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Citizen-Centric Public Services, Resource Luck, and the Lucky Country

I’ve received a little good-natured ribbing (“you lucky……”) from winter-bound Northern Hemisphere colleagues regarding my 3-month assignment in Australia. I’m here because SAP and Aussie governments at all levels and of all political stripes have long partnered to deliver citizen-centric public services. That partnership is intensifying with the recent launch of the SAP Institute for Digital Government; I’ll be pitching in as our local Public Services commitment continues to expand.

The UN’s most recent global survey of e-government ranked Australia’s governments at #2, just behind always-futuristic South Korea and ahead of civil services in famously tech-savvy countries such as Singapore, Finland, Israel and Estonia. Despite a certain national anxiety about innovation beyond natural resources – a situation with uncanny parallels in my own birthplace, Canada – Australia is poised to become a leading exporter of digital public services to a world that desperately needs them.  The SAP Institute for Digital Government is intended to help.

Both Australia and Canada are blessed with abundant natural resources whose bounty is shared amongst relatively small populations. Some people, myself included, would conclude that the Australians have been luckier with weather, but that’s a matter of taste. Both countries also share strong democratic institutions, a tradition of activist and accountable government, generally favourable global reputations and the many benefits of diverse, entrepreneurial, globally-connected populations.

Lottery winners know that good fortune usually comes with strings attached. Every resource-rich country faces the so-called “resource curse,” whereby easy riches from resources crowd out and discourage other economic activity, leaving an economy exposed when ruthlessly cyclical prices drop. Massive flows of resource cash also encourage public sector corruption, although resource-rich countries with strong institutions, including Australia, Canada, Norway and the Netherlands, have been largely unscathed. Even so, these countries have all faced “Dutch Disease,” in which a currency turbocharged by resource investment makes it very expensive to invest or employ people in other areas of the economy, aggravating the underlying resource curse.

Beyond resource wealth, Canada and Australia also share vast, often harsh expanses dotted by necklaces of highly desirable, world-class cities built in defiance of relatively extreme climates. These cities are attracting hundreds of thousands of new residents from around the world due to their success and protecting their livability is a challenge. Transportation, heating and cooling costs are high; carbon intensity is an issue in both production and consumption.

These eerily analogous conditions require many essentially political decisions in both countries, but they also involve some obviously apolitical public service challenges that most would agree on. Workforce productivity and innovation must be boosted to protect against resource price cycles; services must be delivered to far-flung communities affordably; fast-growing cities must be nurtured and managed; energy must be produced and consumed sustainably. Public sector digital transformation is central to all these efforts, touching on education, social services, public security, and effective regulation.

Canadians are reputed to be polite and funny, but I only occasionally hear about luck (see: weather). Australians are clearly lucky. Yet the widely used phrase “lucky country” was not actually conceived as a compliment, but rather a patriotic criticism and an exhortation to rely on more than (resource) luck for a high quality of life.  The criticism’s delivery was as bruising as any AFL game or parliamentary session in Canberra, yet it is increasingly being answered by the talents of Australians, who aren’t afraid of a scrap and enjoy raising their game. Australia’s tech sector is just beginning to hit its stride; the world delights in its athletes and musicians; and Australian scientific luminaries are choosing to pursue top-flight research at home. Australians can now add digital innovation in public services to the growing list of intangible goods and services they offer to the world.

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