Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Australian governments need to stop treating citizens as free consultants

Across April I'm spending a week participating in government-run sessions to contribute to the democratic life of our nation.

I'll spend two days with CSIRO, supporting their startup commercialisation programs, a day with the NSW Department of Transport supporting their deliberations on future transport needs and policies and a day with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet supporting the open government partnership process.

Plus there's associated travel and preparation time - including several return drives to Sydney from Canberra.

Every bureaucrat and politician involved in these sessions will be paid for their time and have their travel costs covered. 

Every consultant employed by the government to organise, manage, promote and report on these sessions will receive due compensation - paid at their going market rates.

However the participants who give up their time and intellectual property to provide input to government won't receive a cent in payment from the agencies for any of their time commitment. Not even to defray travel or accommodation costs.

Some of the participants might attend representing a university or corporate interests - so while the government won't pay for their time or travel, their employer will. In return their employers will expect some form of benefit in having them attend, whether it be through building or exhibiting expertise, influencing policy directions, senior connections or another form of  potential commercial benefit.

However for other participants, including myself, our involvement is a cost - a personal cost (spending time in another city, far from loved ones), and a professional cost (losing days of productive income time).

I've been prepared to sustain this kind of cost due to my passion for helping government take full advantage of digital ('digital transformation' as per this year's buzz phrase), improving citizen-government engagement to support and strengthen our democracy, and supporting Australian innovators to create the export industries and jobs that our country will need to remain successful throughout this century.

Indeed I've calculated that my personal investment in these goals has cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost income over the last ten years.

Now I've also had paid gigs helping government to improve in some of these areas - both as a bureaucrat and a consultant, which puts me in the position of seeing both sides of the equation.

However, make no mistake - for most Australian citizens participating in democracy can only be considered a hobby.

While the government 'professionals' (bureaucrats & consultants) get paid - the hobbyists (citizens) do not.

It's no wonder that most Australians do not respond to government consultations, attend government policy events or participate in significant democratic exercises.

It's no wonder that Australian governments find that the same organisations and individuals constantly respond to their requests for attendance at events and round-tables. Organisations with commercial interests and individuals with either commercial or close personal stakes in the outcomes.

Most people can't afford the time off work to provide their views and insights, even when they have expertise on a topic, leaving a deep well of Australian knowledge and ideas untapped.


Now some might claim that it would be inappropriate for government to pay citizens for taking an interest in democracy and contributing their time to inform or influence policy - after all, all that work is being done directly for the citizens' benefit.

However the majority of citizens now only contribute because of commercial benefit to their employer or themselves, or because they have the financial freedom (or willingness to sacrifice lifestyle) to get involved. Most Australians don't contribute at all beyond voting. So this view of citizens as 'free consultants' is quite outdated and doesn't reflect the realities of the real cost of participating in democracy.

When the Icelandic government ran a constitutional event, inviting 300 representatives from across the country to participate in the design of their new constitution, they paid the participants the equivalent of a parliamentarian's salary for the day - plus travel and accommodation costs.

In a country like Australian where people off the street are paid $80-100 to spend an hour or two looking at product concepts and give an opinion, it seems ludicrous that governments won't pay a cent to citizens who give up their time to provide insights and expertise on policy decisions that affect millions.

If we want the best policies for Australia, governments need to at minimum be prepared to pay for the best participants to attend - covering travel costs to bring in citizen experts and leaders from all over Australia, rather than limiting the pool to citizens within driving distance.

Preferable we need Australian governments to budget respectful day rates for Australians who are invited and choose to participate, or who apply and are selected to participate in consultation events of significance to policy and program development. 

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Thursday, March 24, 2016

DTO launches preview of gov.au vision - but is it the right vision for Australian needs?

The Australian government is again looking to reshape its entire digital presence, through creating a single .gov.au site that will somehow negate the need for people to understand how government works in order to engage with it effectively.

Created by the Digital Transformation Office, you can visit the Alpha, and comment on it at www.gov.au/alpha/

I know there's a lot of good people who really see the idea of a single online portal as being a solution to the problem of finding the right government information and services and I respect the work the DTO is doing to pursue this.

However, there's some key challenges in this approach that I feel keep getting overlooked.

Firstly, the primary problem with engaging citizens is not government websites, it's government cultures.

Government is split into hundreds of departments, agencies, statutory authorities and government-run corporations, Each has a separate purpose, separate objectives and many have different reporting lines to Ministers.

Each of these entities has developed its own culture, and in fact in the larger entities there can be  different cultures across business units, and each of these cultures and business units has its own experience and expertise in carrying out its business goals.

While government doesn't explicitly compete in the market, in most cases, it does compete internally for resources - staff, dollars and attention. This isn't simply between business entities, but also between business units within each entity.

If you liken government to a closed ecosystem, where every gasp of air, drop of water and morsel of food is fought over, where business units and agencies succeed or fail based on their capability to attract resources and outsmart their competition, you would not be far wrong.

Of course, within this ecosystem there's still collaboration and cooperation. in many cases two or more agencies can work together to attract more resources than one operating alone, then can have more controlled internal battles over who gets how much. Collaboration and cooperation is sometimes forced on agencies from above - through Ministerial decisions and legislation that creates both perfect marriages and odd couples that claw at each other but are unable to untangle themselves.

This culture is influenced by the government of the day, and can undergo rapid transformations when  governments change. While this used to occur on average every decade, a manageable timeframe, in the last ten years we've seen five switches of Prime Minister and many agencies have had a dozen or more different Ministers - which creates enormous disruption and, eventually, change fatigue.

The impact this has on the concept of a single portal for interacting with government is that there's a constant need for agencies to adjust  their brand presence and offer to citizens and businesses, as their cultures evolve and governments alter their purpose or resourcing.

Having a single portal does nothing to address the cultural challenges across government agencies and, until these are addressed in a holistic and sophisticated way (with support from both political and public sector leadership), the single portal is likely to become a victim of the cultures.

There will be agencies that refuse to be part of the single portal because it doesn't match their cultural approach, and agencies that work around it by either outsourcing websites to third-party providers or simply keeping creating websites that they can control to meet their individual objectives and mandated goals.


Another major issue is managing a single online presence when all the parts of government are changing so quickly.

Every time governments change, Ministers change, priorities change laws change and the environment changes, departments and agencies must also change how and what services they provide to the community.

You could  think of this in terms of road building (but for Australia's future), with the Public Service being the labour force building the roads and the Government (Prime Minister and Ministers) being the architects and visionaries deciding where the roads need to go.


We have a situation where the public service has diligently built the roads they've been directed to build. However with changes in governments, Minister and priorities they have had to change direction, ripping up past work and repurposing building materials for new approaches, so many times in the last ten years that Australia's transportation system now looks like the road systems illustrated to the right (both are examples from China). And it's continuing to get worse.

Given how rapidly government entities are changing, and how they each have different types of relationships with the public and business community, the idea of a one-size fits all website is appealing as a way to simplify and normalise government-citizen or government-business relationships.

Having a single button that citizens can press to ask for any government service would be fantastic for citizens, but it hasn't yet been realistic via any channel to-date.

Government hasn't  managed to establish a single phone line or shop front for government services due to the range, complexity and different requirements needed for different interactions.

Increased speed of change only makes this harder. A single portal can centralise the cost of change, but also amplify it - creating new bottlenecks when agencies are required to change directly, reframing and reshaping their service offerings and engagement with the public.

Magnify this by connecting federal with state and even local government services and the work required to provide a single portal becomes extremely complex and prone to expensive failures. Even if the DTo manages, somehow, to herd all the federal cats, bringing on state services (which are integral to many customer journeys) adds a new layer of challenges.

Both NSW and Victoria have publicly demonstrated their willingness to go their own way on digital transformation, and other states have done so in more subtle ways. Herding those cats both at a political and public sector level is a task the DTO is not resourced to do.


Next, I haven't seen a real demand for a single portal from citizens. In fact most people would prefer not to engage with government at all. Simplicity isn't the same as a single portal. It's a solution that may not match the problem.

Not every citizen wishes to go through the same process when engaging with government. One size fits all is as flawed for citizen needs and preferences as it is for government services themselves.

Many citizens deal with one agency specifically and have built a strong relationship with that organisation and the user experience it provides over many years.

Changing that experience by pulling it into a single portal may (and that's only a may) offer long-term benefits, but there's a national change program needed to inform and retrain users, and a great deal of short-term pain incurred both at an agency and political level - and that's excluding the personal pain that individuals may face if they find the new process harder than the old, simply due to the process having changed.

Of course we intellectually want governments to take on short-term pain for long-term social benefits, but at a personal level many individuals will resist any change. This can lead to significant political pressure and can, and has, made it difficult for governments to take a long-term view - even where governments, Prime Ministers and Ministers are in office for longer than a few years at a time.

Our current political environment suggests that our politicians are not prepared to look long-term in areas that affect election outcomes, even where our public service is. This in itself could kill the single portal concept, as politicians realise that disgruntled voters might not support them at the next election.


Finally, the technology underpinning the web doesn't self-select towards single central sites. Yes it does support huge directories, like Google, which allow navigation of billions of sites and it does support 'one thing' concepts - such as YouTube (videos), Facebook (social networking) and Amazon (buying stuff). It is not conducive to single sites that offer a huge diversity of services, as a government provides.

The underlying structure works better through allowing services to be accessed across many sites, connecting them using APIs rather than squishing them altogether as a single website at a single domain.

In my view it would be far preferable for the DTO to focus on building out a whole-of-government API strategy, supporting agencies to offer services, interactions and content through API-based approaches which can then be connected together or embedded in sites where they make sense.

On this basis it's easy to connect the bike shop scenario the DTO proposes - registering a business, getting a Tax File Number and GST registration. Each would be separate service processes, able to be offered in aggregate by accountants, lawyers and government agencies via their websites by simply combining a few APIs to create a larger service.

This broadens the scope, making it easy for state and local governments to add their services in as well (permits and registration), as could private companies - such as real estate agents (for premises), equipment providers (for bikes to sell), utilities (internet, power, water) and a range of related business services that the bike shop may need.

This scenario sees government moving away from a 'single portal' concept, to a 'many doors' approach, where the public and businesses don't need to go to any government website to access necessary government services or transactions.

APIs fit the model of the web - a single portal to rule them all does not.


So while I commend the attempt to build a single portal for government, I question whether the approach will deliver any real benefits, outside a few announceables for Ministers.

In a perfect world, a single portal for everything government related may be ideal, It's the perfect dream, a unicorn wished into existence.

Our world isn't perfect. It's messy, inaccurate and changing fast. Can a one-size-fits all approach keep up?

Governments that wish to evolve service delivery to match citizen needs need to look at ways of unlocking their services for innovation, letting other agencies, other governments and the private and not-for-profit sectors integrate their services into logical and iterative user experiences.

Unlocking innovation by unlocking government services through APIs offers a far more flexible future than locking agencies and services into a one-size fits all portal.

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Thursday, March 17, 2016

Register now for UnConference Canberra (formerly BarCamp Canberra)

In a little over two weeks it'll be time again for UnConference Canberra, the renamed, brighter & shinier version of BarCamp Canberra.

Being held on Saturday 9 April at the Canberra Innovation Network (CBRIN) on level 5 of 1 Moore Street, the event will feature the same great mix of people, presentations and cupcakes.

It will be free, as always, with lunch provided thanks to our great sponsors.

Come along and present your big idea, passion or problem, and interact with a fantastic group of creative and thoughtful people.

Details about unconference Canberra are at unconferencecanberra.org

To register visit eventbrite.com.au/e/unconference-canberra-2016-registration-22076928688

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Friday, March 04, 2016

Don't let a focus on quick wins lead to slow losses

These days it seems almost everyone in government is focused on quick wins - outcomes that can be achieved fast, with limited resources but a big impact.

I recognise the logic. Going after low hanging, minimal risk, cheap and (sometimes) easy, quick successes satisfies both the insatiable desire for Ministerial media announcements and helps build trust within an organisation.

The theory is that a series of quick wins will lead to more freedom and resourcing to go for larger (and longer-term) victories, getting to work on projects that matter, changing lives for the better and improving real outcomes for citizens.

I saw, and continue to see, fantastic operators across government striving for that one more quick win that will convince senior managers or Ministers to give them greater responsibility, more resources and a chance to make a real difference. I get asked regularly by agencies for ideas or proposals that can be delivered fast, will have huge impacts while costing them almost nothing.

At times it almost appears like an addiction, "just give me one more hit of that quick quick win, then I will be respected and allowed to focus on the real game, the big picture."

Unfortunately this theory doesn't always hold up in practice.

Sometimes a series of quick wins is just a series of quick wins, with no scope for bigger, better or more effective things.

The Minister or Secretary's eyes may turn to you approvingly, and you may still be relied on when the chips are down, but this may only be when more quick wins are needed - when resources are tight, timeframes short and the wrong team in place.

If your quick wins seem only to lead to more 'opportunities' for quick wins, if your ability to overcome bureaucracy, internal politics, lack of resourcing and mediocre staff is recognised and rewarded by new projects ('challenges') with even less resourcing, more politics and bureaucracy with teams that can't work together - you're simply trading your quick wins for slow losses.

Eventually you may be put into a position where no win is possible, Keep in mind that failure is still remembered and 'rewarded' in most of the public service far longer than success.

So when you're looking for that next 'quick win' that will make management love and trust you, keep in mind that sometimes you'll have a bigger win by staying off the treadmill.

Yes quick wins, used strategically, can open doors for bigger successes, but that's not a given. Make sure the wins you're chasing will have broader positive outcomes than simply demonstrating your ability.

Focus on working on things that matter (to misquote the Digital Transition Office). Your wins will count as more than quick, they'll make a real difference, to the citizens you are serving, to the government and to you.

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