Friday, January 31, 2014

It's all about recovery - tech disruption and government

My post yesterday on Has Gov 2.0 in Australia got too boring too fast? (thanks @sandihlogan for the title correction) attracted some good debate on Twitter and in comments, including from @chieftech who said:
Disruption, or the 'throwing into confusion', is a common occurrence in times of major social or technological change.

The discovery of agriculture disrupted man's nomadic lifestyle around 22,000 years ago - dramatically changing the shape of human society, how we lived, worshipped and organised ourselves.

When humans learnt to smelt iron, roughly 3,500 years ago society was again disrupted, with more advanced civilisations able to outfight and outproduce their bronze-dependent neighbours, causing larger cities and states to form and leading to greater productivity and more time for creative thought.

Gunpowder and then handguns changed society again in fundamental ways, ushering in the end of castle fortresses, making warfare far more bloody and deadly. Incidentally Genghis Khan, known for his horse archers, may have used gunpowder bombs fired from Chinese catapults in his wars.

Further disruptions occurred with the printing press, oil drilling, tanks, computers, television, nuclear weapons, satellites, and the internet - amongst thousands of other technologies. Each time societies had to adapt how they operated, governments rose and fell, the balance of power between states shifted.

In other words disruption is normal. Society is constantly adapting to new technologies, rejecting some, embracing some and tolerating the others.

Governments have never been immune to this disruption. They also have had to constantly adapt their approach as technologies changed. We've seen time and time again how more technologically advanced civilisations have colonised, absorbed or destroyed less technologically advanced ones - and, on a few occasions, have seen civilisations falter when they advanced their technology too far too fast and it became out-of-step with social values, or caused unintentional harmful side-effects.

So has the Australian government been disrupted by technology - yes, many times even in our short 113 years as a nation.

Is there anything special about how technology is disrupting government right now? Anything that makes it different to how major technologies disrupted our government in the past?

Well yes and no. Certainly the speed of technological change has increased, which means that government has less time to understand the impacts and consequences of new technologies before deciding how and when to adopt them.

Also 'now' is the time when we are alive. Watching change occur is very different to reading about how changed occurred in the past. It's always more visceral to live through change then to observe it remotely through another person's eyes.

But also no - disruption is disruption. While the type of disruption may change or the speed increase, the potential range of responses remains limited.

In my view societies and governments only have four options when facing disruptive change - embrace, accept, absorb or oppose.

They can embrace the change, adopting it enthusiastically and quickly, throwing out old ways for the new.

They can accept it, adopting it in a more piecemeal 'as needed' way, without any resistance or dissent.

They can ignore the changes, passively rejecting them by clinging to 'traditional' ways, but gradually absorbing them over time into their traditions and making subtle adjustments to maintain the semblance of the status quo.

Or they can actively oppose the changes, actively seeking to suppress them through laws and actions - successfully or otherwise.

This leads to what I feel is a far more interesting question. How will our governments cope with, or recover, from the present round of disruptive change?

Answering this question will also answer the question of which nations will dominate the 21st Century. Governments that embrace new media and Gov 2.0, adapting themselves into the new forms necessary to thrive within empowered societies, will have a strategic advantage over governments who lag or refuse to use them.

We're already seeing this in the adopting of broadband around the world. Nations with faster broadband will have a significant economic edge over their slower and less connected neighbours. Similarly governments that are more connected and able to tap more brains for ideas, more citizens to undertake small civic acts, will be far more economically and socially acceptable than nations that restrict use of these channels to small elite, or stifle discussion through laws and censorship.

Of course there are risks with embracing disruptive changes - moving too far too fast can uncover new issues that societies don't yet have the experience to solve. However in many cases the governments that uncover these issues first may also resolve them first, sometimes putting them even further ahead of other nations.

So the really interesting question for me is how are Australia's governments doing at coping with the disruptiveness of Government 2.0, the impact of social media on public debate, of open data on accountability and economics, of citizen activism on state leadership?

Which of our governments are embracing these changes, which are accepting them and which are resisting, or actively legislating against them?

The answer to this question will tell Australians which states will be the most successful in the next twenty years and whether Australia as a nation will remain one of the wealthiest, safest and most successful in the world, or be overtaken by more nimble peers.

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Thursday, January 30, 2014

Has Gov 2.0 in Australia got too boring too fast?

Clay Shirky once said, about social media, that "These tools don't get socially interesting until they get technologically boring."

Over the past year I've seen extremely encouraging signs across government in Australia that the use of social media has reached this point, become boring, as it has been normalised into agency operations.

Most federal and state government agencies now have multiple active social media accounts (with councils lagging a little behind), the majority of government communications campaigns involve social media - often in a central way.

Formal and informal support for social media use by government is now widespread. For example the Victorian Government has appointed a senior person in Premier and Cabinet to lead the education of the public sector in using social media. The Australian government's Secretary's Board has also recommended that agencies make greater use of social media channels in their operations and public engagement. The APS Cross Agency Social Media (CASM) group in Canberra is flourishing, as is the Emergency Management Social Media group in Victoria and other states have well-attended groups meeting semi-regularly - from #SocAdl in South Australia to NSW's IPAA Social Media Special Interest Group.

In fact any state and federal agencies who aren't engaging via social channels are now tail-enders - you know who you are.

Agencies have also made firm, if cautious, steps into crowdsourcing, sponsoring independent events like GovHack and, in some cases, running their own crowdsourcing campaigns, like Victoria's Seed Challenge, the ACT's Digital Canberra Challenge and NSW's AppsForNSW.

Governments across Australia are now actively considering mobile, both when designing websites and for specialist apps, with a long list of federal agency apps at Australia.gov.auVictoria has a similar list, as do various agencies in other states, such as WA Health and QLD's Department of Education, Training and Employment.

Open data is on a slower path, but has momentum. Most states and territories (excluding Tasmania, Western Australia and the Northern Territory) have open data catalogues, with varying degrees of sophistication. The federal data.gov.au site has taken major steps forward recently, reorganising its approach and starting to release more data. I still feel there's a patchwork approach to open data, with explicit mandates similar to US and UK examples rare and many agencies conspicuously absent from these catalogues, but progress is being made.

With all of this going on, we are stepping into a situation where the use of Gov 2.0 techniques, at least in pockets across government, is becoming business as usual - everyday, boring, humdrum.

Potentially as a result we've seen a reduction in the level of conversation on Twitter via #gov2au, with the volume of tweets well down on previous years. Social media and Gov 2.0 conferences for government are also finding it harder to attract attendees using the same formulas as in past years - with people seeking more sophisticated and specific information.

We've seen attendance at free Gov 2.0 events (such as the ones I run for several years in Canberra), fluctuate more widely - with less of a core base and more 'one-timers' coming to sessions that specifically interest them.

There's been no increase in the number of public servants blogging about the topics. Frankly I see more fear of speaking out on social media across the public service today then existed four years ago when the Gov 2.0 Taskforce's lead-by-example approach was still influencing public servants to actively discuss their successes and professional challenges online.

So has Gov 2.0 become boring too fast in Australia?

Harkening back to Shirky's statement from the start of my post, with Gov 2.0 now less concerned with the technology and more with engagement and behaviours, shouldn't we see more conversation, innovation and experimentation online by governments now that the basics of Gov 2.0 are largely accepted?

Shouldn't we see more conversation, more voices, more blogs, more tweets, more people packing out events seeking the latest information in what is one of the most rapidly changing environments in history - the internet?

I can see this happening in the UK, US and across Europe and South America, where public servants are increasingly excited about the potential for Gov 2.0 approaches to save money, engage citizens and improve outcomes. The first wave of enthusiasts is still involved as thought leaders and in more senior roles, which successive waves of public servants have kept agencies driving forward to improve and extend their social media capabilities.

In Australia, however, the voices appear to be falling mute. The first generation of Gov 2.0 enthusiasts (including myself) have either moved out of government to  other things, have taken on broader duties or are burnt out and disillusioned (the fate of many first wave enthusiasts across many areas).

The second wave, who have been left to implement the 'standard' social media channels now accepted and widespread in government, are busy with the machinery of running day-to-day channels - content, tone and crisis management. They often have less time to look at new developments or the bigger picture, or less interest in stepping up after seeing the first wave move on.

And the third wave - who bring a renewed sense of wonder and passion to the area, who stimulate the next set of leaps forward - don't appear to have emerged to any great extent. I hope they are simply waiting in junior roles for the opportunity to step up and reshape the public sector in new ways.

Technology is advancing faster than ever, new options and challenges for governments are appearing every day - how do we foster the continued enthusiasm necessary for agencies to continue to evolve their approaches and tools to generate better outcomes for old issues and to meet the challenges that emerge?

How do we cultivate the spark of Gov 2.0 in Australia, so that it doesn't get 'boring', frozen in place and time?

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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The decline of national sovereignty and impacts on society

The concept of national sovereignty has evolved over the centuries however has retained at its core the notion that nations, defined by geography, have the right to manage their own affairs and movements across their borders as they see fit, as well as to interact as recognised state entities with other states and other legal entities (individuals, corporations and not-for-profits).

The modern concept of national sovereignty was agreed to in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, following the thirty-year war, where the economically exhausted states of Europe agreed to establish the notion of territorial sovereignty as a norm of noninterference in the affairs of other nations, a principle that, more or less, holds to this day globally.

This was the point in time when modern nation-states, based on geographic boundaries, started to take a dominant position in how human society was organised, leading to today's situation where every square inch of land is claimed by at least one nation.

National sovereignty was, and remains, and extremely important and defining characteristic of modern civilisation. It not only grants powers to national governments, to the exclusion of external bodies, but also places responsibilities on them to provide some level of security, education and support for the people born and living within their sovereign borders. It creates the notion of citizenship, laws and taxes over property, income and commerce - measures that provide the security and public infrastructure that underpin society today.

However national sovereignty was developed at a time when the fastest form of transport was a horse, when messages were sent between locations by courier, smoke signals or carrier pigeons, when money only existed in your wallet and every business was tied to a geographic location, or an itinerant wandering tinker or merchant who could be physically tracked down.

There was little understanding of lightening, let alone electricity and even the invention of the Leyden jar, the first primitive capacitor (the word 'battery' hadn't been coined) was almost a hundred years in the future.

National sovereignty on the basis of geography made sense in 1648. The majority of people did not travel more than 100 miles from their birthplace, except during war, and it was possible to calculate a nation's wealth by adding up all the physical 'stuff' which in its borders (as the English had began doing in 1086 with the Domesday book - primarily for taxation purposes).

Today the majority of communication is electronic, as is the bulk of the money supply. While we still make lots of physical 'stuff', more and more of our services are delivered online and more and more physical stuff is imported and exported across national borders enable by electronic transactions.

While our garbage, roads, electricity and water are still delivered locally to where we live, more and more of our interactions with governments and companies, with welfare payments, education and even significant portions of health care able to be delivered remotely from any location on the planet - to peoples' homes directly or via virtual operators in physical offices (which Centrelink is already experimenting with).

This means that governments could theoretically outsource much of their service delivery to low cost areas within their jurisdiction - or to low-cost jurisdictions elsewhere in the world.

Beyond service delivery, a great deal of policy development could similarly be outsourced. There's really no need to employ locals to develop local policy - it is simply important to employ the best qualified staff and provide them with the best quality information and access to locals to understand their needs and concerns. Theoretically policy could already be developed anywhere in the world, using specialists with the experience to understand a jurisdiction's citizens and conditions in order to provide the best recommendations.

We see this on a small scale already - public officials at councils may live in neighbouring council regions. State and territory officials may live across a border in another state or territory. National governments tap foreign specialists and consultancy companies for expertise they cannot find in their own jurisdiction.

This outsourcing approach can even impact on geographically specific services - from emergency management to road maintenance. When digital networks can be used to supply information and cheap transport can be used to relocate assets to where they are needed on a timely basis, why should individual councils, or even state departments run road crews or location-specific emergency services?

Services can be delivered from wherever is reasonable and cost-effective - regardless of artificially imposed borders, with emergency services, road maintenance. We already see this in effect in emergency scenarios when specialist teams are moved around countries, or between countries, to assist in major disasters or provide expertise in unusual incidents.

With all of this sharing between jurisdictions, the notion that any geographic territory is sovereign unto itself is rapidly becoming a convenient fiction. Certainly when we shuffle public workers between jurisdictions we also expect them to abide by local laws - however why should those laws differ measurably anyway? It may simply leads to inefficiencies, productivity loss, even unnecessary injuries or loss of lives.

This gets even worse when services are delivered remotely - a surgeon in one country remotely operates on a patient in another, or a citizen calls a government help desk located in another jurisdiction and a staff member behaves in a manner that is inappropriate in the citizen's jurisdiction but legal in the jurisdiction they work in. Which jurisdiction takes legal precedent?

Add to this the continuing rise of transnational corporations - who may be domiciled in a particular state, but that deliver services globally - and we see further erosion of national sovereignty as a concept.

Recent free trade agreements, particularly those involving the United States of America, have begun pushing the notion that foreign companies may sue a national or state government should they change their laws in ways which may reduce the company's profit potential. This type of litigation has already begun in Canada and Mexico under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and looks to be extended to many more countries under the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which involves Australia and New Zealand. 

While the draft treaty remains secret and in negotiations, leaked sections of the TPP suggest it proposes the same conditions on signatory governments across the Pacific region. This would allow non-state entities to sue states, as we are already beginning to see occur in North America.

While this may be supported by large corporate interests (who naturally wish to insulate their interests and shareholders from unfavourable legal changes), this is a further limit on the sovereignty of states. If a foreign domiciled company can sue a government for changing the law then there is far more pressure on states to step cautiously around large corporations, weighing their interests more closely than that of citizens who may be denied the same opportunity to sue states.

There's also increasing cross-border environmental impacts becoming apparent from our still rapidly industrialising global civilisation. Huge fires in Indonesia cause live-threatening smog in Singapore. Electricity generation in China using coal leads to pollution which could affect neighbouring countries - and certainly contributes to atmospheric carbon levels and climate change. What value is the sovereignty of small South Pacific islands if the actions of other nations could see them regularly innundated by rising sea levels. Sovereignty doesn't help nations manage environmental impacts due to activities in other sovereign states.

On top of this trend is the rise of mass spying on the citizens of other nations - best exemplified by the practices of the NSA uncovered through Edward Snowden's leaks. These have brought to light the enormity of the US programs for monitoring foreign interests via literally scooping up all of the data travelling between Google, Microsoft and Yahoo data centres (amongst others), tapping into mobile apps and integrating intelligence provided by friendly governments (such as Australia's under the Five Eyes program).

In the past spying was limited to known 'persons of interest' who were usually already suspected of wrongdoing or held sensitive positions. 

With the rise of the internet and mobile devices it has now become easier and more cost-effective for nations to suck down as much data as possible and then attempt to identify patterns which indicate people they should watch - apologising for any information they shouldn't have touch later (if indeed they even let people know they have it). 

In theory any specific individual is unlikely to have their profile flagged for examination by foreign intelligence analysts - the technology simply isn't able to store and build profiles on everyone as yet (as far as I know).  However intelligence agencies are in the business of collecting and interpreting intelligence and have an ongoing interest in improving their systems. They want the ability to tell which 18 year old is likely to become a senior corporate executive, political leader, cutting-edge scientist or a terrorist so they can take appropriate steps to head off the threat or cultivate their national interests as early as possible.

The data is there - the software is rapidly improving - meaning that we all now live under the gaze of foreign interests who may choose to watch our every comment online.

While the NSA is getting the current attention regarding this mass spying, other governments have been taking similar steps, for national and commercial advantage. China and Russia are both sophisticated users of online systems, with Russia suspected of having engaged in state-sanctioned cyberwars against its neighbours.

Where nations are taking a copy of all data passing through their jurisdiction, this technically fits within their sovereignty - however with the way the internet operates data simply follows the fastest path. Unless you are using a VPN, it is quite possible that data distributed online may pass through several jurisdictions its way to its final destination.

Governments around the world have been tightening their own criteria around online hosting, encouraging (but usually not forcing) agencies to use locally hosted online services and favouring locally domiciled services, however citizens are in a completely different boat.

Anyone who uses Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, Microsoft Office365, plays games via Xbox or Playstation, has their data travel through a range of jurisdictions and governments have little ability to enforce or even legislate for the rights of citizens who choose to use online services - particularly where there is limited cooperation between the hosting nation and the end user's jurisdiction.

Which nation's sovereignty takes precedent when using an overseas hosted service, how can Australia enforce privacy, security or other legal requirements that it mandates local services meet for the safety of citizens?

The answer is that without global agreements and treaties, no nation can effectively enforce their sovereign position or laws - with the fallback being that citizens use these services 'at their own risk'.

So what does this mean for sovereignty in the 21st century, if a digitalised world and changes in power between governments, corporations and citizens mean that nations can no longer enforce their sovereignty in the ways envisaged in centuries past?

It is likely that most nations will continue to attempt to preserve the illusion of sovereignty - while it may not exist in fact, or to the extent it existed when geographic borders were 'solid', it is a convenient fiction that allows legal systems and state-based services to continue to perform their functions for the majority of systems.

However there will be increasing pressure on this illusion as transnational and stateless entities gain strength - whether through trade agreements (such as the TPP), remotely delivered services (either privately or publicly delivered) or through digital services that exist 'in the cloud' for real - not on a set of servers in a given jurisdiction but software that actually runs across the internet, with fractions of it operating on mobile devices, home and work computers all over the world.

At some point sovereignty will simply snap, probably due to technological advancement, but potentially also due to the constant demand for increasing profits and the need to minimise cross-border barriers to its generation.

What happens next is the question. Will states attempt to renegotiate the concept of sovereignty in a more limited form within broad global guidelines - a global government with local variations and customs?

Or might we see a division of services between geographic and non-geographic states - where geographically relevant services are delivered by geographic governments, or contracted commercial providers, while we reorganise ourselves into digital states for the provision of non-digital services - with the ability to easily change digital nationality, voting with our feet for the best offer as we do for commercial products.

We could even see the contracting of government to professional (commercial) providers, with citizens become shareholders and able to 'vote out' an entire public service and replace it with another. Like a body corporate approach, people would retain the right to vote for their representatives, however their role would be to manage the various commercial services that develop policy and deliver services for their constituents.

I wouldn't like to predict any specific outcome - we're still too early in our digital revolution to really know where things are likely to go.

However I do expect that people being people, no matter how we organise ourselves for governance and public service delivery some things will remain the same. People will identify with 'tribes' or communities, both those based on geography and those based on common interests (which might be non-geographic). These tribes will form the basis for our social organisation even if they don't form the basis of our public service delivery.

The young adult of 2090 will still identify as an Australian and a Victorian - even if his education was provided electronically through a Indian education provider, the local roads maintained by a corporation based out of the US, his 'local doctor' accessed virtually from a Brazilian medical centre (who also provides the nearby medical clinic's remote surgeon) and his student support payments organised and paid via a Phillippino service desk. He will still follow his favourite football team - Real Madrid - attending their games remotely via his 3D headset, and socialise with friends from around the world in virtual nightclubs (with no closing hour).

He will attend university online and work virtually, using office software hosted in the cloud that is designed by a stateless entity, charging for time used and paying for the use of his devices' processing cycles (where it is virtually hosted across millions of devices).

He will even vote digitally - not just every three years but on every major topic for which he is interested and has met the qualifying conditions (based on his knowledge of the subject and its impact on his life), with government services divided by tier into a local geographic council and a digital non-geographic state.

He will still be an Australian - even if (or when) his government, and many public services, are delivered via the cloud.

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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Being mindful of personal social media use in the APS

Senator Abetz, the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service, has written a fantastic blog post commenting on the need for Australian Public Servants to be mindful of what they say (and how they say it) on social media.

The post, Public Servants should exercise care with social media, is in the Senator's blog and has also been highlighted in the media.

Regardless of personal view as to whether the current APS guidance goes too far in limiting public participation by public servants in policy matters which affect them as a citizen, or in their ability to participate in public political debates, it is great to see the Minister responsible for the Public Service taking a measured public position which aligns with the current guidance.

Government today makes extensive use of social media in communication, engagement and customer service and public servants, like other Australians, are likely to use social channels personally and professionally to maintain their networks and express their views.

Social media use is normal throughout our community and within the Australian Public Service. It isn't something to be feared or suppressed and the fears of widespread misuse have not been realised in practice.

Instead, for the most part, people have used social media well, although certain agencies still restrict access to and use of these channels - both personally and officially.

If agencies want to further minimise their perceived risks with social media, they need to focus on educating and supporting their staff to use these platforms wisely and within clear guidance.

To achieve this agencies need to have guidance and education in place. Later this year I'll be asking them to see how many (at a federal level) already do, and comparing it with my research two years ago (when under 25% did).

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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Canberra University launches Graduate Certificate in Social Media and Public Engagement

Universities in Australia have lagged behind public and commercial use of social media and need for their staff to be trained in effective development and implementation of online engagement approaches.

However this looks to be changing with the launch of Canberra University's Graduate Certificate in Social Media and Public Engagement.

As a one year part-time primarily online course the Graduate Certificate aims to give participating students the practical skills and theoretical knowledge they need to work in rapidly changing online and social media environments - with a particular focus on a public sector context.

Each semester involves a face-to-face masterclass with academics and social media professionals, with ongoing lectures and coursework delivered online. This means the course is accessible to potential students right across Australia.

Designed to support public servants who are new to online engagement, or are seeking formal qualifications to back-up their existing experience, the course is rated as relevant for a broad range of public sector professionals including communications and information communications technology staff, policymakers and stakeholder/community/online engagement managers.

It may also be valuable for people working in other sectors in roles that touch on or who are interested in social media and social technologies, change, e-government more broadly, public policymaking, the media and society, and the formation of public opinion.

I'm pleased to say that the course developers have consulted extensively with senior public servants and public sector social media practitioners. I've also been involved in providing input into the program (and will help out in some of the course delivery).

More information on the course is available at Canberra University's website (http://www.canberra.edu.au/faculties/arts-design/courses/postgraduate/social-media) - and there's still time to enrol for the 2014 intake!

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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Rethinking government IT to support the changing needs of government

We recently saw a change in the federal government in Australia, with a corresponding reorganisation of agency priorities and structures.

Some departments ceased to exist (such as Department of Regional Australia), others split (DEEWR into two departments, Education and Employment) and still others had parts 'broken off' and moved elsewhere (Health and Ageing, which lost Ageing to the (renamed) Department of Social Services).

This isn't a new phenomenon, nor is it limited to changes in government - departments and agencies are often reorganised and reconfigured to serve the priorities of the government of the day and, where possible, create efficiencies - saving money and time.

These adjustments can result in the movement of tens, hundreds or even thousands of staff between agencies and regular restructures inside agencies that result in changing reporting lines and processes.

While these reorganisations and restructures - Machinery of Government changes (or MOGs) as they are known - often look good on paper, in reality it can take time for efficiencies to be realised (if they are actually being measured).

Firstly there's the human factor - changing the priorities and allegiances of staff takes time and empathy, particularly when public servants are committed and passionate about their jobs. They may need to change their location, workplace behaviours and/or learn a new set of processes (if changing agency) while dealing with new personalities and IT systems.

There's the structural factor - when restructured, merged or demerged public sector organisations need to revisit their priorities and reallocate their resources appropriately. This can extend to creating, closing down or handing over functions, dealing with legal requirements or documenting procedures that an agency now has to follow or another agency has taken over.

Finally there's the IT factor - bringing together or separating the IT systems used by staff to enable them to do their work.

In my view the IT component has become the hardest to resolve smoothly and cost-effectively due to how government agencies have structured their systems.

Every agency and department has made different IT choices - Lotus Notes here, Microsoft Outlet there, different desktop environments, back-end systems (HR and Finance for example), different web management systems, different security frameworks, programming environments and outsourced IT partners.

This means that moving even a small group of people from one department to another can be a major IT undertaking. Their personal records, information and archival records about the programs they work on, their desktop systems, emails, files and more must be moved from one secure environment to another, not to mention decoupling any websites they manage from one department's web content management system and mirroring or recreating the environment for another agency.

On top of this are the many IT services people are now using - from social media accounts in Facebook and Twitter, to their email list subscriptions (which break when their emails change) and more.

On top of this are the impacts of IT service changes on individuals. Anyone who has worked in a Lotus Notes environment for email, compared to, for example, Microsoft Outlook, appreciates how different these email clients are and how profoundly the differences impact on workplace behaviour and communication. Switching between systems can be enormously difficult for an individual, let alone an organisation, risking the loss of substantial corporate knowledge - historical conversations and contacts - alongside the frustrations of adapting to how different systems work.

Similarly websites aren't websites. While the quaint notion persists that 'a website' is a discreet entity which can easily be moved from server to server, organisation to organisation, most 'websites' today are better described as interactive front-ends for sophisticated web content management systems. These web content management systems may be used to manage dozens or even hundreds of 'websites' in the same system, storing content and data in integrated tables at the back-end.

This makes it tricky to identify where one website ends and another begins (particularly when content, templates and functionality is shared). Moving a website between agencies isn't as simple as moving some HTML pages from one server to another (or reallocating a server to a new department) - it isn't even as easy as copying some data tables and files out of a content management system. There's enormous complexity involved in identifying what is shared (and so must be cloned) and ensuring that the website retains all the content and functionality required as it moves.

Changing IT systems can be enormously complex when an organisation is left unchanged, let alone when when teams are changing agencies or where agencies merge. In fact I've seen it take three or more years to bring people onto an email system or delink a website from a previous agency.

As government increasingly digitalises - and reflecting on the current government's goal to have all government services delivered online by 2017 - the cost, complexity and time involved to complete  these MOG changes will only increase.

This risks crippling some areas of government or restricting the ability of the government of the day to adjust departments to meet their policy objectives - in other words allowing the (IT) tail to wag the (efficient and effective government) dog.

This isn't a far future issue either - I am aware of instances over the past five years where government policy has had to be modified to fit the limitations of agency IT systems - or where services have been delivered by agencies other than the ones responsible, or simply not delivered due to agency IT restrictions, costs or issues.

Note that this isn't an issue with agency IT teams. These groups are doing their best to meet government requirements within the resources they have, however they are trapped between the cost of maintaining ageing legacy systems - which cannot be switched off and they don't have the budget to substantially replace them - and keeping up with new technological developments, the increasing thirst for IT-enabled services and gadgets.

They're doing this in an environment where IT spending in government is flat or declining and agencies are attempting to save money around the edges, without being granted the capital amounts they need to invest in 'root and branch' efficiencies by rebuilding systems from the ground up.

So what needs to be done to rethink government IT to support the changing needs of government?

It needs to start with the recognition at political levels that without IT we would not have a functioning government. That IT is fundamental to enabling government to manage a nation as large and complex as Australia - our tax system, health system, social security and defence would all cease to function without the sophisticated IT systems we have in place.

Australia's Prime Minister is also Australia's Chief Technology Officer - almost every decision he makes has an impact on how the government designs, operates or modifies the IT systems that allow Australia to function as a nation.

While IT considerations shouldn't drive national decisions, they need to be considered and adequately resourced in order for the Australia government to achieve its potential, realise efficiencies and deliver the services it provides to citizens.

Beyond this realisation, the importance of IT needs to be top-of-mind for Secretaries, or their equivalents, and their 'C' level team. They need to be sufficiently IT-savvy to understand the consequences of decisions that affect IT systems and appreciate the cost and complexity of meeting the priorities of government.

Once IT's importance is clearly recognised at a political and public sector leadership level, government needs to be clear on what it requires from IT and CIOs need to be clear on the consequences and trade-offs in those decisions.

Government systems could be redesigned from the ground-up to make it easy to reorganise, merge and demerge departments - either using common IT platforms and services for staff (such as an APS-wide email system, standard web content management platform, single HR of financial systems), or by only selecting vendors whose systems allow easy and standard ways to export and import data - so that a person's email system can be rapidly and easily moved from one agency to another, or the HR information of two departments can be consolidated in a merger at low cost. User Interfaces should be largely standardised - so that email works the same way from any computer in any agency in government - and as much code as possible should be reused between agencies to minimise the customisation that results in even similar systems drifting apart over time.

The use of these approaches would significantly cut the cost of MOGs, as well as free up departmental IT to focus on improvements, rather than meeting the minimum requirements, a major efficiency saving over time.

Unfortunately I don't think we're, as yet, in a position for this type of significant rethink of whole of government IT to take place.

For the most part government still functions, is reasonably efficient and is managing to keep all the lights on (even if juggling the balls is getting progressively harder).

It took the complete collapse of the Queensland Health payroll project to get the government there to act to rethink their systems, and it is likely to take a similar collapse - of our Medicare, Centrelink or tax system - for similar rethinking to occur federally.

However I would not like to be a member of the government in power when (not if) this occurs.

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Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Save the date for BarCamp Canberra - 15 March 2014

The 7th annual BarCamp Canberra has just been announced and will be taking place on Saturday 15 March this year at the Gungahlin Library.

BarCamp is a free day-long event where several hundred people gather to share insights and ideas on a range of topics including design, IT, public service and more.

It's well worth attending and, if you're something you wish to say, presenting at as well.

The unorganisers (which includes me) are looking for people willing to help out on the day and we welcome sponsorship enquiries.

For more information on the event, what a BarCamp is and how to attend or help support BarCamp Canberra, visit barcampcanberra.org

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Monday, January 06, 2014

Farewell to the Victorian Government eGovernment Resource Centre

The Victorian Government eGovernment Resource Centre was launched more than ten years ago as a repository of news and information about eGovernment from around the world.

The eGovernment Resource Centre in 2002
The site (at www.egov.vic.gov.au) grew to contain tens of thousands of resources and articles on eGovernment and related topics, attracting tens of thousands of visitors each month.

Over the years the site's focus expanded to cover Government 2.0 activities around the world, a monthly enewsletter on the latest eGovernment and Gov 2.0 initiatives and a range of community features as well as a social media presence.

The eGovernment Resource Centre in 2013
During its life the site became widely known and highly regarded as Australia's premier source of eGovernment information.

The eGovernment Resource Centre was also highly regarded overseas, being recognised at the 2008 World e-Democracy Awards and having many overseas governments and Gov 2.0 experts reference or link to the site as well as many practitioners rely on it for information and news.

Alas, due to a changing focus in Victoria, the eGovernment Resource Centre was discontinued at the end of 2013.

All the information, articles and links the site contained after more than a decade of operation have been taken offline. The many links in Google search and 3rd party website now redirect to the Victorian Government's digital strategy.

I, for one, am sad to see the demise of this great eGovernment and Government 2.0 resource. For years it was my bible for what was happening around the world in these topics - always with new information, insights and initiatives that could be used to influence and improve the government agencies I worked for and with.

The loss of access to the information and resources in the eGovernment Resource Centre is likely to also affect many public servants within Australian governments, and the publics they serve for years to come. Even if they don't realise what they are missing, the lack of easy access to knowledge and past experience will surely affect the level of 'corporate knowledge' related to egovernance within the Australian public sector.

Kudos must go to the Victorian Government for running the site for as long as it did, as well as particular thanks to the individuals responsible for keeping the site current, useful and usable - particularly one individual in particular who curated the site for many years (you know who you are).

However for every ending, there can be new beginnings. It is the start of a new year and hopefully we'll see governments across Australia continuing to improve and enhance their online engagement systems and release more of their data openly and in reusable formats.

It may also not be the end for the eGovernment Resource Centre - I am looking for ways to resource and renew the Centre, building on the fantastic site the Victorian Government supported and extend it into a sustainable global eGovernment and Government 2.0 resource.

Anyone who wishes to get involved, please drop me a line.

However, for now, the Victorian Government's eGovernment Resource Centre is no more.

It was a great resource built with a great deal of vision. While the resource is gone, I hope the vision is not.

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