The Hon. Victor Dominello on Digital Transformation and Government Services

Interview with The Hon. Victor Dominello


Douglas Nicol:                  Hello, I’m Douglas Nicol and welcome listeners, new and old to Smart Dust. The podcast that likes to look at the tech and innovation trends and people that are changing our world sometimes big mega trends and sometimes, well, the ideas that set at the fringes of science and technology. As always I am joined by digital trends and innovation pundit, Mr. Nick Abrahams.

Nick Abrahams:               Hello everyone. Thanks for joining us. And certainly something for innovation pundits around the world today.

Douglas Nicol:                  In this episode, we’re lucky to be joined by Minister Victor Dominello member for Ryde and Minister for Customer Service in the New South Wales government in Australia. He was born and raised in the Ryde area of New South Wales. And he worked as a lawyer for 14 years in a commercial law firm. In 2008, he was elected to the New South Wales parliament and has had a number of ministerial positions.

And currently following his reelection of the 2019 state election, he was sworn in a new portfolio as the very first Minister for Customer Service. Victor, you are passionate about technology and data and innovation and how that can actually make the interactions of the people of New South Wales more human, more effective. You are very welcome to Smart Dust.

Victor Dominello:            Thank you for having me.

Nick Abrahams:               Minister. Thanks for joining us. As the Minister for Customer Service very unusual title, possibly the first in the world. Could you just explain to us a little bit about what your portfolio entails and also how that tags into digital trends?

Victor Dominello:            Yeah, it’s a great question, Nick, because when we first mooted having a Minister for Customer Service, it was complicated because nobody knows what it does. And in fact, a lot of my colleagues in the list when we’re about to get sworn in, was swapping saying, “Oh, what’d you get, I got transport. What’d you get, I got health. What’d you get, oh, customer service. What’s that mean? Don’t worry, all will be revealed.” Customer service to really break it down in simple forms, customer services are like the front door, so Service New South Wales. Behind that, the whole agency you’ve got all the regulators, you got safe work, fair trading, et cetera. And then behind that, you’ve got all the insurance inside of government. Whether it’s workers’ compensation, whether it’s motor vehicle accidents or home warranty insurance, and then right at the back of that, you get your smarts. All the data pieces that our analytics center, [inaudible] insight unit, spacial services. That’s the wedge of the cheese wheel of government. It’s really the regulator customer facing wedge with the smarts.

Nick Abrahams:               Yeah. And it seems to have a real culture about it, even just calling it customer service. Can you explain the background, what that means to government?

Victor Dominello:            Yeah. Again, great question. Because even to this day, people say, “Why customer service, why isn’t it a service for citizens, or why isn’t it, you know, digital services?” Well, when you think about it, we don’t just look after citizens. There are a whole lot of refugees, for example, they’re not citizens, whole lot of people on visas, they’re not citizens, but they do require services from the state. And if you require a service, you’re a customer of that service. And that’s why we called it customer service because we’re putting the people first.

Nick Abrahams:               And what for you is digital transformation in government? What is it about?

Victor Dominello:            Digital transformation is a journey. There’s no destination because we will never ever get there in a sense that things are always evolving, but it’s a journey where we refocus our service delivery to make sure it’s more seamless, more intuitive for the great people that need the services that we provide.

Nick Abrahams:               And what does COVID-19 and the global pandemic done to that agenda, do you think?

Victor Dominello:            Rapidly accelerated it beyond my… I’m very ambitious in terms of where I want our state to be in the next five, 10 years. COVID has accelerated that in ways that has just blown my mind in many ways. It’s phenomenal. And we’ve seen it, thankfully New South Wales, we’ve already built that culture in to your point in that. And it started with the Service New South Wales journey all those years ago, but that was a huge transformation piece, not just changing the name of an organization, but changing the culture, which is really, really hard. We’ve done that. And we seen various evolutions of the service model over the years. Indeed, most recently in relation to the bushfire recovery. Traditionally, you’d see services are transactional, okay, we’ll digitize the transaction, we’ll make it easier for you, but then it evolved further and further into a triage service for cost of living.

You can’t see us, we’ll then do all the heavy lifting behind the scenes. We’ll find out which agencies providing grants or rebates or refunds, and we’ll do all that, package it up. We’ll sit down with you and understand you, the person. And then we evolved again in bushfires. When people had their homes destroyed by fire and they lost their license or their birth certificate, where would they go? It became almost, not a front line agency, but pretty much the next thing. And then we realized in COVID, it had to be at the center of that as well. And that’s what happened, but just rewind a bit. Because of the culture that we built from Service New South Wales from essentially when we launched it in 2013, we hit the ground running. We realized this had to be a bigger play right across government, not just this center of excellence in service. And that was another momentum point to establish the department of customer service and is now a central agency, which helps us not just nudge other agencies outside of our orbit, but significantly influence their journey as well.

Nick Abrahams:               For those listeners who don’t know the Service New South Wales experience, it is quite extraordinary because you walk in and it’s a concierge experience. It is like going into a bank that really cares about its customers. Could we just talk a little bit about the customer satisfaction metrics that you’re in, because I know you’re very data driven and those customer sat numbers that come out of Service New South Wales are incredible.

Victor Dominello:            Oh, it’s extraordinary. I think the recent sats is still hovering around the 95, 96%. It’s just extraordinary. One of our big challenges inside of government and the Premier says its all nice, is we go outside into the real world and we say, “Oh, Service New South Wales.” People don’t understand it’s a government agency because they, as you say, Nick, it’s like going into a first class lounge, chairman’s lounge in the airports. The amazing culture that has evolved over the years with strong leadership from the outset is just a joy to watch. And the way I described service is you’ve got your EQ at the front, people that want to be there too because they really are driven to looking after others. So you’ve got your EQ at the front. There are some people that should never be in service delivery, let’s be honest. There are some doctors that have a terrible bedside manner, and maybe they should go and become accountants or something. I don’t know. Hopefully there are no accountants listening. But, we’ve selected people in service that really love looking after and serving others, and then you’ve got the IQ or the heavy machinery in the backend, which is your data and digital systems, to then enable better service delivery as well. So, that’s the magic.

Nick Abrahams:               And don’t worry, for the accountants that listen, they’re very open-minded.

Victor Dominello:            And they are being disrupted and they are changing.

Nick Abrahams:               That’s true.

Victor Dominello:            And like lawyers, I’ve reconciled my lawyers, we’re all being disrupted.

Nick Abrahams:               You talk about the back end and the grunt and so forth, which is critical to enable service in New South Wales. What can a citizen of the future expect from government? What’s it going to look like? Is it all online? Is it a mixture?

Victor Dominello:            No, it will have to be a mixture because we’re still in twilight zone. There are still people like my mum that still struggle with technology. I met a famous person, he was on MasterChef. He was only 25 and I had to show him the digital driver’s license. And I had to literally force him. I said, “I’m not going to have your dessert, Reynold.” I’m not going to hide him.

Nick Abrahams:               Oh, we’ve named him?

Victor Dominello:            Yeah, I’ve named him. He’s a top line. And I went there, because he’s got his shop over in Ryde.

Nick Abrahams:               Yeah, yeah.

Victor Dominello:            And I said, “Reynold, I’ll do you a favor. I will have your desserts, but you’ve got to have my digital driver’s license.” And he loves it. He sent me a text how this is brilliant, this is brilliant. But the point is, Reynold is only about in his mid 20’s, so not everybody is completely immersed, like this audience may be. I just eat this stuff for breakfast. But so we got to continue that journey. I think the next generation will be completely digital.

So, we’ll have to have that journey where we still need to bring people across. And that’s why service is great. When people come in, the very first thing you do when you go to a service center is somebody says hello, and they need a transaction done. You can go and see that person at the front desk, which is really a nice experience. “Well, can I just walk you across to a digital kiosk so I can show you how you can do this at home, so you’d have to come back anymore, if you don’t want?” So, that’s the type of thing that we needed to transition, but we’ll get there eventually.

Nick Abrahams:               So, what are the technologies of the future that you’re excited about? You’re obviously a technology aficionado; what’s getting you excited in terms of the future technology?

Victor Dominello:            I’m a technology junkie. I can’t wait for mixed reality; I’m really looking forward to that. Like at the moment, we’re all glued to these screens. We’re a slave to the two dimension. Once mixed reality comes in, not augmented, then I think our world just opens up yet again. But, there’s so many things happening, like these technologies around such as CRISPR in the health space. We’ve already done the Human Genome Project. The next big thing for us is the mapping of the brain. So, there’s just so many things I’m just really excited about. For me, technology has to either enhance life or reduce suffering. And if it doesn’t do one of those two things, then I’m quite frankly not interested. Right.

Nick Abrahams:               Right. What are you doing with your smart city places and sensors work? What’s that all about?

Victor Dominello:            Well, that’s a huge piece of work that we’re doing. It’s a first of its kind in Australia because people say, “Oh, we’ve seen smart city strategies, but we’ve never seen something as comprehensive as a State basing a region for… And again, suppose this client in Australia, basically, we’re trying to make everything smart, everything connected. So, we all heard of the Internet of Things. Now people are talking about the Internet of Everything because that’s the way the world’s going. And this is before 5G kicks in. This is before quantum kicks in. This is before AI really does become AI, as opposed to simple machine learning. So, we need to get ahead of this now, so the next five, 10 years becomes… We realize our dreams.

Nick Abrahams:               So, the use cases like a smart road, for example, and what are the use cases that you’re thinking?

Victor Dominello:            And I guess in its nascent form, we think about sensors; that’s at the core of everything because sensors connect and sensors are always on. But, I want to use a smart places strategy for things beyond sensors. Obviously, sensors will be the lion’s share of it and how we connect it and how we operationalize those insights that we’ll be getting from the data that’s coming from the sensors. But there’s other things like, for example, Newcastle’s council, what they want to do is reinvigorate the night time economy. So, they want to come and approach me because they want to get the data. I said, “I want data architecture around this.” Same we did with the Green Slip Reform, show me your data architecture, because it’s not just about measuring how many small bars are opened up. But, when people go from this small bar, they might then go to a 7-Eleven because they’ve got a headache and they need some Panadol.

I want to measure everything, so I can say the impact of having this small bar equals x jobs, equals this much vitality, equals this much healthy lifestyle, equals this much trauma as well. I want to measure everything. So, once we’ve got that data architecture up in place, we can then fine tune and do what’s required. But then, if Liverpool council want to do a nighttime economy piece, don’t worry about it if you have data, I can pick it up from Newcastle and give it to you. So, it’s not just about sensors, I just want to try and emphasize that to the audience. It’s about using data in a smart way. Now, most of that data will come from sensors, but it could be coming from real-time surveys from the publicans. It could be coming from any where, but it’s to make our place smarter, also is a better place to live.

Nick Abrahams:               Yeah. Now, you talk about data a lot, and you mentioned the Green Slip Reform. I think it’s worth letting folks know what that meant actually to the citizens of New South Wales, based on the data analytics. And also, maybe just a little bit on fuel check as well.

Victor Dominello:            Yeah. So, okay. With the motor vehicle accidents, we’ve traditionally had a standoff, literally a Mexican standoff between the insurers and the lawyers. And I’ll never forget, John Della Bosco, the former Labor Minister, a decent bloke, a really nice guy. He said to me at the time, “Victor, this Green Slip Reform, CDP Reform, it’s like the first 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan. It is just a blood bath.

Nick Abrahams:               Mayhem.

Victor Dominello:            Mayhem. No one’s ever landed it. And I got all the insurers in the room, the lawyers in the room, the people advocating for the motors. We finally landed it. But to me, the most important element of the design was the data architecture behind it, because things will change all the time. We might have to pull this policy lever here, or push that one over there. But because we got a good data architecture underneath, we can see things pretty much in real-time. As a result of that, we’ve reduced premiums that would now be, at least, 758, 100 bucks now, without a doubt in my mind. But, they are now sub 500.

PART 2 OF 4 ENDS [00:16:04]

Victor Dominello:            … but they’re now sub 500. Sure we pulled the right policy levers, but we can see things. And that’s what a good regulator must do. And ultimately, the State Insurance Regulatory Authority, SIRA, regulates that. And because they can see it, they can regulate it. We tend to regulate things we can’t see, which produces some very poor outcomes.

Douglas Nicol:                  Yep. And-

Victor Dominello:            And fuel checks the same. Fuel checks, that was my first Petri dish into the data space. Because even internal was in my office I had a lot of [inaudible] saying, “You can’t do it. You cannot do it.” I said, “No, we’re going to do it. Oh, they won’t give you the data.” I said, “Well, legislate, I don’t care, I’ll stuff them. I’ll legislate.”

Douglas Nicol:                  Yeah you did. No, you did.

Victor Dominello:            This is an important piece for the people of our state. They need to know in the 21st century, they don’t need to drive round and round roads to find the cheapest petrol price. They should be able to see it online. Despite, people predicting the earth would swallow itself up, it’s worked and it’s worked really well. We’ve had, I think I’ve heard about… I don’t have to think. I can tell you.

Douglas Nicol:                  Here we go. No, that is the busiest phone in New South Wales.

Victor Dominello:            And that’s why I love this stuff. Actually you should check on the weekend. Here we go.

Douglas Nicol:                  And so to our listeners, I should say this isn’t a staff grabbing the phone to find it. This is genuinely the Minister. There we go.

Victor Dominello:            It just got updated every 15 minutes. It’s now 1,141,025 downloads.

Douglas Nicol:                  Wow.

Victor Dominello:            Not bad.

Douglas Nicol:                  That’s fantastic. That is brilliant.

Speaker 1:                          That’s brilliant. Well done.

Douglas Nicol:                  Now clearly New South Wales here in Australia is a leader in this area of digital transformation of government services. But you must look at other countries for ideas and inspiration. Who are the countries that you get excited about and what they’re doing?

Victor Dominello:            Well, it’s a great question. Look, I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve been in government from day one since [Barry Ferrell 00:18:06] got elected. I’ve had a number of portfolios. I’ve seen a lot of things. The two standouts for me, you can obviously point to the Valley and places like that, but two stands out for me all throughout, I can say one is Israel in terms of its innovation mindset. I think it’s pretty phenomenal what they’ve got there, but, and then obviously Singapore, but they’ve got a different model of governance, but the one that really stands out for me is Estonia. I really enjoyed what they did down there or up there. It’s fascinating. They’ve got their crossroad initiative. They’ve had a different approach to digital that we need to embrace so that we can start getting some of the returns that they’re getting for their people.

Douglas Nicol:                  And they say that the Estonians may be the first wave of travelers in the international travelers because of their identity and their ability to prove whether they’re immune to COVID and stuff. There’s a whole new set of benefits to what they’ve been doing, I think.

Victor Dominello:            Yeah, it is. And again, the thing most people, as soon as you talk about identity and digital, the usual cultural leg odds will say, “Here’s a hundred reasons why you can’t do it.” And the first one they say is privacy. And I’m a massive privacy advocate and they say privacy. You go to Estonia you realize that because of digital, they’ve enhanced their privacy settings, not detracted from them because with digital, you can see who’s seeing you. In paper, you have no idea who’s reading your stuff. My job is to communicate and to try and educate and say, “Listen, you’ve got to embrace digital, so it can enhance your life and not keep you in the dark.” But this is the journey that we’re on.

Douglas Nicol:                  Traditionally government has not been regarded at the forefront of innovation. You’ve obviously been able to turn that on its head. How do you make government agile?

Victor Dominello:            I think you’ve got to have a really strong ambition for the people that you’re elected to serve. Too often government is very conservative. That’s not a political label. It’s conservative in their aspiration. And for good reason, in the sense that you do not want to be experimental when you’re delivering medical or health services. You don’t want to be experimental when the police is delivering and trying to keep you safe. But there’s always going to be an area where you are prepared to push the envelope. Those safe harbors and whether it’s a digital driver’s license or whether it’s the checking service that we’re doing. My view is, work through pilots and trials. Like I love those.

I just think, a, it’s exciting, b, you get people on the journey with you and it gives you an opportunity to experiment even more and innovative even faster because in the course of a trial or a pilot, you saying, “Well, this is work. That’s not work. Let’s tweak it again before you do your statewide roll out.” I think the best way to build in the culture is to embrace trials because then you can go to the public and say, “This is a trial, it’s a pilot.” Straight up from the start we expect it not to be perfect and people will accept that. People accept that.

Douglas Nicol:                  And what about the Digital Restart Fund? Can you give some-

Victor Dominello:            Yeah, Digital Restart Fund 1.6 billion historic. That’s a stark in terms of the amount of money that we’re putting over a period of three years. And that’s again, to accelerate the digital journey for a lot of the agencies. Obviously they’ve already got their I.T. spend, which is part of their BAU, but the 1.6 is really to do the exciting stuff. If you want to do something exciting, innovative, that is truly transformational, come and see us for the 1.6. And we’re happy to partner with you, but it’s not going to be a traditional waterfall approach where here’s your $600 million and we’ll see you at the end of the waterfall with all the crash and all the bubbles and things that generally happen with a waterfall. It’s very fast. It’s very iterative on up to $20 million pieces. Come back, show us that you’ve done it right. Show me it’s working, then you’ll get your next stretch.

Douglas Nicol:                  Great. I’d love to ask about your work in behavior science. You’re clearly passionate about how that can help improve better experiences with government and you in fact, have a specialist unit the BIU, tell us about that.

Victor Dominello:            The Behavioral Insight Unit was one of the first of its kind in the world. The UK led that, but we were very much straight line style. I think we were the Duncan Armstrong in that Olympic race. We were just swimming on it’s wave. And it’s been around since, I think about eight years now and has really matured over that time. And to the point now, that in COVID, we’re using it. We use behavioral insights to help us nudge behaviors in a given way. For example, in COVID, it’s not really a medical science problem in the sense that… we hopefully will get the vaccine, but it’s really a problem of behavioral science now, because we know what the virus does and we’re trying to unpack that, but it’s understanding how to get people moving and conforming and complying in a certain way that’s where the Behavioral Insight Unit does its major work and it’s been really productive so far. Whether, it’s trying to nudge behavior in terms of getting people on and off trains, or trying to encourage them to wear or not wear masks, every policy lever that we’re pulling in this needs to have a behavioral lens to it. And that’s what it does. And I’m a big fan of Gladwell so I’ve read pretty much every one of his books, so I understand the importance of it.

Douglas Nicol:                  Great, great.

Nick Abrahams:               And now I’ve got to say, Douglas, this is the first time we’ve ever started off an interview where the subject has shown us a photograph of his brain. You won’t be able to see, it’s massive of course, ladies and gentlemen, and fires up and it looks every bit the brain of a leader. But could you talk to us about the background?

Victor Dominello:            Yeah. I’m just fascinated by the work that Musk is doing around, Neuralink I think it’s called. Because to me again, we got to use data and technology to improve lives, and one of the huge areas that we need to improve is around mental health. And I was always fascinated by the Human Genome Project, that’s now been resolved, it’s great. And you’ve got CRISPR coming in there doing some amazing work there to improve lives. But the final frontier for our species, at least, I think is the brain. And I think we’re about probably 10, 20, 30 years away from truly mapping it out.

But if we can understand or rethink what the brain is and really try and demystify it, I think we’ll get a lot better outcomes. So the heart at the end of the day, it’s a muscle, it’s a pump. The brain at the end of the day is just a big circuit board. And if some circuitry is connected then things are firing, well, and good. If things are not firing, not connected, then X outcome.

So when I spoke to Charlie Teo about it, because I was talking to him because I met him at a function, we always used to go to functions. He said, “Oh, you should see what we’re doing here.” I said, “Really?” He said, “Yeah.” So he invited me in. Paid my $400 or whatever it was, got my brain mapped and, sure enough, it shows… without me prompting them, they said, “People like you struggle to sleep because you struggle to disconnect.” I said, “Wow, spot on. All my life I’ve really pretty much struggled to sleep.” So it’s fascinating.

So they were saying that things like this in the future, and not too distant future, you might have an anxiety disorder, you might have a depression. In the past you go to Freud, oh, you got depressed because your mother didn’t love you. Now you’ll say, well, actually it’s a wiring issue and you’ll need to get some magnetic pulses to join these connections or to disconnect these things that are firing up. I think that’s the way it’s moving and when you think about how important this is to our wellbeing, generally, it is an area that I pray comes to life as soon as possible.

Douglas Nicol:                  And in fact, that business is a Sydney startup called Omniscient, backed by a number of brain surgeons, and they’re effectively taking functional MRI and using AI and machine learning to put a functional MRI on steroids and thus show how brains are working, and where they are taking the wrong routes and how electrical impulses are not working well. So it is a very exciting area. In the future would you consider having an implant in your brain? Is that something you would consider personally doing or for members of your family?

Victor Dominello:            Oh, I wouldn’t speak for members of my family, but for me… Yeah, I probably would. I would do my research, but then again, that’s my… How shall I say? That’s my profile in the sense that I’ve bungee-jumped before, I’ve jumped out of a plane. I like pushing the envelope.

Nick Abrahams:               You became a politician.

Victor Dominello:            Yeah, against my better judgment. At the time I didn’t want to do it, hated it. Just thought they were all idiots. It came down to a vote between my mum and my two sisters because my dad passed away some time ago. And I think, as it turns out, thankfully it was a two, one vote, that’s why I’m here. Otherwise, I did not want to do it. I was a lawyer, I was really happy, I was doing really well. I didn’t want to be a politician because back then they were all on the front page for all the wrong reasons. So, no. So yeah, I probably would do it, but my eyes wide open, yeah.

Douglas Nicol:                  Minister, thank you so much for joining us today. It is so exciting to see a minister so motivated to serve people well, but also to use the very latest technology. And I think it’s quite exciting that the government is thinking the way that you are. So thank you for joining us on Smart Dust.

Victor Dominello:            Thanks for having me.

Nick Abrahams:               And I should say, listeners, if you don’t follow the Minister on social media, you should because he is incredibly active and it seems like every second day, there’s some fantastic new announcement. So congratulations. And I don’t know who voted against you becoming a politician, but I’m glad they got overruled because for those of us that love technology, you and this government, frankly, are a massive breath of fresh air. So best wishes with your journey and thank you very much for joining us on Smart Dust.

Victor Dominello:            Thank you. Thank you.

Douglas Nicol:                  And that wraps it up for this episode, Smart Dusters. As usual, there are some links and notes to peruse for this episode in the iTunes program notes. If you’ve enjoyed the episode, please rate us on your podcast platform of choice and indeed go crazy and subscribe to Smart Dust.

Thank you to the wonderful content creators at Daresay who produce this podcast. And if you’ve enjoyed hearing about government and technology, maybe listen to our May 2019 chat with the fantastic Bessie Lee, who’s a tech investor based in Shanghai, and we discuss how the Chinese government is going about creating a national AI movement to nurture technology investments. Definitely one to listen to.

But from me, Douglas Nicol.

Nick Abrahams:               And me, Nick Abrahams. Thanks very much.

Douglas Nicol:                  Goodbye.


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