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Three social trends shaping Federal ICT direction in 2019

by Se Eun Lee •
Free resource

Social issues often exert a heavy influence on government’s policies towards and investments into ICT. A close analysis of dominant social trends over the past year can reveal the key areas in which we can expect attention to be directed in 2019, with several key issues likely to inform federal ICT policy direction regardless of which party wins the upcoming election.

#1 Citizen data privacy concerns continue to plague government.

A number of high-profile cyber security incidents brought increased public attention to issues around data security and privacy. The broad scope of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which came into effect in May 2018, also built greater public awareness in this area.

With a row of controversial policy decisions affecting digital privacy, it is likely that the Federal Government, whether Liberal or Labor, will revisit the issue around privacy protections at some point in the next term of government.

Some of the recent privacy concerns have been related to the government’s key digital initiative, an electronic medical records system dubbed ‘My Health Record’.

Due to its low adoption rate, it was decided that My Health Record should be moved from an opt-in to an opt-out system at the end of 2017. The opt-out period began in July 2018, and in response to highly-publicised privacy concerns (including those voiced by former Digital Transformation Agency head Paul Shetler), it was extended to 15 November 2018, and then again to 31 January 2019, after a last-minute surge of people trying to opt out online caused the website to crash. It has also been announced that measures will be taken to allow records to be deleted permanently (rather than merely ‘frozen’, as was originally the case).

My Health Record initially received $466.7 million in funding in the 2010 Budget (in its original incarnation as the Personally Controlled Electronic Health Record), and total costs to date are estimated at around $2 billion – including a $485 million change of direction and rebranding in the 2015-16 Budget, and $374 million in continuation funding in the 2017-18 Budget.

A fresh wave of controversy around data security and privacy was raised early December, in the wake of the last-minute passage of the colloquially-termed ‘encryption law’. The new law allows law enforcement and intelligence agencies to request from companies and individuals ‘technical assistance’ in accessing encrypted data, and can also compel them to modify or build a new function in their product to enable this access under risk of heavy fines, or even jail time for individuals.

As well as eliciting outrage from Australian tech industry – who fear that their software or hardware will now be deemed untrustworthy by global partners – the law has also caused alarm around the world due to privacy implications, including the probability of the ‘backdoor’ being exploited by criminals and other adversaries. These fears were recently dismissed by the head of the Australian Signals Directorate as ‘myths’.

The federal Labor Party – whose support for the encryption bill was key to its passage – indicated that the government had agreed to adopt the swathe of amendments Labor had dropped when Parliament resumes, although Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton later stated that not all amendments will be accepted. Either way, it is clear that digital privacy and cyber security will continue to be a dominant issue of the Australian political scene in 2019.

#2 National security becomes an election battleground.

Counter-terrorism remains a top priority in the Australian political sphere. Isolated but high-profile incidents, such as the knife attack at Bourke Street mall in Melbourne early November, keep the potential threat at the forefront of the public’s mind.

Although traditionally an area of bipartisan policy work, the national security arena is emerging as an election battleground, with a number of recent issues, including refugee and immigration policies, becoming the subject of heated public debate.

Increased political focus on this field promises some opportunities ahead. Even discounting multimillion-dollar Defence programs, national security initiatives have seen some lucrative ICT contracts awarded to vendors in the past few years. On the other hand, the lack of bipartisanship on certain issues can risk existing initiatives should there be a change of government next year.

An example is the recently-constituted portfolio and mega-department, Home Affairs. Home Affairs recently kicked off the process to outsource Australia’s visa processing work and released a Request for Tender on 7 December 2018 – a move that has been criticised by the Opposition as being contrary to national security. Should Labor win the next federal election, Shorten vowed to discontinue the outsourcing process, which is expected to exceed $3 billion. Currently, the tender has been narrowed down to two consortia – one consisting of Australia Post and Accenture, the other led by Scott Briggs, a former employee and friend of Malcolm Turnbull.

Increases in other transnational crimes, facilitated and enabled by technology, has also been flagged by government agencies as an ongoing challenge, and is likely to constitute a key focus for the future federal government, whether Liberal or Labor.

The 2018-19 Budget includes $59.1 million in establishment funding for the National Criminal Intelligence System (NCIS), which will connect state and federal criminal databases as well as offering “enhanced analytical and collaboration services”, replacing the legacy ACID database.

Other significant initiatives in the national security sphere include the expansion of biometrics capabilities. The National Organised Crime Response Plan 2015-18 first recommended the national facial recognition initiative in early 2015, pointing out the need for improved systems and ICT linkage between Commonwealth, state and territory law enforcement agencies to tackle firearms, cybercrime, and financial crime.

#3 Effective digital service delivery key to restoring citizen confidence and trust.

Since 2013, citizen confidence in the ability of government and the political system more generally to address public policy concerns has plummeted. According to research from Social Research Institute at Ipsos, Australians’ biggest grievance with politicians was that they are not accountable for ‘broken promises’.

Trends like this puts the federal government under enormous pressure to improve government performance and make careful policy decisions. On 13 December, Prime Minister Scott Morrison caved to the growing demands for a federal integrity commission, despite his previous recalcitrance. 

The growing public cynicism towards government has already permeated the digital service delivery sphere, following a series of high-profile and expensive ICT project failures in the past few years, including the 2016 eCensus debacle, ATO website outages during peak tax time, troubled NDIS rollout, the controversial Centrelink robodebt scheme, and others outlined by a recent Senate Committee enquiry into digital delivery of government services. In light of these sentiments, particular care must be taken for the effective delivery of future tech initiatives.

The federal government’s recent ambitions reflect a renewed focus on delivering citizen-centric, digitally-enabled services. At a National Press Club meeting in June 2018, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Digital Transformation Michael Keenan announced the government’s intent to digitise “virtually all” government services as part of its goal of making Australia one of the top 3 digital governments in the world by 2025.

The federal government’s recently-released Digital Strategy 2025 reiterates this commitment.

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