Monday, June 30, 2014

Australia leaps to 2nd place in the United Nations eGovernment Study

The United Nations defines e-Government as "the use and application of information technologies in public administration to streamline and integrate workflows and processes, to effectively manage data and information, enhance public service delivery, as well as expand communication channels for engagement and empowerment of people."

In brief - it's about using IT strategically and tactically to make government more efficient, transparent and engaging.

Of course this doesn't begin and end with the technology - there needs to be deep-rooted cultural shifts and good IT literacy across a public service to realise the benefits from IT.

Internationally the UN has been reporting on this through a series of eGovernment development studies since 2001, tracking the performance of 193 nations (click on the images to enlarge them).

UN e-Government development index top 20 nations for 2001-2014 (click to enlarge)

I've reviewed the top twenty rankings for every study (2001 to 2014), and found some interesting stories in the trends - particularly amongst the countries highlighted in the image below.

Country trends in the UN e-Government development index
 top 20 nations for 2001-2014 (click to enlarge)
Australia has consistently ranked extremely well in the e-Government development index. We've always been in the top twenty nations, and only once slid below 10th position. However we've been in gradual decline, from 2nd in 2001 to 3rd in 2003, then 6th in 2004 and 2005, down to 8th in 2008 and 2010 and 12th in 2012.

This turned around in the 2014 study, where Australia leapt ten positions to 2nd place (see chart below).

This is an amazing turnaround, particularly given the e-Government development index is a relative measure of country performance - countries are continually improving their IT strategy and implementation approaches, so a nation must continually improve performance just to hold its position against other contenders.

It's a huge testimonial to the work the Australian public service and government have done over the last four years to change how IT is viewed, structured and implemented within agencies. We've not only held our own, but leapt ahead of ten other nations.

Australian performance in the UN e-Government development index
 for 2001-2014 (click to enlarge)
Some of our close neighbours have also done well.

New Zealand has consistently been in the top twenty, albeit never overtaking Australia. They've also begun recovering in the rankings after a long period of time languishing in 13th to 14th position, returning to the top 10 in 2014 with 9th position.

Hopefully the work going on now in Wellington will help New Zealand to cement a place in the top ten for years to come.

New Zealand performance in the UN e-Government development index
 for 2001-2014 (click to enlarge)

Singapore ranked 4th in 2001, however had a mixed performance for a number of years - even sliding out of the top twenty in 2008 to 23rd place.

Since then the country has achieved an amazing turnaround, and in the latest study ranks 3rd, just behind Australia (see red columns on the chart below).

South Korea, on the other hand, has been a consistent achiever over the last fourteen years. They started out in 15th position in 2001 and have increased or maintained their position in every study, except in 2008, when they dropped from 5th to 6th position.

However they recovered quickly, achieving the number one spot in 2010 and holding it ever since (see blue columns on the chart below).

From my experience with South Korea, the country has undertaken an extensive program of retraining public servants and embedding IT thinking into how they manage government. This is a significant advantage over countries that haven't yet fully understood the importance of this cultural shift in thinking and how it plays out when implementing technology.

Singaporean and South Korean performance in the UN e-Government
development index for 2001-2014 (click to enlarge)

How about the 'usual suspects' - the two countries that Australia spends most time looking at, the US and UK.

The US started very strong in the e-Government development index - holding the top position from 2001 to 2005. However their position started to decay as other nations started lifting their government IT capacity. This trend has continued, with the US achieving its lowest ever rank (7th) in 2014 (see yellow columns in chart below).

US and UK performance in the UN e-Government development
index for 2001-2014 (click to enlarge)
Now while the US has been consistently in the top 10, it is exhibiting signs of weakness due to a combination of budget cuts and the expense of maintaining a large and ageing IT infrastructure. 
Unfortunately the country has become the victim of its own success - much of the technology implemented at the end of the 20th century and start of the 21st needs to be completely replaced and the US government lacks the money and will to commit to all of the capital redevelopment required.

This is even despite the huge steps the current President has led into Government 2.0 and open data. While these steps are important, they tend to happen on the edges of the system, rather than in the core. Many US agencies are still reliant on software originally designed in the 1980s and 1990s and the process of moving away from these is a slow and expensive one.

I expect the US will continue on a gentle downwards trajectory in this area until there's a major restructure of how core US government IT operates. I think this is a 'when' rather than an 'if' however, as the US cannot afford to give up its technological edge over the rest of the work without a fight.

The UK has had an interesting 14 years for government IT. The country, like the US, has never fallen out of the top 10 spots, however has bounced up and down due to the impacts of the GFC and changing government IT policies (see purple column on chart below).

While the UK did improve its position from 2001 to 2005 and, after backtracking, again from 2008 to 2012, it has dropped back to 8th spot - just below where it was in 2001 - in the 2014 study.

I don't think this 'bouncing around' is necessarily a bad thing. So long as the UK is somewhere in the top 10 it remains a world leader in the egovernment space, and the work that has been going on since 2012 to reframe how IT is considered, managed and implemented in government, via the Government Digital Service and government-supported bodies such as the Open Data Institute, mean that the UK has a sound base for IT into the future.

This step will have long-term benefits to the UK economy, raising the digital literacy and competency of almost every school child. In ten years time this may transform the UK into a global computing superpower, with proportionately more programmers than any other nation on earth.

Asia-Pacific now dominates the top 10

One of the most exciting things for me in the latest 2014 e-Government development index is the composition of the top ten.

Back in 2001, of the ten nations with the highest eGovernment capability, five were in Europe, two in North America, and three in Asia-Pacific (Australia, New Zealand and Singapore).

Asia-Pacific never had more than three countries in the top ten until the latest study, and regularly had less, two or even one country. Europe dominated, with between five and seven countries consistently in the top ten.

However in 2014 the ratio shifted.

Five countries from the Asia-Pacific region reached the top ten nations for the e-Government development index - South Korea, Australia, Singapore, Japan and New Zealand.

This included the top three positions (held by South Korea, Australia and Singapore).

This is a major achievement for our region of the world and reflects the global shift occurring as Asia-Pacific nations take on more of a global leadership role.

I expect to see this continue, with more Asian nations emerging as leaders in the egovernance space.

What this also says is that Australia needs to pay more attention to countries in our neighbourhood as they progress on their eGovernance journeys - we can both provide a great deal of support and learn a great deal from what our neighbours in Asia are doing.

Composition of the top ten by continent by study

2001: Europe: 5, North America: 2, Asia-Pacific: 3
2003: Europe: 7, North America: 2, Asia-Pacific: 1
2004: Europe: 5, North America: 2, Asia-Pacific: 3
2005: Europe: 5, North America: 2, Asia-Pacific: 3
2008: Europe: 6, North America: 2, Asia-Pacific: 2
2010: Europe: 6, North America: 2, Asia-Pacific: 2
2012: Europe: 7, North America: 1, Asia-Pacific: 2
2014: Europe: 4, North America: 1, Asia-Pacific: 5

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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Don't forget to sign up for the events during Innovation month

Innovation month (for the public service and its partners) starts in less than two weeks!

This year it's gone national, with events in almost every capital city and some regional locations as well.

So if you're  interested in innovation, don't forget to sign up for some of the great events.

Full and current details are at the Public Sector Innovation blog, however here's the events that are on:

7 JulyInnovation Month LaunchDetails TBC
8 JulyInnovation Summit 2014: Pattern Breaking and beyond…
The Pattern Breaking and beyond Summit will be an interactive, informative and inspirational event allowing you to walk away with practical tools on how to nurture new ideas, whether they are simple or more sophisticated, within your organisation.


Open event
9am – 5:30pm
Scarborough House, Atlantic Street, Woden, Canberra
Tickets: $48
10 JulyPolicy Visualisation Network Discussions
The Policy Visualisation Network will be running a series of discussions in this half-day event based in Canberra with online participation available in various cities around the country. Speakers will be the Acting Australian Statistician of the ABS, Jonathan Palmer, Senior Researcher from the Department of Parliamentary Services Toby Bellwood, Director of the Capability & Standards Spatial Policy Branch at the Department of Communications, Tim Neal, Director – Coordination and Gov 2.0 at the Department of Finance, Pia Waugh, and Branch Head of the ABS Customer Services Branch Merry Branson.

9.30am to 12.00pm
Various locations. Canberra Sydney Melbourne Brisbane Adelaide Hobart Darwin
10 JulyChange Governance and Alternative Models for the Public Sector
Changes and innovation in public sector management and governance affect all public service agencies and employees. This presentation will compare public sector management in Australia with other Anglophone countries. It will raise awareness of effective change mechanisms, and alternative models for the public service. Presented by John Halligan, Professor of Public Administration, Institute of Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra.

For APS members
2 – 3pm (AEST)
Canberra

10 JulyForeign Ideas
Three staff get a platform to share an innovative idea or unique external experience in a TEDx-style event. Topics will encompass a range of foreign policy, trade, aid and development issues.

DFAT staff only
Canberra
10 JulyGoogle Glass a certain reality
The Department of Education will present a forum on wearable technologies. Alexander Hayes, from the University of Canberra and University of Wollongong – will look at the socio-ethical implications of wearable technology in education. Matthew Purcell (and students) of the Canberra Grammar School – will share their experiences of the application of Google Glass in school based learning and provide a demonstration.

Open event
10 – 11am
Department of Education, Canberra
11-13 JulyGovHack
An open data competition that runs across the country simultaneously. GovHack seeks to draw participation from anyone in the community that has an interest in unlocking the potential of data, innovation and entrepreneurism. You will have access to freshly released data to create apps, data visualisations, mashups, ideas, art – unleash your creativity! Join in, enjoy the free food and compete for kudos and the chance to win amazing prizes!

Open event
3pm 11 July – 6pm 13 July (AEST)
Ballarat, Brisbane, Canberra, Cairns, Gold Coast, Tasmania, Melbourne, Perth, Sydney, Adelaide, Mount Gambier
14 - 18 JulyiDHS Online Forum POWER Challenge
For one week, the iDHS Online Forum will host a Challenge asking staff to provide their ideas on how they should be recognised and rewarded for innovative ideas that lead to change in the department. The iDHS Team will host the challenge and will monitor the iDHS Online Forum throughout the week.

For DHS staff
Online
17 JulyIs Australia ready for the public service to be truly innovative?
Hear public sector leaders and commentators discuss whether Australia is ready for a truly innovative public service. Traditionally, the words, innovation and public sector, in close proximity in the same sentence have caused some nervousness. Is it the fear of failure through doing something different? And, sometimes, is it just too hard to justify and rationalise some fails as part of the overall innovative process. 


Open event
6:00pm to 7.30pm, Questacon Learning Centre, Deakin.

$77pp (inc GST) for IPAA ACT Members
$110pp (inc GST) for Non IPAA ACT members
17 JulyUncomfortable Ideas for the Public Service – ‘Failure: is it the dirty word that we can all learn from?
Two senior presenters will discuss failure and its role in innovation at the first of this lunchtime speaker series about the uncomfortable ideas that might be inhibiting innovation in the public service.

Open event
12pm
Canberra
Presented by the Department of Industry, supported by NICTA’s eGov Cluster.
18 JulyRisk and Innovation Canberra
This workshop, run by the Australian Centre for Social Innovation, is for anyone serious about innovation and developing policy and programs that are more effective at creating social outcomes. The event will explore innovation and risk from a range of perspectives and will focus on how to reduce the risk of innovation and how to use innovation to reduce risk.

Open event
1 – 4pm
Canberra
19 JulyGovCampAU
This year Innovation Month will feature the first nationally ’networked’ GovCamp. Building on GovCamps from previous years, the events will be an ‘unconference’ style with participatory sessions and social knowledge sharing on a range of innovation themes. So far, Innovation GovCamp events have been confirmed in Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane with other cities to follow.

Open event
10am – 5:00pm
Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide (TBC)
21 JulyRisk and Innovation Melbourne This workshop, run by the Australian Centre for Social Innovation, is for anyone serious about innovation and developing policy and programs that are more effective at creating social outcomes. The event will explore innovation and risk from a range of perspectives and will focus on how to reduce the risk of innovation and how to use innovation to reduce risk.
Open event
1 – 4pm
Melbourne
22 JulyIdea management systems: the devil’s in the details
This interactive workshop, featuring expert input from public servants with experience in developing and maintaining systems, will explore developing idea management systems and some of the challenges an organisation can face in implementing the popular innovation tool.

For APS members
2 – 4pm
Canberra
22 JulyFuture State 2030
Future State 2030 looks at the future of the public service as we know it. How will government position itself to handle megatrends including shifting demographics, the rise of the individual, economic interconnectedness, economic power shifts, climate change and urbanisation? Run in conjunction with KPMG. 

DFAT Building, Barton, Canberra.
22 JulyThe Great Innovation Debate; Innovation should make you feel uncomfortable For DHS staff
12:00 – 1:30pm
23 JulyLearning about Design
This one day workshop, led by the Design Capability team from the Department of Human Services, will cover the what and why of design, design principles, frameworks and tools, and using design in the workplace.

For APS members
9am – 4:30pm
Canberra
(Fully subscribed and a waitlist for tickets is in place)
23 JulyThe Art of Intrapreneurship: How to innovate like an entrepreneur
This short, 3.5hr hands-on workshop is for passionate and purpose-driven Government employees who wish to develop their entrepreneurial skills to create a more innovative & collaborative culture in their organisation. Facilitated by leading intrapreneurs in government, you will lead your own learning journey through a selection of the topics such as rapid prototyping and pitching, relational mapping, and piloting.
These topics have been drawn from a combination of disciplines across entrepreneurship, social sciences and design-thinking that is currently being used in Government organisations to help drive innovation.

Open event
9:00am – 12:30pm
Melbourne
23 JulyRisk and Innovation Adelaide
This workshop, run by the Australian Centre for Social Innovation, is for anyone serious about innovation and developing policy and programs that are more effective at creating social outcomes. The event will explore innovation and risk from a range of perspectives and will focus on how to reduce the risk of innovation and how to use innovation to reduce risk.

Open event
1 – 4pm
Adelaide
24 JulyUncomfortable Ideas for the Public Service – ‘Leadership or Leadersunk: are new models of leadership needed for innovation in the public service?
Two senior presenters will discuss leadership in the modern APS and how it can support innovation in the public service at this second event in the lunchtime speaker series on uncomfortable ideas that might be inhibiting innovation in the public service.

Open event
12pm
Canberra
Presented by the Department of Industry, supported by NICTA’s eGov Cluster
24 JulyRisk and Innovation Sydney
This workshop, run by the Australian Centre for Social Innovation, is for anyone serious about innovation and developing policy and programs that are more effective at creating social outcomes. The event will explore innovation and risk from a range of perspectives and will focus on how to reduce the risk of innovation and how to use innovation to reduce risk.

Open event
1 – 4pm
Sydney
25 JulyCreating a culture and environment for Innovation
Dr Jill Charker, CEO of ComSuper will talk about how ComSuper is taking the first steps to create a culture of innovation and will touch on how ideas don’t have to be big to have a real impact before introducing Paul Lowe, Head of the 2011 Australian Population Census program. Paul will talk about how the problem of increasing lack of participation in the Census was addressed through an innovative communications campaign.

For APS members
1:30 – 3pm
Belconnen
28 JulyLocal Innovations
Show us how you've solved challenges in your workplace! The iDHS Team will be launching a new, permanent page on the iDHS Online Forum that highlights innovative ideas that staff have implemented in their work areas.
Staff will be able to submit stories, photos, and other images detailing the problem they’ve solved and how. By highlighting staff creativity, the iDHS Team hopes to encourage innovating thinking as well as add to a growing culture that celebrates innovation and invention.

For DHS staff

24 JulyDoing more with less: Do networks work?
Communities of practice, working groups and networks can help organisations innovate by giving people a way to share knowledge and to collaborate on policy and program issues. A lively panel discussion will explore communities of practice, working groups and networks. How do they leverage the knowledge of members to develop policy? Do they impact program delivery? Are they always the answer for time-poor staff?

For DFAT staff only

30 JulyCross-agency collaboration – what’s the magic ingredient?
Collaboration is a key component of effective innovation. This workshop, jointly run with the Department of Education, will look at what makes for successful inter-agency collaboration.

For APS members
9:30am – 12:00pm
Canberra. From the Department of Industry and the Department of Education
30 JulyTransforming Public Consultation in the UK using Electronic Channels
Consultation with the public is core to government function and a critical part of service delivery and change; frequently these consultations are paper-based, labour intensive, and only elicit response from a particular demographic. This interactive webinar will cover how the Local Government Boundary Commission for England has transformed their consultation portal to broaden their consultee base, and how the Registers of Scotland is crowd-sourcing data from interested stakeholders via an innovative portal to perform their regulatory function.


Open event
1 - 1.45pm (AEST)
Online
31 JulyUncomfortable Ideas for the Public Service – ‘Create or Decline: Can you be an effective public servant if you’re not innovating?
 Two presenters will discuss whether a changing world means that it is becoming more risky to stick with the status quo, and whether for individual public servants innovation will be a core part of their role. This is the third event in the lunchtime speaker series on uncomfortable ideas that might be inhibiting innovation in the public service.

Open event
12pm
Canberra
Presented by the Department of Industry, supported by NICTA’s eGov Cluster
1 AugustInnovation 4 Public Purpose: A National Conversation(TBC)

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Friday, June 20, 2014

UK makes learning to program mandatory in all state-run primary and secondary schools from September

In the UK, from September this year (the start of their school year), all primary and secondary students in state-run schools will be taught how to program computers as a mandatory part of their national curriculum.

Announced as part of the UK's 'Year of Code', the introduction of this new mandatory computing curriculum was necessary, the UK Education Minister said, "if we didn't want the Googles and Microsofts of tomorrow to be created elsewhere."

This is stimulating the development of innovative programs, like Everyone Can Program and prompting massive retraining of teachers to support the curriculum.

Year of code promotional video



This type of vision is rare amongst governments globally, and this step is likely to give the UK an enormous boost to its economy over the next twenty years - by which time every adult in the UK under the age of 38 will have had some experience in coding.

Of course this doesn't mean that every child in the UK will choose to become a computer programmer, just as mandatory maths in schools hasn't raised a nation of mathematicians in Australia.

However it raises the bar unilaterally for the entire population and is likely to make the UK the most technologically-savvy and advanced nation in the world over time.

This initiative is attracting significant attention in Europe and North America, however has been largely ignored in Australia - where the attention is on future cuts to school spending, a review of the national curriculum and the decision of the Federal Government to invest in Latin.

In my view Australia's current position on education is extremely worrying for our future.

The declining number of IT graduates has already been recognised as a critical threat and there have been a number of reports about a growing shortfall in digital skills.

Most government agencies I speak to talk about how hard it is to attract good digital talent - or retain it - and digital literacy is an issue not only across the Australian public sector, but across the private and not-for-profit sectors as well.

We aren't going to address this with a focus on teaching Latin, increasing the religious content of our curriculum, or even by maintaining the status quo of mandatory English and Maths.

For Australia to remain relevant, competitive and successful - with the standards of living that Australians have become used to, we need to look seriously at where coding and other digital skills fit within our education system, while also addressing the shortfall of teachers we have to teach these skills.

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Thursday, June 19, 2014

The economic value of open data to Australia

This morning I attended the breakfast launch of the Open for Business: How Open Data Can Help Achieve the G20 Growth Target report.

The report was written by Nicholas Gruen (former chair of the Gov 2.0 Taskforce) and his team from Lateral Economics, with support from Victoria University and commissioned by the Omidyar Network (the not-for-profit organisation established by eBay's founder).

It makes a compelling economic case for open data, estimating aggregate direct and indirect value for Australia was in excess of $15 billion per year. This was based on estimating the economic value of open data just across the G20's seven priority areas, which I've provided below as a table.

G20 priority area
open data value 
per annum to Australia
Anti-corruption
$1.5 billion
Employment
$3.4 billion
Energy
$1.7 billion
Fiscal and Monetary policy
$3.6 billion
Infrastructure
$3.6 billion
Trade
$1.6 billion

Relative progress on open government data areas
Source: http://theodi.github.io/open-data-barometer-viz
The report suggested that Australia was still doing very well in the open data space, ranked 3rd amongst G20 nations (7th or 8th overall globally) - but that there was still much room for improvement and learning from other countries.

During the presentation Martin Tisne from the Omidyar Network said that Mexico and India had demonstrated leadership in opening up education data, while South Africa had taken great steps with open budgetary data - making the point that different nations have excelled in different aspects of openness, but few had demonstrated consistent strength across all aspects of open data.

The report included a great deal of detail on different areas in which governments could achieve economic value through open data - and also highlighted that the cost of realising these benefits could be up to a third of the value received, giving a clear signal of the need for government to invest in this area, not simply allow it to thrive or die on its own with no support.

Both Nicholas Gruen and Tony Shepherd, head of the Commission of Audit, highlighted the need for senior Ministerial leadership, and Gruen noted that no Australian Prime Minister had ever been a passionate supporter of open data, to Australia's detriment where the US and UK had significant political as well as public service leadership for openness.

The presentation also highlighted some of the current pitfalls for entrepreneurs seeking to take advantage of open data while there was no consistent commitment to its release.

Gruen illustrated this point by discussing APSjobs.info, a site created at a past GovHack, that mashes up data on public servant movements from APSJobs.gov.au. He said there was clear added value realised via APSJobs.info, which could be a useful reference tool for recruiters and agencies seeking to identify the best talent.

The report states that:
APSJobs.info's business model was predicated on its development of successful technical methods to 'scrape' the data from pseudo-print PDFs. However frequent changes to the formatting and layout of these files meant continuous re-development of the PDF conversion software to continue to access and add value to the data. The skills required to perform such work (data-mining and text-analysis) are in great demand, and the cost of frequently using such resources exceeded the benefits to Pivotal Analytics.
APSJobs.Info is now defunct - a casualty of government inconsistency.

The Open for Business: How Open Data Can Help Achieve the G20 Growth Target report is highly material in establishing the value of open data to governments and the steps they need to take to realise the economic value that could result from greater release of reusable data.

Hopefully Australian governments will continue to build their commitments to open data and we'll see some of this value filtering back into our economic.


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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Mirror, mirror - can modern societies survive looking into the internet and seeing their own reflections?

One of the most major challenges for governments and societies around the world today is the rapidly declining trust in politicians, institutions and governance systems.

I'm willing to make the claim that politicians today are no more corrupt, self-serving or beholden to special interests than politicians were fifty, a hundred or even a thousand years ago.

Regardless of the political system in place, it takes hard work, compromise, negotiation and a willingness to be pragmatic and flexible in one's values and ethics to achieve high office. Even the cleanest and most ethical politicians have to deal with people with different standards, and must find ways to accommodate diverse views in order to achieve great ends.

I'm also willing to say that it isn't the economic situation. The world has faced huge financial strains in the past, and while governments may rise and fall (as Greece's has done), or constitutions may be redrawn (as in Iceland) the underlying governance systems have rarely changed as a result.

No country changed from a democracy to something else as a result of the GFC, and none changed from 'something else' to a democracy as a result of it either.

Maybe its our institutions - are government agencies, courts, armies and police failing in their jobs?

Well no, to a large degree public services around the world remain highly capable of delivering the services they are required to deliver. Of course there's always room for improvement, and successive governments have changed the configuration and goals of public services - but the core capability remains largely intact, at least to-date.

So what do I believe is causing the rapid decline in trust, potentially the greatest threat facing governments today?

It's the rise of the internet and supporting technologies.

The internet - particularly social media - has become a mirror that society cannot escape.

Every action and decision taken by elected politicians is now almost instantly communicated, critiqued and analysed by thousands or millions of people - many looking for the slightest sign of deviation from a past statement, position or decision.

Websites have sprung up to collate and consider every public political statement - and some of their private ones too. Tools such as Polliwoops ensure that even comments that politicians later delete remain accessible - Google's cache is another way to find deleted media statements made in a politician's early career, and even government-funded platforms such as PANDORA are repositories of deleted Prime Ministerial speeches (removed so as not to 'confuse' voters).

Old-school politicians, who chameleon-like reflect the views of the physical audience in front of them, are potentially finding instant mass communication the greatest challenge. Gone are the days where a politicians could travel from event to event, each time subtly adjusting their message to appeal to the audience at hand.

Now every inconsistency, weasel word, off-the-cuff remark and error of judgement by elected politicians (as well as many unelected ones and public figures) is captured, shared and discussed online.

And that's just the facts - the internet is also full of commentary, predictions, suppositions and lies about political leaders, some benign, some actively trying to understand or help and some trying to bring them down.

The problem isn't that our politicians are flawed, our economies failing and our institutions corrupt - many countries have been there before and survived, even thrived.

The problem is that society is now seeing both truth and fiction in greater quantity and detail than ever before - the mirror of the internet is always on, and no society can choose to look away from it.

It is easier to believe politicians when all we see are the good things they do. It is easier to believe in a system of government when we don't think about the deals done to support it.

However people today now expect some form of purity from their political leaders that has never been achieved in history - they want leaders better than they are, without flaws, with no need to compromise and who appear mystically in a leadership role without years of learning their craft and making mistakes on the way.

How would the political leaders of the past have been effective in today's mirror society?

Would any of them successfully been able to face the mirror without flinching?

Can any aspiring political leaders now make it into parliament without casting a mixed reflection?

Even a political leader who is pure and uncompromised in every way will find that hostile elements - rivals, other parties, lobby groups, disruptive citizens - attempt to distort their reflection into a funhouse caricature that the public reject.

I wonder whether our system of government can survive the relentless focus of this mirror. Whether we'll attract competent politicians, see ongoing mass civil disobedience or simply lose all trust and faith in the people who put themselves forward to be elected and the system they are elected into.

Will we learn to accept that all political systems, their institutions, leaders and decisions, are flawed under sufficient scrutiny. That everyone has something they're not proud of, or can be distorted into inappropriateness, in their past, and accept that our leaders and system are what they are - faults and all?

Will we demand systemic change - that our electoral systems are reformed and the people inhabiting the current system be removed, possibly even tried?

Or will we simply opt-out. Treat politics and our governments as an annoyance that we evade wherever possible and only engage when we have to - leaving us at the mercy of politicians who choose to use their powers for actions not in the interest of the public?

I really don't know which course will be taken in many countries around the world, but I do expect to see many more governments fall over the next twenty years, hollowed out through loss of talent and put into the hands of petty tyrants, or collapsing under their own weight.

However what I hope to see are governments and societies finding ways to truly look at themselves in the mirror. To rationalise that while they can no longer persist with the myth that they are the 'finest of them all' they're actually not that bad looking - despite the wrinkles and scars.

I also hope to see governments recognise that they need to experiment more at the core, not simply around the edges - reverse trends towards political functionaries being the majority of elected members and institute practices which turn parliaments back into the servants of their societies, rather than their masters.

This will take real political courage and will to change.

Ironically political courage may be one thing that increases as the as the mirror's reflections become more and more defined.

Soon anyone seeking to enter politics will need to have courage simply to put themselves forward for election, because if there is a single blemish on their reflection they will be hounded relentlessly.

Standing up to that scrutiny, displeasure, disappointment and abuse in order to make a difference through public office will take enormous public courage.

Ultimately, however, societies will need to find a new accommodations. We will need to accept that there's as many pure politicians as there are unicorns, and when we look into the mirror of the internet the reflection we see isn't solely that of the politicians we elect, it is a reflection of our entire society and the choices we have made to create it.

If we want to feel something other than disappointment or horror when we look at our reflection, our society's reflection, in the internet, then we will have to consciously, personally and collectively, make the decisions that will allow us to gaze on it with pride.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Only four weeks to GovHack - register now!

GovHack, the largest open data competition in Australia, is only four weeks away.

With over $70,000 in national prizes, and local prizes in each of the 11 locations around the country, there's not much time left to join the already over 1,000 registered participants to mash-up government data.

Register now at www.govhack.org/register-2014/


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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

It's nice to see government agencies share with each other

One of the most frustrating and, I think, silliest things I found when working in Australian government agencies was how almost every department, agency and statutory body developed almost all of its own policies, procedures, software and tools.

There was often 'undercover' sharing - where people in agencies would ask their colleagues in others for copies of their whatever policy, so they could craft one just like it - however there was no central repository where public servants could go and browse standard templated policy documents or access software code developed by other agencies to resolve certain common issues.

At one stage I actively looked at building a research directory for government - either from within an agency, or as a third-party site - where public servants could list the research their agencies had undertaken and the research they needed to access or undertake, so that it could be effectively shared between departments, saving money in re-running research and informing policy decisions.

This attempt didn't get off the ground as senior management strongly felt they had no obligation to share information on the research work conducted with 'THEIR' public dollars with other agencies - even the fact that they'd undertaken it in the first place.

Fortunately most of those senior managers have now retired (literally), and the new crop coming through are realising that, cash and time constrained as they are, that fighting over which agency 'owns' a specific policy, custom software or research that they commissioned gets in the way of productivity, efficiency and cost-effectiveness.

One of the outcomes has been the latest Australian Government whole-of-government website, GovShare.

GovShare had been talked about for nearly five years and has now finally arrived as a central location for agencies to share their work with other agencies to build standardisation and save money across the public service.

As the About page states, GovShare has been designed to support and promote collaboration across the Australian Public Service, and as an online resource it has been provided to APS agencies and their staff to:

  • publish, discover and access a broad range of artefacts used within the APS, such as frameworks, guidelines, policies, standards, architectural models, open source software and a host of other ICT and business artefacts; 
  • explore APS ICT services and solutions through the Agency Online Services Database and Agency Solutions Database; 
  • find skilled people across the APS with expertise in particular fields or products; and 
  • contribute to online discussions using the forum.

This type of sharing helps save money and time in government. It allows agencies to collaborate to design the best possible policies, guidelines and software and then customise it if needed for their specific needs.

While the benefits of the site won't necessarily be clearly visible outside of government circles, the efficiencies it will support will help agencies focus their resources on achieving the goals of government rather than on endlessly recreating the policies already in place elsewhere in government.

The site already contains nearly 2,000 'artefacts' for review, reuse and adaptation, and hopefully over the next few years this will swell as more agencies become active contributors as well as takers from the site.

It will also hopefully expand beyond its ICT roots into other business areas - allowing agencies to share standard communication strategy templates, HR policies, procurement guidebooks and financial guidelines - tools and resources that help public servants understand and abide by the rules the government sets in these areas.

Hopefully the site will expand beyond federal government as well, bringing state and local into the fold. These governments often face the same challenges, often with fewer resources, and GovShare could have a large role to play in reducing costs at all levels of government in Australia.

Ultimately it would be wonderful to see 'packages' of policies and guidelines that a newly created agency or statutory body can simply pick up, adapt and use for their operations.

This would be similar to the 'agency on a USB stick' concept that I've been talking about for several years around a set of software platforms and settings that would allow an agency to put in place a solid set of operational systems in a very short time.

However it is, as yet, early days for GovShare. Its success relies on three things, ongoing support from the department hosting it (Finance), active participation by agencies in 'gifting' their work to a common store for other agencies to access and the political will and nous to not kill the program before it bears fruit.

I hope Govshare will succeed, and think the omens are good. Its journey over the next five years will be interesting to watch.

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Wednesday, June 04, 2014

For a truly open parliament, look to the UK

The UK Government has just released the alpha version of data.parliament.uk - - a site designed to host open data on the UK Parliament and its proceedings.

(An Alpha for those who don't understand the term is a first release of a software product that is usually tested only by the developers).

The alpha release of www.data.parliament.uk
The site represents a new frontier for parliaments - making information on the discussions and deliberations of politicians far more actively available in ways that it can be reused to inform the public.

The site is sparse at the moment - only a few datasets on parliamentary questions, on how MPs have voted (something we don't publish in Australia despite it being common data available in North America and Europe) and briefing papers.

It will be interesting to see how it grows in form, function and data and whether it becomes a truly useful source for citizens.

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