‘Way of the future’: Shorten bullish on digital govt incubators

Justin Hendry

Government Services minister Bill Shorten has credited an incubator-style development process for the swift arrival of digital statutory declarations on myGov, an approach he believes offers a way forward for the federal government.

In a speech on Thursday, Mr Shorten said the end-to-end digital witnessing feature, which removes the need for Australians to visit a Justice of the Peace (JP), was a “brilliant” example of where the public service has nurtured an idea from inception to delivery.

The end-to-end digital witnessing option, which relies on myGovID and the Australian Government Digital ID System to verify the identity of an individual, became available on myGov earlier this month.

Mr Shorten said the initiative, a “brainchild of two APS officers” with application across agencies but without the usual “turf-protecting, duplicating and ‘silo’-ing”, had cost $2.5 million but would deliver vastly more millions in annual savings across the economy.

“This initiative was ambitious and innovative and identified problems earlier, shorter, more contained and it is the way of the future,” he said at The Mandarin’s Rebuilding Trust and Integrity in the APS conference.

Government services minister Bill Shorten

The project, which had buy-in from a number of different agencies, went into an ’incubator’ at Services Australia for five days, during which time it was operationalised, tested and recalibrated”, Mr Shorten said.

“With this model, you could have four or five projects in the incubator, tested to ensure their viability before being sent out into the world,” he said.

“A far cry from the ill-fated Entitlement Calculation Engine (ECE) that Services Australia had been saddled with by the previous government.”

The ECE, the replacement for a 40-year-old mainframe rules engine used to determine eligibility for welfare payments, was scrapped by Mr Shorten in July last year, but only after Services Australia had already spent $191 million.

It has since emerged that a viable local alternative to the defect-ridden Pegasystem platform that formed the basis of the ECE was discovered by the agency almost a year before the project was abandoned.

“The ECE was meant to determine eligibility for welfare recipients and how much to pay them… but after spending a total of $191 million on it, there was nothing to show for it and the tough decision was made to write the whole thing off,” Mr Shorten said.

“Juxtapose that with the execution of legal documents initiative. It was presented to government with an estimated $2.5 million outlay, and an estimated return of around $150 million – and that’s a conservative estimate. Those figures are very appealing.”

And it is a return that Mr Shorten hopes to replicate in the future, telling the audience of mandarins to “nurture innovation within your ranks”.

“As ministers, we’re not looking for grand designs or positive impression management. We’re looking for you to be as proactive as private industry. To present ideas that are about making life easier for Australians and that have applications across agencies,” he said.

Last year, Mr Shorten backed switching to the INVEST model – Independent, Negotiable, Valuable, Estimable, Small and Testable – to deliver smaller, innovative projects that accept failure earlier in the piece to avoid bigger catastrophes.

“If we want to do things slightly differently and… build capability, we need to perhaps look at small, innovative projects where the cost is in single digit millions rather than hundreds of millions,” he said at the time.

Mr Shorten also used his speech on Thursday to underscore the importance of rebuilding trust in the public sector following Robodebt, including through legislation recommended in last year’s myGov audit – the only recommendation not accepted in full or in principle.

“We cannot allow low trust to stand. It has the potential to stifle the Albanese government’s vision for Australia which includes a future with digital ID, and faster, customised service delivery,” he said on Thursday.

“If we are to bring Australians on the journey to a digital future, we need to get people to share their data with us, and for that to happen we need to prove the integrity of the processes by which we collect it.

“Part of building trust is an assurance that a pledge today’s government makes on securing data cannot be repealed by a subsequent government. I put it to you that the time may be ripe to legislate government services.”

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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