Government should take a leadership role in embracing the digital economy

As we have been saying for close to a decade the Public Service should be key in creating an innovative digital economy. Some of the public sectors are facing massive cost increases – take healthcare, for instance – that are economically unsustainable. So the government has a huge role to play in building an innovative culture that could not just be an example for the rest of the economy but at the same time be an enormous boost for it.

With a budget of over $5 billion the government is the largest buyer of ICT products and services. That huge amount of money should be applied for the more innovative purpose of using technology to transform the Australian society and economy. The Public Service should become a driver of innovation.

None of this will be achieved without government leadership at the highest level. If left to the individual government sectors such changes will not occur and very little creativity and innovation can be expected. The structure of government is such that people are not rewarded for being enterprising, as the benefits of the transformation processes that follow innovation do not necessarily show up in their budgets.

It also often involves the breaking down of old structures (and old jobs) before new structures (and new jobs) can be created. As is happening elsewhere in the traditional economy under threat from the digital economy, without leadership people will hunker down and protect the old structures for as long as possible, and consequently miss the creative and innovative opportunities that the digital economy has to offer them.

When I was assisting the government in developing the NBN strategy I saw how difficult it is to create a whole-of-government approach – a holistic approach, breaking down silos and creating horizontal levels where different departments work together, facilitated by the new developments in broadband, cloud computing, data centres, M2M, etc.

While progress has been made since 2007, it has been moving far too slowly. Some of the fiscal problems the government is now facing, with out-of-control running costs (such as in healthcare, for example) are enormous; yet these looming financial disasters, which could possibly lead to a serious deterioration in lifestyle – are not being treated as a priority. Because of the incredibly difficult task of breaking through the silos – both political (states and federal) and industry (dozens of factional, professional and other interest groups within the sector) – so far there has not been the political appetite to start the serious reforms that are required. When I discussed the need for this transformation with Lindsay Tanner at the time, he fully agreed but at the same laughed loudly and wished me good luck with trying to get the far too many fiefdoms in healthcare to cooperate. Nevertheless, under the previous Minister for Broadband, Stephen Conroy, the issue was tackled and at least, for the first time, addressed within the broader government.

A promising move was made in 2009 when the government created the portfolio of Digital Productivity under its then Minister for Broadband; however the outcome of this has been rather piecemeal due to the lack of budget resources, as well as to the absence of strong government leadership from the Prime Minister. Furthermore, the many other government-driven ICT initiatives are nicely stacked away in silos and for them to be effective they will need to be brought together to enable whole-of-government creativity and innovation.

While I have tried very hard over the last year I have not been able to get Malcolm Turnbull to seriously address this issue. He most certainly understands it, but it is most likely the political circumstances that prevent him from talking about anything other than the fact that we do not need truly high-speed broadband. If the Coalition wins the election I sincerely hope he will be given the opportunity to address the issue far more seriously.

Paul Budde

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