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Pockets of excellence, Australia is a leader in digital govt

By Simon Bush

At the start of May, the AIIA hosted a 10-day Australian Trade Delegation made up of digital businesses and senior government representatives. The delegation visited leading tech company HQs in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, followed by exchanges with government officials in Washington DC.

The delegation represented federal and state tech leaders, Australian digital startups, medium businesses, and multinationals.

Compared to the 2019 AIIA delegation, it was fascinating to see the changes in positioning and advances in technology from the US technology giants, as well as the US’ tech policy approach.

What became clear from discussions is that Australia, in many ways, is a leader in digital government. Many large cloud and software companies commented that major developments in their product roadmaps have been driven by the needs of Australian Governments which have in turn been taken up by other clients building out their value proposition.

AIIA’s Simon Bush, Ambassador Arthur Sinodinos, DTA chief Chris Fechner and NSW CIO Greg Wells

In other words, the Australian government market is not only a large consumer, but an influencer shaping global software developments.

US digital and data policy makers from US federal and state governments highlighted that Australia is also recognised as a leader in important areas such as data sharing across silos and it’s work on digital identity, just to name two.

Separately, the US officials raised concerns about not building bias into technology products and services (for example through AI adoption) and championed pursuing the stretch goal of proactive personalisation of digital service delivery to citizens over the traditional citizen request model.

Lastly, customer satisfaction and digital equity remain a key focus and measure of the US government.

In these ambitions and areas of focus, Australia is following the same path but at an early stage of the journey. We often heard from government and industry that driving improvements in citizen experience with government is central to a digital first approach.

We also met with recent US federal government chief information officer Suzette Kent, who told us that her focus as the CIO was to be the primary advocate for citizens and working with government agencies to drive this approach.

Broadly, there were some clear themes that emerged on the delegation.

First, Australian government is influencing global tech product development through its leadership and ambition and investment driven by the goal of being a leading digital government by 2025.

Second, the strong commitment of numerous tech companies to community, sustainability and carbon neutrality goals.

Much of the tech sector is pushing ahead of government goals on this front for three reasons: CEO leadership in major tech companies driving the agenda, business opportunity in the CSR sector, and employee expectations. This was not even on the agenda in 2019.

Third, cyber security, again not a priority in 2019, was a key focus for every US tech company and US government official we spoke to.

Indeed, tech companies briefed the delegation on how they are actively stopping intrusions, malware, phishing, and ransomware attacks from both nation state and criminal actors who are becoming more sophisticated and numerous.

Key cyber messages from tech companies included the inherent insecurity of legacy systems, the need for patching as soon as possible (thus the advantage of cloud computing,) and the essentialness of multi-factor authentication for enterprise users to reduce vulnerability, especially with hybrid workplaces and devices becoming the norm. Zero Trust cyber strategies were also being advocated by numerous companies as the new standard.

Fourth, the importance of data and how it can transform enterprise and citizen experience. Government is traditionally structured in silos and, appropriately, has strict obligations for strong cyber and privacy.

New commercial cloud-based platforms and capabilities are making data sharing in secure environments with anonymised data sets now possible which opens exciting possibilities for citizen-understanding and providing enhanced, tailored digital citizen experiences.

Fifth, the post-COVID, new normal of hybrid working is here to stay. In fact, many US tech companies stated that they will never go back to the traditional office-based environment five days per week.

One major company, with more than 130,000 employees, has made the decision to completely shut down its offices.

Many US companies are now looking to provide is collaborative office spaces for teams to come together and create the spaces to do this. Hybrid workplaces and workforces are here to stay with this now an employee expectation necessary to be recruit and retain talent.

The impact on the large campuses in Silicon Valley and in CBDs on office real estate will be dramatic.

The tech industry is innovating to create solutions to support these workforces with the metaverse providing early use cases including onboarding, mentoring, team meetings, and collaboration. It may be several years before the metaverse will be embedded more fully beyond the early adopters, but the technology will make the remote and hybrid work experience more productive and closer to the office environment.

Last, in 2019, we heard from just about every tech company about the AI they are putting into their software. In 2022, we are hearing about how to use AI and ML in an ethical way with industry very cognisant that it has a leading role to play in ensuring citizen and consumer confidence.

The AIIA believes government itself has a role to play in creating confidence in AI and being an exemplar in government adoption by having frameworks around ethical and appropriate use and governance frameworks.

In meeting with US government officials, we learned that they have adopted an approach whereby a central agency will provide guidance across government and support agencies in adopting AI. This is a model the Australian Government should support.

The delegation provided numerous benefits including government to government and government to industry engagement and the importance for Australian-based companies and officials to understand the latest global tech developments.

I am confident that Australia will continue to innovate and lead the digital government experience following from recent policy reforms, but it is also the case that government needs to continue to invest and improve the citizen digital experience and ensure no one gets left behind.

No small challenge, but one industry and government is up to face.

Simon Bush is General Manager for Policy and Advocacy at the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA).

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