Sydney’s weird new digital plan

James Riley
Editorial Director

The City of Sydney’s somewhat unorthodox approach to digital transformation was on display again this week when it introduced paperless lodgement for development applications – as long as the documents arrive on a USB stick.

Instead of embracing digital entirely, the City now requires applicants for DA and other building approvals, to either drop off a USB stick in person or through the mail. It has no online portal or email facility to accept applications.

The challenge that the Council faces in fully digitally transforming itself and the way it interacts with businesses and residents is clear from its Draft Digital Strategy, available for public comment until 10 April.

That strategy notes: “A digital workplace requires a high degree of IT systems integration with increasingly complex security solutions and technology. However there is currently an inconsistent level of capability to assess, implement and operate the information systems the City needs.

“The skills exist internally, but they are centralised and resources are stretched.”

To help tackle the challenge, the City is currently seeking a chief technology and digital services officer and a chief data and management executive to provide strategic and operational leadership and drive transformation.

Comprehensive transformation could however prove difficult to achieve.

In the introduction to the draft Digital Strategy, Lord Mayor Clover Moore notes that “the City sees digital technology as an enabler, rather than driving how we do things.”

The strategy, she says, will help determine which of the City’s services would be digitally delivered in the future and which would remain offline.

A laudable feature of the draft strategy is its clear determination to ensure that any digital divide is not exacerbated by a move to more online services. However this risks Sydney going “demi-digital” – taking information to Council on USB sticks for example, and missing out on the full benefits of streamlined fully digital services.

In his report to Council recommending the draft Digital Strategy, chief operating officer Kim Woodbury noted the strong theme of inclusion in the strategy.

However he also acknowledged that; “It is not an action plan in the usual sense. It is not possible to “do digital” independently of the other business processes of the City.

It is a cross-cutting strategy that outlines how a digital approach can be incorporated into much of the work the City is already doing, piloting or planning in the future.”

As part of its digital strategy the City plans to establish two working groups to encourage more transformation – one an “internal champions” group to spur internal reform while the second will focus on developing external stakeholder relationships to cultivate a richer digital ecosystem.

They will somehow need to make something concrete out of the priorities identified in the draft Digital Strategy.

Developed in association with Arup Digital, the Strategy’s six priorities are for the City to:

  • Champion inclusion and lifelong learning to ensure our communities, especially vulnerable people, are digitally skilled, confident and literate;
  • Create people-centred programs and services using technology to be both more efficient and responsive to the needs of our communities;
  • Engage with our communities, using technology to transform how people in our local area participate in the democratic process, influencing the kind of city they want to live and work in;
  • Support business to build the skills, knowledge and infrastructure required to thrive in the digital future of Sydney;
  • Actively participate in the urban renewal of Sydney, advocating for – and where possible, providing – the infrastructure needed to ensure the city’s global competitiveness; and,
  • Innovate ethically in the information marketplace to share information that benefits the community.

It’s hard to argue with the good intent of the priorities, but not everyone is convinced.

According to one comment on the City’s SydneyYourSay site; “Priority 6 is the only transformation, the rest are just incremental improvements polished up by consultants.”

While as Mr Woodward notes there are few action items in the Digital Strategy, there are nevertheless a handful of concrete proposals including the roll out of smart bus stops; City-wide WiFi (Council has agreed to provide $100,000 to conduct concept development work for Wi-Fi in public domain hot spots) as both a consumer service and data collection facility; and a review of the City’s procurements strategy to ensure that startup companies more easily get access to contracts.

This at least could provide a filip for the City’s nine-month old Tech Startups Action Plan.

Whatever its outcome, the Council has promised a review of the strategy in three years.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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