Information management and infrastructure
Working more successfully across Australian government agencies, other jurisdictions and the private sector relies on better information sharing and requires structured approaches to the collection, reuse and sharing of data and information.
The pressures to share information across agencies are increasing. Approaches proposed in this report are flexible enough to provide frameworks that allow agencies to move to better information sharing practices in line with their own business requirements.
Improving agencies’ capability to transfer and exchange information is critical and will require improved interoperability between agencies’ information systems. In the longer term it will require agencies to adopt and implement common information policies, standards and protocols. Potential common frameworks, policies and standards will need to be flexible enough to respond to agencies’ varying business requirements.
This will ensure agencies are ‘integration ready’ should the need arise for agencies to commit to a single common infrastructure. However, improvements can be made not just by joining services and information together but by redesigning and reengineering systems to deliver both better-quality and more efficient services.
Increasingly, agencies are identifying a need to work in clusters to achieve common and interrelated objectives. These clusters form and change over time as outcomes are achieved and environments change. Operating in a cluster or shared environment introduces an imperative for agencies to work towards optimising the outcome for all rather than for any one agency. Achieving this balance is not easy. Agency heads and senior executives can actively ensure that such approaches achieve the best outcomes, not the easiest agreed outcomes.
Better business modelling, investment tools and governance structures are also required to guide agency decision making. The government recognised this need when it established the Information Management Strategy Committee (IMSC) to take a lead role in coordinating information management and information technology activities across government.
The IMSC’s mandate could be expanded to include specific information and knowledge management guidance to agencies. This guidance could include general and technical principles, protocols and standards, and sponsoring joint activities that support effective information management across government.
There are some basic best practice approaches agencies can adopt. In particular, agencies should identify information management needs early in the development of project plans, review training programs to ensure adequate coverage of information management and, where appropriate, establish structures (such as information clusters) to further information-sharing objectives.
Where there is common policy approach, processes and clients, agencies should consider forming clusters to manage information sharing. For example, agencies within clusters could work together to identify the business imperatives to share statistical, physical (locational), biophysical and economic data. They could structure their information requirements around the principles of ‘create once, use many times’, and best value for government, for business and individuals.
Priority should be given to information clusters on social indicators (health, welfare, education etc.); economic indicators (industry, trade etc.); and environmental indicators (agriculture, climate, environment etc.). This is a sound starting point as it reflects a ‘triple bottom line’ approach.
- Information sharing plays a critical role in generating better decision making and program delivery. The information that agencies collect, analyse and store can be better connected through more structured information management and the development of clusters of shared information.
- Agencies can:
- create a culture that emphasises the value of information management and sharing
- establish business protocols, procedures and standards
- develop the skills, tools and practices to support new procedures
- manage the tension arising from the integration of their priorities with broader whole of government priorities.
- There are many examples of agencies working to improve information infrastructure and their capacity to manage, share and integrate information.
- The IMSC has a role to play in considering and developing shared infrastructure, architecture and protocols to facilitate both whole of government and multi- agency activities.
- Agencies can:
One of the things you find in government is that no amount of goodwill is enough, no amount of good policy direction is enough, unless you have accurate information at your disposal. (The Hon. John Howard, MP, Prime Minister, at the launch of the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, 2002.)
Providing information is a key government function. Information is essential to enable agencies to produce the government’s expected outcomes and to meet community expectations. Increasingly, effective sharing of information is critical to the success of whole of government outcomes.
Information and communications technology (ICT) underpins and enables improved information sharing and information management approaches by agencies.
Managing information in a whole of government way
The need to share information among agencies or across the whole of government broadly falls into four categories:
- dealing with an emergency—the need to pull together all available information about a specific issue such as responding to the Bali bombing
- integrating information holdings—the need to inform policy development and foster effective policy outcomes by acquiring, integrating and analysing available information holdings across government agencies—for example, the National Illicit Drugs Strategy and Natural Resource Management case studies (appendix 2)
- integrated service delivery—the need to provide services across agencies in a seamless way—for example, Natural Resource Management and Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Indigenous Trials case studies (appendix 2) and cooperation between Centrelink and the Australian Taxation Office to streamline issuing of tax file numbers
- managing areas of joint activity—the need to encourage sharing of information within the Australian Government and across jurisdictions or with the private sector.
An agency’s approach to the management of its information holdings must be driven by its business requirements. However, this needs to be done in a way that gives due recognition to whole of government business requirements, as well as agency- specific requirements. Agencies must manage the tension between the integration of these priorities. Understanding
when information needs to be shared and establishing agreed frameworks and protocols are essential to create this balance.
As whole of government approaches become more common in the way agencies conduct their business, information sharing plays a critical role in generating better decision making and program delivery. Sharing information can also result in more empowered and efficient consumers of government services, which in turn can lead to better informed consumers more likely to participate in the policy development process.
This leads to a heightened requirement for improved system interoperability between agencies around shared infrastructure, information standards and protocols and the reuse of existing data.
Implementing improved system interoperability will occur at varying rates across agencies, reflecting the differences in agency imperatives. Business cases that support agency technology investments need to recognise this.
Increasingly, implementing public policy means agencies need to understand broad government objectives and be committed to their effective implementation, regardless of agency boundaries.
Joint agency activities call on different players to come together for different projects. The capacity to share information across systems needs to be available to all agencies to improve productivity and ease of data transfer and exchanges.1
Systems unable to exchange financial and performance information significantly reduce the effectiveness of whole of government management. A recent survey by the Department of Finance and Administration (Finance) identified 17 primary financial management information systems (FMIS) currently being used across government.
Compatible (e.g. data definition standards such as xml) or common systems are predicted to be some time away and will involve significant capital investment. Chapter 5 considers two approaches to resolving this constraint in the short term. Finance could develop and maintain standard templates for
FMISs and budgetary model specifications, as well as facilitate development of best practice principles and the sharing of knowledge and good practice between agencies.
The development of information technology has dramatically increased the quantity of information available in digital form. This has resulted in a proliferation of uses of personal information which has major implications for the privacy of individuals.
The Federal Privacy Commissioner has responsibility under the Privacy Act 1988 to ensure the protection of personal information including information handled by Australian government agencies. Agencies have an obligation to comply with the 11 information privacy principles; and the
commissioner has issued guidelines specifically for Australian government agencies about websites, workplace email, web browsing and privacy. These principles and guidelines need to be taken into account when dealing with information sharing in a whole of government environment.2
At present, information sharing occurs mainly within individual programs and on an ad hoc basis through individual employees. Structured information exchanges beyond identified projects or formal bipartite or tripartite arrangements are uncommon.
More often, agencies are identifying a need to work in clusters to achieve common and interrelated objectives. These clusters form and change over time as outcomes are achieved and environments change.
The membership and nature of clusters will evolve over time.
It is important that an overall framework be developed to ensure that the standards and protocols developed in one cluster do not impede data sharing in the future with other clusters or groups.
Fortunately, the technical barriers to information sharing are continually being minimised through advances in ICT. This trend can be expected to continue. Faster and cheaper computer hardware and communications networks make it much easier to share information even from remote sites and just as the demands of e-business led to huge investments in development of tools and standards which support easier integration of systems within and across enterprises, whole of government information sharing can make productive use of the existing technical capability.
Standards and protocols
As the need for cross-agency work grows, agencies are placing greater emphasis on whole of government standards and protocols for information exchange. Creating policies, guidelines, standards and procedures (frameworks) will improve trust, confidence and accountability across the network of participants.
Agencies are showing leadership in this area and have recently agreed on the Technical Interoperability Framework, developed under the auspices of the IMSC, which facilitates better exchange of data through agreed standards and protocols.
Agencies recognise that whole of government standards and protocols need to accommodate the increasing role of the private sector in public sector business processes. Industry standards or best practice guides should be implemented where possible. Where there are no standards, government agencies should work with the relevant private sector parties to agree on best practice and evolve appropriate Australian standards.
There are three major issues facing agencies that need to share data. These centre around actions to improve the conceptual structures and organisation of information and systems (architecture) to achieve:
- shared infrastructure (actual or virtual)
- common standards and protocols that allow information to be more easily exchanged between agencies’ information systems
- better information on, and reuse of, existing data sources to reduce duplication.
Existing data collections are underused. When an agency wants to answer a question it often initiates a new specific data collection exercise. There is an immense, untapped potential for the reuse of existing information sources.
Cost reduction from reusing existing data is one benefit. Common standards and reuse of existing data sources improves timeliness, consistency and quality of government responses, quality of service delivery, and avoids the cost of recreating information. Decision making has the potential to be improved through the availability of a wider range of information.
To support data sharing, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) is developing the concept of the National Statistical Service (NSS). Its aim is to:
- increase the availability, accessibility and usability of information derived from key administrative and survey data sets by applying sound statistical and data management principles and practices
- forge statistical partnerships to share knowledge and expertise.
An important component of the NSS will be a Directory of Statistical Sources accessible through the ABS website. It will enable all relevant ABS and non-ABS statistical collections to be identified together with appropriate metadata and details of how to access information with electronic links where possible. In essence, this will be a portal to government statistical sources.
It would be good practice if agencies ensured that relevant statistical sources were listed in the directory.
Creating obligations to share data introduces new and potentially expensive requirements on agencies because of the need to integrate systems development in the short to medium term. It is important that agencies achieve a balance in their information management investment. Over investing in information management systems—hardware, software and processes (information infrastructure)—wastes resources.
However, in the longer term, under investing leads to lower productivity, duplication, reduced integration and frustration.
There is a considerable entry price for joint activity and networked information management across agencies.
Expenditure on information infrastructure is a capital investment. Returns accrue and efficiencies are generated over differing timeframes. The costs and benefits of shared infrastructure do not fall evenly across agencies and may fall to individuals or the private sector. Lead agencies often pay a
price for being the first mover. The benefits arising through the introduction of these new systems may accrue to other agencies or other parts of the economy.
These considerations underpin the importance of rigorous business cases for technology investments. There needs to be better analysis of the demand, costs and benefits that would result from sharing needs. Existing investment models also need refinement to take better account of these complexities.
Current information management practices
Pressure for agencies to share information is both immediate and longer term. Managing for different rates of adoption among agencies is critical. The challenge is to adopt approaches that meet agencies’ immediate business priorities, but do not close off options to pursue joint activity in the future.
The IMSC, a subcommittee of the Management Advisory Committee (MAC), was established in November 2002. The committee considers and proposes development strategies for shared infrastructure, architectures and protocols necessary to facilitate both whole of government and multi-agency activities.
There are many examples of agencies working to improve information infrastructure and their capacity to manage, share and integrate information:
- Information Development Plans that identify information needs, data sources and priority areas for improved data are in place or are being developed for various fields of statistics by the ABS, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, and others. They guide the development of national information and reflect an increasing demand for access to quality data on which to base discussion and decision making. The plans provide a framework for the systematic improvement, integration and wider use of data sources and enable agencies to have a greater shared awareness of the environment in which they operate.
- The Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth is promoting the need for a ‘data network’ to share information across a wide range of primary research bodies. The data network will consist of the technical and organisational frameworks for stakeholders to share data. This framework will allow organisations involved (including several government agencies) to provide networked access to their databases.
- National Information Agreements in the health, community services and housing assistance sectors have been in operation for many years. They are formal, multilateral agreements between Australian, state and territory government authorities and national statistical agencies, and provide the framework for a cooperative approach to national information development. The agreements facilitate more reliable, timely and consistent national information and contribute to the efficient provision of more appropriate and improved services and outcomes for the Australian community.
- Window on Women, <www.windowonwomen.gov.au>
is a unique, single reference point designed to provide free access to integrated statistical data about women's needs and circumstances through a women's data warehouse facility.
This website, operated by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, is an example of an agency recognising the public value in government statistical collections and making them available to the public to improve its capacity to respond to the needs of Australian women.
- National Health Privacy Code is an example of providing more clarity and rigour concerning the privacy implications of information sharing. The code continues to respect the principle of confidentiality. At the same time it introduces a broader set of rules to cover the exchange of individual health information on a wider scale between hospitals, pharmacists, other health providers, health researchers,
law enforcement agencies, government departments and individuals.
- The Department of Environment and Heritage (DEH)/ Department of Agriculture Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) Joint Information Management Project is supported by a governance body, the Information Technology Joint Steering Committee. The committee is chaired jointly by the secretaries of DEH and DAFF.
The role of the committee is to provide leadership and a governance framework to facilitate interoperability between the departments’ information management and IT systems.
Initiatives in cross-agency information management, such as those outlined above, highlight that common standards and protocols are an important prerequisite for underpinning more strategic cross-agency and program initiatives.
Meeting the needs for whole of government information
Information management and sharing is about enabling informed decision making and is not about enforcing standards or providing the solution to a problem. The following suggestions are designed to improve whole of government information management in the APS.
The scale of initiatives that agencies introduce vary significantly, depending on individual business requirements. Despite variations in scale, the case studies in this report highlight some basic best practice approaches agencies can adopt, such as: identify information needs early in a project, form clusters to manage information sharing between agencies, and use repositories of information and shared workspaces to improve cross-agency awareness.
Comprehensive indexes and smarter use of directories of government information sources will enhance APS employees’ ability to have information at their fingertips. This can be further supported by protocols about how information is collected, stored, discovered and reused. These protocols should be developed with a view to extending the capacity to share data. This approach needs to be supported by a culture of continuous improvement in those agencies responsible for data and information content to ensure the highest standards of information management are maintained.
The case studies highlight steps that can be taken immediately to improve cross-agency information sharing, including planning to share information and understanding the sources of information. These and other steps are discussed below.
Plan to share information
The case studies (appendix 2) on the National Illicit Drugs Strategy, iconsult, Australian Greenhouse Office and Australians Working Together all highlight that information, technology and infrastructure requirements proceed better when identified early and properly planned.
Adopt whole of government information principles
Information management principles should be developed to promote a culture of reusing existing information within government. These principles may need to be tailored to meet agencies’ specific requirements such as high-level security.
Principles could include:
- information should be available to be shared by others who have an appropriate business requirement
- data should be collected in a consistent manner and should be transferable across organisations and be reusable (‘create once, use many times’) while conforming to privacy provisions and security standards
- standardised data management practices should be used where possible in order to share and improve access to data and information
- expenditure on information management should be treated as an investment, not a liability
- data collected should be timely, relevant, accurate and cost-effective
- agencies should look to provide a net social benefit from their information holdings
- people should understand the value and knowledge that can be generated from the information they use, and the cost of generating that information
- people have both information rights and responsibilities when they manage and protect information.
Adopt protocols for information shared across public and private sectors
Increasingly, the private sector participates in government policy development, program administration or service delivery.
For example, a peak non-government organisation was involved in the policy formulation and program design of the National Illicit Drugs Strategy. Local Indigenous communities were involved in the development of programs and services in the COAG Indigenous Trials. Private providers participate in delivering workplace services through Job Network.
Similarly, the growing phenomenon of private agents providing personalised advice or services to citizens in place of, or on behalf of, government has implications for access to, and use of, data held in a non-government environment. Centrelink’s agents who are employed locally in remote communities are an example.
Information sharing with stakeholders can inform good business discussions and good management of government grants and programs in partnership with regions and communities.
Public–private interaction requires information systems that are interoperable and that allow for information to be used in ways that remain transparent. However, sharing information outside the public sector has risks. In particular, accepted standards of privacy or intellectual property must not be, or perceived to be, compromised.
Establish rules that govern information and knowledge sharing
Laws and rules apply equally in times of normal business, as well as crisis, and are a necessary part of the management of information to protect the interests of individuals, as well as to ensure accountability and transparency of government activities. This is reinforced in Architecture Principle Number 5 of the MAC report, Australian Government Use of Information and Communications Technology, which states: ‘ICT systems must be implemented in compliance with government security, confidentiality and privacy policies and laws. Information must be protected against unauthorised access, denial of service and both intentional and accidental modification.’3
The Bali Crisis case study highlighted the importance attached to these rules by government agencies, and demonstrated that these rules cannot be bypassed in times of crisis. The Privacy Act was an important consideration in the response to the Bali crisis. The Act prescribes rules for the collection, use, transfer and reuse of personal information. It also addresses circumstances that may allow exemptions from those rules. In the case of the Bali bombing, interpretation of the provisions of the Privacy Act differed between the agencies responding to the crisis.
The case study demonstrated the importance of sound and consistent understanding and interpretation among agencies of the rules governing information sharing. This is particularly important where the parties—government, individuals, businesses or community groups—expect rapid and well- founded responses.
Establish clusters to improve information sharing, better responsiveness and better decision making
Agencies that share similar policy focuses, processes or client groups can benefit by coming together to refine common data standards to support aggregation and reuse of information.
Operating in a cluster or shared environment introduces an imperative for agencies to work towards optimising the outcome for all rather than for any one agency. Achieving this balance is not easy. Agency heads and senior executives can actively ensure that such approaches achieve the best outcomes, not the easiest agreed outcomes.
Forming clusters (a group of individuals or organisations interested in a particular issue) is a way of managing information relationships between agencies. The Australian Government’s Business Entry Point4 (BEP) for business information and transactions, Health Connect for health data and Australians Working Together for welfare data, are all examples of communities of interest that could form a cluster. An agency may be a member of more than one such cluster.
The Spatial Information Council (formerly the Australian New Zealand Land Information Council), which draws together members from Geoscience Australia, the New Zealand Government and each of the state and territory governments, is an example of how a cluster of interest could form around geospatial information management. Another example of a cluster is the coming together of federal and state health data collections (coordinated by the National Health Information Group) to agree on basic data standards.
The Australian Taxation Office's Individual Auto Registration project aims to extend to Centrelink and other clients the facility to apply for tax file numbers (TFNs) online. This will provide a faster, more efficient service to those applying for a TFN through a Centrelink web interface. This project reinforces the importance of forming clusters to support aggregation of data and reuse of information.
Create a single reference point for whole of government information
Approaches to improve cross-agency information sharing should be communicated to agencies through a whole of government web presence.
Material should be expanded over time to include whole of government best practice guides, literature guide, tools and templates on information sharing. It should also link to other resources such as the Government Online Directory and the Interoperability Technical Framework.
The IMSC, in conjunction with key agencies, should examine the feasibility and costs of:
- piloting a self-service creation of shared workspaces to enable real-time communication on a secure web based workspace
- helping agencies find off-the-shelf products and software that support shared workspaces.
Similar approaches have been undertaken across Australia. For example, The Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO)5 coordinates best practice checklists for information management.
Extend the role for the Information Management Strategy Committee
Managing the requirements for information sharing in a federated public sector is complex. The case studies demonstrate that inadequate protocols and procedures and the lack of a supportive culture can inhibit the flow of information among agencies.
Improving the capacity for information sharing requires agency-based information systems to be able to interact with each other. The challenges are as much organisational and cultural as they are technical.
AGIMO and the Chief Information Officer Committee play a critical role in supporting both agencies and the IMSC in meeting these challenges.
Adopt the concept of ‘create once, use many times’
Agencies are increasingly drawing on content from each other to advise on government priorities and meet the expectations of individuals and businesses. Practical adoption of the concept ‘create once, use many times’ will provide a basis for better information sharing for whole of government requirements.
customers are likely to require more information on GST than individuals. Duplication of information across sites for different audiences (and resulting problems such as poor maintenance, inconsistent advice and inaccuracy) should be eliminated.
The ‘create once, use many times’ concept means the agency with prime responsibility needs to create and maintain information so it can be used by other agencies. It does not necessitate the capture or storage of data at a single location— rather it implies that information may be sourced from the lead agency, subject to the appropriate trust, privacy and security safeguards being in place.
An example of ‘create once, use many times’ is the Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST), website
www.dest.gov.au and the www.education.gov.au portal. The portal focuses on the needs of education users (students and parents), educators or professionals (school, vocational, higher, adult and community education), policy makers, employers and industry. The DEST website has some customers in common with the portal (who may require greater detail on the information) but also caters for a broader audience that may include business, government and researchers interested in education, as well as science and training.
Updating the content once can ensure changes are reflected on both sites. The level of detail pulled from the single source onto each website can differ, to suit each site’s users.
Another example is the BEP ‘transaction manager’, a tool which allows businesses and individuals to create information once and use it many times. It has been developed to allow users to discover, manage and complete online transactions with federal, state/territory and local government agencies through access to over 4000 government forms. To facilitate users’ completion of the form and to reduce time-consuming and duplicative paperwork, the transaction manager allows users to store their multiple personal and business details in profiles. These profiles automatically pre-fill and complete online transaction forms as the user accesses them.
Past attempts to link government data through centralised resources have led to small advances in access to, and discovery of, information. The capability to have information at one's fingertips is likely to be significantly improved through smarter use of directories, helped by technology.
Agencies should manage their data in a consistent framework
An agency creates information without necessarily knowing how it might be used in the future. This places a significant responsibility on agencies to collect and store information and manage it in a way that enables it to be accessed by others, with appropriate authorisation, at a later date. This will involve:
- managing changes to the data in a way that is sensitive to other major users
- agreeing on standards and protocols for information access and integration
- enabling transfer of data and information between agency information management systems
- providing the capacity to find relevant information resources created by others
- undertaking regular inventories and archival work
- agreeing to protocols to safeguard the access of information against misuse.
To help with this, data should be held separate from the applications or systems that use the data. This separation allows the data to be used for other business needs that were not anticipated.
Include consideration of information needs in business and project plans
Sound business planning incorporates the role of technology. The capacity to apply technology to strengthen information management across the APS is a common lesson in the National Illicit Drugs Strategy, iconsult, Australian Greenhouse Office and Australians Working Together case studies (appendix 2).
These studies also highlight the benefits of identifying and planning for information, technology and infrastructure needs early in the project. Protocols to assist agencies with information sharing should include security and privacy aspects.
Improve access to, and discovery of, information within government
Agencies wanting to share information need to know what sources of information are available. This is made difficult by the lack of comprehensive indexes of government data and information sources. Historically, this knowledge has tended to be gleaned from informal networks, which can produce inconsistent and inefficient results.
One way to ensure the reliability and currency of the information is to use a single authoritative source, rather than recreate information across multiple platforms. Individuals have different expectations of information that may be derived from a single source. For example, Tax Office business
Use collaborative workspaces and tools for information management
Shared workspaces on the internet can improve cross-agency awareness and enable real-time communication. For example, the development of this report was supported by a whole of government team that exchanged work and ideas through a secure web-based workspace. Shared workspaces such as this are not common at present.
Engender a supportive culture and improved information management skills
The iconsult case study notes that considerable investment goes into information collection, but this does not translate into information sharing unless there is trust. The National Illicit Drugs Strategy case study also highlights that agency culture can undermine willingness to share information.
Agencies need to ensure that their employees have the necessary level of understanding and skills to support the application of information management practices and technology to government business.
The behaviours and skills of APS employees should reflect the increasing importance of information management and technology to government. For instance:
- Policy areas need to understand better and appreciate how information management and technology can help inform policy.
- Program designers and project managers need to be able to determine information and technology needs up-front.
They need to assess where technology can improve business processes and communications with stakeholders.
- Managers need to be able to identify strategic opportunities and risks for improving government operations through the better use of information and technology.
- Managers need to understand information management in the same way they need to understand and apply human resource and fiscal management.
Adopting the above suggestions will go a long way to ensuring the APS maximises its business return on its information resources.