Government's dumb data disasters demonstrate decaying diligence

The Australian government's habit of losing filing cabinets full of confidential documents is merely a symptom of much deeper problems, in both policy development and implementation.
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor
Image: Besjunior, Getty Images/iStockphoto

As Oscar Wilde might have put it: "To lose one filing cabinet full of government documents may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness."

Carelessness is something the Australian government seems to be quite good at these days.

News broke on Sunday that in 2013, confidential personnel files from the then Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA), now part of the Department of Social Services, had gone walkies for several days.

Just like the secret cabinet files incident reported in January, these documents were discovered in a locked filing cabinet bought from a second-hand furniture store.

"The documents were personnel files which had all the personal details [of employees] like home addresses and phone numbers, as well as previous positions held, CVs, and security clearances," the buyer told The Sunday Canberra Times.

"It was a two-drawer filing cabinet, and the bottom drawer was completely full," he said.

The two incidents aren't quite the same. Personnel files don't have to be handled under the same security protocols as cabinet documents. But there's plenty enough information in them to make identity theft or spearphishing a trivial pursuit.

Yes, this is carelessness.

Then there was the incident where a "classified notebook belonging to a top Defence official" was discovered, along with his ID ... guess where?

"Initial inquiries indicate the items were inadvertently left in a piece of personal furniture recently disposed of by the Defence official," The Canberra Times reported.

Three incidents involving lost documents in second-hand furniture doesn't constitute a wave of incompetence, of course, no more than two or three robberies random clustered together constitute a crime wave. But these physical data leaks are being unearthed at a time when confidence in the government's ability to manage data needs to be questioned, and questioned hard.

Do we need to repeat the now-familiar litany? The government's recklessness with medical data. The omnishambles of the 2016 Census. The collapse of the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) storage system. The unthinking viciousness of Centrelink's robodebt debacle.

Things are no better at the state level -- the corruption of Victoria's Ultranet project and NSW agencies struggling with the security basics, to name but two examples.

Do you detect a pattern? I do. So do former senior public servants, but in another way.

Last month, The Mandarin, a news site that covers leadership in the public sector, concluded that there's an urgent need to recover the capacity for deep policy analysis in the Australian Public Service (APS).

Terry Moran, a former secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C), was scathing.

"The APS is failing in areas of social policy because it has been stripped of specialist capability and service delivery experience. If it were a patient it would be in palliative care," Moran said.

"Successive governments haven't nurtured the APS: they've gutted it."

David Borthwick, former secretary of the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, was concerned that a lack of resources meant that departments were flat out delivering their programs, with little time for anything else.

"The quality of the Australian Public Service is the foundation of good government. It must have the capacity -- the skilled workforce and the resources -- to undertake the strategic thinking which underpins longer-term reforms," Borthwick said.

Highly-respected journalist Laura Tingle reported similar concerns in her Quarterly Essay from 2015, Political Amnesia: how we forgot how to govern.

"The blurring of boundaries between the public servant and the political adviser, and the relentless focus on message over substance, results in a diminution of the 'space' in which the independent adviser can operate," Martin Parkinson, currently secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, said at the time.

"Today, in some institutions, smart people look around at their colleagues and find there is no one to talk to, to learn from, who has experience in delivering real reform."

Ken Henry, a former secretary of the Commonwealth Treasury, said much the same thing in Tingle's essay.

"I think many departments have lost the capacity to develop policy; but not just that, they have lost their memory. I seriously doubt there is any serious policy development going on in most government departments," Henry said.

All this is about developing policy rather than implementing programs, of course. But aren't they the exact two things that the government is actually for?

If Australia were struggling to do either one of them, then we'd be deep in the brown stuff. But we're struggling with both.

The most worrying comment for me came from Peter Varghese, a former secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).

"Deep policy thinking is an area where our system, at both the political and the public service levels, has struggled over the last decade," The Mandarin quoted Varghese as saying.

"Recovering the capacity for deep policy analysis is urgent because we are at an inflection point in our history. It is not dissimilar to the period after the second world war when the nation had to set out in a new direction and when the political and public service leaderships worked so well together to chart that direction. Or the period from the early eighties when we set out to internationalise the Australian economy; or the nineties when tax and industrial relations policies had to be redefined."

Yes, the Australian government is struggling, both with policy development and with the implementation of data-enabled programs, at the exact moment in history when such things are needed.

The government is even having to hire consultants to teach it how to do basic government stuff like organisational development.

Parliament is currently running an inquiry into how the government uses contractors, with wide-ranging terms of reference. Stay tuned, but remember that this inquiry will only scratch the surface.

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