Reinventing public sector ICT

Panel of ICT execs discuss how Asia-Pacific can lead in the new model for an app-based economy.

Most of the innovation in public sector ICT in the next several years will come from the Asia Pacific region, says Andrew Thomson, public-sector consul for Cisco. That is one reason he moved from Canada to Australia, he told a panel session at the recent Cisco Live conference in Melbourne. “The next-generation work is already starting to happen here.”

There is huge opportunity for technology in public services to increase efficiency and it is an excellent arena for private-public-sector collaboration, he says.

Public services are integral to work and life for most of the population, he told media and industry analysts at the conference.

The best place to live is usually not the best place to work and the link between the two is managed by public services and, increasingly, by ICT.

These services will increasingly be cloud-based and provided through video and citizens will want them “in bite-sized pieces” like apps for mobile devices; not as unwieldy systems to interface with manually or from the PC.

Thomson quotes former US government CIO Vivek Kundra, who has said we’re moving to an app-based economy.

“There’ll be 10 billion mobile devices on the planet by 2016,” Thomson says, “Eight billion will be in people’s hands and the rest will be handling machine-to-machine conversations.

“Think about what that does to the way services are delivered,” he asked his audience. “In news download and shopping, it’s happening. Where it’s not happening yet is in public services.”

He illustrated the backwardness of education with a slide of students each with a laptop, still sitting in serried ranks in a lecture theatre. “We’re hung up on this thinking in public services; using technology to update existing processes.”

There are now such different ways of connecting with one another that we should “reinvent public service ICT”, he says.

The Khan Academy, with its bite-size lesson material “easily accessed and re-accessed”, is today’s appropriate model. Students will access learning “content” from anywhere - at home, in a library or on the bus – and the role of the educational establishment will be assisting interpretation of that content.

“Until now, we’ve been fixated on devices. Success was measured by how many laptops the school had. That didn’t necessarily change the educational outcomes. That’s the piece that will have to change next.”

Success in IT-aided education was once measured by the number of computers a school had. It is now not the government’s job to provide technology, Thomson says.

Teaching of foreign students is a big industry; but last year, Australia’s revenue decreased by A$2bn, Thomson says. This is partly because of the high dollar, but also because target countries like India and China are building their own capacity. “We have to build that content.”

The small user-held device is a possible future vehicle for healthcare too, says Thomson: its ultimate manifestation is the “medical tattoo”; a skin-mounted electronic array that transmits information on your health status in real time.

“The other core aspect is a centralised electronic health record.” The patient and everyone treating him or her will have access to it. “We’ll have to democratise health,” he says, moving out of a “guild model” where only recognised doctors can give certain kinds of diagnosis and advice.

“That’s a question about how overall government systems work, says Thomson. “How do we decentralise and modernise govt services?”

Members of the panel gave a mostly optimistic picture that things are moving in the right direction.

Brendan Kelly, heading ICT architecture for the Royal Melbourne Children’s Hospital, was previously in charge of New Zealand’s all-of-government ICT.

The children’s hospital opened a new facility in November last year, infused with wired and wireless digital communications. Communication is “seamless” with partners, including other hospitals and rural GPs and with the families of patients, Kelly says. “Thank God for NBN [Australia’s developing National Broadband Network]. We need that thing.” “Consumer”-grade communications are not adequate for prompt transfer of large files such as X-ray images, he says.

“We’ve freed our staff from the tyranny of a fixed phone and that’s changed the way they work,” Kelly says. An emergency signal from an operating theatre, for example, goes through to all necessary staff at once, wherever they are.

Asked whether the “guild model” with its rigid idea of status got in the way of communication, Kelly says this is “no longer a feature in health. There is a huge commitment to holistic health teams,” where health service providers of all kinds and ranks of seniority work together.

He acknowledges that there is a lot of new equipment coming in and training is a challenge. The Children’s Hospital adopts a “super user” scheme of training a small number of people and letting them train and advise the others.

Technology providers play an important role in changing the way the organisations think, says Phil County, executive director tech and knowledge strategy at Melbourne’s Victoria University. “They open our eyes to what's possible and pressure us to overcome challenges.”

Use of an external cloud provider was a point of difference. Some of the panel and audience suggested it as a way of saving cost and avoiding problems with lack of in-house technical knowledge but Kelly said his hospital had “run the numbers three or four times and it’s still cheaper to do our own infrastructure.” And there are security fears. “People don’t trust the cloud with sensitive data. They want to know where their data is.”

Keith Besgrove, first assistant secretary at the Department of Broadband and Communications for the Digital Economy, revealed planned trials of the NBN to assist in-home monitoring of Type 2 diabetes patients in Townsville, Queensland and remote access to TAFE (technical college) courses for students in Armidale, New South Wales.

He referred also to the Healthy Towns initiative, designed to give people in remote towns in the Northern Territory access to medical specialists online, removing the need to drive long distances. “We don’t see any resistance to technology there, because the benefits seem so self-evident”, he said.