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Interviews > Creating a Policy Framework for Australia in the Information
Creating a Policy Framework for Australia in the Information Age
Madanmohan Rao interviews Arthur Blewitt of the National Office for the Information Economy
July 21, 1998
From Canada to China, and India to Malaysia, governments and business associations across the world are scrambling to implement effective national policies for developing and harnessing information technologies like the Internet. Particularly effective in this regard is Australia, which has even established a National Office for the Information Economy (NOIE). Arthur Blewitt, formerly an executive director at Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, is the NOIE's Managing Director for Government and Corporate Relations. In an interview with Madanmohan Rao, currently in Canberra, Blewitt outlines the growth of the NOIE, its role in nurturing frameworks for e-commerce, and challenges facing Australia in the information age.
Q: What were some of the forces and imperatives which led to the formation of the National Office for the Information Economy? What were some policy guidelines and directives issued along the way?
In 1997, the Information Policy Advisory Council (IPAC) of Australia published a proposed framework for policy adjustment in response to the growth of the information economy. The Council was of the opinion that a greater sense of urgency was needed by government and business to improve the capability of Australia's information industries, the adaptation of Australian organisations to the information society, and the boosting of trade via e-commerce. One of their recommendations was to set up this National Office of the Information Economy (NOIE).
We currently have a Ministerial Council for the Information Economy which includes the ministers for trade, industry, science, tourism, finance, education, and employment. The NOIE supports the Ministerial Council to develop and oversee policy responses to the information economy. We help create the necessary push from the top in creating a framework for managing growth of the information economy.
The government has published a report on "Investing for Growth," with an entire chapter devoted to the role of information technology. In August 1997, the Australian Tax Office released a report, "Tax and the Internet." Many states in Australia are taking the lead as well, in promoting the diffusion of the Internet.
Q: What's the size and scope of your organisation? What are some of your growth plans?
We currently have about 20 members; we will be adding another eight people in the coming months. We have an office here in Canberra which works with government agencies; our Sydney offices manages corporate relations. Our main challenge has been to find the people with the right background, experience and vision.
We seek to have a strong presence at several levels: participation in international fora related to the Internet economy; development of bilateral initiatives with info-savvy governments like the U.S. and Singapore; and a strong working relationship with organisations and agencies in Australia itself.
Q: What are some of the NOIE's recommendations for e-commerce policy and frameworks?
In June we published a progress report on the enabling legal and regulatory framework for e-commerce. We maintain that the government should favour competitive market-based solutions wherever possible, and intervene only to ensure that the Internet is a safe and secure place to do business and seek information.
We have released Principles for Consumer Protection in Electronic Commerce, an updated Payment Systems and Netting Bill, and an amendment to the Copyright Act of 1968 to deal with digital publishing and online payments.
Q: What other roles do you advocate for the government in the information economy?
In addition to creating the appropriate legal environment for e-commerce, we believe the government should also be a key exemplar in the use of online media. The government should be not just an avid promoter of the Net, but an active user as well. We believe that government agencies should actively use the Net in areas
like public health care (via telemedicine) and education.
The Office of Government Information Technology has developed an
authentication framework for government offices and other users of government services.
Q: What would you say are some of Australia's assets in the age of e-commerce - and what challenges do you face as a nation?
Australians tend to be rapid adopters and innovators in the use of new technologies. A Nielsen survey showed that 6 per cent of the Australian population bought goods and services via the Net in 1997.There is also a lot of creative talent, and good support coming from the government.
But we are also a very large country with a small population - so building affordable and accessible infrastructure across the country is a big challenge. Besides, the uptake of new developments like Intranets has been not as rapid as expected. A survey six months ago showed that only 8 per cent of top management of Australian companies think that the Internet and Intranet will have
a major impact on their business. But we expect this to change fast.
Other challenges lie in privatisation of infrastructre. We are currently in the midst of heated political debates over the privatisation of Telstra. While this will release vast reserves of wealth, there is also concern over providing accesss and services
to rural areas.
Another challenge is retaining skilled information workers - I'm sure you have similar challenges regarding the "brain drain" in India. There is a huge demand in the information sector of the U.S., and we are concerned that the cream of our workforce will be skimmed off.
Which countries do you think have particularly infotech-friendly policies? What suggestions or recommendations do you have for infotech policy formulators elsewhere?
In terms of national-level strategies, I think Ireland, Singapore, Israel, and Malaysia have good forward-looking policies. As for recommendations to policymakers, I would suggest that any such initiatve should address issues at a national level. But no single group can do this alone - hence much cooperation across the board is needed.
I would also recommend that policymakers examine the issue of bandwidth very carefully. Much of the information economy rests on plentiful and affordable bandwidth.
Q: In addition to creating legal frameworks, fora for cooperation between government and business, and publishing resource documents, what kinds of measures do you have on your agenda?
We have designated November 27 as Australia Online Day. There will be a huge campaign across states and in cities to increase visibility of the Net and have hands-on demonstrations of what new media can do and what benefits can accrue. There will be conferences, seminars, and open-house discussions.
We also have a lot of traffic and useful input coming from our Web site (www.noie.gov.au), which was launched in February - in fact, handling this huge volume of information is becoming a problem! We are planning numerous online fora, discussions and conferences.
The key is to get Australia online through cooperation between business, community, educators and government agencies.
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