Gov.AU targets thorny trust issues

James Riley
Editorial Director

The Digital Transformation Office capped its biggest week since being set up seven months ago with the formal acceptance of its Gov.AU Alpha prototype.

The agency also started discovery work on a trust and authentication project, and has begun development of the public-facing ‘dashboards’ that will let us see how departments and agencies are performing. This was a week where the rubber hit the road for the DTO.

Announced a year ago, the DTO remains a bit of a mystery for anyone not directly involved in government service delivery. After six months as an ‘interim’ agency, the DTO formally came into being last July, with its CEO Paul Shetler coming on board a few weeks later.

Paul Shetler: The DTO passes a massive milestone with Gov.AU

In that time, it established an ‘exemplar’ program, where bite-sized projects inside departments and agencies aim to drive process and cultural change.

But Gov.AU is different. Its ambition is to be the central vehicle for dealing with government. And not just the Australian Government, but the states and local governments as well (although, to be fair, it is byno means clear how the states – or the public – feel about this.)

It is more than a central portal for government information, but rather has a central transactional role.

Last week, the DTO’s prototype for Gov.AU was formally passed by ‘experts’. It means the project that defines the DTO’s central function has moved from its Alpha status. In Beta, the real work begins and a live site can be expected later this year.

This is big stuff. The shame of it is that the DTO’s work is completely under-the-radar, outside of stakeholders directly involved in digital service delivery in government. This is an agency who’s work has far-reaching implications for the public service (and the public.)

There has yet been no oversight of the DTO through the Senate’s Estimates’ process. The agency was not call at estimates late last year, and was again not called during the most recent hearings last week (although it is understood it has been earmarked for a spill-over day next Monday.)

Regardless, the DTO did something interesting with the assessment process for the Gov.AU Alpha stage (Each program has to be assessed against its Digital Service Standard before it can progress from one development stage to the next – Alpha to Beta, Beta to Live etc.)

The formal assessment was done by public servants from the UK’s Government Digital Service.

This says something about the cult-like dark arts of the public sector digital service world. Surely there would not be many cases – I certainly can’t think of one – where an agency in one government seeks approval from an agency in a foreign government before proceeding with a program.

Not that its a bad thing. But unusual for sure.

So yes, it was a little bit interesting. The process was obviously signed off by the boss’s office (that boss being the Prime Minister.) The DTO’s Mr Shetler says it made sense that the agency tasked with designing the service didn’t assess its own work.

“These things are usually done in-country. But we went outside because we didn’t want to be grading our own homework,” Mr Shetler said.

“We basically took a pretty big risk, I think, because we couldn’t be sure what the result was going to be.”

To its credit the DTO has published the full assessment. The assessment was done via video link (using Hangouts) on February 4, with the pass mark delivered on February 11. Mr Shetler says the pass ranking for Gov.AU the most important single event in the DTO’s short history.

For outsiders, there is not a lot to see. There is nothing on the current Gov.AU live site to suggest a service. The working prototype – the alpha code – is not open source, as the beta most surely will be.

The DTO has not formally announced its technology platform (frustratingly for some) but reading the assessment it seems fairly clear that the Drupal-based govCMS will form the basis for its work, and that the DTO will set up and maintain its own libraries of code. It is hosting on AWS with Cloud Foundry.

The Gov.AU prototype demonstrated a user journey that mapped the requirements for someone starting a business. It crossed State, Local and Federal jurisdiction. And this is where life get complex and interesting in Australia.

The working prototype is very elegant (I got a demo.) The design concepts will certainly change the way that Australians think about government. It is no accident that the prototype maps a service delivery in conjunction with NSW – which has been a leader in this area and has been pressing the Commonwealth to find a better way.

The MyServiceNSW platform – a state-equivalent of Gov.AU – has been working on a digital service for setting up a business (starting with bars, cafés and restaurants) and has been pressing the Commonwealth to give it access to federal services, like applying for an ABN.

The next big step for the DTO is about authentication. A key part of any effort to strip complexity out of government service delivery in the digital space has to be in simplifying the very basics of trust (that is, proving that you are who you say you are when you transact with government.) And to be useful, this has to be possible across the three tiers of government.

This is not a simple proposition, and will require some delicate conversations that traverse some touchy jurisdictional issues that are effectively at the heart of our Federal system of government.

Work started on a ‘Trust’ project at the DTO last week, a big part of which involve issues of authentication for Gov.AU, but also the thorny issues of privacy and even data sovereignty. This is a big deal.

On the authentication side, there are lots of different models, and not all of them are remotely palatable to the status quo. People may need to adjust the way they think about government.

For example, even where a federated system of authentication is put in place – where each state shares trusted authentication across jurisdictions – people have to get used to the idea (ie trust) that all their dealings with government are actually separate.

But what about a system where a trusted outside authentication enables you to access government services. Could you use your Google or Microsoft identity to get access to government? Maybe. That is possible.

Mr Shetler says the DTO is starting the Trust discovery process from First Principles. That is, its team is not going into it with a preconceived idea of where it will end up. And it as promised to work with the states (and spend a lot of time looking a legislation and privacy issues) before reporting in August.

All in all it has been a massive start to the year for the DTO. It is a great shame that the work is still known only in a tight circle of stakeholder.

It is a great shame that the DTO has not yet appeared before an Estimates hearing. This is the process that is supposed to shine a light on these agencies. The DTO was not called at Estimates last week, and it was not called at the previous Estimates hearings late last year.

There is tremendous bi-partisan goodwill toward this agency right now, and perhaps this explains why it has not been a priority for scrutiny by the Senate. It’s a shame, because there has been progress, and it is important that people understand how the public services is being reshaped.

As an aside, it is worth noting also that the Prime Minister has appointed some help in the ministerial reshuffle announced last weekend. The Member for Hume in the NSW southern highlands Angus Taylor has been appointed as an assistant minister for cities and digital transformation.

The appointment is not a small detail, although the ‘cities’ component has been pilloried by the press, having been given to a farmer from country NSW – albeit one who is a Rhodes Scholar with a doctorate in economics.

Mr Taylor is an extra pair of arms and legs for pushing the transformation agenda through. Malcolm Turnbull retains a hand-on interest in DTO affairs. But with the arrival of a working prototype for Gov.AU, there are myriad legislative issues to work through.

This includes building a relationship with state legislators to create the frameworks that will enable simplified, cross-jurisdictional processes.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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