Tuesday, July 21, 2015

How does government manage the consequences of an imbalance in speed of transparency & speed of accountability?

One of the emerging challenges for governments in the online age is managing the discrepancy between the speed of transparency and the speed of accountability.

With digitalisation and the internet, the speed at which government information is made public is becoming faster, with it being easier to collect, aggregate and publish information and data in near or even real-time.

We see this particularly in public transit data, where many cities around the world now publish real-time data on the location and load of their buses, trains and trams, and in the health industry where a number of states have begun offering near real-time data on the congestion in emergency waiting rooms.

We're also seeing similar near real-time reporting on river levels, dams, traffic congestion and closures, and estimated real-time reports on everything from population to national debt levels.

This trend is expanding, with the Sense-T network in Tasmania pioneering an economy-wide sensor network and data resource. Similarly the Department of Finance in Canberra is working on a system to provide real-time budget information on government expenditure down to every $500 for internal management and public transparency purposes.

This trend is a leap forward in government transparency, providing citizens, bureaucrats and politicians with far greater visibility on how our governance systems are performing and far more capability to identify trends or patterns quickly.

We're seeing a similar transparency event at the moment, with the expenses scandal enfolding the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Bronwyn Bishop, related to her use of a helicopter and several charter flights to attend political fund-raising events.

What this event has also highlighted is that while Australia's governance systems are increasing the speed of transparency, our capability to apply that information to accountable decision-making isn't consistently accelerating at the same rate.

In other words, while we increasingly can obtain the information needed for rapid decision-making, the entrenched processes and methods for decision-making in government are lagging far behind.

We see this in the failure rate of IT projects, which can drag on for years after it's clear they will fail, when laws fail to work as they should and it takes months or years to amend them, when the public has judged a politician's actions, but parliament can take no formal action for months due to being out of session.

Of course many sound reasons can and are given by bureaucrats and politicians as to why decisions need to take lots of time.

Decision-makers from the pre-internet world will say that they need to ensure they have all the necessary data, have digested it, reflected on it, considered alternatives and consequences, consulted widely and only then are able to tweak or change a decision.

This is a fair position with many defensible qualities - it reflects the world in which these people grew up, when decision-making could be undertaken leisurely while the world waited.

However both management theory and the behaviour of our communities have changed.

Start-ups grow and become huge companies based on their ability to make decisions rapidly. They are continuously experimenting and testing new approaches to 'tweak' their businesses for greater success. This is underpinned by streams of real-time data which show the consequences of each experimental change, allowing the organisations to adjust their approach in very short time-frames, minimising their potential losses from sub-optimal decisions.

The community equally reacts very quickly to evidence of poor decisions and bad outcomes, with the internet, particularly social media, fueling this trend.

While this doesn't mean the community is consistently in the right on these matters, it does require decision-makers to respond and address concerns far more rapidly than they've had to in the past - 'holding the line' or 'depriving an issue of oxygen' are no longer effective strategies for delaying decision-making into the leisurely timeframes that older decision-makers grew up with.

This issue in the disparate speed of transparency (data release) and accountability (clear and unequivocal response) is growing as more organisations release more data and more of the public is collecting, collating and releasing data from their interactions with organisations.

The imbalance is fast becoming a critical challenge for governments to manage and could lead to some very ugly consequences if politicians and agencies don't rethink their roles and update their approaches.

Of course governments could attempt to sit back and 'tough it out', trying to hold their line against the increasing speed of transparency and accountability. In my view this would result in the worst possible result in the long-term, with increasingly frustrated citizens resorting to more and more active means to have government take accountability for their decisions in the timeframes that citizens regard as appropriate.

My hope is that government can reinvent itself, drawing on both internal and external capabilities and expertise to find a path that matches fast transparency with appropriately fast accountability.

I'd like to see governments challenge themselves to test all of their historic assumptions and approaches - reconsidering how they develop policy, how they consult, how they legislate and how they engage and inform the community, in order to address a world where 'outsiders' (non-public servants) are identifying issues and worrying trends at an accelerated rate.

Perhaps we need a radical new ways to develop and enforce laws, that provide scope for experimentation within legislation for agencies to reinterpret the letter of a law in order to fulfill it's desired outcomes and spirit.

Perhaps we need continuous online consulting processes, supported by traditional face-to-face and phone/mail surveys, which allow government to monitor and understand sentiment throughout policy development and implementation and allow a 'board' of citizens to oversee and adjust programs to maximise their effectiveness over time.

Perhaps we need mechanisms for citizens to put forward policies and legislation for parliament to consider, tools that allow citizens to recall politicians for re-election or a citizen-led approach to determining what entitlements are legitimate for politicians and what they should be paid, with penalties and appropriate recourse for citizens to sack representatives who fail to uphold the values the community expects at a far greater speed than the current election cycle.

There's sure to be many other ideas and mechanisms which may help deliver a stable and sustainable democratic state in the digital age of high-speed transparency and accountability - we just need governments to start experimenting - with citizens, not on them - to discover which work best.

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