New digital platforms to enable government information management and sharing between agencies are one of the key outcomes of Victoria’s Royal Commission into Family Violence. Importantly, the benefits will extend to other aspects of government services, including community safety, counter-terrorism and emergency management.
How will government information management keep Victorians as safe as possible?
I am not talking about the road toll, workplace accidents, gangs or air safety, even though these are critically important to our quality of life.
In the context of this article I am talking about the threat to our safety from violence, particularly family violence and terrorism-related violence.
In Australia, Victoria is leading the way in stepping up to the significant threat of family violence. There have been too many tragedies over too many years, and at last politicians and policy-makers have put in place a range of measures to minimise this scourge. These measures are backed up with significant funding commitments.
The Victorian Government is also taking seriously the threat of terrorism, whether that be lone wolf incidents, such as in Brighton recently, or more sophisticated efforts by groups or organisations that have an intent to cause mass casualties (such as in London and Manchester recently).
Information management reforms
In tackling these problems, there is one major element in the Government’s programs and policies that stands above all else in reducing the threat to our safety, and that is the timely provision and analysis of government information to the right person in the right organisation at the right time for the best decisions to be made.
Think of a police station being notified of a domestic disturbance. If the duty officer had information at their fingertips regarding that address, along with specific individuals and issues linked to it, the priority placed on this matter, and the type of response, could be very different on a case by case basis.
Likewise, by gathering and assessing government information from a range of sources, both within and external to government agencies, possible terrorist plots can be identified early and investigated.
Also, better sharing and usage of the right data and information should enable more effective avoidance and amelioration programs to be designed up-front.
The good news is that the Victorian Government has recognised the need for better information management, recognised that government information MUST be better used and shared between agencies, and has put in place a range of measures for this happen. Starting with legislative changes to reform the freedom of information (FOI) Act, and establishing a new framework to better manage government information.
This led, most importantly, to the establishment of a new data sharing agency in December 2016: the Victorian Centre for Data Insights. As the Government has stated, “the Centre has been designed to have a whole-of-government focus in helping to transform the way Government uses data and generates insights”.
Mirroring these information management and sharing initiatives are technology programs to create common platforms or database layers across which government information can be shared. The Government is also investing significant time and money in its analytical capabilities, even moving to deep data analytics that use cognitive analysis and artificial intelligence.
Need for cultural change
So, much of the ‘let’s share and use data better’ groundwork is being laid, thanks in part to family violence reforms. But what may be the most difficult reform needed to use government information better is the culture change needed within Government.
Even with the best of intentions, government agencies have a tendency to try and keep ownership of their own data. There are many reasons for this, such as legislative requirements, financial considerations (this information is the result of our resources and capabilities, others can pay for it) and even risk management considerations such as the loss or corruption of data.
Further, and perhaps more likely, is that sharing data that supports the outcomes of other agencies may not be a core responsibility for senior executive job descriptions and they are thus not measured on this. Each agency, and therefore its executives, are measured on outputs. Outputs attract a KPI, and of course budget implications.
This is why the whole-of-government family violence initiatives are so important – because they force agencies to better share data.
To enable the right collaborative culture to be developed, change must flow from the top. Ministers and Departmental Secretaries need to set the right examples – as I am sure they are now doing – and, just as the Government is doing with joint family violence initiatives, continue to recognise shared outputs from a performance and budget perspective.
A great example of this is the recent collaboration between project teams in Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and Victoria Police to produce the Family Violence Referral and Triage Portal. This new system is an example of improved government information sharing and capability across multiple agencies. The system manages referrals from Victoria Police to DHHS and other government departments and community services organisations. The portal allows referrals to be efficiently and accurately triaged and securely communicated to agencies, with all authorised parties able to see who the referral has been sent to, check on status and report on outcomes.
Now, it could be quite serendipitous, but maybe such great work happened because there were two excellent and committed project teams that knew what had to be done, rather than clear directions from senior management to open up their respective systems and data to other agencies in real time.
Whichever, this breaking down of information barriers between agencies exemplifies the cultural, technical, legislative and organisational reform that is the legacy of past tragedies – and hopefully the preventer of future avoidable tragedies.
But what is next?
As a result of the family violence initiatives and accompanying investment, this State Government is becoming more information and data savvy. However, the Government must go beyond using these information reforms for family violence only, and recognise the importance of information sharing across the delivery of government services — then establish units within agencies (or an agency itself) dedicated to information management, culture, sharing and analysis.
Recognising the importance of R&D institutions and business in information management, government agencies must also establish open and early dialogue with industry. Notwithstanding probity and competition, the Government’s current appetite to risk, particularly relating to technology, will continue to stifle how it embraces its information needs.
Information is king and can drive so many other important initiatives, such as community safety, counter-terrorism and emergency management. Information can also drive efficiency reforms, such as community engagement, digital service delivery and even formation of legislation.
The government that best masters information management will become safer and more community focused. They will become a ‘smart’ government.