10.6 e-Government

With the advent of digital and mobile technology, many government services have become available online and this trend is continuing. Citizens, businesses and other government customers often prefer these e-Government services.

For departments and agencies, e-Government transaction costs are substantially lower. They also provide a level of transparency that militates against the risk of fraud and corruption.

Progress towards developing and executing an e-Government strategy in Australia has been slow, with a range of legislative barriers to greater provision and uptake of digital transactions.

Australia should follow the lead of the United Kingdom and implement a ‘digital by default’ strategy.

The Department of Human Services myGov service should be the centrepiece of an aggressive new approach.

The myGov service allows people to access government services from Medicare, Centrelink, Child Support, the Department of Health, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the National Disability Insurance Agency using one user name and password online and via mobile apps.

The Australian Taxation Office is scheduled to join in March 2014 through its e-tax product and new web and mobile services. myGov recently added a digital mailbox service to provide a secure electronic mail delivery channel for official correspondence. This service links with the Australia Post Digital Mailbox facility and also has potential to link with commercial providers.

The Commission has been advised that the myGov service has around 2 million registered members and is accessed by over 150,000 users each week. A further 2 million users are anticipated to register by mid 2014, with the service further expanding to link with State, Territory and local government services.

In addition to myGov, other government services are available online. The Australian Taxation Office, Department of Immigration and Border Protection and the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service in particular have made progress to date.

  • The Australian Taxation Office has offered online tax returns for individuals for many years, and has introduced Standard Business Reporting, which allows firms to lodge tax returns with government agencies directly from the software they use for financial reporting. The recent introduction of the SuperTICK service for superannuation funds to check client identity is another example.
  • The Department of Immigration and Border Protection has processed visas electronically since the 1990s through the Electronic Travel Authority, which links into airline booking systems.
  • The Australian Customs and Border Protection Service uses electronic cargo manifests to risk assess imported goods and is increasingly giving eligible travellers the option to self-process through passport control using SmartGate, the ePassport and face recognition technology that performs customs and immigration checks usually conducted by an officer.

However, there is still a long way to go to realise the potential benefits of online service delivery.

In 2012, 50 per cent of services provided by the Department of Human Services were not conducted online. The Australian Taxation Office reports it is required by legislation to send over 10 million notices of assessment in hard copy. It sends a further 17 million letters each year on activity statement material.

Take up rates for Standard Business Reporting are also substantially below original targets and the Department of Immigration and Border Protection maintains a significant proportion of visa categories which are not electronic.

There is clearly scope for government to go further in terms of online provision of services compared to countries such as the United Kingdom and Denmark, which have made strong progress in moving service delivery online. In Denmark, the government has made it mandatory for citizens and businesses to receive correspondence electronically.

Three key factors have led to the relative success of Denmark and the United Kingdom with e-Government:

  • they have a bold strategy and associated policies that are digital by default;
  • there is senior ministerial ownership and a digital champion within Cabinet; and
  • there is a strong central team to support the strategy.

The growing awareness and popularity of myGov offers the potential for significant change in Australia. However, these three factors must be addressed to drive cultural change across government.

An ambitious strategy is needed. The Commonwealth Government has made a commitment to ensure every government interaction that occurs more than 50,000 times per year can be undertaken online by 2017. It will also aim to make all government correspondence available digitally by 2017. The Commission considers government should do better than that.

The Government should adopt a transformative strategy to become digital by default for all transactions. The strategy should specify an explicit savings target to drive change. It should act decisively to remove legislative barriers to digital transactions.

It should set concrete milestones, including switching from an ‘opt-in’ arrangement for myGov to a default ‘opt-out’.

The strategy should require agencies to make services available through mobile applications. It should have clear and ambitious timelines. It should aim to simplify departmental processes – there is limited value in collecting electronic information from citizens to feed into manual processes in departments.

The strategy should also strengthen the myGov online credential. This could be done through the addition of face-to-face verification or biometric information. It would result in a credential that could be used to prove identity in both the public and private sectors.

The strategy should cover citizens and business. For business, the Australian Business Number could become a standard online identifier – it is already being used extensively as an identifier with the AUSKey login by the Australian Taxation Office in the rollout of Standard Business Reporting.

While Standard Business Reporting offers significant potential to reduce the business costs of complying with the tax and superannuation systems, take-up rates to date are slow.

The digital strategy should require common reporting standards for business across government agencies. More should also be done to encourage business to adopt Standard Business Reporting. The Commission recognises businesses may incur costs in moving to make their own systems compatible with Standard Business Reporting standards, so commercial benefits need to be identified and communicated.

An ambitious digital strategy will only succeed if it is appropriately executed and implemented.

Australia’s slow progress is partly attributable to the fragmented arrangements for e-Government across multiple agencies, including the Australian Government Information Management Office, other parts of the Department of Finance, the Attorney-General’s Department and the Department of Communications.

The transition to e-Government would have far more traction if core expertise was consolidated in a single team led by a chief digital officer.

This would be a senior role filled by an accomplished private sector leader who has driven a major digital transition process. This person should report directly to the Minister for Communications. It may be appropriate for the chief digital officer to also lead the development of the new Government Payments System, reporting to the Minister for Human Services, as proposed in Section 10.4.

Ultimately, ministerial leadership will be required. The Commission encourages the Government to embrace a digital by default policy, led by a senior minister such as the Minister for Communications.

Recommendation 62: e-Government

e-Government services are often preferred by citizens, businesses and other government customers because they are more convenient and generally cheaper and more accurate. The Commission recommends that the Government accelerate the transition to online service delivery by:

  1. setting an ambitious digital strategy that:
    1. makes myGov the default means of engaging with government, supported by 'opt-out' provisions;
    2. sets concrete savings targets;
    3. removes legislative barriers; and
    4. strengthens the myGov online credential;
  2. consolidating the e-Government effort through a single team under the leadership of a Chief Digital Officer; and
  3. appointing a senior minister to champion the digital by default agenda.