In brief: The Australian Government has released its alpha Digital Service Standard, which establishes criteria that all Australian digital government services must meet to ensure they are simpler, faster and easier to use. The Digital Service Standard is part of the Coalition government's push to deliver government services digitally from start to finish. In this article, Partner Ian McGill (view CV), Senior Associate Valeska Bloch and Associate Byron Frost examine the Digital Service Standard and its impact on government agencies and service providers.

HOW DOES IT AFFECT YOU?

  • Agencies will need to act quickly to develop transition plans for existing services to which the Digital Service Standard (theStandard) applies.
  • Agencies will need to incorporate obligations requiring compliance with the Standard into their contractual documents with service providers.
  • Service providers should take the release of the Standard as an opportunity to engage with agencies. Where there are breaks in contract provision, there may be an opportunity for a reappraisal of what is delivered and how.
  • Agencies, and service providers where appropriate, will need to work with the Digital Transformation Office to keep up-to-date as the Standard and guidance is developed.

BACKGROUND

In the lead up to the 2013 Federal Election, the now-Coalition Government outlined its policy for E-Government and the Digital Economy. A key aspect of its policy was the migration online of all the Australian Government's major services and interactions with individuals. The Coalition set 2017 as a realistic and achievable date for this goal.

The Government has begun to implement its policy by:

  • establishing the Interim Digital Transformation Office (DTO). The DTO will become an executive agency on 1 July 2015 within the Department of Communications; and
  • releasing an alpha version of the Standard, which has been adapted from the UK Government's Digital by Default Service Standard.

THE STANDARD

The Government is committed to delivering to individuals services that are 'simpler, faster and easier to use'.1 The Standard sets out 16 criteria that agencies must meet when developing and running applicable services they own. The 16 criteria have some common themes, namely that agencies' digital services:

  •  are built on common platforms;
  • are transparent in performance reporting; and
  • make it 'easier for everyone' to interact and transact with government (ie a user focus)2.

For example, a service should be built with a 'common look, feel, tone and function that meets the needs of users', and agencies should 'undertake ongoing user research and usability testing to continuously inform service improvement.'3

Applicability

The Standard applies to all new services and all existing high-volume Australian Government services, which includes transactional services and digital information as a service.

Transactional services

For transactional services, a service must meet the Standard before it can go live, if it is:

  • the responsibility of, or partly owned or operated by, a government department or agency;
  • completely new or being redesigned; and
  • processing (or likely to process) more than 50,000 transactions every year.

If the service is already operating, the agency responsible will need to provide a transition plan by September 2015 that sets out how the service will comply with the Standard.

Digital information as a service

For digital information as a service, all information that is the responsibility of, or is partly owned or funded by, a government department or agency is subject to the Standard.

If the information is completely new, from June 2015 it must meet the Standard before it can go live. If the information is already published, it will need to be updated to follow the Standard, with the agency required to develop a transition plan by September 2015.·

Exceptions

The Government has foreshadowed that there will be circumstances where the Standard will not apply. At this stage, services dealing with only a handful of transactions or that are subject to legislation or technical barriers are likely to be exempt from requiring to comply with all or some of the Standard.4

Adopting and meeting the Standard

To assist agencies with adopting and meeting the Standard, the DTO is in the process of developing a Digital Services Design Guide (theGuide). The DTO will release the Guide at the end of June 2015 and then add further guidance as issues emerge.  In the meantime, the DTO has uploaded extensive information (which will form the base for the Guide) as to what agencies must consider to meet the Standard's criteria.

Where an agency is required to meet the Standard for an existing service it delivers, a transition plan needs to be developed by September 2015. The plan will describe how an agency will adopt the Standard and deliver more user-centred services by 2017. The DTO has said that agencies should prioritise services that are high-volume, high-impact processes where digital improvements will benefit a significant number of users.5

To ensure compliance with the Standard, the agency that owns the service should assess the service at each of the four key development milestones as a minimum, before going live. The DTO is also developing a Digital Service Dashboard where agencies can report on and track their compliance with the Standard for a particular service. 

IMPACT ON AGENCIES AND SERVICE PROVIDERS

Most people expect to be able to access government services and information anytime and anywhere using an internet-connected device.6This expectation has led to the Government establishing the DTO and developing the Standard to ensure that user interaction with agencies is made 'as easy as Internet banking or ordering a taxi through an app'.7

The new 'digital by design' approach requires agencies to review existing services and where necessary develop transition plans by September 2015 to facilitate that service being compliant with the Standard. Any new information services launched from June 2015 will need to comply with the Standard.

This means that if the service is not being developed in-house, agencies must work closely with service providers to ensure that services comply with the Standard where required. It is also likely to lead to new contractual obligations regarding compliance with the Standard being included in service provider contracts.

Stay tuned, as the DTO has said that there will be a range of forums held over the coming months discussing what the Standards mean and how they will apply. The DTO is also currently welcoming feedback on the digital service guidance.

The push for a digital first government is likely to result in agencies (and service providers) incurring significant time and costs to achieve continued compliance with the Standard.