CIO50 2020 #9 Simon Herbert, NSW Department of Customer Service
Mobilising a public service organisation the size of NSW government during an unprecedented public health crisis is a challenge few people would relish.
But Simon Herbert, executive director, data, insights and transformation with the NSW Department of Customer Services (DCS), managed the feat in ways which will likely transform forever how the agency views and uses data and technology to empower political leaders in creating a better world for the community.
In common with all organisations that managed to navigate COVID-19 successfully, DCS was already well on the way with its digital transformation journey, with the Data Analytics Centre (DAC) having been formed back in 2015.
Last year the DAC was transitioned into the larger Divisional Branch DIT (Data, Insights and Transformation), which Herbert was appointed to lead.
The NSW response to COVID-19 has shown the critical importance of a central data and analytics capability, and in March 2020 the Secretaries of Premier and Cabinet appointed Herbert and the DAC to lead the data response for NSW.
High quality data sets were sourced from right across the NSW government, as well as from external sources, as Herbert and his team rushed to develop analytical insights providing greater ‘situational awareness’ and response prioritisation for a wide range of agencies.
"It also acted as a natural point of collaboration for external parties including universities, companies and analytics groups offering assistance for the NSW response," Herbert tells CIO Australia.
Three core innovations emerged from this: COVID-19 cross-sector situational awareness dashboard portal; a NSW-wide cross-sector dashboards for mobility and consumer spend and global comparisons of the impact of lockdown or easing of restrictions compared to NSW (partnering with UTS).
When Herbert and the DAC took on the whole-of-government coordinating role, departments had begun to create dashboards and visualisations for their own needs. But when COVID-19 really hit, it was clear consolidation was required to create a single source of truth to support senior decision makers. The journey many organisations go through over years happened in weeks.
Using a cloud- based identity solution with single-sign-on capability, the DAC dashboard portal quickly grew to 20 government dashboards, and 15 situational awareness dashboards created by volunteer university and industry partners.
The first version of the portal was live in under two weeks, with 130 senior NSW government executives accessing it via a single login with multi-factor authentication (MFA).
The dashboards are used daily to inform decision makers on key aspects of the COVID-19 crisis, as well as informing marketing campaigns such as “Keep COVID Safe”, while monitoring the return-to-school for students, especially those using public transport.
"It’s the first ever cross-sector portal developed for the NSW government, bringing together Health, Transport, Education, Stronger Communities, Customer Service and Treasury," Herbert explains.
NSW identified three key COVID-19 response areas: manage infection-spread risk; monitor social impact on society and plan for economic recovery.
Very early on, it became clear that the government lacked critical data sets to support these response areas. Following a rapid market scan, two key areas of data need were identified, those being mobility to manage infection-spread risk and to understand compliance with travel restrictions and consumer-spend data to understand citizen financial health for economic recovery.
Access to Opal (the NSW travel card system) data helped NSW understand use of public transport and SCATS data to understand road usage. But this still left an incomplete mobility picture, particularly in rural areas.
The DAC combined government data with commercial telecommunications data to understand the population movement at postcode level. This analysis was carried out using de-identified and aggregated data ensuring compliance with privacy legislation.
"These mobility dashboards quickly proved their value and were used extensively during the restrictions over the Easter period," Herbert says. "Data was updated daily and securely ingested using the DAC’s advanced analytics service which processed, linked and published the data through the mobility dashboard within the dashboard portal."
The insights gained from this dashboard were then used to target specific areas with marketing campaigns “Staying Home” and “Staying Safe” during these early periods of restriction.
Herbert and the DAC team were also responsible for the design and the implementation of the COVID Heatmap utilising NSW Health data, which has been featured in the premier updates and is still one of the most visited COVID websites.
"Currently, it is the first COVID heatmap at a postcode level with daily updates which has given NSW citizens comfort that the NSW government are being transparent regarding the crisis," he says.
Supporting this and all other efforts are Customer Experience Unit and Communications teams, delivering key insights on a weekly basis to the NSW Crisis Committee. The tools developed by the team are used in the State Emergency Operations Centre (SEOC).
The fact that Herbert’s background is not within the public service has, in his view, always been an advantage navigating the various challenges and barriers that can arise within it.
Never has this been more apparent than when COVID-19 hit.
“There was a critical need for a streamlined, lean approach to the data response,” he tells.
A virtual working group was formed with data representatives from each government department nominating at least two participants from either the crisis taskforces or analytics teams.
Herbert led these daily working group meetings with a "disciplined agile approach", following up on previous actions, allowing each department to provide an update and to seek support, and the overall program to supply an update on the cross sector progress.
He knew he had to earn the respect and trust of parts of government which usually do not work closely together. And he did.
Herbert also implemented a weekly showcase with the relevant minister and secretary of Customer Service, so the key decision makers could understand on-the-ground data and insights. NSW Health presented infection models, Treasury presented their economic model, Transport presented their COVID return to work modelling.
Over the weeks of consistent engagement and sharing, Herbert created a trusted and open forum where analytical teams are able to present their findings directly to senior executives, marking a major turning point in the NSW Government’s digital transformation.
This forum ensures government executives have a better understanding of the data and the insights, while giving the analytical teams clearer insights into the critical needs of the different key sectors.
For Herbert, it’s not technology itself that affects change, or determines success in response to a crisis. It’s people and teams.
“Building successful teams is probably one of the hardest tasks any senior leader can do,” he says. “Building a team that will deliver more than the sum of its parts, a team that will never give up, a team that will not panic at the first sign of adversity.”
Trust and understanding are the most important ingredients.
“If the team knows that their leader will always support them, will always back them, they are more willing to take risks to make a bigger impact."