The skills he gained as a bio-sentinel for his country are now being put to good use advising a new generation of civic leaders around the globe about how best to use data to most efficiently target aid and resources, as the Global Government Practice lead for Analytics software and AI giant SAS.
“My passion then – and it still is today – is how to help governments put their data to work for citizens and for communities.”
The father of four says the rapid digitisation that has come with COVID is a decisive opportunity for governments around the world who are determined to turn the crisis into an opportunity to “build back better”.
Bennett believes data will be crucial to that critical goal.
“The use of data will help make sure that we are tailoring government services to citizens in need of assistance,” he says.
“Data is going to have a huge role in figuring out what the next version of all of our societies will look like, whether it’s retail, or government or banking.
“Personalisation and the tailoring of benefits will have a huge impact going forward in helping citizens get back on their feet.”
He says SAS worked with a large city in Denmark to do just this to help reduce the amount of time Danish citizens spent out of work after losing their jobs.
To do this, it starts with the data. “They have all kinds of data about where you went to school, whether you’re married, where you live, prior work history, all of that. And then on the government side, they have a range of programs that they could offer to unemployed citizens – programs ranging from reskilling or job training, to job counselling or being connected to an employer.
“The government worked with us to build a system that uses artificial intelligence, machine learning, in particular, to create a tailored package of government programs to offer an unemployed person based on what we know about them. All with the goal of getting them back to work more quickly.”
The result was a huge increase in the speed of getting people back to work, thanks to AI, using data and analytics.
In a discussion that ranges from Carl von Clausewitz, World War II, to the Kennedy administration and the war on terror, the confessed history buff reveals a deep knowledge across myriad issues and a love of data and the lessons it can teach us.
He tells an anecdote about WWII bombers coming back to base riddled with bullet holes from missions over Germany that is germane.
“All these planes were coming back from bombing missions with bullet holes in them. And the military was going to put additional armour where they saw the bullet holes.”
The data told a different story – the places on the planes that were turned into Swiss cheese obviously weren’t critical to the plane (and its crew) making it home.
“You need to put the armour where there are no bullet holes, because those are planes that are getting shot down – they are the ones not making it home so we can count the holes.”
This earthy lesson says much about Bennett’s attitude to data – that we must listen to what it is telling us, not what we want to hear, and to allow data to help us make use of finite resources – whether it’s bomber armour or taxpayer’s money – more efficiently.
This will become important as governments cope with shrinking budgets in the wake of COVID, he says.
For Bennett the lessons in 2021 and beyond for Australia are clear.
“Priorities are going to be around the area of innovation-driven operations and government – how do we take what we’ve learned and apply the data to making ourselves more efficient,” he says.
“Budgets are going to continue to be stretched for governments around the world for a number of years.
“There will be a lot of pressure on the Australian government, like all the others, to do more with less and analytics and data are going to be at the forefront in helping us making tough decisions that maximise impact.”
He says while Australia is already a leader in digital transformation within the public sector, there are many opportunities for further innovation.
“The Australian government needs to continue to digitally transform, to digitise government operations, not only to save money, but to do a better job accomplishing their mission of targeting assistance more efficiently for its citizens,” he says.
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