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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Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Asking 'what should be the limits on how public servants engage in social media' is the wrong question

The Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) has just released a consultation paper asking for feedback regarding how public servants may be able to 'Make Public Comment' specifically focused on social media.

It's great to see the APSC consulting on this area. It is subject to rapid change, both in the nature of the approaches and tools available for public servants to comment online, and in regards the evolution of thinking and expectations within the public service itself.

For example, Gov 2.0 and the current follow-on push for digital transformation has continued to attract new groups of potential employees and partners to the APS. These are groups with their own established (generally active, transparent and outspoken) approaches to online engagement - creating challenges for existing public sector hierarchies in both recruitment and management of these cohorts and acculturalising them to current APS norms.

Equally the blurring of the lines between private and professional continues to grow. With government policy now essentially touching on every aspect of life, existing public servants can feel constrained and muted by current requirements to not comment negatively on any policy area.

This is whether it be a public servant/parent dealing with schooling challenges, a public servant/carer dealing with NDIS challenges, a public servant/driver dealing with road infrastructure challenges, a public servant/patient dealing with health challenges, or a public servant/former immigrant dealing with family unification challenges. In all of these cases, even if their career is in a totally unrelated area of the public service, it is unwise for them to share even privately via their social media channels comments critical of the policies which are impacting their lives in a real and significant manner - just in case their public service friends report them and their public service bosses decide to define their comments as less than appropriate.

At the same time with the increasing normalisation of social media as the primary 'town square' for civil discussions (though not always so 'civil'), younger people, former APS staff (such as myself) and others who might at some point work in or to governments, are more enabled and likely to debate or share contentious political and policy issues via social networks without full consideration of the likely views of older-fashioned agency management and the impact on potential employment or contracts.

Similar to the lament of police and other security services ten years ago, who found it increasingly hard to hire individuals able to conduct important undercover work, due to the widespread adoption of social media (forcing a shift to profile cleansing from profile hiding), it's rare for any young person to not have an active social presence online, potentially touching on a range of politically sensitive topics - if not crossing professional lines with beach and party shots.

Similar to the debate over whether children should be seen and not heard, I've witnessed a number of older senior APS managers express their ongoing views that public servants should neither be seen nor heard in public debate - despite this going further than even the existing guidance for how public servants may engage in public discourse.

Moving on to the current consultation process, there's a few assumptions in the approach which could significant impact the outcomes.

Benefits vs Risks

Firstly the entire consultation, while nominally appearing to aim to be neutral, overwhelmingly concentrates on the negative impacts of public comments by public servants.

The approach largely overlooks the benefits of having an engaged workforce, interested and knowledgeable about a policy area, able to engage effectively in online debates - providing facts, busting myths and communicating compassion and concern for the communities impacted by policy decisions.

Some organisations outside the public sector have realised the value of staff as advocates for an organisation - that every staff member is connected to hundreds of peers, friends and family members who are potential customers or clients. However it seems only rare public sector organisations have recognised the same potential.

Imagine the impact of having 4,000 Health Department staff sharing the latest PBS drug additions, or carefully explaining government policy to communities who haven't been on the same journey to recognise why alternate approaches look fine on the surface, but have significant long-term negative impacts.

Imagine having over 30,000 Human Services staff sharing the latest information on changes to welfare programs, the release of new apps, or helping parents considering separation to understand their potential financial obligations to their children in a divorce.

The upside of having staff engaging socially is immense where staff are provided with the right access to tools, advice and potentially training - more effective than spending millions on 'shouting at' communities via traditional media, or even online communication campaigns.

However taking this positive approach to staff social engagement relies on a critical factor that increasingly appears in short supply in the public service - trust. Senior executives in the public sector have long been shown to be significantly disconnected from their staff - with regular APSC studies showing enormous differences in perceptions as to how well senior managers communicate and with work satisfaction levels.

With rolling pay disputes, increasingly employee concerns around the casualisation of workforces, fewer opportunities for staff to progress and ongoing budget cuts, there's a range of factors already impacting on trust relations within agencies - a largely negatively focused social media policy, designed around preventing bad behaviour rather than enabling and supporting good behaviour, is merely another straw on the back of the increasingly concerned camel.

Policy for the future of the APS

Looking further at the consultation, while it doesn't specifically exclude any group from consulting, the placement and approach strongly favours current APS staff, or the hyper-interested (such as myself).

This means the consultation will largely be biased around current staff and their current expectations, having little consideration of potential staff who increasingly consider their ability to engage freely on social media as a right rather than a privilege restricted by an employer.

This could lead to amended guidance on social media engagement that progressively discourage good people from potentially considering APS roles, particularly in emerging areas related to digital.

Given social media comments are forever, there's an entire group of young, university educated, visionary and innovative people who, under strict APS social comment policies, may never be eligible for APS employment based on their past personal views 'poisoning' their ability to be impartial.

The questions for consideration included within the consultation are quite broad and I've covered each below with my views.

1. Should APS employees be prevented from making public comment on all political issues? Should there be different rules for different groups of APS employees?

Even Ministers only focus on their own portfolio policies and challenges, so it's highly impractical to expect public servants at any level to be sufficiently across all political issues to be able to avoid commentary on topics that affect them personally, but may (to a greater or lessor extent) also touch on significant political issues.

Equally with political policies now touching on most areas of life, even indirectly, there's little that a public servant could say that could not be deemed a public comment on a particular issue, even if via a slightly drawn bow by a hostile outside party.

The impact of this would be similar to the impact of the current APSC policy, to cause many public servants to choose not to engage in public debate at all. Given that public servants are generally well-educated and well-informed and trained to form opinions based on evidence, this presents a significant loss to public debate within Australia and the exclusion of expertise that could otherwise shift and shape national views.

I'm aware of experts who have been effectively silenced in their areas of expertise due to a government engagement for a different set of their skills. This weakens Australia's democracy, rather than protects it.

While it may seem prudent to at minimum limit the scope for public servants to engage publicly at least within their own policy area, the area in which they have greatest experience and expertise, this is also counter-intuitive.

I do believe that public servants should strive to present the positives of current policy positions and effectively communicate set government to the public including, if they so choose, via their own social media accounts - even when respectfully making it clear that their views might differ from the government's, but that their role is to carry out the policies irregardless of personal opinion.

However in areas where policies are under debate, not yet confirmed by government or otherwise not set, public servants should have the right to choose to engage in the public debate and express their views in a respectful manner. Due to their experience in their own policies areas, it would be expected that their views would be well-informed and therefore support the public debate.

In essence I believe that public servants should be exemplars of public engagement in democracy, not simply 'bag carriers' for agencies. Through positive, respectful and evidenced sharing of their views they not only contribute to the content but to the shape and effectiveness of public debates in Australia, fostering effective democratic engagement - thereby supporting Australia's underpinning principles as well as perceptions of the public service and government.

As to the second question, of different rules for different groups, I understand how more senior or personally expert public servants can have a bigger impact on public debates - and this is appropriate, when used sensitively. This is no different from the different regard to voices from across Australia's democracy - different groups will always hold different voices in higher, or lower, regard, based on positional influence, knowledge or celebrity.

Constraining more knowledgeable or senior public servants to keep a debate 'level' makes no practical sense, and while I can see where certain elected or senior appointed officials may have concerns over being 'outshone' or having their decision-processes impacted by senior public servants, or more hierarchically junior celebrity individuals or experts, this is more related to ego than to good policy formulation processes.

Ultimately evidence and outcome effectiveness should drive policy processes - and even when this isn't perfectly the case, agencies should always strive to champion the right approach and leave it to elected officials (who can also be unelected) to make decisions on particular courses. As such allowing public servants to speak in undefined policy areas with respect and evidence is totally appropriate and supports robust and engaged democratic processes (even if this may at times personally annoy Ministers or senior public servants with specific ideological agendas).


2. Should APS employees be prevented explicitly from making critical public comment about services or programs administered by their agencies?

While this question appears reasonable on the surface, it overlooks the sheer scale and extent of some agencies, and the absence of effective internal processes to manage programmatic issues or failures.

Firstly, certain programs and services are frequently moved between agencies due to machinery of government changes or due to agreements between agencies where one may deliver services for another. This means that a public servant having issues with a program one week, and commenting about this publicly, could suddenly find themselves under investigation after a Minister or senior public servant decides to move the service into their agency.

Secondly, the scale of agencies, and the lack of communication of their range of activities, can mean that public servants may be unaware that a particular program or service is actually administered by their agency, particularly if delivered by external contractors or other agencies. Again this could easily catch out public servants who are not omnipotent - an expectation that is unrealistic when even Ministers can often be unaware of all the activities in the nooks and crannies of agencies within their remit.

Finally, agencies must commit to having effective internal dispute resolution processes for staff having issues with specific programs or services administered by their agencies. These are in place in some, but not all cases - leaving some public servants with no internal avenue to resolve disputes and thereby driving some to speak out publicly. Agencies would eliminate a significant amount of the potential for this risk by instituting effective internal dispute resolution processes.

If public servants are using and finding concerns with certain services or programs from their agency it is highly likely that members of the community will be as well, meaning that staff concerns should be treated like a canary in a coal mine - an early indicator of an issue that the agency needs to address and solve.

Essentially APS employees should not be prevented (if that were even possible) from making critical public comment about services or programs administered by their agencies. However they should be held to a high standard of providing evidence, of engaging respectfully and making it clear that these are their personal views only. Few programs will achieve 100% happiness rates amongst the communities affected by them, and recognising and acknowledging alternate views, even from within the organisation delivering them, is a sign of a mature and secure organisation committed to continual improvement and the engagement of staff who will act to improve outcomes, not merely remain silent about poor ones.

3. Should senior public servants have specific limitations about making public comments?

Per my response to the first question - no. However they should be held to a high standard of evidenced and considered responses, and selective engagement.

It is still relatively rare for senior public servants to actively engage in public discourse, particularly via social media channels - and this is a significant loss of role models who could help set a respectful tone for engagement across the community. If senior public servants fear criticism, or fear criticising their Ministers publicly this helps reinforce a status quo where their expertise, knowledge and experience is subordinated to snap decisions, supporting the gradual degradation of trust and respect in government and agencies.

Where senior executives strategically engage in public debates as 'eminent Australians' they both enrich the conversations and model a form of democratic engagement that others across the community are influenced to follow.

That said, this engagement should be respectful and carefully timed, rather than proliferate. They must also ensure that they demonstrate that they can work effectively with Ministers' offices even when disagreeing with policy. This can be a delicate high wire to walk and many current senior public servants may not have the depth of experience with social channels to carry this out effectively. This will change over time.

Currently few senior public servants engage at all via social channels, and I believe this is a significant loss to public discourse in Australia.

4. Should public servants posting in a private capacity be able to say anything as long as it includes a clear disclaimer stating that the opinion they have expressed is purely a statement of their own opinion and not that of their employer and is otherwise lawful?

Looking at this realistically, any public servant, or individual, can set up a pseudonymous account and say anything they want with limited chance of detection or identification (due to the large number of such accounts). Indeed it is likely that a number of public servants already do this in order to be part of the groups they wish to associate with online.

I believe that public servants, by way of their employment, should be held to a higher standard of engagement than general citizens, therefore should be expected to remain fair in their comments and criticisms, obey all laws regarding abusive or otherwise inappropriate behaviour on social media channels (as suggested in the question) and is evidenced where feasible - noting that not all areas of opinion lend themselves to evidence.

Public servants should model the digital engagement behaviour that a democratic society should aspire to, helping to foster productive and insightful debate, dispel misinformation and accurately direct people to where they can receive the help they require.

Currently I believe that APSC gudiance is more directed at an outdated view of 'impartial', which includes 'passionless' and 'unemotional'. Public servants should be free to be excited and passionate about their work and about principles that matter in democracy. This positively enhances their perceived capacity to be effective in service to the public, whereas emotionless engagement only serves to diminish effective debate.


5. Are the requirements of the APSC guidelines expressed clearly? Can they be made simpler and easier to understand?

I have never been a fan of the current APSC guidelines for public comment via social media.

They leave too many gray areas for senior management discretion around what is meant by 'harsh or extreme', 'strong criticism' or 'disrupt the workplace' - which I have seen used negatively against exceptional people by jealous bosses, to the loss of the public sector.

They are too broad, effectively covering every policy from every parliamentary party or independent - leaving public servants in a live minefield where, at any time, additional mines can be placed under their feet.

Overall they are negatively focused - looking at the downside risk of social media engagement without fully embracing the potential benefits of effective involvement by public servants in public discourse.

As an ex-public servant this blog, which touches on various policy areas, programs and initiatives - often in a critical but constructive manner, would never have been started under this APSC policy. Given my readership and the level of positive engagement it's had, I can't see how this would have been a better outcome for the public service.

Equally I've not been prepared to work directly for a government with this level of restrictive social media policy, and have spoken to many other people from the private world who ceased considering a public service career after seeing the draconic provisions in the current guidelines.

Of course the majority of the public service have continued to work productively under the current guidelines, however I saw an 80% reduction in public servant engagement online in the twelve months after its introduction - with many people closing down social accounts, going silent or shifting to pseudonyms to protect themselves.

This has had a negative impact on the online public policy debate in Australia and these personal accounts cannot be replaced by departmental accounts, which do not have the peer-to-peer engagement or influence of individuals online.

Looking at the international perspective, there's now far deeper and more constructive engagement by US, UK and NZ public servants on social channels then by Australians.

Ultimately, under the current APSC guidelines, any Australian public servants who wish to participate in public democracy online must weigh the negative impact if they ever stray, in their management's opinion, over a wide gray line, even only once within thousands of posts.

This makes the risk to the individual simply not worth it - but the cost to Australian democracy of the silencing of these voices is immense.

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Monday, November 07, 2016

It's time to provide feedback on Australia's Open Government Plan

Last week the government released Australia's draft Open Government National Action Plan, a requirement to join the international Open Government Partnership, for community consultation.

Australians have until the 18th November (Edit: extended from 14th based on community feedback) to comment on the plan, at which stage the government intends to move to rapidly endorse it via Cabinet and begin implementation.

The plan is available as a PDF download from the government's Open Government Partnership website (ogpau.govspace.gov.au) as well as in web format (much easier to read) at the civil society Open Government Partnership Network site (opengovernment.org.au).

I've included the 14 commitments proposed below in brief - for more detail click through to the sites. (Edit: thanks to Asher for corrected number).

Transparency and accountability in business

The Government will enhance Australia’s strong reputation for responsible, transparent and accountable business practice. 

Open data and digital transformation 

The Government will advance our commitments to make government data open by default and to digitally transform government services. 

Integrity in the public sector  

The Government will improve transparency and integrity in public sector activities to build public confidence and trust in government. 

Public Participation and Engagement

The Government will improve the way the Australian Government consults and engages with the Australian public.

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