Future-proofing government: Why data is key to agency resilience

John Asquith ServiceNow

For Australians, 2020 was a year of seemingly never-ending crises – with the early part of 2021 continuing this unfortunate trend. Yet, it was a year that our governments truly came into their own, positioning themselves as critical sources of truth for an anxious and crisis-worn citizenry.


While trust, and indeed confidence, in governments worldwide has taken a battering over the last 12 months, Australia’s public institutions have largely bucked this trend, delivering informed, timely, and impartial guidance that has been actively embraced by citizens.

“Most of the really important data that helped me to make decisions personally about what I should or shouldn’t do in the community last year originated from government,” said John Asquith, Head of Innovation for Government at ServiceNow, speaking at the FST Government Queensland 2021 conference.

Through a catastrophic bushfire season, devastating cross-state floods, and a still lingering Covid crisis, government agencies emerged as one of the few authorities the public could rely upon for accurate, unbiased, and consistent information, according to Asquith.

“In a world increasingly compromised by misinformation and fake news, governments in Australia can still be trusted to provide the most accurate information available.”

 

A prime example was the advice doled out by health officials to both government and the population at large, which, he said, has been key to “minimising our risks” – little wonder, Asquith noted, these officials have become some of the most respected voices of the last year.

Yet, the delivery of these essential government services and information in the midst of crises could not have come through half measures. It has been underpinned not only by a renewed focus on data, but also on resilience-minded digital transformation initiatives that have enabled agencies to fully leverage their deep well of data assets.

“Government,” Asquith stressed, “has a responsibility to continue to collect and make that data available to help others make the right decisions, as well as ensuring that the decisions it makes itself are supported by data.”

For trust in government to be sustained, he added, policies and regulations need to be underpinned by evidence – evidence that is, ultimately, backed by data.

What is more, enabling the next generation of predictive, real-time, and interconnected government services, backed by automated processing, artificial intelligence (AI), and internet of things (IoT) technologies, will require agencies to further tap into their rich vein of data assets.

This data “not only needs to be accurate,” he said, “but also complete and sufficiently representative of all of the groups that it might divide the data into”, ensuring government can continue to make “meaningful decisions” about the people it represents.

“Evidence is going to become increasingly important, as processes are increasingly driven by data analytics and AI that start to make more recommendations and decisions on our behalf.”

 

For Asquith, these burgeoning technologies, particularly AI, have immense transformative potential for government, facilitating the creation of efficient, proactive, and seamless public services.

However, without proper controls, there are considerable risks in the use of these algorithmic technologies, potentially leading to systemic biases and suboptimal service outcomes. The difference, ultimately, is in the data.

 

Building resilience

The ability to fully leverage data assets to deliver optimal citizen services boils down to how well agencies have progressed in their digitalisation journeys.

For Asquith, the most resilient agencies were those best equipped to respond to rapidly changing operating environments, most notably those experienced over the last year.

“Being resilient is all about being able to anticipate issues to prevent them where possible, respond and recover quickly when something does go wrong, and continuously adapt to make sure that we’re ready for the next challenge.”

In turn, an organisation’s “digital maturity” was most strongly correlated with its resilience.

Resilience is not only about creating an environment that is crisis-ready, but also one that is “able to transform continuously… creating a better future for all our customers and our employees”.

“We need to be able to adapt rapidly to new customer expectations, to new ways of working, and to situations that we haven’t even realised could happen yet,” Asquith said.

Resilience increases an organisation’s agility and ability to drive innovation, he said, allowing them to react quickly whilst also reducing operating costs.

“If we want to be able to deliver better services for lower costs and create more employment and a growing economy, the journey is really only just beginning. And it can’t all be done at once.”

 

While we live in an “unpredictable world”, Asquith said, “risks can be managed”.

“We don’t know when or where the next bushfire is going to happen, but we can at least be prepared for it.”

In a world of progressive automation and deeply embedded artificial intelligence systems – systems that can effectively slash rates of human error – risks can be drastically mitigated, he said. “But we need data to do this”.

“We need to start thinking now about how we create the data that will enable AI systems to be trained, whilst also learning about risks and how best to manage them.”

“And as we learn more, we can improve our ability to predict and mitigate against risk.”

With rapid and unprecedented changes to border controls through the course of the Covid crisis, risk mitigation and event prediction became top order concerns for Australia’s Home Affairs department (DHA).

ServiceNow was enlisted at the front-line of Australia’s border control system, supporting the DHA to deploy a new travel exemption and visa portal systems, rolled out “in a matter of weeks”, that could support rapid changes in the country’s border and travel policies.

Radi Kovacevic, chief information officer at the Department of Home Affairs, praised the ServiceNow team for “achieving some very significant outcomes for both the Department and Government”.

Existing airport border control systems, which are there to “ensure safe travel back into and out of Australia”, were still “reliant on email and paper-based processing”, Kovacevic said.

ServiceNow was chosen to help “automate and rapidly deploy solutions… for three DHA portals”, Kovacevic said, among which were separate portals for air and sea approvals, one for returning permanent residents and New Zealand citizens, and one for transitioning travellers – systems, he said, that were “stood up in almost no time”.

“It really helped with a lot of the backlog and the manual processing, and having a platform that we could leverage very quickly and in a secure format as well was essential.”

For Asquith, two critical factors will determine agencies’ success in mitigating risk: seamless gathering and analysis of data from across an organisation, and adaptability of systems to changing risk environments.

“There’s a growing need for organisations to, firstly, be able to get risk and compliance and operational insights from throughout the organisation into a single pane of glass, and also to have an ability to provide for continuous management of changing risks and the data needed for risk-based decision making.”

 

With governments worldwide facing a surge in cyber-attacks, many from sophisticated nation-state actors, the integrity and protection of this data is also a critical concern for risk teams, particularly as workloads progressively shift into more cost- and process-efficient cloud environments.

To address regulatory requirements for the Australian Government, ServiceNow has launched the Australia Protected Cloud (APC). Built on Microsoft Azure, the APC powers compliant digital transformation in government.

Agencies get the full power of the Now Platform®, with all APC components in country, meeting the strict data sovereignty requirements of the Australian government. Data storage, technical support, machine learning – everything is localised to Australia. The APC is assessed for protected level data by the Information Security Registered Assessors Program (IRAP).

 

Resilience & responsiveness – ‘two sides of the same coin’

2020 was a year that agencies truly began to appreciate risk – and, particularly, risk as a catalyst for transformation.

For Asquith, it taught government agencies about the criticality of data to inform and help make decisions, as well as the importance of being able to respond rapidly when situations do change.

It proved, moreover, that “resilience and responsiveness are really two sides of the same coin”.

The year of crisis also revealed the importance of enabling an environment of continuous transformation and the value of consolidating digital assets.

“It is a process that requires visibility and awareness of a continuously evolving risk environment and being informed by and driven by the data that enables you to respond in ways that minimise the impacts on your organisation.”

“As you get better and faster at responding to change,” Asquith added, “you become more resilient and able to respond to the next unexpected event or threat that appears at your door even easier.”

A platform that can manage services across an organisation, providing a single destination for organisations to track critical services and a multitude of interdependent processes and components relied upon by each service to ensure resilience, will be key to maintaining a resilient organisation.

ServiceNow’s purpose-built vaccination management solution, tailor-made for the National Health Service (NHS) Scotland, is a testament to this vision for consolidated, adaptable, and thus resilient, agency function.

The system has enabled the NHS to pursue a rapid roll-out of various Covid-19 vaccines “within 90 days”, to five million Scottish citizens, ensuring “any potential side effects could be identified and that no one is missed in vaccination process”, Asquith said.

This system met a need “that wasn’t even on the radar a year ago” – illustrating most clearly the “rapid innovation” capable on the ServiceNow platform.


John Asquith was a featured keynote speaker at the FST Government Queensland conference.