Keynote address by Secretary of Finance, Jenny Wilkinson, PSM, at the Australian Government Data Forum

9:25am, 17 May 2023, Canberra Rex Hotel


To begin, I want to thank Paul for welcoming us here on your Country.

The Canberra region is a beautiful part of the world, and I am thankful for the efforts over centuries that traditional owners have put into looking after these lands.

I also want to acknowledge the organisers of this event.

In particular, I would like to express my thanks to the Graduate Data Network who have driven the development of this forum.

It is wonderful that our newest entrants to the service are bringing a strong focus to the importance of data.

And it is great to see such strong attendance and broad representation from across Government and the private sector, both in person and online.

Over the course of the day you will hear from an impressive line-up of speakers from the public, private and academic sectors on how data can be used to improve the delivery of programs and the design of policy.

I strongly encourage you to consider how the insights you gain from the speakers, panel discussions and other sessions can be transferred into your work.

Today it is my pleasure to deliver the keynote address on the Government’s ambition for a data driven and digitally enabled government, building on the key messages you already heard from Minister Gallagher.

Why is data important?

We all know we’re living in the digital age.

So many of the transactions we make in our day to day lives are empowered by data and digital capabilities, whether it is checking the weather, shopping, or streaming music. Data and digital technologies are central to everything.

The digital age presents a significant opportunity to enhance the Government’s data and digital systems, to improve how it makes decisions and deliver better outcomes.

Recent events such as the pandemic, geopolitical shifts, heightened economic uncertainty, and natural disasters have accelerated adoption of data and digital technologies across Australia, and by the Government.

As Minister Gallagher already outlined, the Government recognises the importance of data and digital capabilities to create more effective data-driven policies and to deliver better services for Australians.

I thought I would start by sharing my own thoughts on why data is important in policy development and implementation.

There are three ways in which data is particularly important to those of us in government.

  • First, it improves our understanding of what is going on – including how the economy is evolving, what services are being delivered, and how people are responding to the circumstances they are facing in their daily lives;
  • Second, it enables us to deliver better services, supported by the important linkages between data and digital capabilities, and;
  • Third, it supports us in providing better advice about policy options that Governments could consider implementing to improve outcomes – with data providing better information upon which to make decisions and better information about the effectiveness and impacts of alternative policy interventions.
  • So in short, data is important for Context, Delivery and Effectiveness – keep these in mind, I will come back to these three perspectives – reflecting on some key achievements in recent years.

Data and Digital Government Strategy

The opportunity presented by today’s technology is reflected in the initial Data and Digital Government Strategy that has been released with the 2023‑24 Budget.

The Strategy was jointly developed by the Department of Finance and the Digital Transformation Agency in collaboration with many agencies across Government.

It lays out a vision for the Australian Government to deliver simple, secure and connected public services for all people and businesses through world class data and digital capabilities.

By aligning the APS’ data and digital agenda with a clear vision, it aims to support joined-up delivery across Government.

The Strategy is structured around five key missions:

  • First, co-designing and actively listening to stakeholders so government is consistently delivering for all people and businesses;
  • Second, ensuring the APS has systems that provide simple and accessible services to people and businesses;
  • Third, embedding a culture of innovation and horizon‑scanning to prepare government for the future;
  • Fourth, increasing transparency, responsiveness and open processes in policy and service delivery to build and maintain a trusted and secure government;
  • And fifth, establishing data and digital foundations across the APS to support more effective delivery of all government functions.

The Strategy will support policy development and service delivery through commitments to better manage, share, integrate and analyse data through commitments to leverage digital technologies and through commitments to create seamless digital information and services.

It builds on a lot of great work done across APS agencies to date and sets out how they will continue their transition to be more data‑informed and digitally-capable.

The Strategy is being developed in two phases:

  • Phase one was the release of the initial Strategy for public consultation.
  • In phase two, by the end of this year, the Government will release a final Strategy and an accompanying implementation plan, outlining initiatives that will achieve progress towards the Strategy’s vision.

I strongly encourage you to take the time to read the Strategy and visit to provide any feedback you have.

Your views are important, as we need a high level of ambition to make the most of our data and digital capabilities.

Now let me return to my three observations about how data is important within Government and reflect on how we are going.

Using data to provide better insights

First, how are we going in using data to help us understand how the world is evolving to understand context.

It is clear there are many benefits for the Government and the APS in continuing to expand the ways in which data are used to provide insights into the economy and society.

There are many examples across the APS of this expansion already happening.

I have spoken before about the extensive use that Treasury made of new and novel data sources to understand the evolution of the economy during the pandemic.

This included using bank transaction data to understand spending trends, using google mobility data to understand behavioural patterns, and using ATO data on payrolls to understand, at a local government level, the impact that the pandemic restrictions were having on labour markets across the country.

All of these data were more granular and more timely than most of the standard data sources we previously had available to us. They helped inform critical decisions on policy interventions like JobKeeper, and I cannot imagine how we would have navigated the pandemic without them.

The breadth and granularity of these data marked a clear difference to the types of data that were available to policymakers responding to the global financial crisis, fifteen years ago.

Another example of using data for real time insights during the pandemic was Health’s work with the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

  • It was clear in 2020 that COVID-19 and the lockdowns were likely to adversely affect the mental health of Australians, and Governments recognised there was a need for more rapid access to mental health data to inform policy responses.
  • In April 2020, the Department of Health and Aged Care worked in partnership with the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare to produce a mental health services placemat.
  • The placemat brought together indicators from across the mental health system, including from crisis and support lines, digital mental health services, Medicare services, emergency department presentations, specialised community mental health services, and mental health care admissions.
  • The primary purpose of the placemat was to provide an up‑to‑date snapshot of mental health service demand and use, and reveal general trends or patterns across jurisdictions.
  • The placemat was used to regularly brief the Prime Minister and Minister for Health and the National Cabinet during their deliberations about the COVID-19 response.

There are opportunities to use new data sources for real time insights in every portfolio. Agencies that perform the best here are always on the look out for new data sources, manage their data really well and have clear analytical capabilities and strategies to drive their data priorities.

To meet the vision set out in the Data and Digital Strategy, every agency will need to become more mature in doing so.

Delivering better services

My second focus is on the delivery of better services.

Data, when combined with digital capabilities, enables governments to deliver better, accessible and secure services.

A great example of this being put into practice is in the Home Affairs portfolio. There, they are using bespoke Optical Character Recognition capabilities to disrupt illicit goods in international mail.

  • This involves extracting data, for example, names and addresses, from images of mail in real-time as they come along the conveyer belt at international mail gateways.
  • The data are then used in matching and targeting packages for inspection.
  • Cloud and edge computing is used to deploy Optical Character Recognition and other analytics to international mail gateways, enabling analytics to be run in situ.
  • On trial Artificial Intelligence capability is being trained to identify mail packages with similar appearance to those previously detected as containing illicit goods.

Taken together, this is enabling the department to work more effectively and more efficiently in disrupting the trade in illicit goods.

Another example of data being used effectively to improve services is by Services Australia in implementing the myGov platform.

myGov has over 25.8 million active user accounts. Since the transition to the enhanced myGov platform in September last year, there have been more than 152 million sign-ins to myGov.

This is service delivery at scale, enabled by data and supported by modern digital platforms.

When combined with the right data frameworks and protections, there are opportunities to simplify user interactions with Government through myGov.

  • Imagine telling the government once about your circumstances and being able to choose how that information is re-used to support your ongoing interactions with government.
  • Imagine being able to share elements of data from your identity credentials without having to offer up more than you need to or are comfortable with.

Services Australia is also using data and natural language processing to answer questions from customers through an online chat function.

The digital assistant on the Services Australia website responds right away to questions about Medicare, Centrelink and Child Support payments and services using data from the department’s policies and procedures.

Within a customer's Centrelink online account, the digital assistant can answer payment-specific questions about online claims.

In building out the implementation plan for the Data and Digital Government Strategy, we will be looking for further opportunities to deliver more enlightened services:

  • where the government can be more proactive in providing access to services,
  • where services are integrated across agencies (and even jurisdictions) and
  • with the ultimate objective of making access to those services as easy as ordering Uber eats.

Informing better policy decisions

My third area of focus is on using data to influence policy design.

Managing, sharing, integrating and analysing data should lead to better informed policy development and decision-making.

A recent example of where data has led to new insights and influenced the policy debate comes from the ABS Personal Safety Survey, a comprehensive data source about people’s experiences of violence, including domestic violence.

Supported by the Paul Ramsay Foundation, Ms Anne Summers contacted the ABS see whether the Personal Safety Survey could be used to shed light on single mothers’ experiences of violence and their financial outcomes.

The ABS partnered with Ms Summers to undertake analysis of previously unanalysed Personal Safety Survey data.

The focus of her analysis was single mothers, with children under the age of 18, and their experiences of violence and subsequent financial outcomes.

One of the key findings was that 60% of single women, with children under the age of 18, had experienced physical and/or sexual violence by a partner.

Furthermore, 50% of those who had left this violent relationship were surviving on government benefits as their main source of income.

These, and other findings, were presented in a paper by Anne Summers, along with recommendations on what the Government should do to help break the cycle of poverty these people found themselves in.

This example highlights how investing in high quality statistical data can provide evidence that influences decision making, and informed decisions such as in the recent Budget decision to improve support for single parents.

More broadly, integrated data supports evaluation of policies and programs to determine what’s working well – and allows this work to be conducted within government as well as in academia and the broader research community.

Integrated datasets, which exploit the benefits of large amounts of administrative data, linked to each other and to survey results, present a great opportunity to assess the impact of policies and programs.

These large datasets allow comparisons to be made between ‘assisted’ people, groups and businesses, against others who were not assisted, and enable researchers to evaluate the effectiveness of different interventions without conducting randomised control trials.

A huge amount of progress as already been made to increase the accessibility of integrated administrative data through the ABS DataLab.

The DataLab provides access to the two most widely used integrated data assets: one relating to business (BLADE -- the Business Longitudinal Analysis Data Environment) and one to individuals (MADIP – the Multi-Agency Data Integration Project – which links employment, education, health, welfare, migrant, demographic and tax data). The DataLab enables these integrated datasets to be linked, in turn to a wide range of other datasets, and to each other.

Use of the Datalab has expanded rapidly over the past 4 years. In 2019 there were 225 active research projects in DataLab, by March 2023 there were 539. The number of researchers trained to use the DataLab is now close to 5000.

And the use of the DataLab is much broader than just the APS. More than half of the projects currently in the ABS DataLab are being undertaken by universities, public policy institutes or state and territory governments.

And insights are being uncovered across a wide spectrum of public policy areas – from the protective effect of vaccines in reducing mortality, to the linkages between skills, education and labour market outcomes, to the impact of early childhood education on cycles of disadvantage, to the impact of employment opportunities on recidivism, to the relationship between business outcomes and employee outcomes.

And these are to name just a few of the 539 research projects currently underway.

This is an evaluation revolution – it is enabling us to understand the impacts of policies on outcomes and to design more effective interventions than we have ever done before.

But we have even greater opportunities ahead of us.

The DATA Scheme, which was established by the Data Availability and Transparency Act, aims to further expand the availability and use of Australian Government data to inform better government policies and programs.

The National Disability Data Asset which, when complete, will link a wide range of datasets from across the Commonwealth, states and territories, is an example of a new integrated data asset where data will be shared under the DATA scheme.

The Asset will enable a better understanding of how people with disability are supported through services.

It will provide insights critical to bringing evidence to an understanding of options for future improvements to disability services, including the NDIS.

Further opportunities, down the track, are to use similar approaches to link datasets to analyse:

  • climate and natural disaster responses
  • health outcomes and
  • peoples journey’s through education systems.

The DATA Scheme and the associated linking architecture that is being developed will facilitate these projects by:

  • streamlining agreement from data custodians and
  • simplifying the process required to link new datasets, which will enable more data linkage projects including those using state and territory data.

So, we have made some great progress and we are on the cusp of even greater opportunities. It’s an exciting time in the world of data.

All uses of data require building our capability

But using data more extensively requires uplifting data capabilities across the APS.

The APS Data Profession has made great progress uplifting the data capability of the APS through defining data capabilities, increasing diversity and mobility of people in data roles, and creating career pathways and development opportunities.

This profession is open to all APS employees with an interest in learning more about data and a desire to pursue a career in data and analytics.

The Data Profession not only supports data specialists, but also growing the APS data workforce through streamlined data graduate recruitment and supporting broader data literary across the APS.

The Graduate Data Network is also doing fantastic work to develop the data capabilities and literacy of graduates from specialist and non-specialist graduates across the APS.

It offers graduates the opportunities to build data literacy and collaborate across agencies on data-related initiatives and projects.


But we can’t just focus on the opportunity. Our ever‑expanding use of data and digital technologies means we also need to pay attention to some important safeguards.

The Government recognised the critical importance of cyber security to maintain public trust in government institutions, businesses and individuals, which is why it established the National Cyber Security Coordinator.

You’ll hear more about this later from Hamish Hansford, Deputy Secretary, Cyber and Infrastructure Security.

The establishment of the Office of the National Data Commissioner was explicitly designed to ensure that expanded use of data is being done in a way that retains trust in Government.

While we need to continue to be ambitious so the Government can harness the advantages of emerging technologies, it is important to maintain public trust as we do so, such as by being an exemplar in the ethical adoption of new technologies such as artificial intelligence.


So, to comeback, the APS needs to continue to engage with emerging data and digital capabilities, to improve our understanding of the context in which decisions are being made, to improve efficiency and accessibility in the delivery of services and to support evidence-based assessments of the effectiveness of public policy interventions.

I would like to pass on my most sincere thanks again to the organisers of today’s Forum.

You have arranged a very insightful program, which will certainly generate valuable and robust discussion.

I would also like to offer my best wishes to any attendees nominated for awards in this evening’s inaugural APS data awards.

The awards dinner is a fantastic opportunity to celebrate and recognise the hard work and innovative thinking that has fuelled our achievements across the data and digital landscape.

To all attendees here today, I wish to take the opportunity to thank you for your contributions to the Government’s collective efforts to ensure it is fully harnessing the benefits of data and digital capabilities.

I’ll now open the floor to questions.

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