In early May I was lucky enough to participate in an Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) delegation to San Francisco and Washington for 10 days. The group included major technology vendors, start ups and public servants primarily from the Commonwealth.  

The sessions we participated in provided an extremely interesting insight into where the industry and technology is headed, the priorities of the major tech firms and the Customer and Digital policies of the US Government. 

Overall, while the trip highlighted some opportunities for NSW, it also validated much of what we are planning, … and already doing.  There were a clear set of common themes, which will serve as a useful guidance for our own strategy and plans. 

What is driving the big tech firms? 

While the successful multinationals all have very extremely different cultures, a common thread was that every single organisation is now serious about the issues of sustainability, diversity and inclusion and playing an ethical role in the community.  You could argue that for some this is too little, too late (and that in parallel big tech is racing to influence where the internet is headed, … more on this below), but there was real evidence of more than marketing.  

Most of the organisations we spoke to are setting ambitious, and public targets for themselves in each of these areas – most of which are far more aggressive than Government.       

The election results this weekend just further confirm the importance of these issues for the community and the need for action, not talk.      

What was also interesting is clear link these organisations made between these priorities and attracting and retaining talent. Meaningful work is a key part of our Employee Value Proposition, but Government does not have a monopoly on purpose, so we will need to continue, and build our focus in all of these areas – particularly in relation to sustainability.  

The ethical use of AI 

I participated in a similar delegation 3 years ago. At that point, in 2019 Cyber Security was clearly the emerging theme, if you had to pick the most common theme in 2022, it was the transparency of how we are using customer data – and ensuring we are removing bias, not leave people behind and consider if, and how we apply AI to each use case uniquely. 

What I think this practically means for NSW Government is that we must get a clearer understanding of what is built into the products and services we procure.  If we are using AI - even at this stage in a “decision support” capacity, we must be able to clearly explain to customers how we arrive at decisions.     

NSW has started our AI journey with policies, guidance and a recently published Assurance Framework, however we will need to do more. These technologies have great potential for many aspects of our work, but as we identify more use cases, and move from AI doing more than assisting, or augmenting decisions – to potentially automating them - we need to build a range of new capabilities.   

These capabilities will be less about “building” AI systems and more focused on how we iteratively test outcomes for impacts on individuals (not just the entire system) and how we ensure customers can make informed choices about their participation in them.  AI is already built into many of the products and services we’re using, and these technologies are predicted to accelerate more quickly in the coming three years, than cyber security did in the previous three. 

Are we working on the right things? 

Mostly yes.  Many organisations, and much of the US Government appeared to be relatively early in their journey on formalising customer centricity into everything they do. The former, and current US Government CIOs, spoke about their focus on being the primary advocate for citizens and working with government agencies to drive this approach – essentially the DCS mission, and specifically our Government Made Easy / Tell Us Once agenda.    

It was pleasing to hear many of the “futurists” we spoke to highlighting Digital Identity and the digital exchange of credentials as potentially the most important capability for the future – and one that Government must lead.  The key challenges here are (1) educating everyone on the difference between “digitising” physical credentials (like driver’s licenses), versus a true digital identity that is linked, ultimately biometrically, to use for all your digital transactions, and (2) establishing all the digital infrastructure (accounts, wallets and exchanges) to create trust in our services.    

It was also clear that programs of work such as nsw.gov.au, Live NSW and common platforms (proving who you are, payments, address management, …) are investments that need to be accelerated and sustained. 

What is also clear, was that NSW is tracking well in implementing change, not just defining the policies that guide it. The organisational capabilities we have built – particularly in Investment, Procurement and Cyber Security appeared more mature than the US Government, and some of the jurisdictions we spoke to.   

However, some of the areas that I think there is even more opportunity to accelerate are the use of data insights across the Cluster and Government (with AI consideration per above), the customer interface with the Health system, practical smart cities / regions initiatives, tracking industry and government approach to net zero and carbon neutrality and importantly how we better tell our story …    

Are global tech companies back in the office? 

One large organisation – roughly the size of NSW Health, has essentially shut its offices, and gone 100% virtual. They actively starting using the metaverse to get together for events, mentoring, onboarding and collaboration - where they once got together in person.   

One of the best quotes I heard about where the metaverse will be in 5 years, is that it will be “more fine wine than eggs on toast”, so it will be interesting to see how 100% virtual working plays out. While we saw some amazing advances in the way technology will make hybrid collaboration on-line better, real culture cannot be built virtually alone.   

For other firms, the pendulum is has already swung back to more formalised office arrangements – with mandated days of the week.  Many federal Government organisations are trying these models too.  What this means for Silicon Valley real estate and offices is Australia is still emerging, but a reconfiguration of physical spaces from pre-COVID arrangements is clearly required.    

I think DCS and Digital.NSW is getting the balance mostly right – an approach to hybrid work that is designed around teams, and individuals and the specific outcomes we’re working on. An approach that brings people together, in person for important activities, but that enables working from anywhere. However, it was very interesting to see how the US, and our Commonwealth colleagues are approaching what is now a work pattern that is clearly here to stay. 

Security 

The #1 concern of everyone we spoke to.  

With the volume and complexity of threats increasing exponentially, ransomware, zero-day vulnerabilities, phishing campaigns and the risks associated with interconnected supply chains playing out every day, tech companies and Governments are investing more and more in holistic approaches to prevention, detection, response, and recovery. Again, a great validation of the focus areas of Cyber Security NSW and our Policy. 

Our cyber agenda therefore remains one of our most important priorities. In NSW our approach not just to cyber security, but the intersection of cyber with our approach privacy and fraud protections as well as Identity establishment and recovery.  

For the systems we run ourselves it was also a great reminder of the need for basic hygiene and controls – MFA, patching, understanding existing vulnerabilities, testing response plans, … but also that you can never do enough practical threat modelling, scenario planning, understanding connectivity and education.  

There was a reminder from many companies that the average time from vulnerability to attack is less than 3 days.  

Web 3, the metaverse and all that … 

Firstly, I think everyone is still working out what these terms mean, but secondly it is clear that big tech is already investing is a significant way to understand the possibilities, as the shift to new models of engagement is already here. 

There is clearly still a lot of debate and scepticism about NFTs, and cryptocurrencies – at one of the debate NFTs are a huge ponzi scheme and crypto has no useful use case other than paying ransoms (which as you know we do not do), …. at the other end of the debate “decentralised everything” (especially money and data) will be the new normal in the coming years. 

For Government, and for Digital clearly it will be somewhere in between. We are actively looking into the risks and opportunities of the metaverse and considering the role of Government in regulating these technologies and industries. 

What we do agree with is the basic principle of web 3 – that is, customers should increasingly “own” their data. So while we will not be rushing to pivot away from our current priorities, we must continue to strengthen the way we enable choice and control, our transparency to the community and do everything we can to protect the security and privacy of customer information.     

People 

In addition to understanding where many of the major technology firms are headed, we met some amazing individuals too – founders, and creators of services like google maps and the “like” button (where would be …?). The original architects of Salesforce, global security specialists from ServiceNow and Microsoft, and a highlight was meeting Jaron Lanier – credited as inventing Virtual Reality (and also the Pizza Guy in the Simpsons).   

We spoke with key advisors to two American Senators who led the introduction of the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act, otherwise known as 21st Century IDEA.  A fantastic instrument of national focus, however the intersection between Federal legislation and State-based funding, implementation and maturity was less clear. 

We were also briefed by Arthur Sinodinos, the Australian Ambassador to the United States, who really encouraged Australia to continue to play a leading role in digital government – especially as part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD), or Quad. The Ambassador also explicitly highlighted Service NSW as an example of Australian innovation that all Governments will seek to replicate.        

As always, it was also great to spend time meeting and sharing ideas with our Commonwealth colleagues. The relationships formed on our last trip were critical in our pandemic response, and relationships formed this time with the DTA, Services Australia, the ATO, DVA, AGs, PM and C, Defence and Agriculture, Water and the Environment I am sure will be equally important.  

In summary  

A fantastic opportunity, one that I am grateful for.  A chance to validate our strategy and priorities, think about how emerging technology will impact and can benefit our customers, learn how others are tackling common issues and make some connections for us to accelerate our work.    

NSW is clearly getting a number of things right, but as I heard in one of my skip level meetings, “DCS as an idea is really just getting started”.  There is such an opportunity for us to have a genuine impact on people’s lives and Digital.NSW has a huge role to play.  

Greg Wells
Greg Wells