Victor Dominello has been in the job a little over four months as New South Wales’ first Minister for Innovation. He works in a Cabinet where no less than three ministers – Mr Dominello, Finance Minister Dominic Perrottet and Planning Minister Robert Stokes – are involved in whole-of-Government digital transformation initiatives.
Mike Baird’s NSW is the leading thinker in Australia on digital government. Digital is not a secondary priority. To the extent that state governments are about service delivery – and they are – digital strategy is a central pillar.
The state is being smart about the way it approaches transformational issues, and is more willing to take on the hard stuff as a result. Certainly the state has created a political infrastructure to get through a power of change – in stark contrast to its Canberra cousins.
There are a bunch of things that NSW is getting right. Certainly having its innovation minister in the same portfolio as its finance and service minister simply makes sense. That both are in Cabinet merely adds weight to the arrangement. But strategically, NSW has put data at the centre of transformation efforts. And that has been Victor Dominello’s driving influence.
“I am not a data scientist, engineer or mathematician; I am a 48 year old former lawyer and now politician,” he said earlier this month at the launch of the state’s Data Analytics Centre. But he knows what he wants. And that is for government to make better and more efficient use of data assets.
Mr Dominello has taken to quoting former UK Cabinet Secretary and Paymaster General Francis Maude – the architect of the Britain’s Government Digital Service – who said: “Open data can be the raw material for economic growth – just like iron and coal were to the industrial revolution.” Whatever the hyperbole that exists in that statement, it holds a fundamental truth. Our data assets are an engine for economic growth. Not the ICT, but the data itself.
The Data Analytics Centre is very fascinating indeed. It brings together elements that other government in Australia are not even talking about. This is not just about cataloguing data to try to assess its value, but also coming to grips with the very substantial public policy issues of privacy, and then of security. But it is doing this while being upfront in its ambitions for driving value from data. That means having the conversation of how it gets used, and by whom.
Further, it is upfront about plans for better integration of the private sector in this pursuit – and reforming the way it shares data with outside organisations.
These are issues the Federal Government would not touch with a 50-foot bamboo pole. There is zero chance of this discussion taking place at any meaningful level in Canberra today. It is happening in New South Wales because the Premier – for all his blokey, sporty, non-techy ways – is both leading and encouraging the conversation.
It is worth noting too, that NSW is reforming procurement around its digital ambitions. It is simply impossible not to. If it gets these changes right – and they have already made progress – there are enormous opportunities for local tech firms and for digital startups (there is huge opportunities for FinTech startups in this space.) This is low-hanging fruit.
InnovationAus.com spoke to Victor Dominello late last week.
You are the first Minister for Innovation in NSW. What’s the portfolio all about? Do you replicate at the state level any of the Digital Transformation Office goals?
Victor Dominello: The Innovation portfolio in New South Wales basically involves making sure that we digitalise government – that we put government in the hands of people through apps and through [online] service. It involves streamlining processes. Conceptually this means [different] agencies talking to each other so it is made easier for consumers out there to deal with Government.
It’s about thinking outside the square. Governments have traditionally been inward thinking, very conservative, and slow to innovate. My job is to break down that mentality, and to encourage new thinking about how we create more of an entrepreneurial, innovative culture inside government. And the best way to do that is to work more collaboratively with the non-government sector, and with the private sector.
When you talk about changing government culture, what levers do you have in order to achieve that?
Victor Dominello: The Data Analytics Centre is going to be an engine room for that culture change. It is one of the flagships of our ICT strategy here in New South Wales. But you really need to understand what the Data Analytics Centre does. Obviously there are a number of things, but first of all it is about the capacity to gather data from right across government.
We have more than 140 different agencies here in New South Wales. The Data Analytics Centre will have the ability to get data from those areas, as well as from state owned corporations like energy and water [utilities], and from local councils.
This will give us a holistic picture of what’s happening in New South Wales. So we can then make some firm decisions concerning some of the big social challenges that we’ve got. So when we are looking at tackling childhood obesity, it’s not just an issue regarding education, nor is it an issue regarding health, there are multiple agencies involved that we need to work with, in a collaborative way, to do the analysis.
Streamlining the sharing of data is critical. At the moment there’s a whole lot of MoUs floating around between agencies to say ‘let’s share data’. Sometimes there is no MoU and they just do it in a clunky way. The data centre will have a legislative authority to say to the agencies, ‘look this is a priority of the government, how do we use the data we’ve got’ in order to best address that priority.
How does this work? There’s a lot of protections around where data can be used.
Victor Dominello: We will introduce legislation in the next month or so that will give the Data Analytics Centre the power – that is me – to say to an agency, “look, we need that data in order help us try and solve this problem.”
We have people within the Department of Finance, Services, and Innovation where the Data Analytics Centre is initially housed. But it’s a collaborative model. If we are getting data from [elsewhere], each of those will have data experts who come into the fold to help work and analyse the data to create the bigger picture.
How does that sort of model fit in with the kind of thing they are doing federally?
Victor Dominello: What they are trying to do its similar to the Digital Transformation Office. But the DTO doesn’t cover every agency, this one will. And we won’t just cover every agency in New South Wales government, but also local councils, and our state owned corporations
So how do the smaller local innovators get involved?
Victor Dominello: It’s been said by people smarter than me that coal and steel were the fuel of the industrial revolution, and that data is the fuel of the information revolution. And that’s where we are at right now. We are in an information age.
Data is key here. When you talk to startups, you learn they need three things, basically. They need seed funding in relation to capital, they need somewhere to work from, and they need data. They need fuel and data is the fuel.
Well governments can definitely help in relation to data. We will partner with the universities, in many ways it will be a one-stop shop for data and analytics in New South Wales that has not been seen before.
There are big privacy implications, and the ability who can share what data.
Victor Dominello: Of course. We have a steering committee in relation to the data privacy issues. On that committee are the Privacy Commissioner, the Chief Scientist, the Information Commissioner, and Customer Service Commissioner, as well as senior bureaucrats from across government.
The issue of privacy is absolutely sacrosanct. So we’re making sure that the sharing of data is done within the privacy framework that exists in New South Wales.
What do we mean when we talk about open data … some of the ‘sharing’ you have talked about will get people nervous. How open can government data really be?
Victor Dominello: Well, it can be very open as long as you’ve got two non-negotiable elements around the policy. One is in relation to security – that’s obviously things of State and national security – that’s non-negotiable. And the second thing is privacy.
But there is so much data collected by government that is both innocuous in terms of a security setting and non-personal.
Like where the buses are travelling at any given time on Victoria Road, or data relating to wave formation outside Manly beach, or data in relation to temperature settings at local council facilities in parks. All of this data has a role to play in something. And it can and should be opened up.
The one thing we know about data for sure is that if it is buried in the bureaucracy, it is a very lazy asset. And it really should be one of the most productive assets that our society has.