The government collects, uses and shares a lot of information.
Over the years, this process has become more standardised and has moved from paper-based to digital.
But people were still expected to do the heavy lifting. Business owners, for example, had to manually type their payroll records into a digital form, and click ‘submit’ to government.
Recognising this as an issue, a cross-government group wondered if there was a way they could make computers do more of the grunt work.
Turns out there was.
We spoke with the team’s Alastair Parker about how tweaks in business reporting led to transformative benefits for companies and government.
‘In 2006 the Productivity Commission identified that billions of dollars were lost in productivity in Australia every year because of government asking things in peculiar ways,’ says Alastair.
‘For example, government agencies had different interpretations of small business. If government agency A asked, “Are you a small business?” and you said, “Yes”, you’d expect that if government agency B asked if you're a small business, you could also say “yes”. Unfortunately, that wasn’t true.’
So agencies got together to standardise the reports that businesses needed to provide to the government. They called it, funnily enough, Standard Business Reporting, (or SBR).
Standardising the definitions and questions government asked might seem like a small change but it took a lot of work and had a huge impact.
‘Introducing SBR has gone phenomenally well!’ exclaims Alastair. ‘In one case, we did some work with the superannuation industry which saved them countless hours of extra work per year.’
The SBR team teamed up with the Digital Transformation Agency (DTA). They felt even more could be done to improve SBR. They wanted to address the issue of business owners still having to fill out similar forms for different agencies because the bespoke technologies didn’t talk to each other.
Alastair says they started with a user-centred approach. Instead of imposing something on businesses, they adapted to the technology already used by businesses.
‘Twenty years ago, a company’s tax information was probably in a filing cabinet,’ says Alastair. ‘Now it’s in a piece of software.’
And the software world has a pretty common way of sharing information – APIs.
An API is an ‘application programming interface’. Think of them like ‘digital go-betweens’ that deal with requests and responses. APIs can be plugged into different systems to allow them to share information or work with each other.
Let’s say you want to book a train ticket on the internet, and you’re on your favourite travel site. That travel site uses the train company’s API to pull in information about the schedule, tickets available, prices etc., so you can book it there and then.
Same thing happens with your smart TV and your phone’s weather apps (actually, basically all the apps). And that weird little gadget your uncle got you that frowns when it’s about to rain...
Alastair said it made sense that data government agencies collect should go through the same sorts of interfaces. This makes it as easy as possible to collect and share information.
By using APIs the public service can leverage not only the standardisation, but also make the computer do the heavy lifting.
‘It's about saying, let's stop requiring people to do work when the records are in a computer,’ says Alastair.
For example, the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) creating an API means the accounting software can now automatically share information about the business.
‘It just happens in there for free, automatically, without people needing to worry about it or think about it, which saves that person time and effort, and money.’
Further, if say, Services Australia, Defence, or the Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment need that same sort information, they can use the ATO’s API. That saves businesses even more time reporting.
A big part of the collaboration with the DTA has been listing the Australian Government APIs in a central location, api.gov.au, so they’re easy to find.
Say you make accounting software and you want to make it easy for people to report to various government agencies. You now have one place to look.
As Alastair puts it ‘Does the government have an API for this? People can go and look in one spot and answer distinctively yes or no rather than having to search forever trying to find out if one exists.’
This also means that when someone in government wants to build a new API, they have a library of existing work to learn from.
‘By sharing these definitions, agencies can also work to standardise them, which in turn makes it better for the people who are helped by them,’ says Alastair.
All of this work is enhancement-oriented innovation. A small step of innovation for the public service, a giant leap for businesses and citizens. What’s more, this giant leap means those people have to jump through less hoops.
Which is something to get excited about.
The Public Sector Innovation Network (PSIN) was an Australian government network helping public servants understand and apply innovation in their daily work. PSIN ceased on 8 January 2021.
See more PSIN resources or read about PSIN on the National Library of Australia Trove archive.