The federal government is preventing “high-value data uses” by not granting the private sector access to public sector data holdings, according to the Productivity Commission’s first economy-wide report in five years.
The warning comes less than a year after the now Labor government worked to secure changes to block private sector and non-Australian organisations from accessing a new data sharing regime enabled by Coalition legislation.
The previous version of the bill was slammed by human rights and civil liberties groups, which raised concerns about the privacy impacts and the sharing of public sector data with private sector organisations.
The Data Availability and Transparency Act passed into law in March 2022 and now gives government agencies an optional pathway to share data with each other and universities for the purpose of service delivery, policy, and research and development.
At the time, it was viewed by the Coalition government as “critical… for Australia to becoming a leading digital economy and data-driven society by 2030”, irrespective of the changes secured by Labor.
But in its 1019-page ‘Advancing Prosperity’ review, the the Productivity Commission – which recommended the legislation in 2017 – said that restricting the sharing of data to only government and universities “limits the ability for the data to be used for productivity and welfare-enhancing purposes”.
“The Data and Availability Act 2022 does not currently allow government data sharing with the private sector, which could prevent some high-value data uses,” it said in the report, released on Friday.
It points to the Shergold review of Australia’s response to COVID-19, which highlighted the importance of data sharing during the pandemic and recommended that private sector researchers be allowed to access public sector data under the scheme like universities.
Participants to the productivity inquiry also submitted that giving researchers, not-for-profits and data intermediaries more access to government data could lead to a better understanding of national challenges, such as ageing, disaster prevention and energy security.
The Productivity Commission has urged the government to share data with the private sector, “so that not-for-profit organisations and businesses can undertake research and develop improved products and services”.
A staged approach, starting with “accredited private organisations using the data for policy and research purposes to achieve social objectives, before being opened for accredited businesses to use the data commercially”, has been recommended.
The commission also said that “appropriate safeguards should be employed to ensure security and privacy concerns are addressed”, which could include “utilising advances in technology for individual privacy preservation”.
In its submission to the inquiry, the BSA Software Alliance suggested that government explore using “new privacy-enhancing technologies such as ‘homomorphic encryption, differential privacy techniques and federated machine learning’”.
Other options on the table include data labs, which have been adopted by the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Justice to give organisations access to the government’s administrative data on criminal reoffending.
The Productivity Commission has also recommended that the sharing and use of data collected by government-funded service providers be increased, including by “using funding levers to incentivise service providers to gather and share data that could improve service delivery and productivity”.
It said that “healthcare data should be targeted in the first instance to enable wellbeing benefits for individuals and productivity benefits at the practitioner and system level”, before moving to other areas, such as school education, childcare, aged care, criminal justice and community services.
After being urged to “urgently” pass laws for an economy-wide digital identity scheme in the myGov audit, the Productivity Commission has similarly told the federal government to “increase access to its digital identity” for both state and territory governments and the private sector.
Avoiding “duplication” – which would “hinder the consumer experience and limit the efficiency gains from a centralised system – is also front of mind, with the Commission noting that the NSW government is developing its own digital identity to plug into the federal ecosystem
“Governments should work towards adopting a single national digital identity, rather than different jurisdictions having fragmented systems that require citizens to verify their identity with governments and businesses through different channels,” the report said.
Another of the 71 recommendation in the report is for government to support the greater use of regtech, such as providing regulation in machine-readable form like the NSW government did with Community Gambling Regulation 2020.
“New regulations that are likely to be amenable to a regtech solution should be implemented in a machine-interpretable format at the outset, to avoid the need to go back and codify such regulations in the future,” the report said.
It also urges government to work with software providers to identify areas for improvement, pointing to the Fair Work Commission’s efforts to develop an API for companies to call up wage and entitlements data for awards directly.
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