Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Support my ePetition for a better Australian ePetition site

Openness in government is supported by low barriers to engagement between citizens, agencies and politicians.

For example, making the House of Members' Register of Interests available publicly is great - but not THAT great if it is only available for viewing in hardcopy in one location in Canberra between the hours of 9-5pm (which used to be the case).

Recently the Australian Government launched its ePetitions site, designed to make it easier for citizens to petition government on specific issues or goals.

You probably didn't see any media headlines about it, or even government announcements - nor is the site easy to find via search or within the Parliament House's website.

If you do find it - the approach is uninspired and basic. I reviewed it compared to three other ePetitions sites internationally, and it just didn't stack up on usability, accessibility, attractiveness or tone. Read my comparison here.

There's ePetition platforms available that are far more developed and inviting, and there's lessons from international ePetition sites that clearly weren't learnt.

The cost to us, to Australia, is that people won't engage with Parliament and the Government in the ways they could, reducing the openness and effectiveness of the process.

So... I created an ePetition to Parliament. It ask them to mandate the Department to work with the broader community to implement a true Web 2.0 ePetitions platform.

This platform should be equivalent to the best of breed internationally and embed best practice design principles (such as from the Digital Transformation Office).

Slightly to my surprise, they've published my ePetition, though without actually telling me - another issue with the Aussie process.

Therefore I'd appreciate if you could sign my ePetition at:

And then please share this ePetition with your networks.

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Thursday, October 13, 2016

Disruption is often simply a failure to prepare and evolve

Digital disruption is one of the buzz terms of the last few years, underscoring the increasingly rapid changes in society, industries and governments as new ideas and techniques enabled by digital technologies take hold.

Photo by Tsahi Levent-Levi
While some embrace this disruption (generally those doing the disrupting), for many it remains an unsettling or even negative concept.

Disruption implies a disturbance or breakdown in the existing order, a situation where the status quo is overturned in an unpleasant way. To disrupt a process is seen as interfering with the ordinary course of events, and 'disruptors' of events or organisations are rarely looked on in a positive light.

While many disruptions are predictable, they are often not avoidable - such as the impacts of a natural disaster or the consequences of a terminal illness.

Equally disruptions in business and governance, through new technologies, ideas and approaches, can often appear to come rapidly out of 'left field', even when they can have been expected for a long time.

However in many of these cases, disruption has a much greater impact on societies and organisations than it needs too, not because it was unexpected or not discussed, but because leaders refused to see the writing on the wall, and begin a process of communication, adaptation and evolution soon enough.

A classic example is Kodak Eastman - the inventor of the digital camera, whose business was destroyed by the product it originally designed and marketed.

Kodak did not go bankrupt because no-one within or outside the company could see the impact of digital cameras, or their widespread adoption into mobile phones, laptops, tablets, drones and more. The company failed because the company's leaders chose to believe that their business could not be disrupted, that their name, reputation and products would allow them to survive no matter where the market went.

As a result they adapted too little and too late to the 'digipocalypse', where film cameras rapidly disappeared and even the digital camera market fell as people started using other devices as their primary photographic tool.

When I hear business and government leaders speak of disruption, of new industries replacing old or new thinking flushing out the old, I often wonder how much is just talk and how much actual action is taking place in their organisations to adapt to new realities.

Few disruptions are truly unpredicted, although their course may be unpredictable, with some technologies being rapidly adopted and others festering amongst early adopters for decades.

Organisations that are truly committed to survival and growth don't talk about the 'disruption' due to digital, but of the opportunity to re-imagine their business models and redesign their operations, preparing for and adopting innovations and new ideas in an evolutionary manner.

By preparing early and evolving continuously these organisations never actually face actual disruption, because they are almost always in the right place at the right time, with the talent, tools and techniques at hand to move with the market, rather than trying vainly to keep up.

When these organisations are tripped up by market or social change, it's due to velocity, not disruption, and they remain well-equipped in talent and tools to pivot their operations to minimise any disruption.

If your organisation is facing digital disruption, consider why that might be the case.

Was the disruption truly unpredictable? Or did your management fail to watch the market closely, or ignored advice on the basis of their belief that the status quo was unshakeable?

Is the disruption due to a lack of preparation in the face of a clear and present danger? Or due to an unwillingness to change, even at the point of extinction?

While change is a constant feature of business and social environments, disruption is simply what happens to organisations who fail or fear to face change. Organisations that do not design structures, generate strategies or train and recruit staff who can lead and support the internal transition in a prepared and evolutionary way.

Therefore any organisation that has been disrupted should first look inwards, not outwards, for the cause, and take appropriate steps to ensure that, if it survives, it never makes the same mistake again - to inadequately prepare itself for environmental and market change.

And any organisation that foresees disruption ahead should be preparing now. In order to turn a potential disruptive event into a much less impactful, evolutionary step, that causes far less disruption or damage and buoys the organisation to greater future success. 

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Thursday, October 06, 2016

Free range 'strike teams' of specialists are a long overdue innovation for Australia's public service

I'm very pleased to see that the Australian Public Service Commission is finally considering the introduction of 'free range' teams of public servants, unattached to specific agencies, who can provide specialist skills as and where needed.

I proposed this type of team while I was working within government almost ten years ago now, as I could see that there were a range of skills that agencies did not require continuously, but were needed across the public service all the time.

This included experienced community engagement professionals, a range of digital talents as well as design and implementation specialists.

Until now the hierarchies of the public sector have been designed against such free-roaming talent, able to converge as 'strike teams' to assist agencies when they need it, and move on to other assignments when the need wanes.

There's still the strong (almost feudal) hierarchies in place, but it seems that the innovation agenda, combined with diminishing resources and an increasing need for specialists, are helping to wear away the resistance to the recognition that it's all one federal public service.

I always found it peculiar that senior public servants were adamant that they served the government of the day, but chose to do so by building rigid organisations that made it harder for skills to move around, to be 'lent' or 'shared', but instead hoarded people as jealously as they hoarded data.

This always seemed a sub-optimal strategy for government, but one with very deep roots.

There's still a number of challenges ahead for the APSC in realising this idea. It still has to navigate the hierarchies of power - some agencies might wish to hold onto talent for too long, with brush fires between agencies that need similar resources at similar times. There's also likely to be all kinds of power struggled between agency 'owned' resources and the floating specialists, who may be seen as fly-by-nights, dropping in to offer their wisdom, then leaving the mess behind for agency staff to clean up.

The APSC must find public servants with the right psychology and mindset to move around, without having a 'fixed abode' or a hierarchy to protect their position and career progression.

Many people who work in this way already are contractors or consultants and may see little benefit in giving up salary for supposed job security, while new entrants from the private sector, who might be more used to mobility, may not find public service cultures or approaches congenial to their working styles.

However I'm glad the APSC is making the attempt, and hope it will be widely supported, particularly by smaller agencies with less capacity to hire or contract the specialist skills they need.

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Friday, September 30, 2016

Australian government ePetitions compared to international models

Australians might be surprised to learn that the Australian parliament only agreed to formally accept ePetitions in July 2015.

That was five years after it was formally recommended to parliament and follows a trend towards epetitions set by other digitally advanced democratic nations, such as the UK and USA.

In September 2016 the Australian Department of Parliamentary Services launched its epetition site allowing people to create and sign epetitions at - yes that is quite a mouthful.

I've reviewed Australia's site compared to comparative sites released in the US, UK and Canada to form some conclusions on how well we've done.

However, unfortunately for Australians, the model used for Australia doesn't measure up well.

UK - ePetitions

The UK's epetitions site launched in August 2011 at and has been restructured several times over the last five years.

Today it is a sleek, easy to access platform that hides all the technical mechanics the UK parliament requires for petitions behind a usable and simple step-by-step process.

It's very simple to find and sign a petition, with the process for responses explained clearly on each petition's page. 

Sharing tools are embedded to make it simple to encourage others to sign. It's easy to view signatures geographically by electorate (great for parliamentarians and respondents alike).

The data for each petition is immediately available via a standards-compliant data format.

The process for creating new petitions is also simple and seamless.

It uses plain English and employs a range of assistive approaches to ease first-time petitioners through the process. This includes examples of how to write a petition and flagging information that will be required in later steps so the petitioner can pre-prepare.

The site uses text matching to find similar petitions so that a petitioner can choose to sign a pre-existing petition, rather than create a near-identical one - a step that saves effort for both petitioners and for the public servants who need to manage the system.

There's clear warnings when a petitioner reaches irrevocable steps, and the system supports and encourages sharing - to help the petitioner get the petition to audiences who may wish to sign.

All in all it's a solid and well-thought out system with excellent usability - very important when considering that most people rarely petition government and need a helping hand to navigate what can be a complex and seemingly irrational process for those who do not think like bureaucrats or politicians.

USA - WethePeople

The US's epetitions site is similarly five years old - launching in September 2011. Named WethePeople and located at, the site is structured differently, but is just as simple to use, as the UK's version.

While the site doesn't offer the same geographic mapping as the UK site does, it does provide very clear step by step instructions for both signing and creating petitions and is equally clear on the goal number of signatures required for consideration.

The government's responses to epetitions (which must reach 100,000 signatures to get a response) are clearly provided with the petitions themselves, making it easy to understand what was asked and how it was responded to.

The US system requires that people creating a petition must create an account - a small barrier to entry, but one that helps with screening. 

It also makes it easy to track repeat petitioners - a useful thing for a government, if slightly invasive in privacy terms for an individual.

Something I don't like about the site is that after creating an account it sends a confirmation email with a randomly assigned password in plain text. People who don't respond straight away could easily get caught out with identity theft, although the site does force you to change it after you confirm your email.

However when changing your address the site does provide an idea of how strong your password is and makes helpful suggestions on how to improve it (something I think all government sites requiring login should do by default).

Once a petitioner has an account they also get a dashboard to track their petitions, though unfortunately it doesn't also track petitions they have signed or autofill your details when you choose to sign a petition. This may be done for privacy reasons, but there's also huge convenience and utility in these steps.

The process for creating a petition is brilliant - laid out step by step.  

The ability to look at past successful petitions as examples is a nice touch and very helpful for first-time petitioners, and the filtering approach helps guides people to structure their petitions well. 

Later in the process petitioners also get to tag their petitions by topic, providing a useful way of filtering them to the appropriate agency and providing useful statistics for the government on the 'hot topics' for citizens.

The system doesn't have the matching of similar petitions as the UK system does, but nevertheless it's very polished and well executed.

Canada - e-Petitions 

Now the Canadian epetition system is interesting as it debuted in December 2015, less than a year before Australia's system. As such it hasn't had the same amount of time as US and UK sites to refine and restructure based on use. but has the opportunity to learn from their experiences to implement the best of both sites in a Canadian context.

The site is very simply named, similar to the US and UK epetition platforms, but has taken a different approach to either the US or UK sites.

There's no ability to see the latest petitions on the main page, users must use a search tool or click to see all live petitions. This shifts the propensity for people to browse and choose to sign by adding a small 'one click' barrier to the visibility of petitions.

When a user clicks on 'View all petitions', what they see doesn't really provide enough information to decide whether to sign. Another click is needed to view the details of any specific petition. However the screen does help people refine down to a topical area quickly, unlike the US and UK sites and the keywords by petition are useful, if perhaps put ahead of more useful information such as the title and summary of what a petition is asking.

The language, unfortunately, is a touch more bureaucratic than in the US and UK sites, with petitions titled by number and reference. These may be useful to bureaucrats, but have limited meaning for users and could have been hidden from petitioners and respondents.

Petitions provide a numerical breakdown of respondents by provinces, but no map view and no easy way to download the data without screen-scraping.

Responding to a petition is slightly more complex than in the US and UK epetition sites, with it being mandatory to provide an address and phone number as well as the usual name, email address and confirmation that you're really a resident of the country. The response form is also less friendly than the other sites, using now old-fashioned red asterisks to denote mandatory fields.

Creating a petition involves an equally complex sign-up form, where a user must avow they're a Canadian - so I've not looked into the creation process. I do anticipate that it would not quite be as sleek and refined as the US and UK versions.

The responses to petitions, like in the US site, include all petition information and those that have been responded to can be found easily through the top menu of the site. However the responses are provided as PDFs rather than within the page. This adds an extra step to the process of reviewing a response and most are only one page long, so I feel this is a poor approach, adding complexity with no benefit for users.

Australia - e-Petitions

Similar to the Canadian site, Australia's epetition site is quite new, so some rough edges can be expected. 

However I did not expect as many rough edges as I found, given there's some excellent examples above to learn from.

Also as the code for WethePeople is available as opensource, it is it relatively quick and easy to start with all the US's experience and build from there. 

To start with, Australia's epetitions site doesn't have a short web address like, it is deeply buried in the site at

Now it could be argued that as Senate, House of Representatives and Committees might all accept petitions but operate differently, it needed to be buried within each of these section of the site. 

However this could have been easily handled through a single multi-choice question in a petitions process, leaving all petitions to live at the same simple address - without requiring petitioners to do the hard work of understanding how government operated.

On top of this the petitions process doesn't come up in the first page of search results when looking for 'petitions' - a critical but easily fixable mistake. 

This type of simple oversight dominates the entire Australian epetitions process, with it being pretty clear than the work was done with little reference to international benchmarks or usability testing.

Moving on to the actual processes, there's currently no petitions listed so it's not possible to analyse the process for signing a petition. I would have expected that the APH would have done some work to ensure there were a few petitions at launch, as other governments did. 

Clearly this wasn't the case, with the APH potentially taking more of a 'build it and they will come' approach rather than promoting the availability of the site widely before and during its launch. The impression that leaves me is that the APH didn't really want to create this site and doesn't really welcome petitions - they'd prefer to not hear from citizens or have the hard work of dealing with any resulting work.

Regardless of whether this was the case - the impression, or perception, is the thing - and the lack of any petitions to sign at launch reflects badly on the site.

Moving on to the creation process, the process for doing so is well explained in the first page (image above) - though with far more text than is necessary (as illustrated by the other epetition sites above).

Some of the steps on this page, and later pages, are not well communicated, using very subjective and bureaucratic terms - such as "Language (must be moderate)". 

I'm not sure what 'moderate' actually means and I doubt most Australians would be able to guess what a bureaucrat would consider 'moderate language'.

However using more words to explain these types of terms would be a mistake - instead the entire page should be written in plain English, aimed at about the 5th grade level. 

In fact I quickly tested the language on the main page, and it scored at a current grade level of 10.5 - well above what is considered acceptable. The subsequent creation pages score even higher, with terms bandied around that are rarely used outside of Canberra's bureaucracy and would serve to confuse, frustrate or even upset many Australians.

The process for filling in an epetition is OK, clearly stepped out, but with far too many steps (and words) on each page. There's no way to compare your petition with existing petitions - as the UK site does - though as there's no existing petitions to compare with I'm not too concerned about this as yet.

It will become a source of additional work for public servants and frustrations for users down the track however.

There's a lot more questions and information requested than in other epetition processes - with a lot of form fields to complete, which will effectively deter many people from establishing an epetition. Whether this is a good thing, however, depends on whether you're a bureaucrat first or a citizen first (I think it's a poor approach).

Nowhere could I see clarity on the thresholds at which you might get a response to a petition, making the entire process seem like a black box - a digital black box, but a black box nonetheless.

The entire process felt very cold and impersonal, unlike the UK and US experiences - which were warm and inviting.

Given parliament serves citizens, I think it is better to strive to leave users feeling they were important welcomed guests rather than nuisances and intruders into a hostile space.
This lack of warmth was particularly characterised by the final 'thanks for submitting a petition' page - which neither thanked the petitioner, nor gave them a feeling they were important and valued. 

Even the title of the page remained 'Request a new e-petition' rather than thanking the petitioner for their engagement in Australia's democracy.

Given how often politicians and public servants complain that Australians are disengaged from politics and democracy, the way this entire epetition creation process was constructed makes it very clear that the government itself holds a lot of responsibility for pushing people away, rather than welcoming their contribution.


So given my review of the four epetition processes, from Australia, Canada, the UK and US, I can say that I'd happily and enthusiastically recommend both the US and UK approaches, slightly favouring the UK due to it's maps and sharing tools.

Canada's site is OK for a first attempt. It doesn't appear to have learnt a great deal from the US and UK experiences and asks more than it needs from citizens, but it remains usable and functional if not inviting.

Unfortunately Australia's epetitions site is a very poor effort, and reflects poorly on the government, our public service and Australia's claims of being innovative and digitally progressive.

About the most positive thing I can say about it is that at least we now have the site - so there's a starting point to improve from.

However any competent usability designer would not have built the site in the way it has been built - and it seems more of a 'tick and flick' developed with internal resources on little or no funds (not that it would have cost a great deal to have done a good job).

I'm very disappointed at the APH's efforts - and have created an epetition for people to sign accordingly (though I doubt it will make it through the APH's scrutiny process - which is far more involved than for any other jurisdiction compared).

I truly hope the APH spends more time looking at benchmarks internationally and can convince the government that epetitions are a key interaction tool with citizens, so having them feel invited and effective is critical for supporting a positive view of government.

I'll be looking in on the site from time to time to see how its going - and would happily help the APH improve the site if asked (in fact I reached out last July, but never heard from them).

This isn't just a box that government has to tick, it's a vital avenue for citizens to engage with government and an advanced democracy like Australia should recognise the importance of doing it well.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Party time for GovCMS as it hits 102 sites, well ahead of target

It's party time at the Department of Finance as GovCMS continues its growth surge, from 78 sites less than a month ago to 102 sites this week.

This means the Drupal-based platform is tracking 70% ahead of its 2016 targets, demonstrating how successful a well-engineered and supported digital platform can be in government if well designed and supported.

While some of the growth may have come from agencies shifting away from GovSpace, which shuts down next year, part is also coming from state, territory and local governments who are beginning to consider the platform seriously.

While mandating a single webCMS and platform might be a step too far for Australian governments, the approach of providing a cheap and effective platform, with full standards support, a growing developer base and interoperability of plugins and modules (which can be reused across agency sites), is providing a strong 'pull' effect.

This 'pull', rather than a 'push' (mandated) approach to service design is one that government can also apply to citizen and business services, so I'm hopeful that the GovCMS experience is demonstrating to agencies how the carrot can be more powerful than the stick.

Given that even the Digital Transformation office has now fallen into line, after the DTO initially considered building its own WebCMS for the site, GovCMS has been a massive success for government in Australia, and for the Department of Finance in particular.

GovCMS is supported by Acquia, the commercial entity created by the developers of the open-source Drupal platform, with a variety of local development partners involved in the development of specific agency sites.

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