Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The evolving role of social medial within government and the community

I had a great chat on Monday with one of the best online comms people in federal government, which touched on how the role of social media has evolved within agencies and how this matched the overall evolution and maturing of social use by the community in general.

I've thought through this and roughly mapped out the phases I've seen for social over the years - note this is a rough draft and others will have very different views of the progression.

Birth - 'I'm here look at me'
At its birth most people and organisations weren't quite sure what social media was for, with many starting out using social to talk about themselves and what they were doing.

Organisations often began engaging with 'look I'm here' messages - staking their claim to coolness through merely having a presence on a social channel, many without a firm strategy detailing why they were on social or how they'd use these platforms to engage with citizens, customers, stakeholders and staff.

This phase was typified by posts detailing that people were getting up, going to bed, having lunch or, from organisations, that their CEO was at such-and-such a place with such-and-such a celebrity.

Childhood - 'I'm learning about...'
As social grew in reach and users in sophistication, people began talking about topics of common interest, sharing news and information in topically based groups. The arrival of hashtags on Twitter to differentiate conversations is an example of one of the key stages on this journey as social media became less about being present and more about sharing meaningful data with relevant people and organisations.

Critical in this stage was the evolution beyond self-interest into sharing, with the reputation of social media users starting to reflect their willingness to share information rather than how they shared their own lives and activities.

Teenager - 'What's up?'
As social took hold in the mainstream, we saw a great deal of confusion - with new and advanced users beginning to collide in terms of the maturity of their use.

One particular trend was for tighter peer groups to form, with more experienced users 'circling the wagons' around their information sharing conversations as new people streamed in screaming 'look at me'.

This phase saw the creation of many expert groups who either excluded or husbanded in new users into their cliche in managed ways.

We also saw the type of information shared on shift to become more personal, with disasters fostering the use of social media for social outcomes - saving lives, directing resources, helping people cope with adverse circumstances as empathy took hold.

Organisations began using social media not just for impersonal information broadcasts but for personalised customer service and for engaging and supporting people in crisis scenarios.

More resources began being directed to social, with organisations encouraged to develop their own voices and live their values, rather than simply share information.

Young adulthood - 'Experimentation'
We're now entering the young adulthood of social media, with a majority of the population both using social and many doing so in innovative and useful ways.

The tools have been around long enough that people are beginning to explore what is possible in more systemic and mature ways.

Organisations now using social in diverse ways - still for information sharing, customer service and crisis management - but also for detecting the 'pulse' of the community, for engaging in the development of products and policies, and for building relationships with non-humans, from NASA spacecraft to coffee machines, in a social aspect to the internet of things.

We're seeing stories told via social channels and new forms of art evolving to encapsulate the global conversation that's now occurring between over a billion people day and night.

What do we have to look forward to?

Hopefully we'll see a long mature adulthood for social media, where individuals and organisations integrate social media fully within their lives, using social channels as we already use telephones as a natural part of the communication fabric of our lives, relationships and interactions.

For organisations and individuals still new to social media, it's worth trying to move quickly through your 'birth' and 'childhood', into the phases where social has the most impact and value.

While you may not be prepared, as yet, to experiment with innovative ways of using social, at least integrate it into your customer service and community engagement frameworks, even moreso than your outbound communications.

Try to develop a single voice for your social presence as an organisation - not an impersonal institution, emotionless and uncaring, nor necessary a 'human' voice representing a single person perspective, but a 'humanised' voice that represents your vision and goals with the passion and energy your staff bring to meeting them.

Social is now the main channel by which many people communicate with each other and with organisations, how they find out and share information and where they give and receive support. As an organisation you need to be prepared to be engaged and engaging, to be valuable in order to receive value from social channels. To grow up quickly and make mature use of social media.

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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The uneasy relationship between Freedom of Information and open data

 Freedom of Information (FOI) has always been a tricky area for governments, a delicate balance between accountability and exposure, with successive parliaments around the world tweaking their national and state FOI laws in attempts to prevent disclosures damaging to various governments of the day, while also meeting public and media demands for transparency.

We've seen the federal government in Australia retreat from some of the Freedom of Information (FOI) framework established under former governments, including the effective abolition of the Australian Information Commissioner by budget cuts, when legislation to end the office failed to pass the Senate.

With the three appointed Commissioners in the Office now having followed most of the rest of their staff into new rules, we have a temporary Australian Information Commissioner, for three months, as the government sorts out how to finally end the Office and transfer the function to a more formal, costly and time consuming review process.

This is far from the only tweak in recent times, with Australian FOI legislation also modified in 2013 under a former government to exclude parliamentary service agencies from FOI. This was termed fixing a loophole, that unfortunately allowed the public to request information such as a former speaker's expenses in detail.

Similarly in the UK it appears there's a retreat on FOI occurring, with the UK government calling an enquiry into FOI to look at whether they have the balance right.

What's interesting is that the UK is using its open data presence as part of the justification for the enquiry.

Open data and FOI are not always the same thing. Open data focuses on quantifiable datasets, generally numberical, that represents a current or past state for a given government service, or from data collected by government on a nation's social, economic or environment state.

While open data can expose issues in government, it is often used to identify opportunities and gaps that can be explored and improved on - leading to better services and outcomes.

FOI, on the other hand, is often far less about data and far more about correspondence, decisions and who made them. While open data may expose bad decisions, FOI exposes who made those bad decisions and, sometimes, the basis on which they were made.

That's why data is generally easier for government to release openly than documents. Exposing a bad decision can become a basis for better decision-making, while exposing a bad decision-maker can breach the public sector's responsibility to protect the government of the day, and their own senior staff.

I've previously spoken about the risk of governments using open data as a 'cover' for tightening FOI requirements, and in the UK case above, my concern appears to be being realised.

I've not yet seen this explicitly in Australia, however with the poor scrutiny of government in the media and our weak civic sector, it's likely to occur at some stage.

Don't get me wrong, I think it's fantastic to see the level of open data increasingly being released at federal, state and local levels across Australia. The snowball is rolling and we're beginning to see some of the value that open data enables - both within governments themselves and in association with the communities they serve.

However effective open data release should not become the primary way in which governments engage with Freedom of Information, nor a rationale for broadening exclusions to FOI.

As for FOI, we really need to rethink it at a fundamental level, politically, at public sector levels and in the community.

Currently (and from my experience within government), often those outside government are seen as 'the enemy', seeking to point the finger at people within government and 'bring them down'.

The reality is that government exists as part of society and must remain functionally effective and valuable. FOI can support this process, helping to identify issues and misconduct in order to improve trust in government and it's effectiveness in meeting community needs.

However this can only occur if those within government - and those without - treat FOI in this manner, as an accountability and transparency tool, not as a threat to their integrity.

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Monday, July 27, 2015

Have Australian governments & councils considered the impact of disruptive tech like driverless cars?

Last week it was announced that the first driverless car trials would begin in Australia in Adelaide. Supported by the South Australian government and the Australian Road Research Board (ARRB), the two-day trial involves Volvo's XC90, Bosch's driverfree technology and Telstra's network.

I'm a big fan of self-drive cars and have followed Google's US self driving car trials, as well as the European work by Volvo and other car makers for a number of years.

Besides the prospects of better traffic management, fewer accidents and less road deaths with consistent, tireless, undistractable computers controlling cars, self-drive cars offer the promise of more productive and leisure time for humans currently spending hours each week behind the wheel of their cars.

In a self-driving car future there's less need for private cars and massive car parks, more predictable road maintenance and potentially better population health outcomes as people don't face the stress of tail-gaters, road rage and other deplorable on-road driver behaviours.

However behind the glow of potential benefits that has governments and companies working towards a human-free driving future, there's some significant and highly disruptive impacts on industries and governments that the public sector and politicians need to consider.

Firstly, as self-drive cars take over there will no longer be any need for taxis or other paid drivers. Uber and similar companies are building logistics systems for moving humans that would allow people to simply summon a self-drive vehicle when they need it, and have it drive them to their destination.

Uber is already creating significant disruption in the taxi industry by providing an easy-to-use alternative to legacy taxi systems, with violent protests in France and governments in the US, Australia and other countries fining Uber drivers or prohibiting the service to protect the taxi industry and their existing taxi plate revenues.

Step forward a few years to when self-drive cars are widespread and taxis will simply not be able to compete for most travel needs, with paid drivers (if still allowed on the road) being a high-end service used by those who wish to show-off their wealth.

Similarly bus and truck drivers - particularly for long hauls - will find their jobs vanishing as computers, who need no sleep, replace them, making logistics systems more efficient and controllable.

Emergency services may also experience some shift in focus and reduction in staff, with paramedics focused on patients, not driving ambulances, firefighters able to plan and police able to work on cases as their cars transport them to where they are needed.

Severely disabled people will benefit, with the ability to summon a vehicle to take them to where they need to go, rather than waiting on human carers - which may also reduce the number of nurses required.

These industry dislocations will affect the number and type of jobs in an economy, necessitating rethinking of a government's priorities and approach. It may also have significant impacts on state public transit services as buses no longer require expensive drivers, potentially allowing more transport options on the road.

However there's even more profound consequences for governments who fund their activities partially through revenues raised from drivers and their mistakes.

Self-drive cars will not speed, drive dangerously or part illegally (without human intervention), meaning that speeding fines will disappear, along with parking inspectors and the fines they collect.

Drivers' license fees will vanish, together with many private car registration fees as more households shift to rely on Uber-style logistics services, which simply have a vehicle come to your door when you need it. Government parking fees may also fall dramatically, with cars redirected to low and no-cost parking locations outside city centres when not required.

With self-drive cars it's also likely that electricity will take more of a role in replacing petrol, meaning governments will raise less in fuel excise, reducing their ability to fund road maintenance and improvements.

Fortunately, with more consistent and predictable behaviour by self-drive cars, and the ability to divert vehicles to spread traffic load it's likely that road costs will diminish somewhat - however whether this offsets the reduction in revenue from car licenses and fuel is yet to be explored.

Self-drive cars are coming - they make sense to individuals, corporations and governments in many ways. Now we need some serious thinking by governments on how to manage the disruption that will be caused and how lost revenue will be replaced.

This isn't the only disruptive technology facing governments, but it is one of the biggest, with the potential for creating economy and society-wide change.

We need to begin consider the impacts of the change now, before it occurs, in order to manage it in the least impactful way for both governments and communities.

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Friday, July 24, 2015

Redefining innovation within the public service

The Canberra GovCamp dialogue was held on Wednesday, one of a series of events across Australia, both part of Public Sector Innovation Month and a lead-in to a full GovCamp in November.

Attendees included both current and former public servants, academics and private sector interested parties - all interested in discussing how to foster and focus public sector innovation towards material improvements and outcomes.

The half-day event had an interesting panel discussion on what is (and isn't) innovation, and the factors that support or hinder it's use as a tool to improve governance and service delivery outcomes, with a number of interesting points raised.

It also featured a Conversation Cafe mapping the room's views on what triggers public sector innovation and what type of innovation occurs, as well as views on the value of public sector innovation - which will be mapped together with the results from the other GovCamp Dialogues across Australia and should prove interesting reading. I tweeted the Canberra responses on Wednesday as below.

Following this, the GovCamp Dialogue gave participants a taste of how full GovCamps tend to operate, holding three participant-driven sessions where those attending could nominate topics and discuss each for twenty minutes in various groups.

This was a useful introduction to those new to GovCamps, and participants took to it with gusto.

For someone who's been around this scene for awhile, the event was a good opportunity to refresh my views on public sector innovation, and the biggest idea of the day for me was outlined by Mick Chisnall, formerly the Director of the ACT government's Government Information Office.

Mick suggested that government needed to treat innovation more as experimentation than as a project.

While I'd not thought of it specifically in this way, I believe he's on the money.

Projects in government have clearly defined scopes, resources, timeframes and steps in order to achieved the desired outcomes and don't generally support failure within the fabric of the process.

Innovation, on the other hand, is a process involving exploration and experimentation. While it can involve a defined scope and desired outcomes, often the path to success is littered with learning experiences - what might be otherwise termed 'failures'.

Innovation often involves a large component of rapid and iterative testing of assumptions and exploration of different avenues, with the data collected from each attempt helping to inform and focus the path towards the desired outcomes.

As Thomas Edison said to American Magazine in 1921:
"After we had conducted thousands of experiments on a certain project without solving the problem, one of my associates, after we had conducted the crowning experiment and it had proved a failure, expressed discouragement and disgust over our having failed to find out anything. I cheerily assured him that we had learned something. For we had learned for a certainty that the thing couldn't be done that way, and that we would have to try some other way."
This innovation process is hard to foster within today's project methodologies. Prince II, PMBoK and others of their ilk all exist to systemise projects to minimise the risk of failure and efficiently manage resources towards the delivery of a clearly defined objective.

Few support an iterative failure-led approach to success where many avenues must be explored to identify those that may be productive.

Indeed, a formal review of innovation within the APS in 2013 found that senior managers were very reluctant to discuss their failures at all, To quote from the blog post linked,
Innovations can fail and information on why this has occurred is highly important. However, there was reluctance amongst respondents to provide information on unsuccessful innovations, with around 80% survey participants stating that they “did not have a least successful innovation”.

So how do we marry innovation processes with project methodologies?

My thought is that we provide some tolerance for both the known and unknown unknowns, supporting feasibility studies and Agile-based methodologies within a project framework. We should also follow more start-up thinking around 'minimum viable product', continuous A/B testing and improvement and break larger projects into smaller goals, achievable in a few months.

We also need to foster a rethink of the concept of failure in the public service. A failure is a situation where something didn't work AND we learnt nothing at all. Even learning that a given approach doesn't work is valuable information that can support further effort towards a solution.

So long as a 'failure' allows us to redefine the scope to exclude certain paths, and data is collected and shared to understand why an approach or solution didn't work, it is not a failure.

This may require some reshaping of Project Offices and management of the expectations of public sector decision-makers, Ministers and citizens, but it would be well-worth it to support a more innovative public sector.

In an age of wicked problems we need to foster creative thinking.

This can only happen if we ensure that innovation is treated appropriately as experimental and exploratory work, rather than shoehorned into existing project management processes with little tolerance for 'failure'.

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Thursday, July 23, 2015

How important is geographic location for a digitalised public sector workforce?

Canberra is full of large buildings full of public servants, all working together on a daily basis to serve the needs of government and the community.

While some can work remotely, from their home or on the road, there's still significant barriers to teleworking in the public service.

Whether it's the need to install a secure connection in a person's home, check the OH&S layout of their kitchens or simply a reluctance on the part of managers to allow staff to work outside their sight.

While companies like Cisco have had a hotdesking approach for many years, with staff able to go into any office, sit at any desk and start working with full access to their digital files and phone, only a few government agencies have recently made it possible to hotdesk within their own environment.

There's no clear pathway for any Australian Public Servant to sit at any desk in any government office and work effectively without complex and time-consuming IT steps (if it's possible at all).

There's a large and growing productivity cost to this kind of IT inflexibility.

From the huge ICT costs  in moving workers and changing system access that's involved when governments rip agencies apart and put them back together in different configurations during Machinery of Government changes, to the lost opportunities to employ the best person for a job because they don't live - and won't move - to a specific geographic region, governments are increasingly being shoehorned into a lose-lose situation where their technical environments damage their ability to deliver outcomes.

I've had significant experience in teleworking. In the late-90s, while living in Sydney, I was also lead designer on a commercial game developed by a team in Adelaide, that I met in person a total of once.

When working for a start-up at the turn of the century, nominally in an office in Sydney, I also regularly travelled and worked from the UK, Singapore and the US.

Into the 2000s I wrote books and articles for a range of publications from my home, my local playground (having young kids), or pretty much any location where I had access to technology and close proximity to an internet connection.

After moving to Canberra I cofounded an oil exploration company with someone who soon moved to Sydney. We established a board with Directors based across Australia and in Asia, and employed a team in Texas to explore an oil field in the US, with almost all of the company's business conducted online.

However when I look at roles in government today (particularly some of the interesting digital roles that have popped up in recent times), they still require an individual to be physically situated near a specific office. Some even offer to help pay people to relocate their entire lives to be closer to these jobs. There's a little more leeway for senior executives, who might get assisted accommodation and travel to allow them to work a city away from where they live.

Sure there's still many people normalised into working in the same office with the same people every day. However there's a growing number who've learnt the art of working anywhere, building and managing remote teams and achieving bodacious goals.

Certainly there's roles that require a physical presence - face-to-face customer service (when not delivered digitally over screens), inspectors and jobs that involve moving physical goods from place to place (until robots and remotely controlled drones take over).

However I'm hard pressed to think of many other roles in government that actually require staff to be physically present in the same office all the time. Policy development, program development and delivery, grant management, communications, IT, HR, Finance, phone and online customer service, briefing Ministers and stakeholder engagement - all these roles could be delivered effectively remotely with appropriate technology, security and mindsets.

In some of these roles there may be some need to physically meet one's colleagues, customers and stakeholders for some of the time, but none require workers to all live in one geographic location, to work in one office, often in one big room like battery hens.

There's also many roles where mobility is a distinct advantage - anyone working on a whole-of-government taskforce, or who regularly meets stakeholders, moves between offices for meetings, or has a distributed team. These people would gain enormously from being able to work wherever they happen to be.

So how important is geographic location for a digitalised public sector workforce?

Objectively it's no longer important at all.

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