Sunday, July 28, 2013

Having Public Servants Work On-line to Advance Digital Economy

Hamish Barwick  reported that Senator Kate Lundy had told a recent IT conference that government agencies will replace paper forms and face-to-face contact with on-line equivalents ("More government services to go online: Kate Lundy", CIO Magazine, 25 July, 2013 15:27). The government issued "Advancing Australia as a Digital Economy: Update to the National Digital Economy Strategy", but this does not appear to have received the attention it deserves. Chapter 11 of the strategy sets the target that:
By 2020, four out of five Australians will choose to engage with the Government through the internet or other types of online service.

However, one barrier to on-line use which does not appear to be addressed is the digital literacy of public servants. For citizens to engage with government on-line, we first need to ensure that public servants are trained in how to engage with each other on-line. Services such as GovDex, the public service's own internal cross-agency on-line platform, are underutilized. Public servants tend to still occupy much of their time with last-century face-to-face committee meetings.

Substituting email for paper minutes and video conference for face to face is a small improvement, but real productivity gains will require staff to be trained in how to collaborate effectively on-line and given incentives. I find it takes about three weeks for my masters students in on-line courses (many of whom are public servants) to adjust to working in on-line forums. It comes as a shock to many how hard it is to make the transition and I suspect many would not do the work needed, if it was not for the prospect of failing the course (where on-line participation is assessed every week).

The Australian Public Service needs to put in place targets and effective training programs, with incentives for staff to participate and penalties for those who do not. We will then have a public service which is competent to communicate with the public on-line.

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