James Riley
August 28, 2019

Digital Council gets marching orders

Policy

Digital Council gets marching orders

Stuart Robert: The chair of the new Australian Data and Digital Council

The terms of reference for the Australian Data and Digital Council have been published, nearly a year after the new body was formally introduced as a part of the umbrella of the Coucil of Australian Governments forum.

The scope of responsibility for the Council is largely a confirmation of the discussion among ministers at its last meeting in April. That is, its focus is on improving outcomes for "customers" through better cross-government collaboration on data and digital transformation issues.

It is the use and acceptance of the word “customers” by the member governments that is most striking about the document. The “citizen” or “taxpayer’ identifiers of the relationship with government has been replaced to the consumer-oriented identifier of “customer”.

Ultimately the aim of the council is also the aim of individual ministers within their own jurisdictions – the delivery of better, smarter services and ultimately improved policy outcomes. It would also focus on the development of Australia’s digital capability.

Better known simply as the Australian Digital Council, the newest member of the COAG framework was announced last September by Scott Morrison soon after he became Prime Minister.

The Council is chaired by the Commonwealth’s Minister for Government Services, Stuart Robert and includes the relevant minister responsible for data or digital service delivery for each state and territory. (In South Australia’s case, Premier Steven Marshall has personally been involved in the council.)

Developments at the Australian Digital Council will be closely watched, both by the tech industry for the billions of dollars in government spending its policies will impact, and by digital rights advocates concerned about about the sharing and misuse of personal data across jurisdictions and the private sector.

"The Council will focus on improving outcomes for customers by driving cross-government collaboration on data and digital transformation to drive smarter service delivery and improved policy outcomes," the terms of reference say.

"The Council is responsible for overseeing the development of Australia’s digital capability. This can be achieved by identifying best practice across jurisdictions and pursuing areas for collaboration to achieve its purpose.

"The Council will work to investigate and understand barriers to digital integration as well as data sharing within and across State and Territory Governments and the Commonwealth Government."

The areas of focus are necessarily vague, but its scope of responsibility includes the Ministerial Council considering and promoting initiatives that aim to:

  • Understand customer’s needs
  • Ensure the security of Australia’s data
  • Reform national data sharing arrangements
  • Prioritise and agree data and digital initiatives that offer national or cross jurisdictional benefits
  • Ensure equitable access to the benefits of digital transformation for all Australians including consideration of addressing the digital divide
  • Ensure digital initiatives have appropriate privacy and security safeguards
  • Build trust and transparency by developing joint approaches to inform the public and build public trust in government-based digital services.

These are potentially huge undertakings. The reform of data sharing arrangements between governments is one area likely to provoke controversy, just as the reform of cross-jurisdictional use of digital platforms is a lightening rod.

The notion of building trusty and transparency in relation to data and service delivery that use outside digital platforms will be challenging.

Trying to do it against a backdrop that includes the Commonwealth’s shameful Robo-Debt foray into machine learning, data-sharing and the politics of punitive policy-settings make this even more problematic.

The Australian Digital Council terms of reference has also earmarked the pursuit of services based around ‘life events’ such as the birth of a child or looking for work, as well as the delivery of “seamless” digital ID across jurisdictions.

The council is expected to meet up to four times a year.

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