Fri, 21 Oct 2022 - 15:41

Government loses sight of the digital customer

Is the Albanese Government passionate about delivering a better service experiences for citizens engaging with Government? Does it have a strong vision to use digital channels to serve citizens, as we have seen done so effectively by the NSW Government under the leadership of Victor Dominello? Judging by a recent speech from Katy Gallagher, the Minister for Public Services, the answer, depressingly, is pretty clearly ‘no.’

Her observations at the Institute of Public Administration on 13 October were quite underwhelming. Consider this pearl of wisdom: “When it comes down to it – the Australian Public Service is made up of Australians helping other Australians.”

There main thing the speech revealed is that Labor’s approach is to do more of the same. $3 billion worth of consultancy and contract bills will be cut over four years, if Labor uphold their election commitment to do so. That means more public servants – including 200 additional staff in Cairns. This is driven by Labor’s ambition to win the marginal seat of Leichardt – not by any analysis of how most effectively to serve the customers of Services Australia.

This will only be the start, with Labor removing staffing caps from the public sector.

At the same time, Labor is specifically closing the eyes of Services Australia to the latest service trends from the private sector. This means a more inward-looking, bloated public service more ignorant to the best practice of the private sector that is so often leading the way in cutting edge thinking.

Naturally, these APS ‘reforms’ are being undertaken in lock-step with the union movement. Minister Gallagher confirmed in her speech that the government was “talking openly” with the Community and Public Sector Union.

What really stands out in this speech is the complete lack of interest in digital service delivery. This is so despite the clear evidence that Australians prefer to use digital channels to deal with government, In 2019, on average around 571,000 people were accessing myGov everyday; this has risen to almost 2 million with October 2021 setting a record of 4.2 million people in a single day. Embracing all things digital, then, must not be an afterthought.

The Coalition Government recognised this essential fact. In government, we embarked upon a comprehensive digital transformation process that enabled and protected simple, faster and safer online services. We upgraded the myGov App, oversaw an expansion of the Digital Identity system and rolled out digital assistants to cut the time staff had to take to deal with simple customer enquiries.

Recognition of the primacy was not just matched with implementing the systems that allowed Australians to do more of their business safely online, but with a fundamental midshaft within government which focused on Australians as customers. When governments reorient their thinking in this way, they frontload improving how Australians interact with public servants. The NSW Government is an exemplar in this regard, and other states and territories are taking notice, as should the Commonwealth.

It's unfortunate but not surprising that the words ‘customers’ and ‘digital’ appear just once in Minister Gallagher speech. The ‘APG Reform agenda,’ as the government calls it, is only such in name. Drastically expanding the APS headcount and increasing union influence is a move in precisely in the wrong direction – away from a customer-focused public service embracing a digital-first approach.

Labor’s plan has real consequences for how everyday Australians interact with their government – and none of them are good.