Data availability and transparency


By Deborah Anton
Monday, 08 March, 2021


Data availability and transparency

Data is the foundation of any customer-centric business, including the Australian Government.

Data is an asset, and we need to be using it more effectively. Over the last three years in my role as the Interim National Data Commissioner, I’ve heard this statement uttered on an almost daily basis. No matter where someone works — research, business or government — the value of good data is always a talking point.

The Productivity Commission’s 2017 report into Data Availability and Use turned the volume up on the “data conversation” for the Australian Government. The report included a suite of recommendations aimed at improving data sharing processes and their regulatory frameworks, to help Australia realise the full potential of its data.

An insight that has stayed with me from the Productivity Commission’s report was that the Australian Public Service has a risk-averse culture.

It is an observation often made of public servants, but in this instance I’m not sure that “risk-averse” is the right term.

My ongoing conversations with Australian Government agencies point to a culture of mistake-aversion. Agencies are apprehensive about sharing data because they want to be certain they are sharing the right data for the right reasons, and most of all, sharing it with people they know they can trust.

Organisations know the value of data, but the trust gap between businesses, researchers, governments and the public has resulted in lack of data sharing between these sectors.

To reduce the trust gap and build consistency in the system, long term, incremental change is required. A key element of this change is the Data Availability and Transparency Bill (DAT Bill).

This law will create a new government data sharing scheme, which will help approved people and organisations request controlled access to government data.

The DAT Bill is currently before the Australian Parliament for consideration, and my team and I are busy thinking about how we will implement the new scheme.

The DAT Bill will drive changes that are relevant to government IT professionals:

  • New systems and processes for government agencies to manage data sharing.
  • An opportunity for government agencies to strengthen their data management and governance skills and practices.

Change 1: New systems and processes

Many government agencies have their own processes for considering and managing data sharing requests. These are often linked to existing legislation and systems.

This is why my team and I have been working on a suite of initiatives to reduce the complexity of navigating the system and create some consistency across government.

Our key initiative is the design and delivery of a new digital platform to support the implementation of the reforms.

The platform will support users to:

  • submit accreditation applications and
  • submit, manage and track data sharing requests.
     

In upcoming co-design work, we will explore with the APS the utility of it managing and/or being a repository for any data sharing requests agencies may receive from others through pathways other than the DAT Bill.

The system will ensure that any data sharing done through the scheme is well structured, well governed and supports a safe approach to data sharing. It also has the potential to support agencies manage existing data sharing activities in one place.

Other initiatives that are already available as drafts and will be finalised alongside the Bill include:

  • the Data Sharing Principles, which set five firm criteria all government agencies should assess data sharing requests against, and
  • a generic Data Sharing Agreement, a template for government agencies and data requesters to use to agree to share data.

Change 2: Data skills and practices

The need to improve the data skills of the public service is a challenge we share with all other businesses in the economy. In 2020 the Australian Public Service Commission surveyed a sample of Australian Government agencies on critical skill shortages, with 70% of them identifying data skill gaps.

My team and I understand that organisations don’t always know where to start when it comes to strengthening skills, which is why we’ve released a product called the Foundational Four.

The Foundational Four is a set of, you guessed it, four essential data management principles that we are encouraging all government agencies to adopt.

These principles are:

  • Leadership — a senior leader is responsible and accountable for data across the agency.
  • Data strategy — an agency has a clear vision and plan for using data to achieve objectives.
  • Governance — mechanisms exist to oversee data management.
  • Asset discovery — data assets have been identified and recorded.
     

Adopting these principles will give your agency a clear baseline for your data practices: what are the “must-haves” in your business? You can then build on this baseline with mature and specialist data skill sets that are going to add additional value to your organisation.

Importantly, these principles will also prepare you to respond to and manage any data requests you may receive through the new government data sharing scheme.

You can find the Foundational Four on the Data Commissioner website at https://www.datacommissioner.gov.au.

Conclusion

COVID-19 has proven that data is critical to the successful delivery of government services, accelerating existing trends to ensure Australians could access services in a socially distanced environment.

Data from government services such as Single Touch Payroll has helped us to understand the economy and make crucial policy decisions.

Academics will also need data from this time to understand the impacts that COVID has had on our economy and our lives.

Data is the thread that ties together all of our efforts to understand the world around us and move seamlessly through it with our services. It’s the foundation of any customer-centric business and it’s essential the Australian Government is one of these businesses.

Ms Deborah Anton was appointed as the Interim National Data Commissioner on 9 August 2018. One of her many career highlights includes establishing the Government’s Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT).

Image courtesy PM&C.

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