Digital Transformation and Government as API

Last week Australia’s Digital Transformation Office was launched by Minister for Communications, Malcolm Turnbull. I hadn’t realised this was happening until #digitalinnovationAU tweets started appearing in my Twitter feed[1]. I will have more to say about ‘Digital First’ government in a later post, but today I want to float some examples of how the DTO has the potential to transform more than just the Federal Government if it does its job well.

Pia Waugh, whose real job title is absurd but who could be described as the Federal Government’s internal Open Data Evangelist, made a comment on Twitter that I’ve seen her make before. Waugh believes that rather than trying to be a universal platform for digital innovation, the aim of the DTO should be to help create “Government as an API”. On the face of it this could be just another buzzy phrase, but I think Waugh is spot on. Let’s explore a simple example to see why.

Joining your library online

Public libraries worldwide have a big problem: online memberships. Online memberships are a major pain because generally public libraries require proof of residential address in order to join and borrow items. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that, in some circumstances, the library needs new members to prove that they are residents within the library’s catchment area. This could be due to the requirements of either their municipal masters, or digital resource licensing requirements[2]. The second reason is that libraries lend out physical material with significant value. If you walk out of the building with $300 of DVDs and $1000 worth of art folios (an entirely plausible scenario in nearly any suburban library) then we probably want to know how we can track you down if you never give them back. A Gmail address is not really going to cut it.

There are currently no really good solutions to this problem. Some libraries services simply ignore the problem by allowing people to join online and assert their address details. Some post cards out to online members, thus ‘proving’ their address. Some libraries allow new members to join online, but require them to provide ID in a branch before they are allowed to borrow physical items. Some allow ‘online’ members to place reservations but little else. Different libraries deal with it differently, but the core problem remains.

Libraries, of course, are not alone in this. Think about all the times in your life you have been asked to prove your identity and/or your residential address. This is a problem for every lender, from banks to car hire to landlords. It’s a problem for every Government agency, department and service that provides products, services or funds to citizens or residents - at all three levels of Government.

AusID

A well-designed, securely managed online identity system would resolve this. All it would take is a Government agency that knew what they were doing[3] to manage an OpenID service, or their own ‘AusID’ version of it. This simple service would save countless hours of tedious form-signing and checking by customers, businesses, citizens and public servants. It would also have the potential to reduce identity theft. Think of all the photocopies and scans of your passport or drivers licence sitting around in filing cabinets, and the people who have your Tax File Number. All those protests against the Australia Card on privacy grounds in the 1980s simply resulted in the defacto national ID systems of the Tax File Number, Medicare Card and Drivers Licence. Far from protecting our privacy, all the copies of our ID filed away by banks, employers and car hire companies create a much larger problem.

The key here, of course, is to restrict the amount of information being shared, and ensure that it only goes one way. It’s useful and reasonably unproblematic for the Federal Government to know that I joined Parkes Library, or opened an account with Westpac, or even that I did business with Hertz. What isn’t going to be acceptable is if they know what I’m reading, what I’m buying on EFTPOS, and when and where I hired a car.

I’m excited to see what Turnbull’s Digital Transformation Office start working on. Hopefully, they’ll be focussed on simple problems such as the one I’ve outlined here, and listen to Pia Waugh’s suggestion that they build ‘Government as API’ rather than ‘Government as a platform’. The focus needs to be on how the Federal Government can make life easier for everybody by sharing the information they have, not just on how to make it easier to interact directly with Government agencies and services.

Stay tuned for ‘part two’, where I’ll be writing a little about what could go horribly wrong with a ‘digitally transformed’ government.


  1. This happens to me all the time - another reason why I harass people about getting on to Twitter if you want to find out what’s happening in the world of digital information. ↩︎

  2. Let’s set aside for the moment the inherent problems with either set of requirements or how they came to be accepted by any library services, and simply accept that they are a reality. (but only for the moment). ↩︎

  3. No, not ASIC. Oh, and not DIAC. Perhaps a new department... ↩︎

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Libraries as software - dematerialising, platforms and returning to first principles