The McGowan government in Western Australia (WA) has received an interim report from a three-member panel for its Service Priority Review, which examines the function, operations and culture of WA's public sector. The final report will be presented to the State Government in October 2017. (Earlier this year, the WA government announced the first round of Machinery of Government changes in the public sector, as outlined in the Government’s election commitments creating a number of new amalgamated departments, affecting a range of public sector agencies.)
Hundreds of stakeholders have been consulted for the review, including public sector employees, business and industry groups, regional service providers, Aboriginal representatives, unions and the community services sector.
The panel's interim report points to directions for reform that have the greatest capacity to bring about systemic and lasting change in the public sector. It recognises there are barriers to reform but also many opportunities for change.
‘Digital transformation’ for improving transactional service design and delivery (for instance, managing payments, notifications, licensing and entitlements) by harnessing technology is one of the areas the interim report looks at. As part of this, the Panel has reviewed the WA Government ICT Strategy 2016-2020.
The report notes that there are pockets of innovation in online service delivery but, in general, online service delivery across the public sector is inconsistent and fragmented. The Office of the Auditor General has identified the potential to save more than $2.2 billion over 10 years by moving services online.
It refers to new digital platforms in other jurisdictions, highlighting New South Wales (NSW), which have resulted in simplified processes, more efficient compliance, better engagement with the customer, integrated evaluation and continuous improvement.
The Panel also notes the progress of the ‘ServiceWA (Digital) Program’, which aims to provide a whole of government portal providing secure access to digital services and information. The Panel says that until the underlying architecture allows for an integrated user experience, it falls short of true digital transformation.
It goes on to identify four barriers to digital transformation in the State. The first is inconsistent Internet services and telecommunications pricing, particularly in the regions. Second is the requirement for strong leadership and commitment to a fundamental reconsideration of development methods and service design approaches for WA.
The next barrier is a requirement for upfront investment in skills and infrastructure, which may need to be funded through revised priorities within the sector rather than additional or new funding. Fourth, it talks about both legal and cultural barriers to information sharing between agencies, and the lack of a clear legislative and policy framework around how data can be lawfully and fairly managed. The final barrier is low implementation capability, increasing the risk that reform commitment will not be sustained or effective.
The Panel says, “These barriers call for a major cultural shift requiring transformative leadership and comprehensive upskilling, including openness to using relevant skills from the private sector to implement the required changes.”
Integrated ‘one stop’ model
The interim report also goes a step beyond digital service delivery to consider an integrated ‘one stop’ model, including digital services as well as call centre and face-to-face delivery for selected services, aain referring to NSW and its Service NSW model, which allows customers to access more than 950 services on behalf of more than 40 government agencies from single locations across the Service NSW network. The state of Victoria is planning to launch an online services initiative later this year. Both states have invested almost five years’ work to reach their current capability.
‘One-stop’ service delivery would involve developing a deep understanding of customers’ needs and the ability to redesign and regroup services to meet them. It also offers a potential tool to drive a greater whole of government service culture.
The Panel says that though WA has taken only preliminary steps towards online service delivery, it puts the State in a position to learn from other jurisdictions’ experiences and leverage existing intellectual property.
Legislation required for dealing with data sharing and information privacy
Consultation with the public sector has revealed a strong and common desire for data to be shared among agencies and used to make informed decisions about service delivery and contract management. The Panel notes WA’s Open Data Policy and the initiative to publish datasets online, and endorses the approach that most data should be open by default.
However, the Panel also heard evidence from many sources describing difficulties with sharing information within and between WA public sector agencies, other State and Commonwealth government agencies and contracted service providers. Whether information is shared sometimes depends on the judgement of individual officers, against a background of inconsistent internal procedures. There is a high degree of uncertainty about what is allowed to be shared, leading to risk-averse and inconsistent decisions being made and depriving the community of value.
WA is now the only Australian jurisdiction that does not have specific legislation dealing with data sharing or information privacy. A clear, consistent legislative framework for data sharing would give certainty to public sector employees and confidence to the public about what information may be shared freely and what information is subject to restrictions around its use. Data sharing legislation would provide a framework that actively supports maximising the value to the community of data held by the State Government.
Such legislation should be geared towards facilitating information sharing by the Government while appropriately protecting privacy rights and sensitive information.
Whole-of-sector corporate functions resting with line agencies or units
The Panel highlights the Office of the GCIO, which is responsible for whole-of-government ICT, as an example of whole-of-sector corporate functions that currently rest with line agencies or units. The Office of the GCIO was established as a sub-department of the Department of Finance.
There are opportunities to improve current practice across these common business activities, including procurement, major projects, ICT and human resources. To address this, the Panel talks about functional leadership, under which key agencies are given formal mandates to act as ‘professional leaders’, including requirements to drive efficiencies, develop expertise and capability, and improve services and service delivery, referring to approaches in the United Kingdom and New Zealand. (The New Zealand government’s approach is described as ‘centrally led, collaboratively delivered’. While agency chief executives retain considerable autonomy, functional leaders have the ability to implement initiatives across agencies that may override agency decision rights.)