Speech to the ALGA National General Assembly
21 June 2016
It is an honour to address you as Minister for Local Government at the 2016 National General Assembly of Local Government.
Your theme this year—Partners in an innovative and prosperous Australia—is particularly appropriate.
Innovation is critical to Australia's success in the 21st century—and a major focus for the Turnbull Government. We have benefited from an unprecedented mining boom. As Australia transitions from the mining boom, innovation will be key to providing new opportunities, new jobs and new sources of growth.
Your emphasis on partnership is also a very important one. We need to work in partnership—with other levels of government, with our communities, and with the private sector—if we are to succeed in advancing our prosperity.
Today I want to speak about innovation in government—and the vital role of local government when it comes to innovation.
I want to start today by discussing the expectations that Australians have of their governments, when it comes to digital service delivery.
Next I want to discuss the challenges that governments face in meeting those expectations—and what we can do about it.
Thirdly, I want to speak about the Australian Government's priorities—and discuss some exciting measures we have announced in the past few days, one of which relates specifically to the role of local government in delivering digital services.
Expectations of Government
Let me turn firstly then to the question of what Australians expect from their governments when it comes to service delivery.
All too often, what they expect is a long wait for poor service. They expect to provide the same information again and again. They expect to receive an inflexible, one-size-fits-all response. And they expect the whole experience to be lengthy, painful and frustrating.
What they want is a completely different question. They want the same efficient, customer focussed experience that they get with banks, airlines, online retailers and a myriad of other private sector service providers.
The uptake of digital engagement in the private sector over the last two decades has been extraordinary.
Banks have been some of the quickest organisations to embrace digital technology. 75 per cent of all bank transactions in Australia are now done online. This has been achieved from a standing start 15 years ago.
When it comes to shopping, Australians now spend $19.3 billion a year online—nearly 7 per cent of the retail sector—and this figure is growing rapidly.
These trends partly reflect an explosion in the availability of communications technology. These rapid changes have fundamentally transformed the way most Australians live their lives—and interact with service providers.
Australians are accustomed to innovation in the private sector and they want it from their governments too. Over 80 per cent of Australians expect to be able to engage with the government online and half say they prefer engaging online to other channels.
Now that expectation applies to all levels of government—but there are some distinctive aspects of local government which affect those expectations.
The Australian Centre for Excellence in Local Government notes that local government is the most relevant to the place where people live—it contributes to personal identity and a sense of community.
We know that Australians want to be involved in their government through participatory decision making and local government is usually the first place they turn to engage.
As local government is the level of government closest to the community, it is often the most responsive to community needs. This is why we see councils providing services that are well outside their traditional roles.
Naturally, there is strong and continuing demand for core local government services, such as waste, public infrastructure and managing planning applications. But we also see communities expecting more in areas like health and environmental management, child care, youth services, arts and culture.
Challenges and Opportunities in Meeting those Expectations
Now it is hardly news to local government professionals and councillors that you face ever rising expectations.
But the good news is that the experience of governments around the world suggests that using digital technology can be a way to help meet those expectations.
Local government has much to gain from an innovation agenda, both in terms of more efficient service delivery, but also services that better match the needs and wants of the community.
The potential for efficiency is obvious. The Deloitte report on Digital Government Transformation found that online transactions are 16 times cheaper than transactions over the phone, 30 times cheaper than postal transactions, and a staggering 42 times cheaper than face-to-face transactions.
Around 40 per cent of transactions are still completed using traditional, that is non-digital, channels. This equates to around 811 million transactions at the federal and state level. If half of these transactions could be moved online, the saving to government would be $17.5 billion over ten years.
And this doesn't include the many billions in savings to consumers in time, transport and postage costs as they access services online.
Naturally, some complex transactions aren't suited to digital delivery. But driving efficiency in simple transactions can free up more resources to apply in complex areas.
Digital technology is not limited to improving the cost of transactional services. Governments can use better data and analysis to improve their decision-making and direct the most effective use of limited resources.
And social media can allow governments to interact with the public and include them in decision-making in a way that was not possible a decade ago.
It is clear therefore that digital innovation offers significant benefits to local government—and we are seeing some impressive examples around Australia.
Adelaide City Council is partnering with Cisco to trial a range of smart technologies, including smart street lighting. By automatically adjusting the brightness of street lighting during periods of inactivity, smart lighting has the potential to reduce the council's energy consumption.
Local governments across South East Queensland are also investigating how sensors and smart technology can link together in the 'internet of things'. The real time data collected by these sensors can be used by councils to improve planning, or even operate services on demand.
This year we have introduced a specific award for digital innovation in the National Awards for Local Government. The inaugural winner is Mackay Regional Council, which has developed software that uses automated water metering to allow residents to better manage their water use. The project will also provide council mangers with detailed information on water consumption patterns, allowing them to make better decisions in managing the water supply.
Of course, there are some important challenges to overcome.
A Local Government Association of Queensland survey found that 75 per cent of councils cited coverage and speed of internet connection as being an impediment to using digital technology.
This is an area in which the Turnbull Government has already made significant progress.
The roll-out of the National Broadband Network is gathering pace. More than 2.6 million premises can now be connected and this number is increasing by more than 30,000 every week.
This year the Sky Muster satellite has come online, providing metro-comparable broadband to regional and remote areas at an affordable price. For the first time, Sky Muster will give councils in these areas the same opportunities as their urban counterparts to interact with and provide services to their residents using digital technology.
Mobile devices are the most popular method of accessing the internet in Australia—but much of our landmass still does not have adequate mobile coverage. That is why the Turnbull Government is working to increase mobile coverage through the mobile black spots program.
Round one of the program will deliver almost 500 new or upgraded mobile base stations around Australia.
The total invested under round one was $385 million—comprising a Commonwealth funding commitment of $100 million, which leveraged nearly three times as much from state governments and from the private sector. The Turnbull Government has pledged another $120 million for rounds 2 and 3 of this program.
Another impediment is ensuring we have the skills and resources to properly engage with digital technology. The LGAQ survey also found that most councils recognise the importance of digital innovation, but the numbers drop away when it comes to councils having the right strategy in place, successfully implementing it and having confidence in their approach.
Technology is a significant investment for any organisation, particularly if it involves developing new applications. Tight budgets and competing priorities mean it can be overlooked. Councils also report difficulty in securing staff with the right skills to implement a digital strategy.
Cultural and regulatory obstacles can also get in the way. To be successful, digital strategies need to be included as business as usual—a central part of the organisation. Governments need to be prepared to amend regulations where they would otherwise impede an innovative approach to services. Just last week, the Productivity Commission noted in a research paper that red-tape can hamper innovation, both in the private sector and within government.
Finally, it is important that we acknowledge that risk is a significant factor inhibiting the uptake of digital services. Government has traditionally been risk averse and you can lose a lot of money betting on technology.
Business understands that there is also risk in standing still—if you fail to respond to change, a disruptive competitor will take your market share.
As a monopoly, government doesn't face the same pressure to innovate as the private sector. But we do need to recognise that failing to embrace digital technology will negatively affect our governments, our communities and the broader economy.
Our Priorities—and the Role of Local Government
Let me turn now to the Turnbull Government's priorities when it comes to digital innovation—and the opportunity this presents to the local government to leverage this agenda.
Of course under Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister there is a very strong commitment to digital innovation by government. Previously as Communications Minister Malcolm was responsible for the digital transformation agenda—and since becoming Prime Minister he has elevated this to a central focus of government.
Just last week the Prime Minister announced that we would commit an additional $50.5 million to modernise myGov—the Commonwealth's online services portal. This investment will focus on increasing the range of services available through myGov and streamlining the experience for users.
The Digital Transformation Office, the body responsible for promoting digital innovation within the federal government, has been beefed up, moved into the Prime Minister's portfolio and given a mandate to drive change across the Commonwealth bureaucracy.
DTO is working with government agencies at the Commonwealth and state level to transform their services and bring them online. It has created a Digital Service Standard—a framework that promotes services that are simpler, clearer and faster for all users.
Through its work, DTO is looking for solutions to some of the problems that plague digital services for all levels of government.
For example, proving the identity of a user is essential to making online systems secure. This often involves the user providing multiple forms of identification which can then be cross-checked against government databases—it is a slow and cumbersome process.
DTO is looking at simple ways that a user can establish their identity through what they call a "Trusted Digital Identity Framework". The user can then take their identity with them as they access online services from different areas of government.
DTO is also delivering a "tell us once" service that has been used to great effect in the UK. Instead of entering the same information again and again in different government websites, users can "tell us once" and have the information shared with the parts of government that need to know.
One of DTO's major pieces of work is to develop GOV.AU—the one-stop-shop for government information and services. GOV.AU recognises that when people engage with government online, they don't want to be bounced between different websites. GOV.AU will bring together all aspects of government in one spot and present the information in a way that makes sense to the user, rather than the government's organisational structure.
The GOV.AU prototype is focused on the process for starting a new business—there are around 700,000 new businesses registered in Australia each year. The GOV.AU prototype will streamline the steps to starting a new business, including registering the business with the Australian Taxation Office. DTO is also looking at how GOV.AU can link to relevant state and local government licences and permits, providing a genuine one-stop-shop.
There is still a long way to go on this work, but there is potential for collaboration across all levels of government.
While there is a lot of work being done developing government applications and platforms, it is important to remember that government does not, and should not, have a monopoly in providing services online. There is also a potentially significant role for service brokers—in providing the 'digital front end' with which end users—citizens or customers—interact.
The concept of using service brokers is not new in our economy. Companies like iSelect for example are a front end used by many private health insurance companies; similarly web-based travel booking services like WebJet are the front end by which airlines take many of their bookings from consumers.
Similarly service brokers have a proven role in intermediating between government and citizens. One example is the way that tax agents assist citizens in completing and filing tax returns.
More recently, government adoption of open data policies has led to a flourishing of new service broker apps. One of my personal favourites is TripView. This handy smartphone app uses open data on public transport services to provide users with real-time information on bus, train and ferry timetables.
Until a couple of years ago my wife and I had a child in childcare, and navigated the complexity of all the government forms involved— which is why another third-party service broker captured my attention. HubCare is an Australian company which provides a technology platform to connect child-care service providers, end users and the relevant government departments which fund and regulate these services.
From the end-user's perspective, in this case the parent or guardian of the child, the platform enables them to easily manage payments, government subsidies and information about their child such as allergies and medications.
I'm pleased to add that as part the government's election policy for better, more accessible digital services we will ensure that, by default, all new and essential government services will be built to enable access by application program interface (API)—or web services—which will enable government services to be integrated with third party platforms.
Critical to the success of the service broker model is governments providing open access to their data.
The website data.gov.au provides downloadable public datasets for all Australian governments. Before the Coalition came to power, there were only about 500 data sets on this site. Now there are around 8,000 from 164 different organisations, including 72 from Brisbane City Council.
By expanding the scope of data available we are inviting the private sector to contribute to innovation in government.
I want to turn now to how we can stimulate and support the delivery of digital services by local government. Yesterday Prime Minister Turnbull announced that we will launch a Smart Cities and Suburbs Program, to collaborate with local government in applying technology and innovation to improve the liveability of our cities.
The program will make available $50 million in grants, to be allocated through a competitive selection process. The funding will support local governments in applying innovative technology-based approaches to improve the liveability of cities and their suburbs.
As we noted in the policy document, councils are at the forefront of service delivery and are increasingly required to meet rising expectations of service on restricted budgets.
The programme will target initiatives that are scaleable and transferable with potential for broader rollout. After all, if a council in Far North Queensland has an issue which it can solve using digital technology, it is not hard to imagine that a council in metropolitan Perth or in Tasmania might have a similar issue.
A key principle here is to assist local councils which are aiming to achieve the same kind of digital transformation as we are working to deliver at Commonwealth level. That is why our policy states that councils which are successful in winning funding will be 'supported by the Commonwealth's Digital Transformation Office.'
Should we return to government we will be consulting with ALGA and your member councils on the detailed design and operation of this program. We are certainly interested to hear your ideas about how this program should be structured and how best we can put it to work.
Let me conclude then with the observation that the local government sector faces the same pressure as other levels of government, and as the private sector, to improve the way you deliver service through optimising the use of digital technology.
As Minister for Local Government, I am constantly impressed by what I see from local governments all around Australia in the way that you innovate and progress in serving your communities. But I know there is a hunger to do more in the sector.
The program that the Turnbull Government announced yesterday is a significant step forward in supporting local government in this area. We look forward to working with you to capture your feedback and ideas in relation to this program.
And as we roll out this program, and in many other ways, we look forward to working with the local government sector—so that together, in partnership, we can continue to improve the way that governments at all levels serve our community.