The SMH published an article over the weekend that included some observations from the new Minister for Government Services Bill Shorten on his recent poor experiences using MyGov.
This caused me to reflect on government’s delivery of online services and how progress has waxed and waned over time. At the end of the day, myGov was envisaged as being the government’s primary service delivery site, allowing “people to carry out transactions with government in one place with a single login”.
Since 2016, the Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) has been the business owner responsible for governance, strategy, policy and user experience of MyGov. Services Australia also shares some responsibilities for myGov, and in recent times has seen these expand.
However, the Australian government’s agenda for delivery of services via the internet can be traced back to the pronouncement by the Howard government in 1997 that it would make “all appropriate services available online via the Internet by 2001“.
While that was never achieved, it’s always useful to have a target and a timeframe.
I recognise that the turnover in DTA leadership and staff over the last few years has seriously compromised the corporate memory. However, I was still taken aback to see that, some 25 years later the new 2021 Digital Government Strategy set us the primary target that “All government services are available digitally by 2025”. Essentially this is the same objective and shares the same four-year delivery timeframe.
In programming, reuse is encouraged. In setting government policy however, it can look more like desperation or an admission of failure.
So how did we get here and why should we be so disappointed with myGov?
Late in 2011 the predecessor to the DTA, the Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO) released the last report in a series of five large-scale surveys on the “use and satisfaction with e-government services”.
This report showed that, for the first time in the history of the series there was a small, but significant, decline in services offered online (as measured by the service delivering on the intended outcome) – falling from a figure of 87 per cent to 81 per cent.
Clearly this result required a response and the survey, in part, was used to support arguments in favor of the major investment by government in 2012 to establish myGov.
With the Coalition government (led by Tony Abbot) coming to office in late 2013, AGIMO was quickly replaced by the Digital Transformation Office (DTO) in 2014 and it was also subsequently replaced by the DTA in 2016.
But, for myGov, this shakeup in ICT governance arrangements has not quite panned out as many, including myself, had hoped it would.
In its 2016 “Digital Government Satisfaction Survey”, Boston Consulting Group (BCG) reported that the net satisfaction score for Australian users of online services had declined to 71 per cent. In its follow-up report in 2018, this figure dropped further to 59 per cent.
But it didn’t stop there. BCG’s 2020 “Digital Government Survey” showed that only 40 per cent of Australian citizens believed that their needs were being met by the digital services provided by government online services. It seems like Minister Shorten isn’t alone in his views.
If we needed any further evidence that there was a known problem with myGov, we have only to look the myGov Performance Dashboard – established by the DTA in 2016 in an effort to ensure “government transparency and help drive the ongoing improvement of government services”.
Oh wait, that site was shut down in 2021 and doesn’t exist anymore! So much for transparency. And to add to that, one observer noted that the myGov dashboard had not been updated for over two years before it was shutdown .
The DTA, in conjunction with the former government, is accountable for this catastrophically bad outcome. It’s one thing to start with poor policy but it takes a special type of skill to follow it up with poor execution.
Rather than reversing the decline in satisfaction, the DTA has, if anything, put its foot to the floor and accelerated the fall.
The DTA also managed to achieve this feat in the context of being given a budget that was more than 10 times that of AGIMO’s. It isn’t that this level of funding was inappropriate – just that it has been largely wasted.
I will admit to being concerned by the former government’s decision to allocate a further $200.1m to myGov in its 2021 budget. Is this throwing more good money after bad? It is arguable that, had the DTA not existed we would have been the better for it – by pretty much any metric.
It’s not surprising then that late last year even the former government, frustrated by its failure, stripped it of most of its functions and authority.
The new government’s decision to re-home the DTA within the Department of Finance (where AGIMO was originally based) is presumably the first step in a process of rebuilding competence in the administration of ICT for the federal government.
There’s certainly a great deal of work to do! In terms of myGov, I am not particularly convinced that Services Australia, on its own, is capable of reversing the decline in digital service performance shown above.
Glenn Archer is a Visiting Fellow at the ANU and former Australian Government CIO and head of AGIMO.
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