Innovation in Government: Not just talking the talk!

Since the Smart State strategy was launched in 1998, Queenslanders have been supported and encouraged to think big, innovate and plan for the future.

But it’s not a one-sided call to action.

State government departments are not only talking the talk — they’re walking the walk too — and looking at old problems in new ways to make life better for all Queenslanders.

They say death and taxes are the only certainties in life, with the underlying message that neither are overly desirable.

But for Queensland’s Office of State Revenue (OSR) tax is their business — and they’re trying to make paying it and planning for it as easy and as painless as possible with the help of machine learning and an intelligent virtual assistant named SAM.

The OSR administers $17-billion in taxes and royalties and more than $280-million in fines and penalty debts.

“Ultimately, we deal with people who have duties, payroll and land tax requirements, or royalty obligations,” OSR Commissioner Liz Goli explained.

“The Revenue Office is a regulator, we’ve got governing legislation on all taxes and standing back asking, ‘how could we do this better for our taxpayers?’ isn’t always an easy question to ask.

“As part of our transformation journey, we asked ourselves this question and addressed some of the questions that underpin our core business such as, ‘why do some taxpayers pay on time, but others don’t?’ This is where Machine Learning came in.”

“When company, SAP — which stands for Systems, Applications and Products — approached us to participate in a proof of concept of their machine learning solution, Leonardo, the team jumped at the chance and looked at the 15 per cent of land taxpayers who don’t pay on time.

“The results provided the opportunity to make the links between cause and effect of client behaviour, allowing us to be proactive in our responses and personalised in our treatment,” Liz Goli said.

“We discovered the machine learning solution had the ability to transform client services, by allowing us to visualise data and by surfacing key events and influences on client behaviour, on a timeline that enables staff to truly understand client motivations.

“So we went on to implement machine learning, becoming the first public sector agency in the world to do so.”

The project was recognised internationally, receiving the global SAP Next-Gen Innovator Award in May 2018.

“It was a calculated risk made possible through funding marked for innovative processes and it is paying off big time,” Liz Goli said.

“In a second breakthrough, we also identified that more than 95 per cent of our clients were engaging with us online and one way to make their experience less painful was to make our digital services easier to access.

“We introduced an intelligent virtual assistance (IVA) called ‘allowing clients to have their questions answered 24/7 online, at a time that suits them.”

OSR is the first state public sector agency in Australia to introduce an IVA.

The SAM interface.

“There’s so much technology behind SAM — which was actually designed by the same company behind Siri, Nuance Communications Inc — that it allows people to actively type in questions and get answers in a matter of seconds,” Liz Goli said.

“Previously people went to the website and were required to manually search for the information they needed via a search engine with no guarantee they would find what they were looking for.

“Also, most people accessing our website are business people, so finding time to then follow-up with a phone call the next day between 9 am and 5pm when the correct information couldn’t be accessed created potential ramifications, such as unwittingly not meeting all their obligations.

“Obviously helping people meet their obligations by giving them the access to the information they need, at a time that suits them, will help bring in the revenue, which benefits the State — so something seemingly simple is offering a huge benefit.”

The SAM technology is anything but simple though.

“This platform actually allows us to track what type of questions people are asking and see what the most common questions are,” Liz Goli said.

“It might point out a particular requirement isn’t clear, allowing us to address that online and then run an information campaign to directly improve our service.

“Being able to capture so much new data and then use the information efficiently means when we’re dealing with taxpayers, we can genuinely assist them faster.

“To date SAM has had over 5,700 client interactions with 71 per cent of enquiries being resolved at the first contact. In another few months, we’ll be able to properly assess the percentage which direct phone calls have fallen as a result of a more robust and helpful website platform.”

Liz Goli is quick to point out the technology isn’t about reducing staff numbers and replacing people with AI.

“In the public sector, it’s important not to get bedazzled by technology — it’s a balance,” she said.

“More technology does not mean less people, I see technology as a tool to help our people.

“A lot of the technology we’ve introduced — and will introduce in the future — will actually improve the working lives of people who are working in our organisation — enhancing their jobs rather than taking their jobs away.”

Liz Goli’s team at OSR is now looking at how best to implement new intervention strategies based on the data insights machine learning and the SAM virtual assistant have provided.

“This has been an incredible journey that’s been made available simply because we chose to be open to something new,” she said.

“Being open to things like proof of concept and design thinking doesn’t come naturally when you’re so used to doing something in a certain way.

“But trying to leave old understanding and behaviours at the door and giving a new concept a go could change the trajectory of how you do business — and ultimately increase your job satisfaction and your bottom line.

“There’s really nothing to lose by trying something new.”

It’s an approach the Queensland Department of Environment and Science (DES) has also decided to take to work through one the greatest of modern-day challenges — monitoring the health of the Great Barrier Reef.

The Great Barrier Reef.

Through the Advance Queensland Small Business Innovation Research Program, DES put an ambitious test out to market — looking for ways to develop and supply water quality sensors similar or superior to the current sensors used, at a significantly lower cost.

“Asking for a new way to reduce the cost of water quality monitoring equipment was a seriously grand challenge statement but it was a case of throwing it out there and seeing what came back,” Executive Director of the Office of the Great Barrier Reef, Elisa Nichols said.

“Our assessment panel was sceptical to begin with and we really didn’t think a tangible answer would be forthcoming based on the intensity of the question we’d posed.”

Scepticism was soon replaced with shock, then excitement.

“We really were incredibly surprised by the quality of the proposals submitted and also the depth of different industry experience applicants possessed, and the variety of different technologies that were put forward,” Ms Nichols said.

“The Innovation program allowed the DES to start a conversation with innovators we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to engage with through a regular tender process.

“We ended up shortlisting 12 different proposals and really highlighted that we’d never explored the opportunities outside our known circles — it was a big eye opener and encouraged us to pursue the process with real excitement.

“There was a lot of interest from the scientific sector which was to be expected, but we also had a lot of proposals from the engineering and academic sectors too.”

It was a company that specialises in analytical chemistry that was successful in securing funding for the proof of concept stage.

“AJJA Technologies has no previous experience in Great Barrier Reef monitoring, but they took a punt on seeing if they could apply their background in electro-chemical development in the Reed environment,” Elisa Nichols said.

“It’s innovation at its finest and so far, the field testing of the prototypes is showing a lot of promise.

“There are 10 devices in Great Barrier Reef catchments now and we’ve paired them up with the existing expensive devices, so we can compare them against each other.

“The next step will be to look at what large scale commercialisation might look like. For instance, can they deliver 1000 of these and allow us to have significantly more monitoring devices through all our waterways? It’s an exciting prospect.”

Elisa Nichols said the impact of the innovation has already gone beyond just our own backyard.

“Even in the trial phase we’ve fielded calls from all around the world. Water quality monitoring isn’t just a Queensland problem — it exists everywhere,” she said.

“It’s another example of how knowledge sharing and searching for fixes to problems in new areas is so important.

“Government does not have all the answers and we need to tap in to the brains trusts across sectors and across the world.

“A small amount of money can allow some people to do some great things and providing the platform to start that conversation is crucial.

“Success breeds success! Supporting cost effective and clever new ideas will only further support Queensland’s bright outlook.

“Queensland has always been a resources state and it’s an incredibly important part of who we are and why we’ve had success. But we must actively keep working towards sponsoring a culture of innovation and next generation economy.

“Offering additional products and new thinking means Queenslanders and the environment we live in can enjoy ongoing success — it’s critical stuff that doesn’t need to be rocket science!”

Innovation in Government: Not just talking the talk! was originally published in Advance Queensland on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Last updated 17 Sep, 2019
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