Census should lead to improvement – not retreat – on digital government

Serious problems with the online component of the Census last week should spur us to improve and normalise digital government, not hit the brakes.

The public is entitled to expect privacy, security and functionality from public services, whether delivered physically or online. Meeting that expectation is a fundamental obligation for all public agencies. But our expectations do not stop there.

Australians make ever more use of online services and digital technologies to live, play and do business. We go digital because it is cheaper, easier, and unlocks new options that were not practical in a pen-and-paper world. When digital services work we don’t know how we lived without them. And when they don’t, we expect improvement – not retreat.

The frustration and inconvenience around last week’s Census are serious. So are the delays Australians experience when trying to complete physical paperwork for Medicare or get to a service centre. People are genuinely concerned about government handling of private information online. But they are also unforgiving when public agencies and institutions fail to act on information they should have known but didn’t put together – whether it relates to violent extremists, hospital errors or disaster preparedness.

In every case the answer will be better use of digital technologies, not less. Governments’ feet need to be held to the fire to ensure they make the investments and the changes in public sector practices and culture necessary to serve Australians with the effectiveness, convenience and transparency we expect.

Increasingly everything citizens and businesses do depends in part on robust and secure information technology. The core lesson of #censusfail is that government is no different – we just need to get it right.

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Ai Group Chief Executive since May 2012, Innes joined as Director International and Government Relations in 2008. Prior to this he held a number of senior roles in both the public and private sectors: Australian Consul General to Los Angeles (2006-08); Chief of Staff to Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer (2004-06); and Manager for Global Public Affairs, Singapore Airlines (2000-04). He began his career as a journalist, with his positions including Chief Political Correspondent and Chief of Staff at The Age.

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