Coalition promises “virtually all” government services to be online by 2017

By Julian Bajkowski

The Coalition has officially launched its eGovernment  and Digital Economy policy for the election in a wide-ranging document that reaffirms a commitment centralised procurement of government computing combined with the development of a permanent and centralised digital identity credential for online transactions between the public and agencies.

Released by Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Shadow Minister for Finance, Deregulation and Debt Reduction and Chairman of the Coalition Policy Development Committee Andrew Robb on Monday, the policy’s big sell is an aggressive push to get “virtually all” public facing government services online by 2017   or the first term of a Coalition government.

However move to set hard targets for a digitised bureaucracy to hit has been accompanied by a distinctly more nuanced and flexible position on how (necessarily) secure online transactions may operate.

The Coalition has now indicated that in government it would retain sole ownership and control of any secure online “pigeon-hole” or digital mailbox rather than spinning it off to a single corporatized monopoly provider like Australia Post.

Australia Post had previously suggested that it would be “wonderful” if an incoming Coalition government would put in place a “mandate” for agencies to use the postal monopoly’s Digital Mailbox product for official electronic correspondence with the public, a statement that immediately raised the hackles of competitors including banks.

However the Coalition is now proposing to “provide individuals and entities (on an opt-in basis) with a unique digital ‘inbox’–a secure and permanent contact point for communication with government that can be used as a stand-alone ‘mailbox’ or on a ‘store and forward’ basis in combination with an email address, Australia Post Digital Mailbox or some other destination application.”

The use of the terms “unique” and “permanent” are significant because they indicate that the Coalition intends the Commonwealth to retain firm custody over the minting and management of primary digital identity credentials needed for transactions and correspondence between citizens and services.

A number of senior bureaucrats have indicated that a federated model of digital identity credentials – of which the government’s is one   appears the most workable way to manage secure online access for the public between government agencies and private sector organisations.

To this end, Mr Turnbull and Mr Robb have left the door firmly open to allowing external providers like banks or Australia Post to harness the existing ‘MyGov’ facility that now links agencies like Tax and Human Services.

“This service will build on the MyGov inbox but add flexibility to use in a redirect mode or integrate with existing and emerging commercial products (e.g. APDM [Australia Post Digital Mailbox] or digital vaults). This will be delivered within existing ICT resources,” the Coalition’s policy document says.

The scope of eligible government transactions has also been substantially widened across jurisdictions.

The Coalition has vowed to “accelerate take-up and value to users” by opening the Commonwealth’s digital credentials to “State, Territory and Local government communications.”

That pledge is certain to attract the attention of bank-owned payments provider BPAY which now provides the bulk of payment transaction services for state revenue functions like licencing and car registration as well as council rates.

‘Reboot’ for centralised procurement and government technology

Despite opting for markets-based “big-bang” IT outsourcing model following the 1996 election win, there now appears to be little or no appetite for any repeat of sending large chunks of government IT work or strategy back to the private sector.

Instead, the Coalition has not only opted to retain the existing operational and procurement functions of the Australian Government Information Management Office within the Department of Finance, but will elevate agency to what amounts to a policy development role within the (increasingly crowded) Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to give it more clout.

Under the unambiguous heading of “Reboot Whole-of-Government ICT leadership” the change builds on the recent splitting in two of the agency by Department of Finance Secretary David Tune.

In that reset, a more hands-on procurement arm led by Australian Government Chief Technology Officer and Procurement Coordinator John Sheridan was created following the departure of long-term Australian Government Chief Information Office Ann Steward.

At the same time, Glenn Archer took over the reins as Australian Government CIO with a sharper focus on longer term strategy, policy and planning. That function, along with AGIMO proper, would be sent to PM&C under a Coalition government

“These DoFD [procurement] functions should remain separate to AGIMO,” the Coaltion’s policy says. “Authority for effective whole-of-government ICT decisions and reforms ultimately must derive from the decisions and priorities of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

“AGIMO should be a trusted source of expertise and advice to Cabinet. It should serve as a leader, coordinator, change agent and centre of expertise, support the decisions of SIGB [Secretary’s Board of IT Governance] and provide a secretariat function for SIGB.”

The Coaltion’s policy has also spelled out that it want AGIMO to serve as “as the support agency for an Australian Government ICT Advisory Board”   a potentially influential advisory body touted as “a means for Cabinet, SIGB, agency CIOs and AGIMO leadership to obtain advice on the productivity gains achievable from ICT from private sector leaders and experts.”

More controversially, the technology committee made up of nation’s most senior public servants, SIGB, could potentially be overseen by a private sector outsider recruited by the new Advisory Board.

The Coalition’s policy says it will “consider proposals for the ICT Advisory Board to provide an independent external chairman drawn from the private sector to SIGB, and for how to most effectively leverage the ICT Advisory Board’s expertise in SIGB.”

That role, if created, could prove to be one of the most, if not the most, influential position on technology policy yet seen; providing its own governance remains beyond reproach.

The technology industry’s peak lobby group, the Australian Information Industry Association is predictably thrilled about greater industry and private sector input to creation of policy.

“The Coalition’s intention to engage industry and the private sector more closely in an advisory capacity, and to provide leadership and coordination in areas such as standards for verified online identities, signals a fresh opportunity for our industry to support government to achieve its digital economy objectives,” AIIA chief executive Suzanne Campbell said.

“The intention to work with States and Territories to deliver a coherent approach to building Australia’s digital economy, and leveraging developments already underway will help drive the momentum required to ensure Australia re-establishes its global competitiveness in world ICT rankings.”

“[The] AIIA is encouraged to see the Coalition’s commitment to clear and decisive action which focuses on transparency, and the accountability of government in delivering real outcomes – as is the case in the US and UK – and in opening up government data to drive innovation , Ms Campbell said.

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