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Victor Dominello: Why public sector leaders must understand digital and data

7 September 2023

News and media


Image of the Hon. Victor Dominello

While Artificial Intelligence (AI) will never replace human wisdom, public sector leaders need to get up to speed fast on the huge technological changes that are coming, says former NSW Minister Victor Dominello.

Professor Dominello, now director of the Trustworthy Digital Society Hub, a joint initiative of the University of NSW and the University of Technology Sydney, says that the impact generative AI such as Chat GPT is a ‘tidal wave’ that public services must prepare for.

“I embrace tech as much as I can because it is the fastest way to reduce suffering and improve quality of life en masse, however I am equally alive to the downsides. Our pressing question when faced with these unprecedented challenges is; how we build a trustworthy digital society.,” he said.

“We have a small window left to get our senior public leaders “match fit” before the Gen AI disruption begins. Digital can no longer be exclusively a playground for geeks – leaders need to understand its opportunities and challenges.”

Professor Dominello will address an Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) CEO Forum on these issues in September and is working with ANZSOG on a project to create a digital credential, initially aimed at secretary and deputy-secretary level, to build knowledge and confidence around modern digital government, digital acumen and citizen-centric and place-based design.

The credential will be aimed at public sector leaders across Australia and New Zealand looking to modernise their agencies. The first module will focus on the impact of AI on government, with the pilot planned for November this year, and the full course to be rolled out in 2024. Program design is being led by Martin Stewart-Weeks, who has been appointed as Practice Fellow for Digital Government Strategy and Leadership.

Professor Dominello said that for governments to get the most out of the potential of digital, data and AI there needed to be a change of mindsets from public sector leaders.

“We’ve got to build capacity in our leaders so that they are fit for purpose in the modern age. If your organisation has a Chief Financial Officer who is not comfortable with numbers – you’ve got a mismatch. It’s the same if you’ve got a leader anywhere in the digital age who is not comfortable with the digital world and its tools.”

“If leaders can’t even have a moderate conversation about what generative AI is, then are they really equipped to lead us in this next chapter?”

Getting more out of data

When asked how governments could use data better Professor Dominello responded that ‘they can start by having a greater appreciation for data.”

“Understanding what exists, what doesn’t, what is useable, what is not”. Often the best data is not harnessed. Sometimes data is buried away, or it’s in a data swamp so its dirty or not usable. Just getting the data sometimes is a struggle, and often there is no vision around it or what it could be used for.”

“There are many reasons why people don’t use it but they are predominantly a function of culture and priority. We landed on the moon 50 years ago, the technology exists.”

“A health bureaucrat once said to me, the one thing you could do to help us is build one less hospital, because every time we put money into bricks and mortar, we are putting less money into the data architecture and IT which connects everything up.”

“That was an inspired comment and makes so much sense. Politicians tend to focus on the tangibility of a ribbon cutting in front of a new physical build. That needs to stop – we want better data, to inform better decisions which then create better outcomes.”

The value of customer feedback

Professor Dominello was NSW’s Minister for Customer Service from 2019 to 2023 and worked to shift government services online and make them as user-friendly as possible. During this period NSW became a world-leader in the area and he said that the number one lesson he had learned was the importance of customer feedback.

“Government is like a bull in a china shop, and the delicate china in this metaphor are the people we are elected to serve. It’s very difficult to control this bull as it is so big and powerful. The only chance of steering this bull is through the customer feedback ‘nose-ring’”.

“Too often governments implement a policy and undertake a deep dive survey six months or a year later, but in six months the world has changed – you need feedback in real time so you can rapidly trim your sails. Governments rarely have the luxury of putting the spinnaker up – the reality is they are often tacking into challenging headwinds and doing their best to stay on course for the North Star.”

“If governments don’t continue to innovate that will create a major trust deficit. If I can use my mobile phone to order food, pay for it, track it to my door and then give feedback and have the meal delivered in 30 minutes but when it comes to government I need to take half a day off work at the local motor registry, filling out paper forms and waiting around then the service delivery gulf stretches to breaking point.”

“It’s hard to reconcile the Jetsons and the Flintstones living in the same era. In this cartoon, the average person would be forgiven for thinking that the government is either incompetent or corrupt. If you meet or exceed real world expectations that increases trust.”

He said that over the next ten years governments needed to build trust by giving more control to individuals over their data.

“In a digital age, even more than before, information is power, the single strongest unit of democracy is not the state it is the individual. The more we empower individuals to have control over their information, things like their medical records, the more we strengthen democracy”.

“There are ways you can use tech to enhance privacy settings. In Estonia they have a ‘crossroads’ platform. If a bureaucrat is looking at your file, then you get alerted – a lot of solutions to privacy issues will use technology.”

Part of Professor Dominello’s work at Services NSW was to build in-house engineering capacity to take on my projects. He said that governments had become too dependent on outside expertise and needed to build their muscles to understand data and the coming rise of Artificial Intelligence.

“In the beginning we would have to consult out just to do the basic ‘patch up and catch up’, now we do that ourselves and we consult to do big design pieces like a Digital ID which is world-leading.”

“Generative Artificial Intelligence is going to automate much of the knowledge economy: teachers, doctors, lawyers, you name it. Gen AI will augment allowing knowledge workers to focus on innately personal value adds such as human empathy and wisdom.”

“What happens when the public service is not comfortable in the digital space? They ordinarily go to a consultant. However, the public service needs to develop a basic core so they can tackle the basic patch up and catch-up work themselves. This leaves room for partnerships with the private sector on the complex and more innovative transformations.”

How governments can encourage innovation

Professor Dominello said that Australia’s governments were remarkably professional, and able to seamlessly handle political change but struggled to work outside their siloes.

“It’s a weakness they share with every other government. It is just so fragmented, and so unwieldly. There’s a lot of lip service around collaboration, but the structures are not in place to make it happen at the speed it needs to happen.”

He said that “success is often built on a failure” and it was important for politicians and public sector leaders to encourage government to try new things and use mechanisms such as pilot programs to innovate.

“Damon Rees (the former head of Services NSW) told me that the most important thing I did for them was to give them a licence, an authorising environment to try new things,” he said.

“Unfortunately for public servants it’s difficult to try new things because they don’t want to set their minister up for failure. What happens then is that public servants dial down any significant innovation to small incremental changes, in this way the big bold ideas don’t float to the top.

“We need to create an environment for those bold ideas to come up, and safe harbours or sandboxes to implement them, because the pace of change has been, and will be, so profound that if we stay static, we are going to rapidly fall behind.”

He said that his advice to new public servants would be that they should not be afraid to think big or to try new things.

“Be ambitious, not for yourself but for the mission, and the mission in public service is to serve the public. When you’re inside the engine you realise how powerful it can be for the greater good, and when you are outside you know how hard it is to get change. If you want to be a change agent, being in government is where you should be.”

If you are interested in ANZSOG’s Public Leadership in the Digital Age credential, fill out this form and we will contact you when more information is available.