywhere and at anytime.

This is when we really need to change our thinking about what government is. Crucially, it’s where the preferences of people and businesses become more important than the structure of government departments. It’s also when our strategies around digital government and government service delivery converge.

Data and digital are driving an increasing pace of government transformation

All around us, the rate of change is accelerating. So, we need to deliver government services in a different way.

In technology advancements, change cycles that previously took 5 to 10 years are now taking 1 year or, in some cases, a matter of months. Think about how quickly technology adapted to deliver what people and businesses needed during the pandemic. We need to make sure government service delivery continues to keep pace to meet these rapid cycles.

The sheer amount of information we create increases exponentially every day, bringing about technological changes to deal with mass data or big data environments. We have a great opportunity to further harness the massive value of systems and data in this digital age.

I believe a key challenge for government is to be responsive to this acceleration and change now and into the future. We should not be looking to the past, to the historical implementation of government.

We need to change our mindset from spending hundreds of millions of dollars creating systems that are meant to last for decades, to spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on hundreds of systems for hundreds of solutions that provide services to people who need them, when they need them, where they need them, at a cost that represents value to all people.

This is what will separate really advanced digital nations from less advanced ones. The more successful we are as a digital government, the more likely it is that we will be successful as a digital nation.

Data and digital success needs the right capabilities at the right time in the right quantities

I have the honour of being Head of the Digital Profession – one of three Professions across the Australian Public Service. The Digital Profession was established to ensure the Commonwealth has the right digital and ICT workforce and resources, at the right time, to support service delivery to people and businesses.

This is a challenge for all governments across the world.

We know the breadth of different skills and experience that we need in data and digital now is vastly different than the past ‘in-demand’ roles of system administrators, coders and database administrators. In government we still need some of these but we also need people who are thinking about policy within the digital and data landscape, using information to obtain new insights into wicked problems, and contemporary data science and digital product capabilities to improve service delivery.

The technologies available to us today have infinite abilities for good if they are administered and leveraged by people who are conscious and aware of the implications of how data and digital are to be used.

We need to make sure that we’ve got people who are talking about digital democracy, how we use technology to support better customer experience, how we break down silos in government, how we share information for the benefit of people and businesses, and how we make our policy decisions work much better through using technology while not forgetting to keep people at the centre of our design.

These are the things that will make the biggest difference to the people and businesses of Australia. This is how we will transition to a future ready economy.

What’s important for us all is that we continue to drive that ongoing investment and participation in how the next generation public sector is going to be fit for the digital age.