Driving digital Down Under

SUMMARY:

It’s clearly a week for dusting down those old digital nation strategies and giving them a lick of paint. Australia’s national government – with an eye to forthcoming elections – has beefed up its own policies. But to what effect?

Untitled1
Stephen Conroy, Australia’s minister for the Digital Economy


It’s clearly a week for dusting down those old digital nation strategies and giving them a lick of paint.

The UK government chose the G8 Innovation Conference at the weekend to produce its Information Economy strategy document, which as we’ve noted elsewhere is a nice affirmative summation of current digital policies but not really adding much that’s new to the mix.

Now down under, with a general election looming, the Australian Government has decided its time for its own Digital Strategy – less than two years old – to get a refresh. But on this occasion, there’s a lot more meat on the bones.

In 2011, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy lifted the lid on the government’s National Digital Economy Strategy (NDES), with a stated goal of making Australia one of the top five OECD countries for broadband penetration in households.

At the time, the strategy was very broadband-centric, revolving around the nation’s $35.9 billion National Broadband Network roll-out which is due for completion in 2020. Conroy said:

“To accelerate progress towards this, I am pleased to announce the government will provide $23.8 million over three years for a Digital Communities initiative, a focus of which will be to establish a ‘Digital Hub’ in each of the 40 communities to first benefit from the NBN.”

Eight key areas on which the government will need to focus on in order to reach its goal by 2020 were

oz

identified in 2011 as:

  • Households
  • Business and non-profits
  • Environment
  • Education
  • Health
  • Teleworking
  • Government
  • Rural and Regional Australia

The update

Flash forward two years and Conroy has put his name to Advancing Australia as a Digital Economy, an update of the 2011 NDES.

The updated document pitches some simple visions for 2020:

  • By 2020, all government agencies will be using digital platforms as their major channel of service delivery.
  • Almost every household will make extensive use of high-speed broadband.
  • The majority of Australian businesses will be using digital platforms for most of their marketing, business administration, service provision, recruitment and training.
  • With the spread of teleworking and the use of digital platforms for business transactions and service access, more Australians will be able to seek employment in industries located in areas other than where they live.
  • The application of creative design-thinking will lead to the development and commercialisation of new digital applications and services for global customers.
  • The digital economy will transform economic and social opportunities in regional Australia.


One reason for the update is the recent publication of the Australian national cloud computing strategy which the new digital policy document positions as a parallel stream, begin equally dependent on the broadband roll out for its success.

oz3
Among the more interesting components of the updated digital strategy is funding as part of the Digital Careers program to the tune of AU$6.5 million over four years to get kids pursuing a career in IT.

  • ICT skills will be one of seven general capabilities to be embedded across all learning areas of the broader curriculum
  • The curriculum will include two mandatory subjects from early primary school to Year 8— Digital Technologies, and Design and Technologies.

oz2Conroy argues:

“Our children are digital natives. ICT is shaping every aspect of their lives – the way they connect, learn and play. Despite this, too few young Australians are choosing ICT careers. As the digital economy grows, Australia faces a widening gap between the demand for ICT skills and the supply of qualified workers. We need to change that.

“Through the Digital Careers program, we hope to increase enrolments in ICT courses at all levels of our education system. We want to ensure that more of our best and brightest go on to enjoy careers in one of the most exciting, dynamic parts of our economy.”

The Australian government also has ambitions to grow an indigenous digital industry. To that end it’s now pledged

  • to determine the most effective measures to address the barriers faced by start-up companies including reviewing the tax treatment of employee share schemes and developing guidance to reduce the administrative burden of establishing such schemes, by December 2013 
  • undertake a review to determine a best practice framework for crowd-sourced equity funding by April 2014 
  • review the Electronic Transactions Regulations 2000 to remove outdated exceptions to electronic transaction legislation by December 2014.

The updated strategy document argues:

If Australia is to keep pace with the world’s leading digital economies, we need to ensure that our digital industries are not unduly inhibited by out-dated regulations and business practices. In particular, we must change rules and regulations that inadvertently bind us to outmoded delivery channels, such as hard-copy letters, while promoting innovative solutions as they emerge.

oz4Open data inevitably plays a beefed up role with the government committing to:

  • release a formal big data strategy this year.
  • continue to expand public sector data on data.gov.au.
  • explore options for providing open access to the Geo-coded National Address File.

Meanwhile a “Digital First” policy will require government agencies to make services available online including mobile platforms before the end of 2017 ends. The updated strategy notes:

Under Digital First, by December 2017, Government agencies will provide their clients with user-friendly online access to priority services, allowing end-to-end processing for those services through a choice of a single authentication method that enables access to a range of services without needing multiple passwords or multiple tests of credentials.

The updated document also tackles the thorny issue of digital exclusion, particularly important to a such an enormous land mass as Austrialia.

There have been trials with 300 remote Indigenous communities getting free wi-fi from the government through satellite community telephones installed throughout remote Australia.

This is now judged to have been a success and the scheme will be expanded.

Verdict

When we looked recently at the Australian national cloud computing strategy, the tone words that kept coming back were ‘practical’ and ‘pragmatic’.

The same might be said of this update. There’s little that’s unique to Australia here with reflections of the Digital by Default thinking of the UK government and the open data commitments of the US administration.

We’d have to applaud the sterling efforts at digital inclusion through the free wi-fi push to remote regions and the recognition of the need to tackle the digital skills shortfall – also picked up in this weekend’s UK government Information Economy policy document.

Everything does keep coming back to that National Broadband Network roll out though. It’s a technology deployment that has become a political hot potato with government and opposition each criticising the other’s approach to broadband strategy.

We said of the cloud strategy Down Under that a lot would be riding on the result of the election later this year. The same is true of the digital economy ambitions.

That’s why Conroy’s launch of the Advancing Australia as a Digital Economy strategy document sounds so much like an electioneering rally:

“Australia’s transition to a digital economy is inevitable. Many would say it’s happened already – the economy is a digital economy.

“But becoming a leading digital economy will take a multi-faceted and targeted approach. This is what we are doing: a whole-of-government approach across the whole economy. ‘Advancing Australia as a Digital Economy’ details our other initiatives and actions.

“Yes, we have more to do but we are well on the way.”