The art of executing effective technology policy

David Masters

The oft-quoted management academic Peter Drucker once said, “Strategy is a commodity, execution is an art”. When it comes to Australia’s federal technology policy and regulatory landscape, it’s an apt phrase.

Over the last decade, we’ve had more strategies, reviews and action plans than I can remember. They’ve become commodities simply to be written, released, and then shelved.

We’ve had cyber security strategies in 2016 and 2020; digital economy strategies in 2016, 2018 and 2021 (and updated in 2022); the Australian Data Strategy and the list goes on.

A few notable exceptions have driven a series of coordinated, longer-term policy responses, such as the Productivity Commission’s Data Availability and Use inquiry and report in 2017, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC)’s report from the Digital Platforms Inquiry in 2019 and the 2020 Cyber Security Strategy. 

However, the majority of the thousands of pages have often catalogued pre-existing government activities, without driving any real strategic policy direction. This is because the true challenge is a complex coordination effort, not a lack of strategic intent.

Each of these documents often tries to address different aspects of digitising our economy, with differing frames of reference. The adoption of technology products and services; securing digital infrastructure and services; and facilitating the increased flows of data and information, are all parts of a greater whole – not isolated objectives. 

I want to be clear: This isn’t necessarily a failure of the Australian Public Service (APS).

The APS serves the government of the day and works within a policy architecture largely dictated to it. If the government of the day asks for a strategy but doesn’t fund or actively support its implementation, or a minister drives activity into the silo of their portfolio, then there’s very little the APS can do.

Coordinating this complexity requires a policy architecture that reflects technology being both an industry vertical and a horizontal set of enabling innovations, that increasingly underpin the effective operation of the entire Australian economy. 

Even within the industry vertical there is significant variance in players from hardware, software and infrastructure providers; and different business models ranging from subscriptions and licences through to advertising funded. 

Therefore, technology’s diversity and diffusion mean it is always going to require a coordinated approach. You can’t simply stick it in a single department, with a single minister and dust off your hands.

Many have recommended improved coordination across government, but this is still an area that requires further attention.

In the past couple of years, there has been some positive efforts to improve coordination across government on technology policy – the Digital Technologies Taskforce and Critical Technologies Taskforce in the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet (now in the Department of Industry, Science and Resources) and the Digital Platform Regulators Forum involving the ACCC, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) and the eSafety Commissioner. These provide a good basis for further reform.

Given my clear cynicism for strategies and action plans – it would be incredibly hypocritical to recommend a new one for tech. So, I won’t. 

I believe we need a new framework-based approach to improve the development of technology policy and regulatory responses. It should operate as a whole-of-government digital regulatory and governance framework that applies across our economy. 

This framework has three elements – principles and platforms (P), clearinghouses and coordination (C) and targeted responses and tools (T).

The aim of this exercise is to create a relatively simple framework that can help to guide policy-making and regulatory consideration going forward, not to overly simplify the effort required to effectively implement such a reform within the strictures of government. 

The approach I’m suggesting is well-aligned with the recent work of the Australian National University (ANU)’s Tech Policy Design Centre, led by Associate Professor Johanna Weaver – which has been a welcome contribution to the thinking in this area, and has had a big impact in such a short time.

Principles and platforms

Getting the basics right is the first of the two Ps. There are a few core underpinning platforms that create the conditions for the tech sector to thrive.

Policy settings that foster investment in new ventures and enable the flow of capital are the fuel that fires commercialisation. Infrastructure – like broadband, data centres and international connectivity – is also critical.  

Finally, and probably the most important platform, is the availability of skills. Access to human capital is the number one determinant of whether technology businesses, particularly software, can grow and scale.

Access to skills is also the industry’s largest challenge. So, a whole-of-system approach to growing skills, including investment in education and training and sensible skilled migration policies are essential.

The new Albanese Labor Government has a strong focus on each of these areas, with direct investment in the National Broadband Network (NBN), the industry development-focused Reconstruction Fund, and an open mind to sensible reform on skills development and migration.

The argument for the second P – principles – is less obvious, but just as important. 

Until relatively recently, the technology industry has been largely unregulated. Its workers are not governed by complex awards, nor overseen by mandatory professional registration, and there are very few barriers, such as certifications, in bringing products to market. 

As a consequence our industry has been able to move quickly and innovate, because it is unencumbered by many restrictions that challenge other sectors of the economy.

In turn, it can rapidly transform other sectors. This ability to support the rapid digitisation of industries is one of the main reasons the global economy was able to pivot quickly to working and learning remotely during the worst of the pandemic.

This fast-moving innovation is both the technology industry’s inherent strength and its most challenging attribute for governments. Technology’s ability to rapidly disrupt industries and potentially amplify some of the worst of human behaviour can create unforeseen issues.

It is an elected government’s absolute right to intervene in areas of community concern. The industry must also engage constructively with policymakers if it is the cause of this concern.

The challenge is weighting these interventions against realising the economic opportunities from the development and use of technology. This is not a simple task, nor is it ever a simple calculus.

That’s why I’m a big supporter of establishing a set of principles that clearly define the objectives of government’s engagement with, and interventions in technology.

Principles can help to govern the development of new policy by creating a consistent, scalable and risk-based framework understood by all stakeholders.

Principles also provide a check and balance to ensure that the formulation and implementation of specific measures and tools are consistent with previously stated objectives. Deviation from those principles must be justified and explained.

Atlassian itself has published a set of principles for sound tech policy and the Tech Policy Design Centre has also developed a set of principles within its Tech Policy Design Kit to be released shortly.Even the Quad (of which Australia is a member with the US, Japan and India) has published a set of sensible principles on Technology Design, Development, Governance, and Use, that promotes interoperable and consistent approaches based on shared values.

Clearinghouses and coordination 

Technology is complex. The issues that emerge from its diffusion across society and the economy are equally complicated.

As issues related to technology adoption emerge across the economy, this has meant a larger number of agencies and portfolios have become engaged in technology issues and with the industry.

None of us can be experts in everything. The dispersed and disparate nature of technology policy and regulation has meant that we’ve also distributed policy knowledge across the APS.

I’ve long advocated for the creation of centralised expertise in government to build knowledge and trusted relationships with the technology sector. I believe the need for this has only grown as technology has become more deeply embedded in everything we do.

In the same way that national economic policy would never (well, rarely at least) be developed in isolation from the Department of Treasury, we need to ensure that the right bodies are at the table in the development of technology policy and regulation.

In the Australian system of government, Cabinet is the ultimate backstop to ensure all portfolios have been consulted, but we need to ensure that the right voices, including the right parts of industry, have been engaged well before matters end up on the Cabinet agenda.

The Tech Policy Design Centre, in its Tending the Tech-Ecosystem report, has recommended a governance structure for policy coordination that creates oversight mechanisms at both the senior official and political levels, and involving external/industry expertise.

I’m attracted to this sort of governance structure because it allows for the sharing and development of knowledge across government and the development of understanding of government processes (and empathy with the challenges of governing) within industry. 

Taking this a little further, my suggestion is to create a Technology Regulation Office (TRO) and a Technology Development Office (TDO). 

Guided by the same overarching principles but developing countervailing and centralised expertise in development and risk mitigation. Two centres of professional knowledge into how technology is developed, how it operates and its opportunities; and the challenges it creates and how best to respond.

Most importantly, you have two clear points of contact that can build deep, trusted connections with industry, in a manner that can be accessed by a range of government agencies and regulators with responsibility across various sectors and subject matter areas. It effectively creates clearinghouses for regulatory and policy responses.

These relationships and the connections into industry also mean that consultation can be better targeted, with those most impacted brought into discussions earlier in the process.

One potential additional application of this clearinghouse model could be to ensure that government surveillance, intervention and access powers – including the Assistance and Access Act and the new Security Legislation Amendment (Critical Infrastructure) Act are being used proportionately with an understanding of what is technically feasible. 

In fact, the former Independent National Security Legislation Monitor (INSLM) recommended just such an approach to oversight of the use of such powers, akin to the UK’s Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office (IPCO), in his review of the Assistance and Access Act in 2020. 

Targeted responses and tools

Ultimately, the aim of this approach is to enable the development of targeted responses and interventions (including legislative and regulatory interventions), underpinned by objective guidance and tools that enable their effective implementation. 

Responses that align to overarching principles, developed through strong coordinated governance and institutional expertise are likely to better diagnose the issues and respond in a way that is proportionate and targeted.

While much of the focus of this framework is on the policy and regulatory decision-making process, ensuring that the implementation of these policy, regulatory or legislative interventions meet the stated policy intent requires clear guidance and tools.

These tools can be as simple as a checklist or more complicated implementation or enforcement guidance. However, to build trust in the system, they should be able to demonstrate alignment back to the overarching principles.

With a new government and ministers like Ed Husic, Mark Dreyfus, Michelle Rowland, Clare O’Neil and Tim Watts – who have all shown a strong desire to engage and have sought to build a deep understanding of the technology industry and our issues – I’m optimistic that tech policy and regulatory engagement can become a far more constructive process.

A holistic framework for improved engagement, coordination and collaboration on policy would go a long way to bedding down this goodwill with the sector.

David Masters is Head of Global Policy & Regulatory Affairs at Atlassian. He is also chair of the Information and Communication Technology Industry Reference Committee, and co-chair of the Skills and Talent subcommittee of the Technology Council of Australia. David has previously been a corporate affairs director at Microsoft Australia; ICT practice director for public affairs consultancy, Parker & Partners; and has worked for the Australian Government as a senior public servant and a ministerial adviser on a range of ICT policy issues.

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1 Comment
  1. Digital Koolaid 2 years ago

    Strange how people outside the APS think there’s an answer in WoG – Whole of Government. Naïve to miss the towering walls between departments and how the Westminster system operates – powerful ministers creating separated departments on their own planets. Planet A makes sure to be different to Planet B. Happens in the private sector too, so is nothing new, and loads of “work” can be duplicated on each planet to ensure the differences are forever. Nice idea, but nobody is agreeing to a set of handcuffs (principles) and there’s no centralised expertise in government to build knowledge and trusted relationships with the technology sector. There’s only the DTA (lol) and it’s nothing like Treasury. A TRO / TDO won’t be happening and another big, centralised Teams-fest really isn’t a good idea anyway. “Holistic” and “centralised” seem nice to outsiders but insiders know that’s not how this works. The permanent government – the APS – has its own ways of operating. Regards and thanks Dave.

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