Data to drive the design and monitoring of social programs

In a decisive move to merge digital reform and the use of data to design and evaluate programs, newly selected National Data Commissioner Gayle Milnes and her office have been brought into the Department of Finance. The Digital Transformation Agency was also moved from the Prime Minister’s Department, consolidating control of the $10 billion annual investment in digital transformation to the Department of Finance.

Legislation allowing data sharing between departments was passed the week before Parliament prorogued and will now be administered by Ms Milnes, under the wing of the Department of Finance.

Finance Minister Katy Gallagher has also been put in charge of the public sector and implementing the digital and data reforms identified in the Thodey review of the Australian civil service.

Finance also oversees program reporting and evaluation and consolidation should see a major increase in the use of data to better manage and focus programs on mitigating the causes of social disadvantage, rather than just the symptoms.

Early attention should be paid to the national disability insurance scheme, where poor data collection masks the cause of the sharp increase in the number of people receiving support. It is also unclear what functional improvements are being generated while the program is not generating the expected employment benefits.

“The availability of data in unprecedented quantities – formal and informal, structured and unstructured, expert and experiential – combined with sophisticated analytical tools is already redefining the ‘conditions of engagement’ for social policy and the search for what works” , said a digital transformation expert. Martin Stewart Weeks.

Mr Stewart-Weeks runs a new venture, Australia Cares, with the University of Sydney’s Social Policy Lab. “Data, and its creative and intelligent use, will be the currency for renovating and reimagining the design and delivery of social policies and programs over the next 10 years. And this coincides with, and will help motivate, the deeper process of reform and renewal across the public sector itself.

But he cautioned against a purely data-driven approach. “Data encompasses the knowledge that comes from those who live with the experience of the conditions that social policy seeks to change,” he said.

“A narrow technocratic view of data and analytics as balm for human complexity has never worked. Social policy must be as much about people and places as well-calculated numbers,” Mr Stewart-Weeks said. .

Mr Stewart-Weeks highlighted the growing pressure for action now demanded by citizens.

“The speed and intensity with which political puzzles evolve demands a corresponding speed and intensity of evidence and information. It’s the job of data to replace guesswork with confident intent.”

Professor Davis is also a strong proponent of place-based approaches and identifying the real causes of disadvantage and early investment to reduce the human toll and overall fiscal cost to government. This approach requires the use of large integrated datasets to identify key patterns and drivers and a willingness from governments to invest in the costliest cohorts. Typically, 50% of social program clients generate 15% of budget costs.

Professor Davis’ appointment has been widely welcomed.

“I just think Glyn is a really exceptional leader,” said ANU Vice-Chancellor and Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt.

“I consider him probably the best university leader Australia has ever had, period. I don’t say that lightly. That’s my assessment, which has translated into outstanding leadership.

“He’s a unique person, he’s a unicorn. Someone who understands the theoretical basis of how government works, someone who has actually practiced it at the state level and has run an incredibly difficult organization for many years at the University of Melbourne.

Abdul J. Gaspar