Former NSW Minister for Customer Service Victor Dominello reflects on 14 years in public office, including his oversight of a large part of the NSW Government's digital transformation.
Victor Dominello was a partner at a Sydney law firm when the future state premier Gladys Berejiklian asked him to run as the Liberal candidate for Ryde in a state by-election in 2008. “I flatly declined,” he says. “I enjoyed the mental rigour of litigation and didn’t want to be involved in politics.”
Dominello protested he no longer lived in the seat of Ryde and hadn’t been a party member for years. “My father passed away in traumatic circumstances in 1998 and I let my membership lapse,” he says. “I walked away from everything and focused on the law.” However, Berejiklian, a longstanding acquaintance, wouldn’t take “no” as his final answer. Dominello began to waver.
“I said to Glad, ‘If you can convince my mum and two sisters I should do it, I’ll do it.’ It was a two-to-one result,” he says. “If one person had voted the other way, I promise you I wouldn’t be here today.”
Dominello farewelled his colleagues appearing before the courts and won the by-election less than two months later. In 2011, he took on his first state ministerial portfolios — Citizenship and Communities, and Aboriginal Affairs. In the most recent state election in 2019, his share of the vote in his seat was 59 per cent.
During his 14 years in office, Dominello has held 11 portfolios under four Liberal premiers, including Berejiklian, with whom he had a close working relationship. At the time of writing, he held the portfolios of Customer Service and Digital Government, Small Business and Fair Trading. He has previously served as the minister for Finance, Services and Property, Innovation and Better Regulation, Veterans Affairs and Assistant Minister for Education. “It has been the greatest privilege of my life,” he says. Last August, Dominello announced he would retire from politics at the March 2023 state election, citing a family health issue.
Whether chairing a committee or discharging his duties as a minister or local member, Dominello sees his leadership role as comprising three elements. The first is to help create a vision. “Ultimately, I get to see things at this part of the apex that not many people see,” he says. “As you go higher up the mountain, you see the challenges and storm clouds coming. It is therefore incumbent on you to set the vision and to put the safety gauges in place.”
The second part is to communicate the vision, and the third is to ensure appropriate oversight of its implementation. Dominello has used his substantial social media network (including nearly 74,000 LinkedIn followers) to communicate his vision and provide progress updates, whether it be an upcoming initiative or a challenge in service delivery he is intent on fixing. The posts frequently become the subject of news articles, amplifying his message.
His advice for directors who wish to leverage platforms like LinkedIn while avoiding some of the more negative elements of social media is simply to stay focused on the message. “Focus on your swim lane,” says Dominello. “My focus is on customer service, data and digital. Occasionally, I’ll go outside that in terms of equity and values, such as wearing a World Pride T-shirt. But generally, I stick to my lane.”
Dominello places emphasis on substance over style. His top tip is to be authentic. “People have said, ‘You took a selfie and didn’t even comb your hair’. I’m not fussed — it’s not about my hair. It’s about the [digital] birth certificate.”
Highs and lows
A leading advocate of digital transformation in Australia, Dominello has been a champion of the potential of technology to help governments improve quality of life. “As a lawyer, if you win a case, you can change that person’s life,” he says. “If it was a groundbreaking case that changed the common law, it has a ripple effect through other cases. But with tech, you don’t change one person’s life, you change society, and that change happens at pace.”
However, he says he was never enamoured with some aspects of politics and didn’t enjoy much of his time in the “Bear Pit” that is state parliament’s lower house. “Obviously, [parliament] is central to democracy, but the worst part of the job are the personal, petty and juvenile arguments thrown across the chamber,” he says.
“It’s just very low-rent, but opposite to that were the more enlightened debates when there were conscience votes on issues such as voluntary assisted dying and same-sex marriage. Unfortunately, these debates were comparatively seldom, but they were definitely the domain of our better angels.”
In May 2020, Service NSW was the subject of a significant data breach with a large volume of documents, including personally identifiable information, exposed to the dark web. The breach was executed through a phishing scam that unlocked a Service NSW employee’s email inbox. “It was a real wake-up call for me and other senior leaders in government about the risks of cybercrime,” says Dominello. “It was further proof that our processes around identity security and document management were antiquated and not fit for the digital age.”
A team of privacy and cybersecurity experts were assembled to assess the scale of breach and a concierge support service was set up for impacted customers. An Auditor-General’s report later that year found a number of failings on the part of Service NSW.
“Service NSW’s reputation was on the line, but the way it and the Department of Customer service responded demonstrated empathy, accountability and competence,” says Dominello. “The silver lining was the creation of ID Support NSW, which later proved invaluable in responding to the Optus breach.”
Estimated heath letters per year replaced with digital communications
Customers signed up for the Digital Seniors Card in its first three months of rollout
Estimated number of customers who commenced a digital patient record
Schools have access to internet connectivity at a speed of 5 Mbps
Source: Digital Restart Fund Annual Report FY22
Forming a crisis committee
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Dominello was a member of the Crisis Committee of Cabinet. For about the first six months, its five members met early each morning at the state emergency operations centre at Homebush.
“I remember driving there and the streets being empty,” he says. “There were police everywhere — it was like something out of a movie. The world was in the dark. We didn’t know if the virus was going to mutate... or if instead of affecting the lungs, it would affect the brain. We were told we had six weeks until it blew up unless we got it under control. We saw what was happening overseas, with all the body bags in London, Rome and New York.”
Unable to sleep, Dominello researched what other jurisdictions were doing. He learned Taiwan was using QR (quick response) codes as a method for containment and contract tracing. He came up with a localised design and within weeks it was rolled out across the state. Other states followed.
As the pandemic subsided, Dominello was ready to scrap the QR codes, but was surprised by the level of resistance. “I said, ‘Listen, we’ve eventually got to move to the new normal’ — and the new normal is not checking in everywhere,” he says. “That is not a society I want to live in.”
The crisis cabinet surrounded itself with the best experts available, but making decisions with so many unknowns was often agonising — even when those decisions were the correct ones. “Without a shadow of a doubt, the hardest decision was limiting the amount of people that could mourn at a funeral,” says Dominello. “To this day, it deeply disturbs me. I felt sick doing it, but it was based on the best expert advice we had at the time.”
Digital uplift goes national
Dominello became the inaugural Minister of Customer Service in 2019, and the inaugural Minister for Digital in 2021. Service NSW sits under the Department of Customer Service and provides one-stop access to government services including transport, fair trading and cybersecurity support. His advice for directors wishing to upskill their cyber literacy is to approach it with a growth mindset. “Cyber is constantly changing,” says Dominello. “You couldn’t possibly know everything about it. Almost every other night, I’m listening to a podcast or reading, or watching something on YouTube to learn about what is coming next.”
Identification services are also provided by Service NSW and Dominello is passionate about handing back power to the individual to control how their data is used and prevent oversharing. For the past five years, he has championed the development of a decentralised digital ID, which involves keeping limited data sets within different departments, rather than a single department storing everything. A decentralised system avoids creating “honeypots” of data and makes it far more difficult for cybercriminals to penetrate. In the wake of high-profile data breaches at Optus and Medibank, it is an easy sell to the public. However, the technology at the back end is complex. There are only a handful of places around the world with a decentralised ID card — Flanders in Belgium and NSW amongst them.
In 2021, Service NSW announced it had begun creating a “decentralised credential vault” to store government and private sector credentials, such as qualifications and student cards. The ID is verifiable, but shows only what is needed to prove one aspect of identity, whether it be a person’s age or address. “Our vision is so ambitious that we get seriously smart people, who would ordinarily make a ton of money in the private sector, wanting to come and be a part of building it,” says Dominello.
In 2019, NSW moved away from paper driver’s licences to digital versions. As of February, the adoption rate stood at 80 per cent. A trial of digital birth certificates will begin this month. Other government services that have been digitised or are on the cusp of going digital include working with children checks, parking meters, natural disaster alerts, trade licences, conveyancing, pet registry, fuel checks and seniors cards.
Dominello’s efforts to design services around the needs of citizens rather than the bureaucracy has been embraced by the public. According to a 2022 study by Boston Consulting Group and Salesforce, NSW residents have the nation’s highest level of digital engagement and rely on digital government services more than anywhere else, with 50 per cent of people using services at least once a week and 18 per cent on a daily basis.
Collaboration is growing and the NSW model is now being replicated at a federal level as well as other states and territories. Cross-jurisdictional digital services began in January, with a joint announcement from Dominello and federal Government Services Minister Bill Shorten that NSW digital driver’s licences will sit within the federal MyGov wallet and app, and digital Medicare Cards will reside in the Service NSW app. In February, a Data and Digital Ministers meeting in Melbourne saw an agreement for a “nationally coordinated approach to digital IDs”.
Shorten has sounded out Dominello about taking on a national role coordinating federal and state government digital service delivery efforts after he leaves politics. It isn’t the only offer he has received. “A few people have approached me, but it isn’t my focus,” he says. “There is plenty of time for that later. Right now, my number-one focus is my last 25 days in office, because they are precious.”
Dominello has an app on his phone with a timer that counts down the days, minutes, hours and seconds before the 25 March state election. Another real-time display shows the time that has passed since he won the seat of Ryde in 2008. It is 749 weeks, the equivalent of 5247 days.
“When I got elected, I realised that it was an extraordinary privilege and that I had to make every day count,” says Dominello.
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