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There is no doubt that technology can make our lives a lot easier. For example, I'd take the convenience of pre-filled online tax returns with electronic assessment notices and refunds via electronic funds transfer, over paper forms, letters and cheques any day. But it would be remiss not to admit that there can be downsides. In countries that don't have a unique citizen identifier, remembering all the usernames, passwords, PINs, secret questions and so forth that are required to ensure online services are secure, can be a real hassle.
Fortunately, in Australia, the federal government is developing an identity service designed to respect local attitudes towards privacy and identity but still simplify the way people authenticate themselves and prove their identity across the government agencies. myGov will be a secure online identity solution that bridges the air-gaps between agencies without resorting to a single central database of personal information.
Over 6 million accounts have already been created and there are now plans to expand myGov to encompass more services across federal and state government, as well as the potential to open it up more to involve the private sector and non-government players. But, for Gary Sterrenberg, the CIO of the Department of Human Services - the department responsible for myGov's IT infrastructure - this level of success is, while gratifying, only the beginning.
“Consumers are driving this and where it will go, we don't know yet,” he says. “myGov is somewhat unique in that it's not just about authentication and identity management. It can actually change what I call the ‘microeconomics' of how we go about talking to each other. No more wasted costs of different departments building different authentication engines, or wasted time of people registering for different services. The potential is clear.”
Up and running
myGov was officially launched in 2013 as a result of strong collaboration between a number of government agencies. It currently provides access to services such as welfare payments, medical rebates and e-health records, disability support, child support and veterans affairs. The Australian tax office also adopted the service, further boosting take-up and extending the range of online options on offer. Sterrenberg says that, at its essence, myGov creates a new citizen-government channel.
“The problem that we have been trying to solve is the breadth of connectivity from citizens to different departments and the complexities that arise from that,” he explains. “Most of our citizens will engage with at least three or four departments - and some even more - and you can imagine that maintaining credentials and access is not straightforward. Our focus has been about strengthening the security of our channel and making it easier for citizens to engage with government, so they can go to one place in order to access government services.”
myGov has also succeeded where many other government IT projects have failed - with a smooth implementation evading the technical difficulties that have affected others in this field. “We were really reluctant to go for a bespoke build,” adds Sterrenberg. “We wanted to be agile, and our ability to adjust and move quickly are important parts of the implementation. The technical complexity was more about the different standards that departments have. We had to agree up front what those protocols would be because you can imagine how, over time, different departments have gone down different tracks. This in turn makes you appreciate how difficult it was for a citizen to engage with all these different channels.”
Sterrenberg has been CIO at the Department of Human Services for four years, a role that followed a stint in the banking sector. Interestingly, he is keen to stress that the digital divide between the public and private sectors is not as great as one might imagine. “The technology is the same,” he says. “I would say that 80% of our technological assets at the department are exactly the same as what they have in banks. We use them in slightly different ways but there are many similarities. By the end of the year I predict we will have done about 700 million digital transactions, which is on a similar scale to the banks, if not countries with larger populations like the US or UK.”
One difference, however, is the way the decisions are made, particularly around governance and funding issues. “Ultimately, we are making investment decisions with taxpayers' money,” he pointed out. “These processes help us with implementation, including managing risk and considering the long-term implications. It means when executing a big idea, sometimes you need to build it up through smaller work packages.”
Digital divide - myth or reality?
A recurring concern over the switch to digital service delivery is its impact on citizens, perhaps the older generation, who are not as familiar with computers, or low-income customers who may not have access to a tablet, laptop or smartphone. How will these groups cope in an increasingly digital world? Sterrenberg, however, says the experience of the department has been surprising.
“One of the things we've noticed in terms of the Australian population is that the usage is not what you expect,” he points out. “We found that 26% of the population who have used myGov are aged between 25-34, and 21% of the population who use it are 65-plus, which places them third in the rankings of age categories of those who use it. We're also finding that the geographic breadth of Australia means that for grandparents to stay in touch with their kids they are using tablets and so on. For those who don't have personal devices to use, they can access the services via computers at community centres and libraries that all offer free internet. And at the department itself, we offer self-service terminals in our shop fronts - all to make it as open as possible. ”
Sterrenberg says feedback from the public about myGov has been very positive. “I have spoken to a number of customers who are really pleased that we are now offering digital services in way that's more in line with what they have come to expect from the private sector. The benefit of having a single entry point for multiple government accounts has also been very well received by customers.”
From push to pull
If anything, Sterrenberg says his only regret is that the original plan was not ambitious enough. He believes that myGov has now outgrown its original scope to be just an authentication channel. “We soon realised that there was this huge opportunity to remove a lot of the duplication of work and red tape caused by government,” he says. “Now we are expanding myGov from humble beginnings as an authentication capability to a ‘tell us once' capability where, regardless of how your circumstances change you can tell government once and then that would be enough for all the relevant departments to be notified.”
The underestimate is rooted in the fast-changing environment, one where new advances continue to ricochet across borders at a rapid and ever-increasing pace. “Consumers and citizens are really driving digital - not us,” admits Sterrenberg. “We're not pushing it any more. This is because the banks and the retailers are leading the way. It is now self-managed. People are now telling us that they want it online, whereas three or four years ago it was us pushing them. So, the table turned very quickly.”
The momentum generated by the need to keep pace with Australian citizens' needs and requirements is pushing the myGov team in new directions, such as towards your smart television set at home. “We have achieved this already in our labs and it is going to change the very nature of how we deploy our services,” says Sterrenberg. “We know that the platform is mature enough for mass roll-out and it just depends on where the current government wants to take it.”
Even so, with take-up now over 30% of the population aged 16 and above, it is clear that myGov is already a game-changer and the potential is exciting. “The breadth of myGov's agenda runs broad and deep,” he says. “The benefits are multiplying and I'm not sure if we expected that at the beginning, to even dream of what it could be. As these things evolve, the question will be how we can keep reimagining just how far it can go.”
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