Throughout 2021, the Australian government was criticized for the poor handling of the COVIDSafe app, with the ABC reporting that it identified two contacts in six months. Many groups suggested that the combined Google and Apple digital contact tracing system would have been easier to use and significantly cheaper for the government.
The Morrison government does not want to release data under Freedom of Information laws about the app indicates how poorly this digital choice of the Australian government has been.
So why are government technology projects flawed? Can they work better?
Why do government digital technology projects have problems?
Now to be fair, this is not a problem unique to the Australian government. Many governments worldwide struggle with tech projects, which comes from their structure.
By their very nature, governments and government departments are designed with multiple levels of management. They are made to be slow and intended to confirm all the details. However, years and years of efficiencies have cut the public service down. The desire to make the public sector more like private companies has not seen the cultural change intended.
This has meant that the culture of consultants and partnerships pushes governments to spend huge sums of money on projects. The government representatives do not necessarily have the technical expertise to deal with the details, while the consultants and companies receive huge amounts of money. The projects are inevitably over budget, late and almost certainly fail to achieve the outcome intended.
The robo-debt scandal came about from a different problem. While there are many valid complaints about the data-matching system put into place, one thing that was not considered is the range of data from the Australian Taxation Office that Services Australia would use to confirm income. Using a small data set that is, at best, poorly used resulted in hundreds of thousands of people being wrongly issued debts.
It means that people were not involved in any of the checks to prevent some of these letters from going out. Some simple checks that cross-referenced data used in tax returns would have saved Services Australia and Centrelink a significant amount of stress. However, the development of the program did not account for that, and thus, it had to be dumped.
Where to now for the digital evolution and government?
It is important to note that I believe that government still has a role in the digital evolution of society. Equally, they need to consult with technology companies to understand how technology can be used to provide government services. However, departments and bureaucrats should also talk to the recipients of those services to make sure that this is needed.
I believe government must be clear about the goals of their projects. Instead of discussing broad outcomes, they must be specific about what they want to achieve in terms technology providers can understand. That requires the employment of specialists who can support government departments in this way. The number of stories on r/talesfromtechsupport that speak to the poor development and implementation of projects shows the importance of people who understand the entire process.
While this article does not purport to summarize everything that is wrong with digital government projects, I believe that it gives a fairly good base position to start with.
What do you think? How can governments improve their role in the digital evolution? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!