25 July 2023

I acknowledge we’re meeting on the traditional lands of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples and I pay my respects to their elders past and present and extend that respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people present.

Thank you to the AFR for inviting me to once again address the summit.

Last year, my speech was the first major address I gave as Minister for Government Services, and I have been looking forward to catching up.

In 2022 I asked you to imagine certain things that we could change. 

Not because the Albanese Government wanted to differentiate itself from the previous administration for the sake of it…

…but to share our vision of offering Australians better government. 

I said the new government would be consumer driven, citizen-centric. 

We’re a year into our journey and there have been some highs and lows.

But the proposition I want to put you today is that greater investment in APS capability will allow the autonomy to make our own well-informed decisions…

…as opposed to only relying on vendor-driven designs that do not always serve us well.

But I want to start with a bit of an update on points I made at this summit last year.

We have completed the myGov audit. 

Chair, David Thodey, and the panel of experts made several recommendations based on a significant finding – that myGov is critical national infrastructure.

Up there with banks, the electricity grid and telecommunications. 

The app now has 2.5 million users, with more people logging in each day than take public transport.

Among the panel’s recommendations was funding security for the platform and a five year roadmap – and I’ll talk more about that a bit later. 

I said last year I’d lead a delegation to Denmark, the European Commission and Estonia, which I had the great fortune to do. 

I wanted to learn from institutions that are at the top of their game in government service and data security.

One of the things that deeply impressed me in Estonia was the distributed data layer and the security outcomes it supports…

…and the interface between the public and private sectors. 

Each piece of a citizen’s personal information is only stored in a single location, so they have achieved the ideal situation of customer’s only having to “tell us once”…

…something we’d like to become a reality in Australia. 

It works on the premise that only information required for the services provided is recorded and must be deleted when it’s no longer needed for that purpose.

Much easier. Much safer.

In Brussels, I met with the EU’s Commissioner of Justice, Didier Reynders, to discuss the world’s toughest privacy and security law, General Data Protection Regulation.

The GDPR comes with significant fines to businesses that fail to comply with its rules.

Social media platform, Meta, was the most recent tech giant to be found contravening the rules and has to now fork out $1.95 billion for their transgression. 

Quite the deterrent for not keeping personal information secure.

Another promise the Albanese Government made and kept was the Robodebt Royal Commission.

I stood here last year and said we would establish the Royal Commission to understand how such a failure of public administration could happen…

…and, importantly, to make sure it can never happen again.

Commissioner Catherine Holmes delivered her report on 7 July and confirmed our worst fears. 

This was a terrible era in Australian politics and it tainted the reputation of arguably the best public service in the world.

And my thanks and admiration go to the Commissioner for the way in which she conducted the inquiry.

The evidence of those responsible for making the decisions was treated fairly but forensically…

…and the victims, families of victims and frontline workers who were witnesses were shown the respect and compassion they deserved.

The Prime Minister and I held a press conference within hours of receiving the report to make the findings public.

We knew there was a high level of interest in how this amount of human suffering had been allowed to affect almost half a million Australians over years.

It is fair to say that there is genuine, widespread community anger that a government and its officials could break their own laws for half a decade. 

There was no sugar coating the cost of Robodebt – the financial cost, the reputational cost to government, but most of all, the human cost.  

Coalition Ministers and senior APS officials lost sight of the function of government services.

Instead of protecting vulnerable Australians in their hour of need via the great Australian safety net, they treated them, at best, as second class citizens, at worst, as criminals. 

For four and a half years the nation was told we were imagining that the law was being broken. We weren’t.

As was widely reported, the Commissioner referred some individuals to various regulatory agencies. 

And we have appointed an independent reviewer to determine if public servants who were the subject of adverse findings have breached the APS code of conduct.  

But as we now work to consider and implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission’s Final Report, we must ensure the wrong lessons are not learned. 

We cannot let this result in an insular public service which shies away from engagement with their minister for fear of undue influence. 

And, conversely, ministers and their offices should not react by isolating or removing their departments and agencies from the policy-making process. 

One lesson of Robodebt is about what happens when cooperation and honesty and respect break down.

Where, on one hand, we have a denuded public service, afraid to provide “frank and fearless” advice … 

… and on the other, a Cabinet willing to pursue, implement and continue with policy that harms the most vulnerable in society, because the ends…

…in this case the projected budget saving…

…are just too attractive to give up. 

The Albanese Government has already begun to repair this relationship through our goal of reinvesting in the APS. 

This will take time, but I hope – for a generation and beyond – Robodebt serves as the starkest reminder of what can happen when this relationship breaks down. 

If we distil the Robodebt fiasco, it comes down to the ‘human’ missing from human services.

This simply cannot be allowed to happen again.

I’ve been reading a book called Recoding America by Jennifer Pahlka, who is the former deputy chief technology officer of the United States…

…and founder of a non-profit that believes government can work for people in the digital age.

The author talked about how crisis fosters change. 

It’s easy to see crisis when it presents as a massive data breach – as we’ve seen this over the last 12 months with the likes of Medibank, Optus, and most recently, HWL Ebsworth lawyers.

Or in Ukraine where a war has made technology and social media important weapons in the government’s armoury.

A 31-year-old founder of a digital marketing startup, Mykhailo Fedorov [mick-ail-o fedder-ov], was appointed as Minister to lead the Department of Digital Transformation.

He hired tech-savvy millennials with experience of delivering digital solutions and within three days of the Russian invasion starting, they:

  • launched a public campaign to pressure US tech giants to cut off Russia
  • began accepting cryptocurrency donations to support Ukraine’s military
  • secured access to Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite internet service
  • and began recruiting a volunteer “IT Army” to hack Russian targets – more than 300,000 people have now volunteered.

They also now have a chatbot for citizens to submit images or videos of Russian troop movements… 

…and an app with a kids’ video channel to help families spending hours stuck sheltering from air strikes.

But what about the less visible crises. 

Those that affect people on an individual scale.

To the pensioner who can’t access their money – that’s a crisis.  

To the exhausted mother fleeing domestic violence with her kids, who has hasn’t got the bandwidth to navigate a convoluted process – that’s a crisis.

To the unemployed person who received an unlawful and incorrect debt notice – that was a crisis.

To the conscientious Services Australia employee who professionally serves the community and is every thing and every one to vulnerable people seeking help – Robodebt was a crisis.  

For those at the coalface to see a crisis that is not making the news, you need capability within your workforce.

Those who respect the process but won’t remain blindly faithful to institutional arrogance to save their career.

Robodebt whistle-blower Collen Taylor springs to mind. 

A compliance officer at Centrelink who knew her job back to front. 

A public servant whose compassion and integrity led her to put her job on the line because it was the right thing to do.

All this points to a need to imbed ethical oversight in government services and reinforces my long-held belief citizen-centric design is non-negotiable.

While we hear “digital first” used a lot – and I understand its aspiration – we need to design the service first.

I’m drawn to the idea of a panel of experts advising my agency – a kitchen cabinet.

Its members could contribute to setting standards for the design and implementation of government services…. 

…and determine the goals for the community and the economy.

Once those high-level goals are determined, we should then decide what can be done via digital channels? 

How can we ensure a face-to-face and/or telephony delivery leaves no one behind? 

How can they seamlessly join with other services, including state and private services?

We need ethics, human-centred design, technical expertise, all contributing from the first phase – nurturing the good ideas though to excellent implementation.

This council could have the mission I spoke of this time last year – to ensure our services are what the Australian public deserves, and that is nothing short of world-class.

The need for this type of wisdom will gain particular prominence as we seek to harness AI.

I would put it to you that AI is not going to kill jobs but it will change them. 

Absolute statements of “it’s terrible” or “it’s fantastic” are dangerous and unhelpful.

But it is a Promethean moment.

We need to have a proper conversation about the right time and place to apply it. 

But one thing we do know when it comes to AI is that we can never risk it being designed or implemented in isolation from human considerations.

When I addressed 160 leaders at the Services Australia SES forum in June, I put the proposition to the assembled leaders that government services can help rebuild trust in government. 

I reiterate that today.

Research in the 1990s by Joe Soss, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, found…

…and it still holds true…

…that people interpret their experience with bureaucracies as evidence of how the government functions more broadly. 

The Minnesota study showed people’s faith in the institution of government was eroded if they’d had a bad experience when accessing its services – be it the social security system or registering your car.    

That could end up with them detaching completely from the political process which is the sign of an unhealthy democracy.

Americans still waste a total of 10.5 billion hours a year filling out paperwork.

You can see why they’d get the impression the government is not just slow to change but is actively resisting change. 

And if you think voters aren’t interested in a digital future, think again.

The Greek centre-right government has just won a second term in government with a strong reform agenda.

It includes digital transformation like that I’m speaking of today. 

And, as in Ukraine, someone with a strong technical background has been assigned to the top digital job – Dimitris Papastergiou [dim-ee-tree pappa-stur-jee-o], a former computer engineer in the new Minister for Digital Governance.

You have the chance as Government Services leaders to be instrumental in turning around the perceptions of the bureaucracy. 

We need a strong public service that adheres to its Code of Conduct and puts the interests of the Australian people first…

…with members who believe in the greater good…

…are not afraid to give frank and fearless advice…

…and are ever-mindful that their role as Commonwealth public servants is, as the title suggests, to serve the Australian public.

Indeed, as leaders across the Australian economy, I encourage you to instil that in all your employees.

In that context I want to discuss how siloed thinking between policy and implementation can act as a barrier to putting the user first.

Policy is important. We need big ideas. We need people to think about how to deliver a government’s agenda. 

But implementation is equally important or government simply doesn’t work.

Somewhere along the way, I worry that the intellectualism of policy development has been elevated to a position of superiority over the practicality of implementation.

And yet, starting with implementation means starting with the user.

Let me give you a real time example.

The previous government wanted to introduce an Entitlement Calculator Engine to determine eligibility for welfare recipients and how much to pay them.

They put $23m into its development in 2019-20. 

Another $44m in 2020-21…

…$67m in 21-22 and $57m 22-23 – $191 million all up. 

And we still have nothing to show for it. 

I can announce today that Services Australia has taken the decision to write off the calculator as an asset.

It was a decision not taken lightly but the agency could not keep throwing good money after bad.

I want to show you a short video of what I think is the way forward for government services…

…ensuring the viability of implementation is tested early.

It is an initiative that could make our lives easier, save the taxpayer money – and was the brainchild of two APS officers.

Now, I stress that this particular initiative is still in development. The Attorney General currently has it out for consultation and Minister Gallagher will speak about how Digital ID will move forward shortly.

But the concept that got this to consultation stage can be applied to a range of projects.

So if this project gets the greenlight, it would mean no more searching for a JP, just a few clicks and your identity is verified and documents are signed.

It’s brilliant because of its simplicity. 

It’s estimated that for a $2.5 million outlay, the return would be around $150 million – and that is a conservative estimate. 

Shorter, more contained initiatives like the execution of legal documents are the way of the future. 

We need to be ambitious. But we also need to identify problems early.

That was part of the beauty of this process.

The Office of Deregulation ensured the initiative’s viability from a regulatory and legal perspective.

They looked at the economic advantages and savings of time.

There was collaboration across the Attorney General’s department, Finance and Services Australia…

…then the project went into an ‘incubator’ in Services Australia for five days where officials worked through how to operationalise it. 

This allowed for quick testing and recalibration where necessary.

And now, we await the results of the consultation.

If you think of it, you could have four or five projects in the incubator, tested to ensure their viability before it is sent out into the world.

It is a lesson in the criticality of not just investing in tech but in tech people.

If we don’t have people who speak the language, who have the knowledge to know the benefits and limitations of a particular software program…

…we can end up with our tech uptake being vendor-driven.

And vendor-driven does not always equate to user-centric.

Big tech can hold government departments hostage to long contracts that build complexity into customer service.

I’ve heard it described as an archaeological dig to find the origins of some processes, there are so many layers.

The reality is that Australians are now big users of apps that are easy to navigate, that are secure, and that give them back precious time that was once wasted searching for and filling out online forms.

They expect their government to not just follow trends but anticipate them.

We need to approach government services in a new, non-traditional, flexible way that eliminates the silos and the jockeying for supremacy.

In fact, recommendation 10 of the myGov Audit report asks that “Services Australia develop and adopt a new world-class approach to service and support to government agencies utilising myGov”.

We have examples of it being possible to innovate in service delivery by tapping in to a spectrum of expertise.

Property Exchange Australia, or PEXA as it’s known, illustrates this way of working.

COAG committed to creating a single, national e-Conveyancing solution to the Australian property industry back in 2008.

One that would enable documents – those lodged with Land Registries and for financial settlements – to be completed electronically.

This is a world-first digital property exchange.

It has now been rolled out across New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, and South Australia.

It’s secure, fast, and processes more than 85% of Australian property sales and settlements, and 95% of mortgage refinance transactions. 

In 2021, that equated to almost $690 billion of property settlements, or the equivalent of around one third of Australia’s GDP.  

PEXA was a collaboration between government, banking, legal and conveyancing communities.

That partnership ensured stakeholder needs and regulatory obligations were met. 

The commitment to continuous improvement means almost 90% of the PEXA platform enhancements are based on stakeholder feedback and collaboration.

This project was developed by a small, enterprising group of people but it drove big change. 

There is no reason that can’t be replicated across a number of areas of government.  

But it requires a concerted effort to improve the digital capability of our public sector workforce.

In my opinion, mission tech beats commodity tech when it comes to government services.

And who knows the mission better than those dealing with it on a daily basis.

Government should not restrict itself to procurement and project management just because consultants would prefer we ‘stay in our lane’. 

Investment in in-house digital competency gives an excellent return.

The United States Digital Service is devoted to improving the government services user experience.

It found that by doing so, it not only resulted in smoother government interactions and a lower regulatory burden…

…but helped find $3.5 billion in savings and cost avoidance in 2019 alone. 

The USDS is a small unit with a relatively small budget, so those savings equated to a seventeen-fold return on investment.

While the human element must be a priority, we cannot ignore the economic gains that digitisation can bring.  

We were very lucky to have Amit Singh on the myGov Audit panel.

Amit is globally recognised for his expertise in digital marketplaces, among other economic credentials, and earlier this year prepared a paper on what digitisation could mean for the Australian economy.

He has suggested digital reform could drive our nation’s next wave of economic expansion…

…just as the national competition policy, regulatory and tax reform, and investments in physical and human capital did over the last 40 years. 

But, whereas those reforms contributed to our country recording the longest period of sustained expansion of any advanced economy in modern times…

…they did not improve fairness in Australia. 

Digital reform can.

Amit wrote, and I quote

“Digital reform can spur greater efficiencies, higher quality, greater choice, lower production costs, easier verification, wider reach, better data and information, and increased economic and social inclusion and living standards.”

Research has found that Australia stands to gain $56.7 billion in annual economic value in the year 2030 by adopting digital technologies to manage the three emerging societal challenges: labour productivity, cybersecurity and climate change.  

If we pursue digital reform across the whole economy, it promises benefits for community inclusion and equality and our Budget bottom line.

As far as the myGov roadmap is concerned, the kitchen cabinet I spoke of earlier would be well placed to advise me and my agency on how we take it forward. 

As the myGov Audit suggests, we need broader representation in its governance… 

…and from other jurisdictions that have done digital reform well.

I like to think that we can follow the Greek and Ukrainian lead and capitalise on the vast experience of someone like Victor Dominello, who is here today, and who led Service NSW to become the pinnacle of government customer service.  

For those of you who favour the idea of Agile project management, the kitchen cabinet could also manage the backlog…

…and ensure those initiatives that are in the near future of the delivery road map have been thoroughly considered, in all ways.

Are they the most valuable projects?

Are they ethical, and beneficial to members of the public and the Australian economy?

We could ask how we can innovate on top of myGov.

Could we send reminders of things you need to do – like a bowel cancer screening – or let Australians know if there was support they might be entitled to or training they could undertake?

Maybe link to your google calendar?

And as the video suggested, it has even more potential with verification.

What if you could open your government app and verify your name, address, that you are over 18…

…that you have a passport, a boating licence, trade qualifications, academic attainments, or a working with vulnerable people check…

…but without handing over the unneeded, but dangerously identifying, information also contained on these documents.

myGov could be a powerful tool across government.

If it is simple. Accessible. Functional. And personalised.

To sum up.

Down the track, I hope to look back on my time in this portfolio to see that we transformed the way Australians interact with government.

That the APS is a place people are drawn to as a career choice because it offers the opportunity to innovate and make the lives of Australians simpler.

That we transformed government service delivery by building capability within our agencies that gives us the autonomy to make well informed decisions …

…allowed us to prioritise the human element…

…and restored faith in government’s role as a servant of the people, and not the other way around. 

So I thank you in advance for your contribution to getting us to this government services nirvana.

And I look forward to hearing your questions.