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Budgetary Constraints will Drive Innovation – an address by Abul Rizvi, Deputy Secretary, Department of Communications

by Emily Jones •
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Innovative use of technology is a key means by which agencies can deal with the challenges posed by the reduced levels of operational expenditure allocated to them in the 2014-15 Federal Budget according to Abul Rizvi, Deputy Secretary, Department of Communications. 

Rizvi told attendees of the joint Intermedium AIIA Budget Briefing on 12 June 2014 that he looked to the ICT industry to take the opportunity to “help agencies out of the conundrum where funding allocations were reduced, but the demands on agencies would remain constant”.

Rizvi opened his address acknowledging that the next couple of years are going to be pretty tough for Departments as “most agencies are facing substantial levels of downsizing”.  His own Department is likely to have to downsize by around 25% over the next 18 months or so, he said.

Likening the challenge faced by agencies to those faced in 1996-97, when the Howard government reduced the size of the Australian Public Service, Rizvi said that agencies which had previously been contemplating measures to automate or change procedures would come to realise that they had no option but to innovate. 

He cited the example of the then Department of Immigration which was faced with a situation where the number of visitors to Australia was dramatically increasing, but the process of allocating visas was still heavily manual.  The 1996-97 “budgetary crunch” was the final catalyst for the implementation of paperless visas according to Rizvi. Agencies which fail to take similar decision to automate or provide digital alternatives to current processes “will drown if they stand still”, he said.

Citing digital service delivery, open data, cloud and smarter ICT as the four key areas where the government expected agencies to  make progress, Rizvi quoted the National Commission of Audit (NCoA) recommendation that “the government should adopt a transformative strategy to become Digital by Default for all transactions”.  This constituted an “enormous amount of work for agencies” in Rizvi’s view, where agencies would need to look to the ICT industry for support and know-how.

Digital Service Delivery

Rizvi quoted a survey conducted in 2012-13 which identified around 1.5 billion interactions between Commonwealth agencies and the public. While 66%, an “impressive figure”, were digital, Rizvi highlighted the 34% non-digital as “where the opportunity lies”.

Rizvi exampled the 105 million voice calls received by Commonwealth agencies per annum.  Reducing them, or transferring the callers to the online environment would be a major challenge for the next 2-3 years.

Suggesting these calls are a “negative indicator of performance”, Rizvi stated that by improving the presentation of digital information, many of these calls could be eliminated.

Rizvi highlighted that many of the 170 million face-to-face transactions were to prove identity, because “our online identity processes are still not adequate”, but “as we all know, the technology to do that is already here, or will be soon”. Rizvi also flagged online interview solutions as a way to reduce the cost of face-to-face transactions. He noted that to implement such alternatives to in person interviews, both policy and procedures will need to be altered in the four agencies that perform the bulk of such interviews.

Rizvi cited postal communications as the biggest opportunity for digital efficiency. 250 million items are posted by Commonwealth agencies annually.  This is a significant reduction on the 350 million such items sent out two to three years ago, which can be credited to efforts by the Department Human Services, including via the adoption of myGov.  Rizvi noted that this reduction had not been matched at the State and Local Government level, which are still responsible for 430 million postal items per annum- a figure which has barely shifted in the last few years.   In Rizvi’s view, successful migration and on-boarding of agencies to the digital mailbox facilities associated with myGov will be key to success in the coming years.

He noted that only 17 Federal agencies currently provide smart forms online, a situation which he felt had considerable scope for improvement.

Open Data

Rizvi suggested that “initial forays into open data had a mixture of objectives” but that “the Government has made it clear that economic value lies in open data”. Rizvi complimented the efforts made by the Department of Finance since August 2013 to get more agencies putting more data sets online.

However, Rizvi cautioned that access to data is not enough: “it’s got to be useable” and that “there are many more large and valuable datasets that are still not available, but could be” indicating that this would be a significant agenda for the next 12 to 24 months.

Cloud

Rizvi considered that “messaging on cloud over the last 12 to 24 months has been mixed”.  While most acknowledge the use of cloud to be a positive step, the emphasis on managing risk has “led to a high degree of caution among agencies” to adopt cloud solutions. Whilst the number of cloud contracts has increased, Rizvi said that “we need to be much more encouraging about the use of cloud by agencies” and that “over the next 12 months you will see changes in the policy advice given to government agencies”.

Smarter ICT Investment

While Rizvi does not believe that Australia has the same problems in ICT procurement as have been documented in the United Kingdom, he stated the government had a strong view that “we can invest in ICT in a much cleverer way than we have done up till now”.

He said that a number of UK recommendations were of interest to the government:

  • No IT contract to be larger than $100 million;
  • A supplier could not be awarded both the service provision and service integration role within an agency;
  • There should be no automatic contract extensions; and
  • Hosting contracts should not be longer than two years.

Rizvi noted that the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee Inquiry into Commonwealth Procurement Procedures, will be important in determining how the government moves forward. He also referenced the ICT Audit being conducted by the Department of Finance as “an important report to be watching out for”.

 

Upcoming briefings in the‘2014-15 Making the Budget Count’ series, in partnership with the AIIA, include addresses and Q&A opportunities with the following speakers:

Briefings featuring senior public servants will also be held in:

 

 

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