Sunday, June 01, 2008

eGovernment in Australia is like a chocolate éclair

There is some exciting activity happening in the Australian eGovernment scene.

States such as Victoria, Queensland and WA have taken major steps to standardise their online approaches across departments. At local level South Australia has introduced a phenomenal content management system that allows every council to have a well structured website, providing access to the key services they offer while still supporting individuality and innovation.

However at a Federal level it appears to me that eGovernment activity is more patchy.

Certainly there are fantastic applications such as e-tax from the Australian Tax Office (ATO), and the 2007 eCensus from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

But across the Federal Government there is little consistency as to how websites and eGovernment applications are designed, built or managed. Standards for reporting to allow ready comparisons across government sites do not exist and there are few efficiencies in coding or content management across departments or even within agencies across websites and intranets.

AGIMO (the Australian Government Information Management Office) did some sterling work a few years ago to develop a set of Better Practice Checklists and Guides for Federal government sites, however these are not enforceable, aging and do little to 'rein in' Agencies who go their own way.

Personally I've spoken with AGIMO several times to get their position on email marketing, wikis, blogs and participation in stakeholder forums and social media - unfortunately there are no guidelines and little knowledge of what is actually occurring in these spaces across the Government sector.

On this basis, while eGovernment does have a firm outer later, full of chocolatey goodness, the core is simply mush.

There are a number of steps I have identified that would allow Australia's Federal Government to begin realising the efficiencies and benefits that could be delivered via the online channel.

These include:
  1. Auditing the online channel within all Government departments to gain an understanding of the websites/intranets/extranets they run, support or engage with, the (software) systems they use, the governance in place and their strategic plans for the channel.
  2. Establishing and maintaining a register of key people working in the online area (business and IT people) across Departments who can cross-fertilise and support agency initiatives.
  3. Establishing appropriate and standardised reporting metrics that can be audited by the ANAO and guarantee that senior management and ministerial staff are provided with the same type of information no matter which agency. This may also include standardising on a core set of web measurement technologies.
  4. Establish strong guidelines on appropriate governance across website, intranet and extranet management.
  5. Create guidelines for engagement via the online channel - approaches for using social media and two-way communications tools in an effective, responsible and governable manner.
  6. Create National and State panels of suppliers across key areas, such as content management, search technologies, web design, mobile web design, rich media development, email marketing, mobile marketing and similar online areas that any Agency can draw on.
  7. Establish national standards around interface design - as simple as whether to place 'OK' or 'Cancel' to the left, using the same term for 'Firstname' and as complex as is needed. Due to how Agencies are so tied to their existing 'standards' no matter how different it is from other Agencies', there needs to be muscle to enforce this, perhaps with the involvement of the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO).
  8. Negotiate Government-wide head-level agreements with key providers so that smaller Agencies can access the tools and services they need to develop their online channel at an appropriate cost and support level.
  9. Build a government-wide library of common tools, code and 'widgets' which Agencies can draw on and reuse within their own systems. If the ongoing management and development of these common tools is an issue I'm sure appropriate arrangements can be developed to allow Agencies to contribute what they can afford while still benefiting - after all we're all the same eGovernment and all the money comes from the same source.
  10. Establish National training standards for staff in the online area - both business and technical - to ensure that citizens receive a similar standard of service online, just as is expected from telephone or face-to-face services.

The situation isn't all gloom and doom (how gloomy can a chocolate éclair be) - there are some initiatives which have begun to address some of my goals above.

Govdex is a prime example, a centrally provided wiki system (using Confluence - my second favourite wiki system behind MediaWiki) that any Agency can use to facilitate engagement. I have implemented two wikis using the system and while it appears not all agencies 'play nice' as yet (it's hideously slow in our office), I have nothing but praise for the organisation supporting the application and for AGIMO's work in providing the service.

Another initiative is the AGOSP program, also from AGIMO - which will see Agencies be able to access a central forms system for citizen forms, as they can already do for business forms and aims to strengthen as the central point for online engagement with Government.

However from my perspective it appears that most Federal Agencies are siloed - each doing their own research, design, development, system selection, governance and ongoing management - taking few learnings from others and definitely not sharing experiences to any great extent.

Perhaps one day in the far future eGovernment in Australia will develop that extra hard gobstopper core - but for now, in my humble opinion, it remains an éclair.

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