Governance over innovation: are Australia’s public sector data leaders falling behind?

In an era where data availability has reached unprecedented heights and public consciousness about privacy and security has soared, the role of Chief Data Officers (CDOs) in our public sector is undergoing significant change, writes Charlie Farah.

Charlie Farah

Australia’s public sector has well and truly embraced data as an engine for advancement. This is demonstrated by the government’s Data and Digital Government Strategy, which aims to harness data and digital capabilities to deliver world-class Public Service by 2030.

Against this backdrop, the role of CDO has never been so important, prompting crucial questions about the shifting priorities of data leadership.

As the custodians of our information, CDOs must navigate the delicate balance between harnessing the potential of data-driven insights and addressing mounting privacy concerns, posing the question: what is the way forward for CDOs in Australia’s public sector?

The evolving role of CDOs

The rapidly evolving roles and responsibilities of public sector Chief Data Officers (CDO) was made clear in Omdia and Qlik’s latest industry research. Across Australia, India, and Singapore, the study reveals significant improvement in the understanding of CDO responsibilities, with 78% of public sector CDOs saying they clearly understand their roles and the strategies required to effectively execute them. This is in stark contrast to the mere 55% reported in 2021, underscoring the growing awareness of the CDO’s function.

Despite this encouraging trend, maturity still lags. Among the surveyed Australian public sector data leaders, 94% stated they have clear data objectives and 98% enforce data governance, but concerningly, 53% admit limited understanding of their role. This highlights the ongoing need for greater awareness, knowledge dissemination, and continuous education about CDO’s multifaceted responsibilities.

Shift towards governance

For public sector CDOs, bridging the gap between appreciation and understanding is only one part of the puzzle. The view that data is a risk to be managed, rather than an opportunity to seize, is becoming structurally entrenched in public sector agencies. Today, over half (55%) of data executives across Australia, Singapore, and India, report through a security, risk, or compliance channel rather than a technology organisational lead. This compares with just 21% of data executives operating under similar reporting channels back in 2021.

Meanwhile, a third of public sector agencies (33%) now use a governance title for their senior data executives – more than twice the number (15%) two years ago – reflecting the close association of the role with risk. This is also seen in the surging adoption of governance frameworks: today, these frameworks are present in over 90% of surveyed organisations, in stark contrast to 2021, when 62% reported they had no governance body at all.

While the prioritisation of governance undoubtedly strengthens data management foundations, critical to the infrastructure of any public sector agency, the study highlights an unintended consequence: a shift of resources away from innovation-driven initiatives. The findings reveal the focus on governance has led to resource allocation favouring strategising, maturity assessments, inventories, and governance boards, overshadowing innovation-centric endeavours, such as deploying advanced analytics tools, decommissioning outdated technologies, and publishing open datasets.

The importance of governance is not wrong, it shows our public sector is aligning with the concerns of consumers, however, when this emphasis begins impeding strategic delivery and stifling progress, it calls for a recalibration of priorities. Effective governance goes beyond box-ticking, it must be ingrained in the day-to-day operations of the agency, and ‘baked into’ procedures, policies, and toolsets, ensuring our public sector agencies remain agile and dynamic.

The innovation imperative

Public sector CDOs must carefully navigate this balance, but the outlook is far from bleak. The study also identifies several opportunities that will impose innovation opportunities for CDOs to seize, as they chart the way forward. One of these is interdepartmental data sharing – an area that is high on the agenda for Australia’s public sector. Nearly all (96%) organisations recognise the need for data sharing and open data initiatives, but only 36% include data sharing in their service design. There is a rich opportunity here to close the gap between desire and adoption, which can only happen with adequate resources, underpinned by open-mindedness and a forward-looking vision.

Cloud adoption will be an inevitable force that will necessitate innovation. A few years ago, there was widespread reluctance to use public cloud storage. Its use is now pervasive, with less than 1% of organisations reporting they are not using it for organisational data storage. As agencies look towards public multi-cloud deployments, they will need to bolster their competencies to remain agile and work across multiple cloud repositories.

Our public service needs to move beyond perceptions of CDOs as just stewards or gatekeepers of data. To maximise the value from data, data leaders in the public sectors need increased resources, as well as the authority, trust and control for agency-wide implementation and strategic delivery. When it comes to digital transformation, CDOs are an invaluable – bolstering innovation should not remain exclusive to roles like Chief Information Officers (CIOs) or Chief Technology Officer (CTOs).

Governance and innovation are not competing priorities – they go hand in hand. We must ensure the value of data is widely understood across agencies, and that it is supported by toolsets that facilitate ‘invisible’ governance, to ensure service benefits and innovation is realised. Only by doing that can we regain the lost ground and ensure that Australia’s public sector does not fall behind.

*Charlie Farah is Senior Director of Solutions & Value Engineering at Qlik

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