Thursday, December 15, 2016

Australian Public Servants want the right to comment respectfully on political and policy matters online

I've been monitoring the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) public consultation on the current social media guidelines for Australian public servants (APS).

While they clearly aren't interested in comments from former or potential future public servants, having neglected to publish, or even link to, my comments - which I submitted to the APSC four weeks ago - there's been 109 public comments published from current public servants.

While there may be private responses to the consultation, or other public comments as yet unpublished, I've analysed the comments available and the viewpoint points consistently to one conclusion.

Australian Public Servants overwhelmingly want the right to comment respectfully on policy and political matters via the social media channels of their choice.

It's clear from the responses that social media is increasingly seen as a normal way to communicate - like chatting at a barbeque or on the phone - and public servants increasingly feel the medium should be treated in the same way, with an emphasis on the 'social' rather than the 'media'.

Only nine of the publicly published responses supported the current guidelines for public servants, which state (in part) that:

6.2.7 When employees make public comment in an unofficial capacity, it is not appropriate for them to make comment that is, or could be reasonably perceived to be:
  1. being made on behalf of their agency or the Government, rather than an expression of a personal view
  2. compromising the employee's capacity to fulfil their duties in an unbiased manner—this applies particularly where comment is made about policies and programs of the employee's agency
  3. so harsh or extreme in its criticism of the Government, a Member of Parliament from another political party, or their respective policies, that it raises questions about the employee's capacity to work professionally, efficiently or impartially
  4. so strong in its criticism of an agency's administration that it could seriously disrupt the workplace—APS employees are encouraged instead to resolve concerns by informal discussion with a manager or by using internal dispute resolution mechanisms
  5. a gratuitous personal attack that might reasonably be perceived to be connected with their employment
  6. compromising public confidence in the agency or the APS.

 Whereas 90 of the published responses stated that, to quote from one respondent,
It is important to recognise that, as citizens, public servants should have the right to express an opinion on key political issues providing they do this respectfully and that the issues they are commenting on do not not relate directly to their area of employment.
This view was represented many times, using different words and phrasing...

I can see that there is an argument that there should be more caution about what is said about the area in which you work, but why should I be prohibited from making comment publicly about immigration policy or environment policy if I don't even work in that area?

...if I want to make a comment about the work of my department in my position as a customer of that department, or as a taxpayer who has an interest in the direction of government programs generally, I ought to be able to do so.

Remaining a-political should not preclude someone from criticising an individual's performance in government… Questioning obviously wrong policy is not straying from the APS code of conduct.

People should not be persecuted or railroaded for making public comment in their own personal time on any social media platform regardless of what the posting is about or responding to that is not work/employment related.

If the APS are censored from making any criticism of the government of the day and their policies, it's going to be even harder to encourage good people to want to work with us. 

As an employee of the APS I am 100% committed to upholding the Values and Code of Conduct whilst at work, and in situations that are in connection with my employment. As a citizen I have my own set of values and beliefs and shouldn't be forced to remove myself from public debate on social media platforms just because I am a public servant. 

Having the right to vote, by default, forces you to have a political opinion. While public servants retain the right to vote, they should also be able to voice that opinion.

We should have freedom of speech, so long as we speak respectfully about issues

Public servants should be allowed to say anything on social media during their unpaid time.

If it does not relate directly to the programs administrated by their agency, preventing APS employees from engaging in public discourse as private citizens is excessive and oppressive.

No matter how distasteful, racist, sexist, or whatever an opinion is, a person should have the right to express that opinion, provided it is not obviously linked to an organisation.

Public servants should have the same rights as any other Australian to comment on the government of the day and political matters.

Some were even more blunt,

Every vote counts. So EVERY voice should have the ability to be heard… Why is the government so afraid of the people?

It's unfair and oppressive to expect that because someone works in the public service that they can't be affected by political and social issues and therefore have opinions about the issues which may affect them and the people who are important in their lives. 

Why pretend we agree with everything we're told to do? It's like an atheist praying in Church to make their religious parents happy. As long as expression is respectful, it should be permitted.

When a politician says something stupid (which many of them do) I should be allowed to comment that they said something stupid.

While others questioned whether the government's current policy suggested that public servants were not trustworthy or that Australian democracy was broken,

In 10 years of working in Government I have only ever seen fantastic, impartial and evidence based decision making, and this is despite the fact that as humans, Public Servants naturally hold opinions. To imply that they cannot be trusted to comment responsibly on social media is to imply they cannot be trusted anywhere. Why does the medium change things? I.e. if we're questioning the integrity and trustworthiness of the Public Service; why should it be limited to social media? Either we are trustworthy everywhere, or we are not.

In Australia we have a liberal democracy. Public servants are part of that democracy. As such the boundaries on political and social commentary should be set quite generously for all, public servants included. In our history we have fought totalitarian regimes that have sought to inhibit free speech, my father and grandfather both fought for freedom and democracy. I see the curtailing of free speech that all citizens currently have as a huge infringement on hard-fought and won rights.

People who work for the public service have just as much right to question the Government in a democratic society as the next person. If they don't, then how democratic a society is it?

 Any democracy that cannot deal with criticism, regardless of the source, is no longer a democracy.

Only a few believed the current limitations were fair,

To protect public servants from any erosion of trust now or in the future, I believe they should not be posting anything critical.

I have worked for three federal government agencies in my working life and am proud to have done so; I believe in what these agencies stand for and deliver to the Australian community. I am not about to bite the hand that feeds me. If I find a significant shift in agency policy and practice which would be at odds with my own belief system and make being a-political in a professional role impossible I wouldn't hang on for any length of time I would simply leave.

No matter who your employer is, whilst you are in their employ, I believe you should respect that bond and not do or say anything that would damage that company's reputation.

A minority (14) suggested that public servants should conceal their connection to the public service while posting, to prevent an obvious link to their employer, while a few others pointed out that this wasn't really a protection at all.

My suggestion would be that APS employees should not list their Department or Agency as their employer on social media sites. They should not divulge any information that is not already available on public record and should not publically denegrate their employer. Ooutside these restrictions, I should be able to have the same rights as Australians who work in the private sector.

A more effective result could be achieved by instructing PS employees to remove any identification as a PS employee on their personal social media accounts and to not permit comments which identify their opinion as being related to their employment. Without any identification to the person's employment, it's difficult to see how someone can perceive an employee as making comment on behalf of their employer.

On the topic of whether public servants should be able to comment on their department and work, opinions were split. 36 respondents clearly indicated they believed that public servants should not comment on their own work and agency, whereas 14 directly stated that they should and a number of others were ambivalent.

The arguments were fairly clear on both sides.

Those opposed to talking about their work and agency said it could compromise their ability to do their job impartially, and potentially release information that shouldn't be public.

Those that supported talking about their work and agency pointed out that they were the best informed about their areas and could provide critical facts and information into the public domain in ways that could enrich and improve the public conversation. They also noted that at times they were also customers of their own departments, and as such should have the same rights as other customers.

...if I want to make a comment about the work of my department in my position as a customer of that department, or as a taxpayer who has an interest in the direction of government programs generally, I ought to be able to do so.

I should be able to comment on policies and topics in the public spotlight that affect me, my family or my field without fear of reprisal from my employer - particularly where the discussion is not at all related to my employer.

It is said that Qantas staff can't publicly criticise their employer, so nor should public servants. But Qantas doesn't confiscate 20% of my income. Qantas doesn't tell me what I can and can't buy, sell, import or smoke. Qantas doesn't tell me who I can and can't marry. Qantas can't send armed men into my house to arrest me. Qantas doesn't decide what my children are taught at school... Public servants have a duty as citizens to participate fully in political debate, including in relation to the programs they administer. 

A few believed the existing policy was clear,

I do believe the social media stance is perfect as it stands.

Yes they are clear. They do not appear to require revising.

But most respondents felt otherwise,
...this area is extremely grey and needs not only definitive clarification, but absolute determination as to what can and can't be said on political issues without fear of reprisals or recriminations.

Overall all respondents agreed on one point - that public servants should be respectful when they engaged.

Hi, I think that we should have the same rights and rules of every Australian Citizen. We should be able to speak our mind, even to the point of a difference of opinion with a Government Minister, providing we do not denegrate our department, our managers or colleagues.

It is now up to the APSC as to what they do with this information and how it affects the next iteration of the APS's social media guidelines.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

It's time to start talking about open innovation - how do we share innovations across society?

Innovation is one of the global buzzwords today.

From Parliament House in Australia to the remotest regions of Africa, the world is talking about innovating to solve old problems using new techniques and emerging problems using old ideas in new ways.

As a career entrepreneur and innovator, I'm supportive of these innovation agendas - innovation is an important and useful tool for organisational adaptation and problem solving within rapidly changing environments. 

Provided innovation is embedded and practiced as business as usual, rather than treated with lip service or ring-fenced into irrelevance it can be a powerful technique .

Thus far public discussions have largely focused on how we make organisations more innovative. How do we adjust cultures, structures and the legislative and policy frameworks that surround them, to help organisations embody that innovation spirit.

That's an important conversation - and very much a work in progress

However there's another conversation we need to have that might be even more important over time.

How do we share innovations such that their impact is magnified in ways that reshape industries and societies, not just individual companies and agencies.

Now this isn't a debate about the value of intellectual property (IP) ownership. There's strong and good reasons for individuals and companies to be able to protect and control the use of their new ideas and techniques. I'm broadly supportive of the current IP model used globally, although it can be cost-prohibitive and onerous and can (and has) been misused on occasion by those with the money and power to do so.

However there is a distinction between IP that should be protected and innovations that should be shared. 

For example, imagine how different the world would look today if an ancient Greek city-state had applied modern IP rules to the technique and process of democracy.

If the democratic process had been patented, on an ongoing basis, the concept and practice of democracy may never have become the modern standard for governance, against which all other models are regularly tested.

Now that's an extreme, and potentially absurd, example, but given the legal changes made over time to IP law to continue to globally protect the likeness of a cartoon mouse, perhaps not totally implausible.

There's many examples of innovations that only become valuable when shared, or have their value multiplied by collective use. The internet is such a modern innovation, with its base 'operating systems', IP addresses and HTML, available freely for reuse by billions around the world.

Other such innovations include the 3-point seatbelt, the global standard for protecting car passengers, which was invented and patented by Volvo in 1959, then given freely to the world to improve safety standards.
As a more recent example, in 2012 Tesla did something similar, 'opening up' many of its electric car patents, declaring they would not sue companies that used them under certain circumstances, in the interest of helping to build an ecosystem of car and component makers that expands the market for electrical cars.

There's other examples of innovations being 'open sourced' in some way to help share them. For example CKAN, the open data portal platform developed by the Open Knowledge Foundation, is open source - which has led to its widespread use by governments globally.

aGov, the Drupal platform used to deliver GovCMS, is also open source, and now deployed in over 400 instances around the world.

In both these cases vendors monetise these platforms through providing support services - but the platforms themselves are freely available should an organisation wish to go it alone.

Other examples of shared innovation include the code bases developed for government services and apps through Code for All and it's country-based affiliates, such as Code for America and Code for Australia.

Companies are sharing their AI research (and sometimes the code) - even the notoriously private Apple has recently announced that it will be taking part, in order to stay competitive in this fast changing field.

Governments are also, in certain cases, sharing their code - such as the US Army, which has shared code from its cyber defense systems to help tap the experience of others to improve their capabilities, and to help other organisations improve their own cyber defences.

The US Government even open sourced its open sourcing policy, along with a range of services it has built, so they can be easily reused by other governments.

There's been a little of this in Australia as well. The National Map is open source, as are several other systems. The Digital Transformation Agency has also worked in this space, open sourcing the code for their Alpha gov.au site and the text for its Design Guide.

However most innovation that could be shared is still not shared in a structured way.

Certainly events such as the new Public Sector Innovation Awards help raise awareness, and reward, innovations across the public sector, and can generate some informal sharing post event. Networks such as the Public Sector Innovation Network also play a role, at least in helping share ideas within the network itself, if not with the wider community.

But these are still largely inwards looking. They neither provide formal ways for agencies to share their innovations with other agencies or the community at large, or for agencies or those outside government to locate relevant innovations that might support their own endeavours, with a blueprint on how to implement them.

They also are poor tools for bringing innovation into government from outside - for learning from the daily innovation activity across more than 2 million businesses in Australia, and hundreds of millions worldwide.

There's really no current consistent structured method to find the right needles in that global haystack, the shared innovations that would transform an agency, company or community, solving problems and lifting their effectiveness.

This conversation, about how we share innovations effectively, is the one we need to have to scale the fantastic innovation work being done behind closed doors across Canberra, across Australia and across the world.

Without it all the work going into transforming organisations to be innovative is simply creating new types of silos, where innovation happens within a room and is poorly shared or built on by others who could leverage it.

I also believe that in this broader discussion of how to share innovations wisely and widely, we'll also find answers to the question of how to make organisations more innovative, as sharing will promote greater thinking about innovation 'within the walls' as well as without.

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Thursday, December 08, 2016

Ensuring that digital transformation delivers the right outcomes for Australia's Government

I wrote this post in response to a LinkedIn conversation around this article, Digital government could become just more cost cutting, warns Internet Australia - which should be read first for context.

Digital transformation should never focus on the digital, it's about transformation.

Digital is a toolset and has opened new doors to how services and organisations may be transformed - however the culture and structural changes must occur or any digitalisation of services is simply a bandaid measure that will have little impact on the effectiveness or productivity of an organisation in the long-term.

The public service has, and continues, to resist cultural and structural reform for three main reasons:
  1. The current cultures and structures suit the people in charge. They've benefited from the current system and have been normalised into it, making it difficult and frightening to consider changes and reforms. 
  2. The status quo is supported by legislation, policies, rulings and lived experience ('it's how we've always done it'). Changing culture and structure is hard when it is shaped by these influences and requires disruptive, not incremental, steps to make strong inroads (such as creating new agencies or having all staff re-apply for adjusted roles).
  3. There's little urgency for change. The public sector is seeing a slow leaching of budgets and talent but, similar to the analogy of boiling a frog, the water is heating too slowly for the frog to get concerned and hop out, until it is too late. While many agencies now have innovation programs in place, with some real successes coming from these, they still tend to mostly focus on fringe and low priority areas, 'safe' areas that don't threaten existing structures, services or operational modes. 

The political end of government is slowly being less well served by public servants but, from the evidence at hand and my conversations, doesn't always know what to do about it.

They're busy fighting ideological battles over control and interests to get, or retain, power and largely do not have executive experience within large organisations - essentially they lack the skills to lead change in government, as do many public sector leaders whose roles are about maintaining the status quo and serving the government of the day, not retooling the public service for the future.

As a result we're seeing a slow decay in our institutions, a hollowing out of the talent pool (with good people fiercely contested over and 'deadwood' slipped into Machinery of Government changes where agencies can offload them, as managing them out is too hard) and increasing brittleness as capability is lost.

The average tenure for a public servant is ten years, and 77% have only worked in one agency - down on past years, but still indicative of organisations that are very comfortable and safe places to work - whereas private sector 'imports' on average last 3 years (less in senior roles) before leaving for greener pastures.

How do we fix this situation? 
Good question - it requires effort at all levels, including:

  • Working to upskill upcoming politicians and their advisors to understand how to work effectively and lead the public sector,
  • working with senior bureaucrats to develop and supplement their knowledge and skills, 
  • working with mid-tier Managers (future senior bureaucrats) to shift their track before they become too embedded in existing culture, and 
  • working with staff to push responsibility downhill, with strong KPIs that can be used to weed out the unsuitable and support and reward high achievers. 


How likely is this approach?
Right now it doesn't look particularly likely to me, as an external observer, but here are a few areas where progress could be made.

  • Rewarding talent
    The public sector's pay scales do not foster or encourage consideration of the APS as a career option, providing little to no room for individual outperformance or achievement.
    The government's pay policy, as being carried forward by the APSC, is a strong disincentive for external talent to work for the public service as staff. The lack of rewards and diminishing flexibility, with long-term pay disputes in progress for over three years, leaving public sector wages stagnant in many places, falling below private sector equivalents, do not encourage private sector talent to consider the richness, diversity and opportunity to create national change that exists across public sector roles.


  • Unnecessary movementsUnnecessary movement must stop - such as Deputy Prime Minister Joyce's 'pet project' of moving agricultural agencies out of the bush capital (which is surrounded by farms), costing enormous amounts of money, lost time through disruption and skills loss, as most will not move away from career opportunities or families to work in locations where their access to other agencies they must work with, and parliament, is far diminished.

    Also the incessant shifts of parts of agencies to other agencies (Machinery of Government changes, or MOGs) must cease - with portfolios defined and set for a decade at a time, with reviews of their responsibilities occurring independent of political dictates as broad engagement processes looking at best practice across public and private sector organisations globally and consultation processes with staff, thought leaders and politicians, who then are appointed to specific portfolios or cross-portfolio duties.  Any changes at the fringes within each period can be managed through collaboration between agencies, enabled by more flexible and modular systems.
  • Standardised SystemsAgencies must stop going their own way on systems and IT. The Commonwealth only requires one financial system, one HR system, one grants management system, one email system and so on - in fact there are companies larger than the entire Australian Public Service which make this work very effectively at greatly reduced management costs.

    With agencies all independently procuring it does fosters a level of market competition (generally between multinationals as these systems are largely provided at scale), but at enormous cost.

    Instead government needs to look at framework approaches where vendors can 'plug in' to an overall consistent framework, providing specialist services without the huge expense to agencies OR to the vendors in relentless tender processes.

    This will also help with moving people about (when necessary or as career moves), with far less retraining and human errors, as well as faster paths to productivity.
  • Institutionalise changeFinally, agencies must stop having 'change programs', or 'digital transformation projects' and recognise the reality that change is constant and a stop/start approach with beginnings and endings is not serving them well (for the most part).

    We need public service agencies to develop the systems and cultures to manage and thrive in constant change, not to change from A to B over a period, take a break for a few years, then change from B to C, as their environment moves in the same time from A to Z.

     Their current approach to change holds it at arms length, treats change as the unnatural state between points of stability when, in truth, the reverse is true.

    Change is the constant and brief periods of stability are unusual and becoming rarer. Until this flip in thinking, culture and approaches occurs, government will lag further and further behind and struggle to build the necessary change-resilient systems needed for 21st century good governance.
That's my key thoughts right now - my views have not really changed on this front for a decade - in which we've seen six governments/prime ministers and over 150 Ministers come and go, as well as at least 30 agencies get created and destroyed.

With that rate of change and uncertainty potentially continuing, it's hard to see how the Australian Government will continue to thrive without taking some of the steps above.

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Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Australian Government submits Australia's first open government National Action Plan

Over the last four years the Australian Government has engaged in a stop-start process towards becoming a full member of the international Open Government Partnership, which now counts 70 countries in its membership, plus is beginning to explore state-based membership as well.

The Open Government Partnership was founded five years ago by eight countries to foster open government around the world, providing a forum for countries to share their initiatives and make ambitious commitments to open up government, in various ways, to public scrutiny.

While Australia was invited to be a founding member, the then Government never quite got around to joining, and the process since then has been slow and torturous.

However in the last year, with renewed support from Prime Minister Turnbull, a consistent process has seen the goal of having Australia become a full and active member finally achieved (after a brief hiccup due to a national election campaign slowed it down).

I've blogged previously about several of the consultations and steps that have been taken in 2015-16 to progress towards this achievement, and have supported the process in various ways where I could, both formally and informally.

There's been a number of other people instrumental in finally arriving at this point, both significant movers and shakers within Australia's small civil society movement and within the public service and I congratulate all of them for this achievement.

While Australia's National Action Plan won't go far enough for some, and the consultation process was not as structured or inclusive as others would like, actually getting a plan at all has been a huge achievement given Australia has had five Prime Ministers and four governments in the last six years.

Also this is only the first National Action Plan. It lasts for two years and is expected to be renewed after that point.

Now that Australia has started this process, the goal should be for all participants to ensure that each new National Action Plan is more ambitious and inclusive than the last.

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Friday, December 02, 2016

CSIRO ON Innovation Bootcamp report - Innovation thriving in the public sector

I was privileged to attend CSIRO's On Innovation Bootcamp on Wednesday and Thursday this week, a two day intensive for CSIRO, university and other government teams transitioning concepts from government scientific research towards becoming startup companies.

This was the third round for the ON programme, with approximately 80 teams having now gone through the process to some degree. It was my second ON bootcamp as a volunteer mentor.

Hosted at UTS in Sydney and facilitated by Pollenizer's Phil Morle and Tristonne Forbes, 8 CSIRO teams, 10 university teams and one from the Defence Science and Technology Group went through the bootcamp program.

They spent two days testing and validating their customer, product and market assumptions to confirm whether their concepts could truly make it as a commercial product in the global market, then pitched their new businesses to three judges with extensive startup capital experience, competing for ten places in the 12-week ON Accelerator program.

The teams were supported by about 25 volunteer mentors from a range of startup and corporate backgrounds, as well as CSIRO ON's staff.

Comparing this bootcamp with the last one I'd attended, this time the teams were more mature. Many had prototypes and had either tested their products or found their first customers. Several brought along product samples, or wore team t-shirts emphasising their spirit and focus.

This maturity made it only more intensive as the teams thought through their MASSIVE vision, developed their roadmaps to success and tested their value propositions against the needs of their potential customers.

During the bootcamp all of the teams went on a huge emotional rollercoaster. Some arrived with a clear vision of their product and markets, but found that their target customers didn't perceive the problem they were addressing, or weren't prepared to pay for a solution.

Other teams were still forming (one I worked with hadn't met before face-to-face), or still saw their concept as an interesting research project rather than as a compelling commercial offering, and had to rethink their roles, approach and language.

I witnessed several amazing breakthroughs where teams realised that their initial thinking needed some adjustment, and pivoted their product, market or customer target to increase its chance of market success.

At the end of the two days all the teams had made amazing progress, and gave stunning three minute pitches. I don't envy the decisions the judges will have to make.

I've included a series of tweets below from the pitches which highlights each team's area of focus. Frankly I could see 90% of them going on to become successful, either as a business or licensing their technologies, with a number having market maker potential for creating global change.

Remember that all of these are public sector innovations - government-funded science that has become potentially valuable technology with vast commercial potential.

The list below is in the order of the pitches.

Virtual Training - VR training for healthcare professionals and families incorporating AI


NutriThick - an intensively healthy drink made from Australian seaweed that counters vitamin deficiencies amongst older people

RadVet - a tested cancer treatment for pets, that has already been successful in humans

MICE - a secure image sharing service for Doctors, to accelerate treatment through providing information to specialists

Green and Gold - a genetic approach to activating the leaves of plants to produce renewable fuel oils, including aviation fuel

VitiApp - a decision support system, particularly for vineyards, that helps farmers and their consultants make better decisions and produce improved wines and crops

detectORE - a simple in-the-field testing solution for mining samples to accelerate decision making and save money

Going for Gold - a non-toxic gold extraction technology that replaced the cyanide currently in use and can also increase yields for smaller gold miners by 50%

DrapeMeasure - a disruptive patternmaking system that uses 3D mathematics to provide faster and more precise measurements of 3D shapes (such as people for clothes), that has applications across the fashion, building and design industries

LuciGem - who have developed stable nanoscale diamond and ruby probes to explore and understand live cellular environments

Passive Radar - a system using environmental radio sources to map objects, providing enhanced situational awareness for military forces without revealing their locations with active radar

Wildlife Drones - who have developed an enhanced animal tracking system six times faster and able to collect substantially more data than existing methods, with applications across wildlife research, agriculture and pest control

Feraliser - an indigenous-driven initiative which transforms feral pigs into fertiliser, providing regional jobs and improving environmental and social outcomes.

SensorCloud - a data integration and analysis service that can digitally transform the agricultural value chain, by equipping agronomists and farmers with integrated and improved intelligence for decision-making

Australian Silicon Photonics - a group that has developed a low heat and energy consumption solution for moving data within data centres, and eventually within devices, allowing our digital networks to grow enormously at much lower cost and impact

D-Tech IT - an automated fish identification system for tracking fishing catches at source to avoid catching the wrong species and increase the efficiency of fishery operation

IOkeeper - a cloud security system that allows individuals and organisations to encrypt all the data they place or transfer through the cloud, keeping it safe even when cloud providers are hacked

DentalAR - a training system for dentists that uses augmented reality to quickly upskill students and allow trained dentists to access vital new information in real time to improve patient outcomes.

Robotic finger orthosis - a 3D printed custom robot exoskeleton managed by a mobile phone or smart device that helps people to recover more rapidly and completely from hand injuries

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Monday, November 28, 2016

Guest post from Henry Sherrell on access to open data for effective policy development

Henry Sherrell is a former Australian Public Servant who now works in policy research at the Australian National University.

As a researcher, open data has become an important input into his work. As such I thought it worth sharing (with his permission) this post from his blog, On The Move, as an example of some of the difficulties researchers still face in accessing data from the Australian Government for important policy work.

It is notable that since Henry published his post, only four days ago, the legislation regarding Henry's policy work is going back to parliament - still with no modelling of its impact on affected communities or any real public understanding of the potential consequences.

I've reproduced Henry's post as a guest post below in full. You can also view Henry's post here in On The Move.

My battle with the Australian Border Force Act: A small, but worrying, example

There are hundreds of interesting questions to ask when someone moves from one country to another. For as long as I can remember, Australia has been one of the best places to explore migration. There are two reasons for this: We welcome immigrants and the government and bureaucracy collect and make accessible robust migration data.
They are not household names but people like Graeme Hugo, the late Paul Miller, Deborah Cobb-Clarke and Peter McDonald have shaped global debates on migration. A new generation of scholars are now examining big, important questions about the intersection migration and work as well as any number of other themes, many of which will help us as a society in the future. Yet this tradition depends on access to Australian migration data from a number of sources, including the ABS, the Department of Immigration and various surveys funded by the government.
Until I received the following email from DIBP, I hadn’t realised just how uncertain this type of knowledge will be in the future:
“The data that was provided to Department of Agriculture was done so for a specific purpose in line with the Australian Border Force Act 2015 (ABF Act).  Unfortunately your request does not comply with the ABF Act and we are therefore unable to provide the requested data.”
I didn’t receive this email because I asked for something controversial. The reason this email stopped me in my tracks was I asked for something which was already largely public.
About a month ago I stumbled across the below map in a Senate submission to the Working Holiday Reform legislation.  The Department of Agricultural and ABARES had produced the map to help show where backpackers worked to gain their second visa. This was an important part of a big public debate about the merits or otherwise of the backpacker tax (as I write this legislation has just been voted on in the Senate, amended and defeat for the government).
I’d never seen this information before and I’m interested in exploring it further as there are decent labour market implications stemming from backpackers and the results may shed light on employment and migration trends. As you can see below, the Department helpfully documented the top 10 postcodes where backpackers worked to become eligible for their 2nd visa:
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I get teased a little bit about the number of emails I send asking for stuff. But I’ve found you normally don’t get something unless you ask for it. So using the Department of Agriculture’s handy feedback form on their website, I asked for the data showing how many 2nd working holiday visas have been granted for each postcode.
The top 10 postcodes are already public but as the map shows, there is lots of other information about what you might term a ‘long tail’ of postcodes. One reason I wanted this information was to match up major industries in these postcodes and understand what type of work these people were doing. It would also be good to go back a couple of years and compare trends over time, whether employment activity shifts over time. All sorts of things were possible.
One thing I’ve learnt in the past is don’t ask for too much, too soon. In addition, there is always a potential privacy consideration when examining immigration data. For these reasons, I limited my request to the list of postcodes and number of second visa grants in each. That’s it.
This ensured I excluded information about individuals like age and country of birth which may compromise privacy. I also assumed if the number of backpackers in a postcode was less than five, it would be shown as “<5 as="" data.="" for="" immigration="" is="" of="" other="" p="" practice="" standard="" this="" types="">
ABARES let me know they had passed the response to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. After following up with DIBP twice, about a month after my initial request, I received the above email which prompted a series of internal questions roughly in this order:
  • You have to be f****** kidding me?
  • If the data was provided to the Department of Agricultural with the knowledge it would be at least partially public, why isn’t the same data available but in a different format? i.e. a spreadsheet not a map based
  • How does my request not comply with the ABF Act? What’s in the ABF Act which prevents highly aggregated data being shared to better inform our understanding of relevant public debates?
And finally: why couldn’t someone work out a way to comply with the ABF Act and still provide me with data?
From what I can work out, the relevant part of the ABF Act is Part 6 pertaining to secrecy and disclosure provisions. Section 44 outlines ‘Disclosure to certain bodies and persons’ and subsection (1) is about ‘protected information that is not personal information’ disclosed to “an entrusted person”. This is the same process causing serious consternation among health professionals working in detention centres.
I am not “an entrusted person”. According to subsection (3), the Secretary of the Department has authority to designate this. Perhaps I should email and ask? Again from what I can work out, it looks like the person who created the data made a record now classified as protected information. This information is then automatically restricted to people who are classified as entrusted, including other bureaucrats, such as those in the Department of Agriculture.
Yet this begs the question. If the Department of Agriculture can publish a partial piece of a protected record, why can’t the Department of Immigration and Border Protection?
All I know is this stinks. And while this concern does not rank anywhere close to those faced by doctors and nurses who work in detention centres, the slow corrosion of sharing information caused directly by this legislation will have massive costs to how we understand migration in Australia.
Think about the very reason we’re even having a debate about the backpacker tax. Not enough people knew about immigration policy, trends and behaviour. The wonks at Treasury didn’t do any modelling on the labour market implications and the politicians in ERC and Cabinet – including the National Party – had no idea about what this might do to their own constituents. Outside the government, when I did a quick ring around in the days after the 2015 budget, the peak industry groups for horticultural didn’t think the backpacker tax would be a big deal. If I was a farmer, I’d rip up my membership. People should have known from very early on this would have real effects in the labour market as I wrote 10 days after the Budget. The fact no-one stopped or modified the tax before it got out of control shows we are working off a low base in terms of awareness about immigration.
The Australian Border Force Act is only going to make that more difficult. Hiding basic, aggregated data behind this legislation will increase future episodes of poor policy making and limit the ability of Australia to set an example to world for immigration. Our Prime Minister is fond of musing on our successful multicultural society yet alongside this decades of learning that has shaped communities, policy decisions, funding allocations and everything else under the sun.
I have no idea how I’m meant to take part in this process if access to information is restricted to bureaucrats and ‘entrusted persons’, who at the moment don’t seem able to analyse worth a damn, judging from the quality of public debates we are having. I don’t expect a personalised service with open access to immigration data. But I expect the public service to serve the public interest, especially when the matter is straightforward, uncontroversial and has the potential to inform relevant public debate.

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Thursday, November 24, 2016

Census 2016 Senate Inquiry report - what's been recommended to avoid another #CensusFail

Both the Senate Inquiry report on Census 2016 and the Review of the Events Surrounding the 2016 eCensus (by Alastair MacGibbon, Special Adviser to the Prime Minister on Cyber Security) have just been released - I've embedded both reports below (so they appear in one place).

They are a good read with some useful recommendations for the future.

Reflecting on what has become known as #CensusFail, in comparison to other technical issues experienced by government, the Census 2016 experience probably rates as the most significant public ICT issue experienced by the Australian Government so far this century.

While in the last 15 years the Australian Government has had other incidents, these have been relatively minor, with limited public visibility or impact.

This includes incidents such as the 15 year delay in creating an Apple version of e-Tax (now rectified), launch issues with sites such as MySchool, challenges with access and security within the MyGov system, data breaches from the PCEHR (personally controlled electronic health records) eHealth system and the accidental exposure of private data for asylum seekers.

In contrast, the issues experienced during the 2016 Census have been far more widespread in their public visibility, impact and long-term ramifications for trust in government.

However, to put "the most significant public ICT issue experienced by the Australian Government this so far this century" into perspective - no-one died, no-one was hurt and no-one even lost control of their personal data.

At worst a number of government and IBM staff experienced unhealthy levels of anxiety for several days.

Given the struggles that developing countries have had to get their egovernment ICT working in the first place (with a reported 15% success rate); or the challenges advanced countries like the US have had with national systems (such as ObamaCare); or the experience of states like Queensland, which could not pay some of its Health staff for some time when its new payroll system failed, CensusFail just doesn't rate as an ICT disaster.

The actual operational impact of the 2016 Census problems was merely a short delay for people attempting to fill in the Census online.

Ultimately the ABS still exceeded the desired Census response rate, will still be releasing Census data much faster than ever before, and the agency still saved over $70 million dollars by moving more of the Census online.

However despite not actually rating as a ICT disaster, there was still a real cost to CensusFail - the perceptual and reputational damage from the ABS publicly failing to deliver on its Census Night promise, exacerbated by poor crisis engagement.

As a net result the real impact of CensusFail is on long-term governance in Australian, due to a reduction in trust in public institutions to 'do the job right the first time'.

I'm aware of other agencies now being regularly questioned by their Ministerial offices on whether they have any systems or projects which pose a similar reputational risk to the Australian Government. I've watched as the term 'CensusFail' has become the 'go to' term raised whenever a new government ICT issue is reported.

As a result the trust in government agencies to deliver complex technical solutions has been diminished, and it will take years to recover.

I hope that the recommendations in this Senate report, the lessons from Census 2016, will be top-of-mind for every public servant and Minister engaged in a significant government ICT project for years to come.

Hopefully the right lessons will be learnt - that managing your communications and public engagement well when the ICT gets wonky is critical.

In fact you can even transform a technical failure into an engagement success, if you get your messaging and timing right - strengthening, rather than weakening, trust in government.

Census 2016 Senate Inquiry Report as redistributed by Craig Thomler on Scribd


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When should government agencies use a big stick versus a velvet glove? Human Services sends legal letter to 'Save Medicare' site

My daily news roundup this morning included a small story about how the Department of Human Services had sent a legal letter to the owner of the SaveMedicare.org website the other week, threatening expensive legal action if the site didn't cease using Medicare's brand and name.

The letter, which was the first contact the website owner had had from the department, included a demand that the website be taken offline within 48 hours, that the domain name, Facebook page and Twitter accounts be cancelled or changed (per the letter embedded below), and that the owner does not use any derivatives of the Medicare name and brand in future - under threat of legal action seeking costs.

For a lawyer this is a fairly standard and templated first stage legal action for a breach of a trademark, and letter like this are regularly sent by companies to other companies who are intentionally and knowingly breaching Australia's trademark laws.

However when sending this to an individual volunteer, who happens to be a 66 yr-old retiree, who created the website in support of Australia's world class health system, it can come across as a very sudden and threatening, even bullying, over-reaction.

As the owner of the website said to Fairfax media, "I've committed a terrible crime, I don't agree with a government policy...".

The matter has now become a cause célèbre for GetUp and sections of the media, and is nudging into the political space as well - impacting on the department's reputation in the process.

Now I've had some experience of this type of situation. When working in a government department, managing their digital presence, a senior manager in another area brought to my attention a website operating in Australia which claimed that the department had endorsed their product.

The website included a copy of the department's branding as well as the endorsement claims, which I was told were untrue.

The senior manager wanted me to find out who owned the website so they could issue a legal letter, similar to the one issued by Human Services, and "come down on them like a tonne of bricks" (I'm paraphrasing the sentiment).

I suggested taking a glove, rather than a stick, approach - and first speaking with the website owner to see if there was a misunderstanding that could be resolved before rolling out the legal guns.

The senior manager was happy for me to give it a go, so I contacted the website owner by email and asked if we could have a conversation about their use of the department's branding and endorsing text.

They agreed and we had a good conversation - they were a small business owner and entrepreneur, who had seen a great product overseas and intended to import it to Australia and had approached the department to check that the product would be acceptable and useful in its performance.

A letter had been sent from the department, signed by a senior executive, providing a bureaucratic response that, to a trained public servant, said essentially "we see no issues at this time, but you're on your own".

However, as someone with little experience with government, the letter appeared like a glowing endorsement signed by a very senior official, encouraging the small business owner to put up the department's branding and a statement about the department endorsing the product.

When I explained the matter more clearly to the small business owner, they immediately apologised and agreed to remove both the branding and the endorsing text from his site. I asked for that in writing, and they sent me an email.

True to their work they took them down, and the department sent them a very nice letter (which I wrote), signed by a senior executive thanking them for their prompt action and wishing them all the best success in their future entrepreneurial endeavours.

While not completely similar to the 'Save Medicare' situation, this example could very easily have escalated if someone like me wasn't involved in the process.

Going to the stick first may be tempting to lawyers, who are used to dealing with lawyers, and to public servants who are used to dealing with knowledgeable and experienced public servants.

However the average Australian doesn't have a legal degree, an understanding of trademark or other IP laws, or the finely honed senses that (well-educated) public servants develop over the course of their career.

In this case the media have already pointed out that political parties and individual politicians have also used the Medicare logo and colours in their material in support or opposition to various government policies around the service - but none have received the same kind of legal demand despite essentially doing the same thing as this site - providing a political position on a service most Australians use.

So the legal process already has had a bad look as it doesn't appear to be fair or equitable. On top of this there appears to have been no attempt to resolve the situation more 'peacefully'.

Given the website had almost no traffic prior to the publicity fostered by the legal letter, ultimately this is a problem caused by a heavy-handed approach by the department.

This is surprising because Human Services, via it's Centrelink business, has long seen public groups use its branding in protests about the service. They generally monitor them, only taking action if there's malice or commercial gain involved.

However it only takes one senior manager to assume that someone who puts up a protest website must be malicious to damage the department's brand, and the reputations of  the Ministers involved.

In the SaveMedicare situation, the department could potentially have had a more equitable solution by approaching the website owner and having a conversation, rather than leaping to a legal attack.

This doesn't mean sacrificing the stick. It can be kept in reserve, and sometimes will need to be used, but it does mean thinking through the consequences of using the stick before it is wielded. Sometimes the stick hits back - hard.

Below is the legal letter, now shared publicly through the media.

The SaveMedicare.org website Facebook page and Twitter account remains online, past the deadline for removal. While the owner has been clear that they cannot afford legal costs, GetUp and other groups are mobilising in support.

Even if pursued and successful, the legal action is unlikely to dissuade any future individuals from use of government branding - it may even encourage them to do so more often.

There's still time to deescalate the situation, and avoid further public damage to the agency, though it is unclear if the department feels it would take more damage from proceeding or ceasing action - damage it could have avoided entirely with a little strategic thinking.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A new hire isn't always the best solution - rethinking organisational resourcing in the age of flux

After 18 months freelancing in digital engagement and innovation consulting, I've been revisiting the recruitment market to see what opportunities are becoming available as the digital transformation environment matures across Australia.

There's definitely some very interesting roles around - more and more of them part-time - but also still a great deal of older thinking about.

I've recently observed friends in public sector processes where organisations have been very definitive about what they wanted "someone with extensive private sector experience in leading digital innovation", "someone with deep-rooted data analytics expertise who can lead a transformational team".

However it seems that in many cases these organisations fall short of hiring what they say they want. In the first example above, a career bureaucrat was hired, in the second a generalist manager with a little change management expertise.

These are only a sampling of some of the decisions I've seen made - where government agencies have defined clearly they need someone prepared to be disruptive, but have settled for someone 'safe'.

I appreciate there's factors behind these decisions and don't doubt that the people hired have been intelligent and well-qualified - but do they match what these public sector organisations need?

This has led me into some deeper thinking around whether current recruitment processes are capable of meeting the needs of organisations during what is a transformational time.

Traditionally most roles have been clearly definable and static for long periods of time, reflecting the organisations they're part of. Business and public sector hierarchies are designed to force order onto chaos and over the last century have generally fallen into two buckets - specialists, who have deep but narrow skillsets, and generalists, with broad but shallower skillsets.

Specialists were required to be experts in a few things, with deep training and experience reinforcing their natural abilities. They have traditionally worked in narrowly defined silos on work that fits within their expertise set - in many ways like the operators on a single station on a manufacturing production line.

Generalists, on the other hand, were there to manage end-to-end delivery of outcomes, taking on a horizontal role to the specialist vertical. These people - the product managers, project managers, COOs and the like, had broader responsibilities but relied on the deep experience of specialists to deliver specific 'packets' of work. Their skills were more managerial - coordinating resources and effort to achieve a desired outcome.

Most organisations still function in this way - it largely works and delivers the outcomes required.

However this approach is best designed for situations where an environment is largely stable - consistent organisational goals. customers, economic conditions, regulation, competition and technology.

When one of these factors change an organisation has to change - adapting to the new reality. Most organisations can cope with this reasonably well, provided that the factor changes from one stable state to another stable state. This could be the replacement of a CEO, Secretary or Minister, the introduction of a new technology such as mobile phones, a recession.

The change causes stress, the organisation may have to restructure or even institute a change program, but the change can and is managed within the overall framework of specialists and generalists.

However what happens when change becomes continuous. When a stable state shifts to a new 'stable' state every week - effectively shifting into an instable, or flux, state.

Suddenly the organisation no longer requires a change program, it has become the change program - with the requirement for all staff to continually adapt and shift their approach, position and activities to keep the organisation stable within flux.

The traditional specialist and generalist roles are now all endlessly mutable and adaptive, and suddenly the old approaches to recruitment begin to fail as the organisation begins to need individuals who are simultaneously generalists and specialists - who can leap between these two states as needed at any time.

Others have written about this as the rise of the fluid organisation. Rather than having hard roles and boundaries, the organisation flows with change, adapting and readapting itself as needed to fill the market space at the time.

In these types of organisations the notion of a job, of employment, is itself mutable. The practical differences between employee, contractor, consultant, partner, outsourced worker, supplier, competitor, largely disappear.

The organisation essentially scoops up the skills and capabilities it requires for a specific outcome, and then those people move elsewhere once the outcome is delivered - within or outside the organisation.

Our regulatory frameworks struggle with these forms of organisations as they depend on a central core 'organisational entity' to be responsible for signing contracts, taking money, representing in courts.

Our management hierarchies struggle, with empires disappearing overnight, peoples' status and responsibilities changing to adapt to the needs of the moment - everyone potentially a senior leader, a specialist, a consultant, at different times for different projects or goals.

Our recruitment practices struggle as well. They tend to align around one potential solution for an organisational challenge - hiring an employee (or at least a contractor) - whereas there may be a range of potential solutions, from retraining, through partnering to automation.

Even where a new hire is the most effective solution, organisations still struggle to hire for the future, often preferring to hire to fill a need today, rather than fully mapping how that need may change in the next few years.

This is having significant impacts on the job market right now. There's been a huge shift towards temporary and part-time roles (both in the public and private sector), which can be partially attributed to the more fluid needs of organisations.

What this situation suggests to me, other than there is an increasing need for new thinking around structuring and managing organisations for continual change, is that recruitment approaches need to be reframed around solving organisational problems with the most appropriate solutions.

Yes some recruiters already do a great job of proactively helping their clients to identify gaps and the skilled resources to fill them, however their solutions to a gap are limited to 'a staff member' or 'a contractor' - where other solutions may be more effective i.e. 'a partner', 'a consultant', 'retraining', 'restructuring', 'automation'.

Unfortunately though, even these proactive recruiters aren't themselves structured to offer solutions other than a person for a role - which suggest to me a role for a new form of 'resourcing advisor' that takes a longer and deeper view of organisational challenges and provides a broader set of solutions to draw on.

But for this type of approach to be effective, organisations need to also rethink their recruiting practices - from budgetary 'buckets' to hiring protocols to the definition of an employee.

They also need to recognise that the recruitment practices they used in the past may not continue to succeed into the future - in fact they may not be terribly effective now, with some studies indicating that almost half of all hiring decisions result in a failure.

As someone who has worked both for extremely hierarchical and extremely flexible organisations (including one that has no employees, contracts all staff and has been successful for nearly 20 years), I can see how difficult it is for organisations glued to, and by, their structures to change.

However ultimately what defines an organisation is the outcomes it achieves for the audiences it serves - its structure, personnel and resourcing practices are all flexible and replaceable tools for achieving its desired goals.

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