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DTO eyes equal access to government services across all channels

The CEO of the government's digital office has outlined plans for unifying services not only via an online portal, but also across more accessible communications channels.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

Australia's newly formed Digital Transformation Office (DTO) is looking to not only simplify and unify government agencies and services online, but also provide access across all other channels of communications in order to reach those with limited internet connectivity due to economic and geographic circumstances, according to CEO Paul Shetler.

Speaking at the annual Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) national conference -- Dollars and Bytes: Communications affordability now and tomorrow -- Shetler said that affordability is a real concern, in that it prevents equal access to the internet and therefore to government services.

"We have a responsibility for designing the services as such so they can be used across all channels," Shetler acknowledged. "And that can be face to face, that can be telephony, that can be digital."

The DTO, which works across all government agencies in collaboration with businesses and universities, was tasked primarily with creating a single online myGov portal for dozens of government-related services.

Shetler identified the main issue inherent in using current government services, both digital and otherwise: They are all siloed from each other, with no cross-platform programs.

"Many problems that people have are not so much within a particular service, but the gaps between them," he said on Tuesday.

"[But] we think Australia can be the best in the world at delivering services for everyone."

The DTO resides within the Department of Communications, with Minister for Communications Malcolm Turnbull overseeing the office.

"Interacting with government should be as easy as internet banking or ordering a taxi through an app," Turnbull said in January. "This will enable the government to deliver high-quality services more consistently using a common 'look and feel', with users always at the centre of the digital transformation."

The office was launched in March, despite not receiving funding for its set-up until the government allocated it AU$95.4 million over the next four years in the 2015-16 Budget in May.

Shetler, who was previously the director of the United Kingdom's Government Digital Service, was appointed as CEO of the DTO in July for the next five years. He said that now is the time to digitise the government, as the technology is affordable and available to achieve this.

"The opportunity we're facing right now is huge, not just from a cost savings, but more importantly from a service standpoint. Compute and storage are dirt cheap. That is the thing about cloud; it really costs close to nothing."

ACCAN CEO Teresa Corbin pointed to a report by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) in 2014 showing that while 98 percent of households with an income of AU$120,000 or more had internet access, only 57 percent of those with a combined income of less than AU$40,000 had access.

She agreed that in order to ensure equality, the government needs to provide access to its services not only through ease of use, but also across all communications channels.

"Technology allows us to complete many tasks from the comfort of our homes, but questions regarding the affordability, accessibility, and availability of communications services need to be addressed so there is equitable access to essential government services and those from other organisations," Corbin said in a statement on Tuesday morning.

"For low-income earners, seniors, and other groups, affordability is a barrier to accessing essential online services like Centrelink and Medicare."

In creating the DTO, Turnbull said it would be sharing its processes, platforms, apps, and inner workings with other similar agencies and organisations; under the program, the federal, state, and territory governments will all gain access to the system to use as a platform for their own online services.

"We will make these platforms available to all governments, and we are going to make them available for free. We want to break down silos, break down all of the inertia that comes from empire building, so that citizens or businesses will have a seamless, straightforward way of dealing with government -- federal, state, or local -- from a single platform," Turnbull said in January.

"Citizens just want to get good service from government. They're not interested in all the layers of government. We've got to break down the silo mentality so people understand the object is the customer, and the object is delivering."

Shetler agreed, saying at the ACCAN conference that the portal would extend across all levels of government in Australia.

"We could also be looking across all tiers of government, not only at the federal level, but also the state and local level," he said.

"Seamless service across all levels of government, and across all different channels for everyone."

Shetler last month argued that poor IT systems have hampered agencies and departments for years, slowing progress and reducing the government's effectiveness.

"It's a delivery issue, not a policy issue," the CEO said at the Technology in Government event in Canberra.

The CEO referred to recent research conducted by Deloitte arguing that improved digital interaction between citizens and government could translate into cost savings of AU$20.5 billion.

"People want things that only government can get them, typically chores or worse than chores like visiting a person in prison ... or paying taxes or getting their licence, they're not things that are fantastic, but they're just things you have to do," he said.

"So our ethical obligation as public servants is to make that experience as good as possible for our users, keeping in mind they have no choice, keeping in mind they're not customers, keeping that it's not a marketing exercise, keeping in mind this is about serving people who have no choice to use our services."

The DTO last week announced that it would be hiring 20 new technology-focused roles, including researchers, product managers, developers, and designers, with the government saying that it would be recruiting both experienced staff members and fresh university graduates to help move more public services online and bring the government up to date with the digital world.

"This is an exciting initiative, but it's also complex and requires significant cultural change," Turnbull said in a statement.

"Government services don't face competition in the traditional sense, but that doesn't mean they should be immune from the disruptive technologies that are having an impact right across the economy.

"The DTO needs to adopt an agile, startup-like culture, so it's important that we recruit people with the right mix of skills and attitude to speed up the transformation of government services."

He reaffirmed on Tuesday: "We are looking for people to join us and to help us, and to give us advice."

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