Will government data sharing become an outcome of digital service redesign?

The Australian federal government decided in 2018 to form the Australian Digital Council, a Ministerial Council goaled with finding ways to better coordinate data sharing and collaboration between different State and Federal government entities.

Finding common ground amongst State and Federal government leaders is difficult at the best of times, so after only one year of discussions, it is reassuring to see that some consensus has been found, with four areas of potential cooperation identified.

The Australian Digital Council areas of collaboration will be:

  • Reforming cross-jurisdictional data and digital platforms
  • Enhancing government capability and public trust
  • Transforming services around life events
  • Seamless digital identity for citizens

Current cross-jurisdictional priorities to be considered include National Disability data, e-invoicing, API standards, and “data collaboration”. Life events to be considered will include birth, death, and looking for work.

Many Australians express both frustration and unease when it comes to government service delivery. Citizens often assume that data sharing between government entities is already in place, and interpret the need to re-enter data and re-tell case history as poor customer service delivery.

Within both State and Federal levels of government, there are many legislative, regulatory, and technology challenges that inhibit, or outright prevent, the sharing of data. It appears to be an area ripe for reform.

From a high-level perspective, it should make a lot of sense to have a consolidated digital identifier for all citizens, with seamless authentication to relevant government systems. It is however an area fraught with political danger.

Australians very willingly share excruciatingly detailed personal location and transaction information with companies like Facebook and Google.

Example Google Maps Timeline

All large databases face the constant issue of data quality. It is easy to see that from a government service delivery perspective, a lot of a citizen’s identity and entitlements are determined at least partially by “life event” information, such as their parentage, birth date, marriage, and death. Improving cross-jurisdictional data quality would be key to underpinning more robust citizen identity information.

It is easy to imagine a time when we have our “digital government identity” app loaded onto our phone, the way many Australians already load banking apps onto their phones. Proximity detection and seamless “tap and go” government related transactions might be the sweeteners used to encourage adoption. We can already see this approach being used with various state government public transport apps.

The privacy concerns raised by the 1980s Australia Card proposal seem utterly quaint compared to the daily reality of digital tracking in 2019. But even with pervasive digital tracking, the current uproar over Services Australia’s Centrelink “robodebt” program clearly shows how data matching based programs can be impacted by data quality, and fundamentally undermine trust.

Efforts to coordinate and consolidate digital identities amongst government entities might reduce the need to create yet another login account, and reduce the need to disclose information multiple times to agencies. Seamless interactions for citizens might be great when things go well, but consolidated credentials could create significant problems if (and when) a digital identity is hijacked or stolen. There would undoubtedly be many complexities and trade-offs that would need to be considered, particularly relating to cybersecurity and identity theft.

Reducing human data entry would undoubtedly save everyone time and money, and potentially lead to major improvements in data quality. But it might be just the tip of the reform iceberg for cross-jurisdictional data collaboration.

  • Who would own the data?
  • Where would it reside?
  • Who can access it?
  • What if databases held by different government entities have conflicting information?
  • Who is responsible for updating data to ensure accuracy?
  • Who fixes or arbitrates the inevitable issues that might arise?

Fortunately, the Australian Digital Council has also chosen to look at some areas that will be far less contentious. Streamlining electronic business transactions with Governments, such as e-invoicing and electronic procurement, seems like an easy win, given the maturity of efforts to date.

A lot of the heavy lifting for e-Invoicing and procurement has already been done at the federal level. It could just be a matter of convincing states to converge with federal frameworks and standards. International trade opportunities could easily be the carrot that is used to encourage that convergence. In 2018 Australia and New Zealand agreed to a Trans-Tasman Electronic Invoicing Arrangement, and in 2019 agreed to adopt the Pan-European Public Procurement Online (PEPPOL) interoperability framework for e-Invoicing.

While some of the issues being considered by the Australian Digital Council are easier to deal with than others, it is clearly going to take a very long time and a lot of political co-operation to cut through this Gordian knot.