Victorian Data Sharing Bill 2017

Debate resumed from 2 November; motion of Mr JENNINGS (Special Minister of State).

Mr RICH-PHILLIPS (South Eastern Metropolitan) (15:01:50) — I am pleased this afternoon to speak on the Victorian Data Sharing Bill 2017. It was the previous coalition government that led the way in opening up and recognising the value of data access in the Victorian jurisdiction — the value that data can have when made available to the private sector, when made available on a public access basis and when used within government for policy development and analysis. It was part of the whole-of-government ICT strategy, which was launched by the previous government in 2012–13 and which set up the framework for what became known as the DataVic access policy.

The DataVic access policy was about recognising that the Victorian government and its hundreds of agencies hold vast quantities of data and typically do very little with it. They may be historic datasets or they may be contemporary datasets relating to the operations of various agencies, but typically those agencies other than carrying out their day-to-day functions do very little with their data. They do not undertake much analysis, if any; they typically do not do a lot of data sharing with other agencies, so there is a vast quantity of data that resides in the public sector, across public sector agencies, which is not being used. For that reason our government put in place the DataVic access policy, which was endorsed by cabinet and applied to the whole of government, starting with the general government sector, requiring agencies to identify and publish in machine-readable format datasets in their custody.

The default position that the policy established was an obligation on agencies to publish datasets unless there was a reason not to publish them. The reason this policy was put in place was the recognition that the private sector and the sector outside government more generally was very well placed to recognise the value of these datasets in ways which government, frankly, did not, and it was well-placed to harness the potential those datasets created for the development of applications and for analysis and policy development outside government so that we actually harnessed the value of what was residing within government.

That was a challenging process because, as many members of the chamber would appreciate, there can be a lot of inertia within government, and a policy change which requires agencies to default to the release of information as business as usual, to do it in a machine-readable format and to do it through a portal where it is available for easy access is a big cultural change and it is a cultural change which requires consistent pressure from government and from responsible ministers and heads of agencies to make sure that it continues to happen.

My understanding is that the current government has maintained that DataVic access policy to promote the release of Victorian government data publicly for that purpose. That is something that is incredibly valuable for the Victorian economy and the Victorian community. There were, I think, when the coalition left government, something in the order of 1400 individual datasets which had been released through the DataVic access portal — for example, there was data from the State Revenue Office around the revenue by postcode of various types of duties and taxes which are imposed; there was data from the Victorian WorkCover Authority around accident rates in different industries; and there was also data around payroll levels in different industries, which is also collected in great detail by WorkCover as part of running the insurance business of that agency. This is data which had not been in the public domain previously but which is incredibly valuable.

To take that WorkCover data as an example, understanding the size of payroll by industry sector at a very detailed level — I think a six-digit Australian and New Zealand standard industrial classification level — is incredibly valuable data. It had been sitting in WorkCover for 30 years, only ever being used to administer the insurance business. To have that in the public domain — obviously de-identified as aggregated data by industry sector — was incredibly valuable to understanding the size of different elements of the economy at a six-digit industry level where we had never had data like that before.

But encouraging agencies to do that and to keep doing that is a constant challenge for government, one which requires constant pressure by the responsible minister, in this case now the Special Minister of State, and indeed the individual portfolio ministers. It was something that our government took particularly seriously. Without straying into the realms of cabinet discussions it was something that our government required regular aggregated reporting on across government back to the centre so that there was visibility at a cabinet level on an ongoing basis as to how much data had been released on a periodic basis once the policy was in place.

The value of data release is very well recognised. The other aspect of the use of data is how it can be used within government: the value of the same datasets being available within government for aggregation and analysis across the public sector. Again this is an area where there is a huge opportunity for policy development and for data to drive policy development. It is an area where, again, there has not been huge progress. Government agencies tend to work in silos. The culture of working in silos is very strong. Developing a culture where the sharing of data between the silos occurs, let alone between the silos and the outside world, does require a great deal of leadership from government and constant leadership from government. But the potential of doing that — of being able to integrate datasets from different agencies to drive policy outcomes and really understand policy questions — is an incredible opportunity for government and one that needs to be supported and encouraged. It is something that certainly the previous government was very enthusiastic about developing. It is one which frankly all contemporary governments need to be enthusiastic about, because using big data to drive policy decisions is definitely the way of the future for good policy development and something that we need the tools to be able to do.

That brings us to the bill which is before the house this afternoon: the Victorian Data Sharing Bill 2017. It is a relatively small bill. It establishes the office of the chief data officer (CDO) as a person employed by the secretary of the department responsible for administering the bill, which I expect will be the Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC), with the chief data officer to be responsible for:

… data integration and data analytics work to inform government policy-making, service planning and design …

and other related functions.

That is contained within part 2 of the bill. Part 3 of the bill sets out the mechanism by which the chief data officer can make a formal request to other agencies or bureaucrats at other agencies for the release of certain datasets for sharing within the public sector. Part 4 of the bill sets out the circumstances and the processes in which identifiable data may be disclosed across public sector agencies. This of course strays into the realm of moving away from the identified datasets to those which may contain data which can be linked back to particular entities or particular individuals, which of course requires a higher threshold of management than de-identified data. So much of what can be achieved in terms of the policy development through data analytics can be done with de-identified data, but where identifiable data is required the framework required for that is obviously at the higher threshold. Part 5 of the bill sets out a suite of offences for when people access, use or disclose data or information obtained under this framework other than in accordance with the legislation.

What the government is seeking to do with this bill is create through statute the office of the chief data officer and then provide a mechanism for bilateral sharing of data between other agencies and other departments, with effectively the Department of Premier and Cabinet as the home for the CDO. It is not an unreasonable framework, but we do have some concerns about the potential implications of putting this in a statutory framework. One of the challenges — and I appreciate the government's challenge in coming forward with a statutory framework — is to send a clear signal that the sharing of data is supported by statute. The difficulty with doing that is you then risk creating a culture where anything outside that statutory framework is deemed within the broader public service as no longer being acceptable. Anything that is done outside what will be a new statutory framework risks coming to a halt. We risk seeing agencies which share data bilaterally — for example, maybe the Department of Education and Training sharing directly with the Department of Health and Human Services, obviously not through the framework of the chief data officer through DPC — ceasing those bilateral exchanges because they are not under the framework that is being created by statute today. I think it would be very unfortunate if, as a consequence of the creation of this statutory framework, we saw data sharing bilaterally between other agencies outside this framework come to a halt because the view was created within the public sector that because we have a statutory framework we must use that statutory framework only and we cannot continue to share data bilaterally as we may have been doing over a period of time.

Likewise, in relation to the DataVic access framework, which is a public disclosure framework, because it is outside the statutory framework being created now we risk having a view develop within the public sector that it can no longer release data except through the data sharing statutory framework, which risks leading to a cessation of data sharing and public release of data through the DataVic access policy. Now, I accept that is not the intention of this framework, but I do believe that there is a very real risk if you create a statutory framework that comes to be seen as the only framework — being the statutory framework — that the other mechanisms which have been in place will fall by the wayside and we will have the perverse outcome of agencies no longer releasing datasets publicly or no longer having the bilateral sharing of data between agencies outside the CDO framework. I think it is a very real risk once we start enshrining a mechanism like this in statute.

It is interesting the government and the minister have chosen to come forward with a statutory framework rather than doing it by policy. Having worked on policy in this area, I can appreciate why the minister has felt the need to come forward with a statute to put this framework in place. But I think that enshrining this element in statute risks undermining the other activities which have currently been occurring in data sharing within government and in data sharing external to government.

But on the whole the coalition regards the sharing of data within government as an incredibly important opportunity for policy development and the analytics that go along with the management of that data. We hear from time to time increasingly about big data analysis and the way it is being used incredibly effectively in the private sector with companies such as Apple and Google and Facebook to drive very powerful analytics and to drive really remarkable outcomes in consumer transactions and in retail. Obviously the focus for the government is not going to be there, but the capacity for government to harness big data, be it government data or be it data brought in from outside to drive policy decisions within government, is incredibly exciting, is incredibly valuable for policy development, and should be encouraged.

The coalition does not oppose this legislation. We do wonder about the necessity for a statutory framework to achieve this outcome. We do have concerns about the risk of a statutory framework deterring other bilateral data sharing activities and external data sharing activities, but we think certainly the idea of data analytics within government and the aggregation of data within government to drive policy development is a good one, and in 12 months time with the hopeful return of a coalition government we look forward to doing some more of it.
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