A digital economy strategy must include targets

Tim Marshall

The Morrison government should be commended on its commitments to a digital economy strategy. For a government galoshing its way through a mire of unplanned issues, it’s good to see focus on an area of policy with such positive potential for so many different parts of society.

That’s not to say that $1.2 billion in development initiatives will ever be enough, nor that debate will ever be settled about where best to put the money.

But a national strategy can at least help define a common mission and framework to plan for and measure success, albeit in this case a vague notion to be a “modern and leading digital economy by 2030.”

Former Rudd government communications advisor Tim Marshall welcomes the latest digital economy strategy but says more will be needed from all stakeholders.

In the weeks before the 2011 release of the Rudd government’s “AU20” national digital economy strategy I was sitting with Richard Alston, the former communications minister who happened to be advising the company I worked for.

Hearing about the upcoming announcement he quipped “didn’t I have one of those?” and indeed the Howard government did in 2001 and again in 2004, with substantial investments in skills, security and various research and commercialisation initiatives.

Of course, this series of investments included National ICT Australia (NICTA), later merged with various CSIRO assets to become Data61.

The theme of the era was innovation and R&D capacity. As the Prime Minister of the day said: “By investing in science and innovation we are investing in Australia’s social and economic prosperity.”

The 2011 Rudd version was on face value a high-level statement of aspirations in areas like online participation and engagement for homes and businesses, improved health, aged care and education, telework, government service delivery and regional development. That’s if you ignore the national broadband network, at that time a $43 billion investment in ubiquitous wholesale broadband.

A high-budget video released at a national digital economy summit at the time outlines the vision. Swap out a couple of the personal tech examples and ignore the cliched and jarring script for the home admin mum (how that got past the review team I will never know) and it’s a pretty close representation of where we are now in the digital home.

What it misses is how small and medium businesses now demand and utilise connectivity to support so much of their operational, if not core business, processes.

Regardless, as the video says, the national broadband network has set Australia up for the 21st century. It may have changed in approach over the years and still needs to evolve, but it has delivered.

In so many ways, we live in a different world and a different digital economy compared to ten years ago.

Intriguingly this includes the interest of business, highlighted by a well-timed report two weeks ago from the Business Council of Australia advocating for an accelerated digital economy shift.

Ten years ago, big business was all but silent on the digital economy and arguably hostile to the national broadband network. It’s a good thing it now sees the benefits, not just for its members, but for consumers, small and medium businesses and the broader economy.

Another big change is the value of data. Organisations have collected data for years but not really known what to do with it. Data sharing and management protocols and platforms have slowed development.

The Morrison government’s strategic focus on artificial intelligence highlights this value, although industry makes the point that we’ll need more in this space to take leading R&D to market.

Skills will be vital to attract investment, to get new concepts to scale. Enhancing government services can do the same, while delivering better outcomes for citizens. The measures included in the strategy can all do good things.

The key for industry and for the broader business community will to keep advocating next steps, to keep government locked onto the mission.

We now live in a remote working world. This is true for us now working from home as it is globally for smart people and organisations serving customers around the world. My view is that this is the opportunity in Morrison’s claim to be a “leading digital economy by 2030.”

To become a nation that exports its smarts – not just cool apps, but services, skills, processes, techniques and technologies. Home to an industry that helps make the world work and as a consequence provides the very best of opportunities for its own citizens.

Australia is connected. Australia has a leading track record for innovation and R&D. To take the next step to a scaled digital exporter we need to rapidly develop local skills, to attract skilled people and rapidly adopt the technologies we know are changing the world. And, we need to set targets to do so.

None of these things are new but the opportunity demands that this be taken as seriously by government as it takes the challenges of other major industries, and economic and social issues.

Industry and the business community need to keep government on task to meet its modern and leading vision. The announced measures are a good start, but the job won’t be done just by implementing them.

Tim Marshall is a former journalist and advisor to former Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Stephen Conroy. He works in corporate affairs in technology and telecommunications.

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