Jan 122017
 
how are we using data in our business

Last August the centrepiece of the Australian government’s digital dream came to an end. The Canberra Times this week described how “the Turnbull government has quietly killed off one of its biggest plans for ‘digital transformation’; the hugely ambitious gov.au website project”.

The abandonment of the project was an ignominious end of the plans for a Prime Minister who had promised so much at the time of his appointment, and that a cabinet submission would be pulled minutes before it was due to be tabled indicates the convoluted politics behind it.

Bizarrely, that story ran the same day the Federal Treasurer revealed the government would be running a ‘pilot project’ to put more services online as part of their attempts to harness the digital economy.

That the Australian Federal government is looking to run some pilot projects this year is remarkable given twenty years ago, in 1997, the then Prime Minister John Howard announced all appropriate government services would be online by 2001.

Australian taxpayers would be well justified asking what has happened over the last twenty years.

It could be argued that Australian governments are not particularly good at technology projects given ongoing disasters like the current Centrelink debacle, the failure of the 2016 Census and the collapse of the Tax Office’s portal shortly before Christmas.

Probably the main reason for Australian governments’ technology failures is the lack of focus, as shown by the Digital Transformation Office barely surviving one year.

That lack of focus is even more problematic as digital transformation projects are more about changing cultures than revamping technology, often making them a decades-long process.

Without a long term commitment to projects and policies, initiatives such as the Howard government’s 1997 Investing for Growth or Turnbull’s 2015 Innovation Agenda are doomed to failure. Until Australian governments commit to longer term visions, it’s unlikely any of their digital dreams will be achieved.

 

Jan 112017
 

Last year the Australian Federal government had a smart idea. To fix its chronic budget deficit, it would use data matching to claw back an estimated three billion dollars in social security overspending.

Unfortunately for tens of thousands of Australians the reality has turned out to very different with the system mistakenly flagging thousands of former claimants as being debtors.

How the Australian government messed up its welfare debt recovery is a cautionary tale of misusing data.

Data mis-match

At its core, the problem is due to the bureaucrats mismatching information.

Australia’s social security system requires unemployment or sickness benefit claimants file a fortnightly income statement with Centrelink, the agency that administers the system, and their payments are adjusted accordingly.

Most of those on benefits only spend a short time on them. According to the Department of Social Services, two thirds of recipients are off welfare within twelve months of starting.

Flawed numbers

Despite knowing this, the bureaucrats decided to take annual tax returns, average the individual’s income across the year and match the result against the fortnightly payment.

That obviously flawed and dishonest method has meant hundreds of former welfare recipients have been falsely accused of receiving overpayments.

Compounding the problem, the system frequently mis-identifies income because it fails to recognise employers may use different legal names, leading to people having their wages double counted and being accused of not reporting work.

Shock and awe

Under pressure from their political masters, the aggressive tactics of Centrelink and its debt collectors have left many of those accused shocked and distressed.

I can barely breathe when I think about this. My time period to pay is up tomorrow. I asked them for proof before I pay and I have heard horror stories of debt collection agencies, people being asked to pay so much, people being told there will be a black mark on their credit. I am so terrified. It’s so stupid for me to be terrified but I can’t help it. I am a student, I can’t afford anything!

Reading the minister’s response to criticisms, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that intimidation was a key objective.

The numbers of people involved are staggering. The department of Social Services reported 732,100 Australians received the Newstart unemployment allowance in 2015-16. Should 66% of those have moved off the benefit during the tax year then up to 488,000 people will receive ‘please explain’ notices.

Nearly half a million people being falsely accused of welfare fraud is bad enough, but that is only last year’s figures – due to a  law change by the previous Labor government, there is no limit to how far back Centrelink can go to recover alleged debts.

The System is working

Claiming the Centrelink debacle is a failure of Big Data and IT systems is wrong – the system is working as designed. The false positives are the result of a deliberate decision by agency bosses and their ministers to feed flawed data into the system.

How this will work out for the Australian government as tens of thousands more people receive unreasonable demands remains to be seen. Recent comments from the minister indicate they are hoping their ‘tough on welfare cheats’ line will resonate with the electorate.

Regardless of how well  it turns out for the Australian government, the misuse of data by its agencies is a worrying example of how governments can use the information they collect to harass citizens for short term political advantage.

Beyond welfare

While many Australians can dismiss the travails of Centrelink ‘clients’ as not concerning them, the same data matching techniques have long been used by other agencies – not least the Australian Taxation Office.

With the Federal Treasurer threatening a campaign against corporate tax dodging and the failure of the welfare crackdown to deliver the promised funds, it’s not hard to see small and medium businesses being caught in a similar campaign using inappropriate data.

More importantly, the Australian Public Service’s senior management’s incompetence, lack of ethics and proven inability to manage data systems is something that should deeply concern the nation’s taxpayers.

In a connected age, where masses of information is being collected on all of us, this is something every citizen should be objecting to.

Dec 132016
 
Does the digital divide really exist

Earlier this year, Telstra released the Digital Inclusion Index along with its report on measuring Australia’s digital divide.

Last week in Sydney the company hosted a half day conference to look at the ramifications of the 2016 report.

Overall the report was good news with most indicators showing improvements although the gap between the connected and the most disadvantaged has widened since the first index was compiled in 2014.

In general, wealthier, younger, more educated, and urban Australians enjoy much greater inclusion. All over the country, digital inclusion rates are clearly influenced by differences in income, educational attainment, and the geography of socioeconomic disadvantage. And over time, some Australian communities are falling further behind.

The one factor the survey found that is declining nationally is affordability which the authors put down to Australians’ increasing reliance on the internet.

The Affordability measure is the only dimension to have registered a decline since 2014, but this outcome does not simply reflect rising costs. In fact, internet services are becoming comparatively less expensive – but at the same time, Australians are spending more on them.

Sadly affordability isn’t going to improve should the government’s proposed broadband levy of seven dollars a month become reality to subsidise rural users.

That such a levy would be proposed by a government that was opposed to a National Broadband Network and to ‘Big New Taxes’ while in opposition is an irony left for Australian political historians to discuss but it shows how comprehensively the NBN project has failed.

Even sadder is the NBN  isn’t delivering for businesses as it increasingly becomes apparent the network being built will struggle to deliver 21st Century services to most of the nation.

That businesses are struggling to connect emphasises just how serious the digital divide is becoming for the economy – as supply chains in every industry become increasingly globalised regions that aren’t connected risk being isolated from their markets.

Policy makers have to consider the costs of those communities and groups being isolated from the modern economy. If we are going to be serious about building a twenty-first century society then we have to consider how disadvantaged groups and regions access global networks as well as making sure they have the skills to benefit from these technologies.

Mapping the areas of the disadvantage is a good first step but we have to look at how we address the segments of our society that are being left behind.

Nov 032016
 
the taxi industry is being disrupted by mobile apps

It’s often easy to underestimate the effects of regulation on the development of industries and innovation.

Around the world jurisdictions are struggling with balancing regulation and innovation, last week in the UK Uber lost an employment tribunal case 0ver the employment status of its employees . While in Switzerland the country is struggling with rules over Blockchain as the nation tries to build a ‘Crypto Valley’.

Striking the right balance in regulation isn’t trivial. As the development of Silicon Valley’s finance models shows, government rules were critical to how the venture capital sector has evolved.

The US Small Business Investment Act of 1958 was the first step in the sector’s development with the creation of “Small Business Investment Companies” (SBICs) to fund and manage smaller enterprises in the United States. In 1978 the sector received a greater boost when pension funds were allowed to invest in the sector.

We’re now seeing a similar thing happening in the US where the Digital Millennium Copyright Act – a law passed to protect the Twentieth Century business models of record companies and movie studios – is being softened to allow end users to examine and maintain the software on the devices they own.

If the trial is allowed to become permanent, it will almost certainly see a far freer and innovative software environment which may even help overcome some of the security problems with the Internet of Things.

Often though that balance isn’t correctly struck and recently we’ve seen many poor decisions that have concentrated power, particularly in the financial and airline industries where governments have allowed huge conglomerates to dominate their markets which stifles innovation and growth.

Those innovation stifling regulations though don’t guarantee companies’ survival as the taxi industry discovered. Despite reams of laws and regulations protecting their licenses, Uber effectively blew up the business as they offered travellers a far better option to the often poor services provided by local cab companies.

Regulation is always going to be a balancing act between protecting the community’s interest and allowing business and society to evolve. It’s one reason why as citizens and taxpayers we need to be demanding our governments are open and transparent in their dealings and law making.

Nov 022016
 

A year back this blog asked if Chattanooga’s experience shows how city infrastructure can drive private sector investment.

“The Gig”, as Chattanooga’s civic leaders have branded the city’s broadband rollout, came about because the city decided to treat internet services as a utility like water and roads. Vice Motherboard reports how this has reaped dividends for the town.

As Vice’s Jason Koebler describes, Chattanooga’s unemployment rate has halved since the depth of the Great Recession and in 2014 was listed as having the third highest wage growth among the United States’ mid-sized cities.

There are downsides though, Koebler warns, and one point is that having good broadband on its own isn’t a sure fire bet.

“Like the presence of well-paved roads, good internet access doesn’t guarantee that a city will be successful,” he writes. “But the lack of it guarantees that a community will get left behind as the economy increasingly demands that companies compete not just with their neighbors next door, but with the entire world.”

The advantage Chattanooga had though was its electricity company was owned by the city which meant a major part of the existing infrastructure was already in public hands and made it relatively easier and cheaper to roll out the network.

What Chattanooga does show is a well planned and structured fibre roll out can be done, it is easy or cheap and takes sensible planning. The latter is something other broadband projects can learn from.

Oct 012016
 

Last year the Sydney startup and business communities were stunned by the SydStart startup conference announcing it was rebranding itself as StartCon and moving to Melbourne after the Victorian government had offered to fund the event.

At the time StartCon’s Matt Barrie and the Victorian government were most certainly in love with Barrie describing how Melbourne was well placed to be Australia’s startup centre and highlighting the lack of support from the City of Sydney and the New South Wales state government.

Sydney’s shame

In Sydney, the announcement caused a great deal of hand wringing as the city startup and tech communities worried that government neglect would see the more proactive Victorian government attract businesses and talent.

Now the friendship with Melbourne is over with Barrie publishing a scathing blogpost on the inertia and duplicity of the Victorian state government.

The tale of StartCon and its falling out of love with Victoria holds a number of lessons for businesses being tempted by the siren call of government incentives and the risks to taxpayers.

What can I announce today?

The announceable culture is endemic in Australian politics. Having announceables is absolutely critical part a ministers’ life and their careers can defined just as much by not having enough good news to announce as being victims of bad press.

In the last NSW Labor government, ministers had hard KPIs they were held to in cabinet which gave rise to Chatswood-Parramatta railway line probably being the most announced infrastructure project in history.

While the current Victorian government may not have those formal measures, Small Business Minister Phillip Daladakis is a very good player of the announceable game. He’s a man with a future in state politics.

The mistake of the StartCon organisers was to agree to public announcement before they had secured the money.

Public service thinking

I’d never heard of Dr Pradeep Phillip prior to his appointment to run LaunchVic but his previous position as secretary of Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services doesn’t seem to immediately qualify him to run the state’s startup development agency.

His conduct, and that of his staff, in the published correspondence chain are those of classic risk averse public servants. Not a bad thing when you’re dealing hospital procurement practices but when you’re dealing with startups and new businesses it would be nice to have someone with more relevant private sector experience.

A notable part of the Victorian public service’s risk aversion is the language of the convoluted grant agreement where the state government may provide support. This, along with the classic attempt of shifting all responsibility away from the agencies, opens a lot of wriggle room for the government to get out of paying the publicly stated amounts.

Equally the use of registered mail after weeks of ignoring emails smacks of institutional backside covering. This underscores the disconnect between public servants and the business world, particularly with smaller organisations, events and startups.

The futility of government support

For StartCon’s organisers their embarrassing and terrible Melbourne experience underscores the futility of depending upon government incentives to site your business or event.

In choosing where to base a business important factors are the access to markets, labour and capital with affordable office space being another key issue. For event organisers, the access to reasonably priced venues and accomodation for the attendees – two factors where Melbourne has a real advantage over Sydney – are equally critical.

Government incentives are almost irrelevant to those consideration and really only become the deciding factor if the competing locations are equal in the other respects.

Counting the real cost

The real damage though is to StartCon’s credibility – having made the public decision to move to Melbourne with much fanfare the climb down is a humiliation – but, more importantly the event is compromised in the eyes of its Sydney supporters. The chase for government money also draws a scent of hypocrisy among a group known for its Libertarian leanings.

Equally however the Victorian taxpayers should be concerned at how their government is announcing support for businesses and events without real substance. One suspects that a fair proportion of Mr Dalidakis’ announceables have similar backstories.

More importantly Victorian taxpayers should be questioning the nature of support – with the SydStart announcement there was widespread irritation in the Melbourne tech community that a Sydney based event should get such government backing and similarly funding foreign multinationals to setup Australian sales offices in the southern state’s capital is going to do much to build the state’s tech sector.

Australian sovereign risk

Something all Australian taxpayers and businesses should be concerned about is the unreliability of governments of both complexions at state and Federal level. Too frequently promises are broken leaving companies and communities out of pocket.

The shutting down of the COMET scheme under the new Federal Labor government in 2007 and then the incoming Liberal government replacing the ALPs Commercialisation Australia program in 2013 are good examples of sovereign risk where entrepreneurs spent thousands of dollars and hours only to have the grants pulled without notice.

Innovation schemes are only one example, almost every program is at risk when a new minister, let alone government, is appointed. It would be a foolish manager or business owner who would base their financial forecasts on any Australian government policy.

As we saw in the City of Sydney elections, the real key to developing industry is to have an attractive, well serviced location with access to capital, skills and markets. Melbourne may well do that better than Sydney but it won’t be achieved by ministers bearing gifts.

Sep 182016
 

What would happen if the world’s richest people invested in startup businesses? Bloomberg Business ran an interesting, if flawed, thought experiment looking at how many nascent companies each country’s richest individuals could invest in.

It’s surprising how low those numbers are and, if anything, the result underscore how the 1980s and 90s banking sector ‘reforms’ caused the world’s financial system to pivot from its historical purpose of funding commercial enterprises into speculation, rent seeking and manipulating markets.

Apart from a smattering of venture capital not much has replaced the banks in funding the SME and entrepreneurial sectors, if anything it has been those ultra high net wealth individuals who have been financing the investment funds providing capital to entrepreneurs.

How the finance industry evolves in the face of the fintech boom and a world that’s slowly becoming less indulgent of the industry’s greed will be one of the defining things of next decade’s business environment. For the small business and startup sectors getting the funding right will also be a key factor.

The biggest question though is job creation, being able to fund new and innovative investments will be one a critical concern for societies dealing with the effects of an increasingly automated economy.