Tuesday, April 30, 2013

How open should open data be? Transport for NSW at the centre of a data controversy

Some will remember the knots that RailCorp tied itself into in 2009 when attempting to sue three developers for packaging Sydney rail timetables into mobile apps.

How things have changed. Recently the NSW government applauded one of those developers for his mobile app, which has reportedly been downloaded a million times.

However the agency which absorbed RailCorp, Transport for NSW, has now been thrust into the centre of another data controversy, with Fairfax's Ben Grubb reporting a row over how real-time transport data has been released.

The gist of the row is simple. Transport for NSW had worked with PWC to hold the ‘App Hot House’ competition  with a limited number of developers to see what they could do with its real-time data.

The outcome was several good apps, which are now available for the public and have been mentioned (some would say promoted) via various Transport for NSW websites, including 131500.com.au.

However the real-time data used in these apps has, thus far, only been made freely available to the developers who won the App Hot House competition. These developers are now selling their apps via mobile stores, presumably at a profit.

In this situation I can see both sides.

Transport for NSW is conservative, risk-averse and feeling its way in the open data space. The organisation has come a very long way in the last three years and is still addressing the culture change and understanding the impacts and potential risks of providing free data to developers to make apps that people rely on.

By selectively releasing real-time data the organisation can maintain a sense of control and address its accountability requirements while studying how it can best make the data more broadly available.

Meanwhile some in Australia's developer community are frustrated that they didn't get picked as part of the closed group granted access to the data. This group has had no opportunity to innovate on or profit from the information, which a select group of 'insiders' was able to be first to market with their real-time timetable apps.

This could be a permanent commercial disadvantage for the bulk of the developer community. The App Hot House winners have time to build experience working with the data and, as we hear regularly in the corporate and start-up space, first-mover advantage is regularly the difference between success and failure.

So did Transport for NSW do the right thing? Or do developers have a point about the agency restraining trade through selective data release?

In my view there's truth on both sides. Transport for NSW has a legitimate reason to be careful as the custodian of this data - which is both valuable and sensitive to small errors. However developers do have a point that they are missing out - and so might be the public and government (on innovation and competition).

In balance, however, I favour Transport for NSW's perspective. Open data is still very new and an 'undiscovered country' for many government agencies, as well as for the public. 

While it would be fantastic to see the organisation fling open the doors and allow all developers access to real-time data, there are legitimate concerns around data provision and security which make it prudent for Transport for NSW to take a slower and more measured approach to data release.

While app developers may be disadvantaged by late access, the risks for the public if Transport for NSW's systems collapse under the demand for real-time data are much greater. 

Equally, by first working with a small set of developers, Transport for NSW can minimise the risk of events like the NextBus failure in Washington, where the app developer was at fault of their app failing to work correctly, however the Metro system still received an, undeserved, share of the blame.

There were, however, some transparency steps that Transport for NSW could have taken (and I would have recommended if involved) to mitigate the kind of controversy in which they now find themselves.

Firstly the agency could have been extremely public about why it was working with a small number of developers at first and what its longer term plans or hopes were for the data. While some would have still complained, there wouldn't have been a 'data void' to be filled with rumours and speculation. 

The media, and most developers, would have accepted that Transport for NSW, in its custodial role, has a right to pilot the release of real-time data to better understand how to prepare its systems and processes for a broader release in future.

This is an unfortunate and unnecessary controversy. It could have been avoided with some savvy social media and communication planning and turned (as it should rightly be) into a triumph of government organisational culture change and openness. 

Few other government agencies have made the big change that Transport for NSW has made in such a short time.

I hope this huge achievement will not be overlooked and that other agencies don't draw an incorrect conclusion that it is better to bottle up data than to face the media approbation for selective, targeted, pilot open data releases.

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Monday, April 29, 2013

Entries now open for 2013 Intranet Innovation Awards

The 6th annual global Intranet Innovation Awards is now open for entries, with submissions closing on Friday 31 May 2013.

It is hard to compare best practice in intranet design and features, which makes the Intranet Innovation Awards, run by Step Two Designs, an important way for government agencies to gain an insight into the fantastic innovative ideas that are being implemented in intranets around the world.

Last year the 5th annual Awards attracted 80 entries, making it the largest award process of its type in the world. This year promises to be even bigger.

So if you've added an innovative or unique feature to your intranet please enter these awards to share your work globally and allow other organisations to learn from your achievements.

For more information, and to enter, visit the Step Two blog at: www.steptwo.com.au/columntwo/2013-intranet-innovation-awards-now-open-for-entries/

You can view last year's winners and buy a copy of the case studies at www.steptwo.com.au/products/iia-report

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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The BOM website now includes ads - should other government sites?

Back in July 2008 I wrote a blog post asking whether government websites should feature paid advertising.

No, four and a half years later, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology has taken the step of adding paid advertisements to its highly popular website (one of the top 20 sites in Australia) in a trial detailed in this page of their site.

Depending on how the trial goes, advertising may become a permanent feature of the BOM's main site, and it is even conceivable that other government agencies might start considering a similar approach in their high sites.

However is paid advertising appropriate for government websites, and if so, what limits should apply to the type of ads shown?

The BOM has, in my view, taken a sensible and sensitive approach to its advertising trial, forbidding the display of a range of advertising material that might offend community sensibilities (perhaps a list of exclusions that commercial sites should consider as well).

This includes prohibitions on:
  • tobacco, gambling, lotteries or advertising promoting the consumption or sale of alcohol, 
  • advertising that causes offence or incites hatred of any individual, group or class, 
  • advertising directed at children 17 years or younger, 
  • advertisements glorifying, or delivering for the purposes of entertainment, scenes or descriptions of non-consensual pain, suffering, death, torture or ill-treatment of humans or animals, 
  • advertising relating to bombs, guns, ammunition and other offensive weapons, 
  • advertising containing sexually explicit content and/or sexual innuendo and/or advertising containing offensive language, 
  • advertising that is misleading or deceptive or be likely to mislead or deceive, 
  • advertising that contains a misrepresentation which is likely to cause damage to the business or goodwill of a competitor,
  • advertising that is defamatory, and 
  • advertising of a political nature.
The BOM has also made it clear that advertisements do not imply endorsement and that they won't place advertisements on warning pages - meaning that people visiting the BOM to learn about weather warnings won't necessarily have to view ads at all.

This approach is one which could be quite readily adopted by other government agencies, whether at federal, state or local levels, and provides a good beginning platform for any agency that is considering including paid advertising in their sites.

However it still leaves the big question - should government feature paid advertising in their websites at all? Certainly agencies don't normally include advertisements in their print publications or physical events.

One key factor will be the community response to ads on the BOM's site - whether the public believe that government agencies should do this and whether it damages their standing or reputation. 

We already have some preliminary anecdotal feedback on this via Crikey, who asked its readers for their views and received a number of responses - all but one negative towards the approach. 

While I can't really share this input (available in Crikey's email newsletter), a couple of views expressed were that public services were already paid for and so should be provided free to citizens, and if agencies were so skint as to need to advertise, the government needed to raise taxes.

Another is whether agencies can make money on advertising. While the BOM is an extremely popular website year round, few other government sites consistently rate in the top 100 websites visited in Australia. 

Certainly the ATO's website has periods of high traffic around tax time, and both the APS jobs and Centrelink site have consistently strong traffic, other sites - even Australia.gov.au - don't attract that much traffic and it may not be commercial for advertisers.

Third there's the question of how the revenue is used. If it disappears into general revenue, or results in government reducing the budgets of agencies, forcing them to make up the difference with advertising, I'm less inclined to think advertising is a good idea on government sites. I believe advertising revenue should be retained over and above an agency's budget and should be primarily directed to improve the agency's websites and the services provided through them. In this way there's an incentive for agencies to both support (appropriate) advertising and to continue to improve their websites, delivering improved experiences to citizens (the main goal), and thereby attracting more traffic and increasing advertising revenue.

Finally, while the BOM has done a great job of defining what is not acceptable and has the right to refuse or pulldown any ads which may cause offense, there will always be advertising that sits just inside the acceptability criteria, however may still cause offense or reputation damage. 

There's not really any way to predict this, however carrying objectionable advertising - at least right now - will call greater attention to a government department than it might to, say, a media outlet - who may have greater latitude on what they can allow, or have an interest in not carrying stories about objectionable advertising in other media outlets in case they damage their own interests.

All these factors aside - should government agencies support advertising?

In 2008 my position was to make this an open question to readers - essentially sitting on the fence myself.

From 2008 until now there'd been no research testing the concept of advertising on major government websites in Australia - no evidence to indicate whether the approach would be accepted by Australians, be profitable and manageable within government reputation tolerances.

I have now come off the fence somewhat in favour of advertising on government 

I am very glad the BOM is holding this trial as it will allow government to test the concept and come to a sound, evidence-based conclusion. 

Depending on how this trial goes, I am prepared to come off the fence and say that it is fine to advertise on government sites, provided that advertising is commercially viable, and the funds earnt are used to continue to improve the online services provided by the agency.

What do you think, and would a successful trial affect your view?

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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Report from Monday 22 April 2013 open data government 2.0 event in Canberra

The free Gov 2.0 lunchtime event in Canberra was well attended yesterday, with many new people in the crowd demonstrating how the Government 2.0 and open data communities continue to grow and change.

For those unable to attend, we videoed the event, however as this is still being processed I suggest visiting Nathaniel Boehm's Pure Caffeine blog for his report, audio recording and transcript of the event at Open Data Institute and NZ Gov at Gov 2.0 Lunch.

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Monday, April 22, 2013

Free introduction to codesign event with TACSI in Canberra on Monday 29 April - register now, limited spots

I've managed to organise with The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI), for two of their leading codesign practitioners to provide a presentation on codesign (a highly collaborative approach to community engagement) in Canberra from 6pm on Monday 29 April 2013.

TACSI, which was seed funded by the South Australian Government, has led a number of successful service and policy codesign projects with the South Australian and Victorian governments, and has some deep insights into how and where to use codesign to support community engagement, service and policy development and government communications.

The event is being held in Acton at Entry 29, Canberra's newest co-working space, and is free to attend (with drinks provided), however there's limited places for attendees.

If you want more information, or to RSVP, go to: http://codesignatgov20canberra.eventbrite.com/

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Friday, April 19, 2013

Resourcing and Valuing Social Media, eGovernment Summit and open government

This week I've been in Melbourne for two conferences, the LGPro's Resourcing and Valuing Social Media, and the eGovernment Summit (part of the eCommerce Expo).

Below I've included the Storify records for both conferences as well as my presentation at the eGovernment Summit, on the progress of open government in Australia.

Storify for LG Pro's Resourcing and Valuing Social Media event: http://storify.com/craigthomler/lgpro-resourcing-and-valuing-social-media-event-20

Storify for eGovernment Summit: http://storify.com/mslaurenlou/egovernment-summit-ecom13

Presentation from eGovernment Summit

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Thursday, April 18, 2013

Why should governments be open and transparent in their budgets

I'm speaking at the eGovernment Summit today on how Australia is performing in the open government stakes, and what are the benefits of openness to government.

As a reference I reviewed the 2012 Open Budget Survey (infographic right), released in January this year, which provides valuable insights into why openness in budgeting is important and which nations are doing well.

The Survey points out openness is important in overcoming public sector corruption, helps government manage debt, helps build foreign investment and trade, provides access to cheaper capital for infrastructure and assists in building trust with citizens.

The 2012 Survey found that the world has a long way to go towards government openness, at least in budgetary terms. It found that the national budgets of 77 of the 100 countries assessed, countries that are home to half the world’s population, failed to meet basic standards of budget transparency. Only one nation, South Korea, was considered strong.

Australia was not assessed in this Open Budget Survey and, based on other measures, already does reasonably well in making our Commonwealth and State budgets open to citizen understanding and scrutiny.

However the question we should always ask is how can we do better?

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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

VicHealth Seed Challenge and the history and potential for government challenges

VicHealth has just announced the start of the VicHealth Seed Challenge, where the agency is asking people from across the nutrition sector, fruit and vegetable industries, researchers, social innovators/entrepreneurs and the digital world to collaborate and seek solutions to the wicked problem:
"How do we improve fruit and vegetable supply and access, as well as develop and promote a culture of healthy eating in Victoria?"
The challenge takes the format of a competition, where VicHealth, with support from The Australian Centre for Social Innovation, will initially select and fund the most promising ideas with a one-off investment to further refine and develop a business case.

From here, the two most promising ideas that demonstrate a fresh way of thinking will be selected to receive ongoing mentoring, coaching, business development and financial support of up to $100,000.

For more information about the VicHealth Seed Challenge, and upcoming information sessions on 1 May, visit its website: http://www.vichealth.vic.gov.au/seedchallenge

This type of challenge isn't new or unique in government - although it certainly qualifies as innovative in the way it involves the community in the process of addressing difficult, or wicked, problems and in how digital channels are being integrated into the challenge process.

In fact the first significant government challenge I am aware of began nearly 300 years ago in 1714, with the offer of the Longitude Prize by the British parliament.

This challenge offered a significant cash prize for the inventor who could come up with an accurate way to measure longitude at sea.

This had become a vital technology for an island nation reliant on its navy for protection and its merchant fleet to allow economic growth and to feed a fast growing population. At the time existing technology was not able to retain its accuracy with the rolling movement of ships.

The prizes ranged from £10,000 to £20,000 depending on accuracy - equivalent to several million dollars today.

The Longitude Prize created a whirlwind of innovation across the nation, with many people working to win the prize and the glory - however with the slow speed of technological advancement, the prize was not awarded until 1761 - 47 years later.

The winner of the prize, Yorkshire carpenter John Harrison, submitted his first project in 1730 and a second in 1735, however when trialled in 1741 neither model was able to compensate for centrifugal force, although they did compensate for gravity and ship motion.

His third attempt in 1759 introduced several major innovations such as caged ball bearings (still used today), however still proved inaccurate, but his fourth attempt in 1761, which resembled a pocketwatch, was successful and was awarded the £20,000 top prize.

In the three hundred years since the Longitude Prize, many governments have used challenges and prizes to encourage public participation in the progress of science, the development of physical structures and the solution of difficult social and economic problems.

Notable examples in Australia include the 1912 competition to design an 'Ideal City' as the capital of the country, leading to the selection of Walter Burleigh-Griffin's design for Canberra and the 1956 competition for the construction of a national opera house at Bennelong Point in Sydney, which led to the construction of the Sydney Opera House.

Jumping forward a few years, we've seen the arrival of the internet vastly increase the potential reach and flexibility of challenges for government, while significantly reducing the timeframes required to enter or the cost of running these challenges.

In the US the Federal Government has had a central online challenge platform in place for several years (challenge.gov), which has seen dozens of agencies hold close to 200 competitions.

In Australia the process has been far more piecemeal and conservative, with straight competitions (such as the photo competition I ran at the Department of Regional Australia, attracting well over 2,000 entries) being the norm - designed to engage citizens, rather than to source ideas or solutions from them.

We have seen some challenges recently tied to the open data movement - beginning with a broad MashUpAustralia challenge held by the Gov 2.0 taskforce in 2009 and more directed and specific open data challenges held most recently by the NSW government in the transport and health areas.

While digital is now the preferred channel for holding these challenges, due to the speed of engagement and low cost, it is a mistake to solely link challenges to open data, or to focus them purely on programming skills.

As the US has demonstrated via Challenge.gov, there are a vast array of issues where government-run challenges can add value in finding solutions, improving communication or developing new or better services - open data challenges have their place, but are only one subset of what is possible.

The VicHealth Seed Challenge is an example of one of the possibilities for government challenges in the digital age - where the challenge isn't about data, but about solving a known wicked problem, using all the tools available today - digital and otherwise.

I hope other governments pay attention to this great work by VicHealth and consider the history and potential of challenges beyond the small open data subset.

Government challenges can be a cost-effective way to solve wicked social, transport, economic and health problems - every agency and council should consider them, where relevant, within policy and service deliberations.

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Friday, April 12, 2013

Presentations from Social Media conference and #socadl

Earlier this week I gave presentations at Canberra and Adelaide social media conferences from Akolade and at #Socadl - the regular meetup for South Australian social media enthusiasts.

I've included my two presentations below, and they're also available in my Slideshare page.

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Thursday, April 11, 2013

What competing Australian broadband policies really tell us about how Australian politics and government are changing

Yesterday the Liberal-National Coalition released its broadband policy for Australia, in front of a high-tech set at Sky News, in contrast to the Labor Government's NBN plan and current rollout.

I'm not going to go into the politics of this announcement, nor the potential economic and social impacts of the differences between the policies in the short and long-term for Australia.

Instead I'd like to focus on what, for me, is the real story. Technology has, for the first time, become a leading consideration in Australian federal politics.

Looking over the last fifty years, topics such as industrial relations, jobs, families, resources, taxes and the environment have all been prominent areas for political debate. 

All have had their time in the sun as major electoral issues, while technology issues have largely remained off the main political radar, a minor concern dealt with by individual representatives or Ministers but not capturing the attention of Prime Ministers or entire governments.

Even the internet filtering proposal put forward by the Labor party in 2007 was released quietly only a week before the election, extensively tweaked and adjusted (with at least seven versions over three years) and finally abandoned with some face-saving - yes it became more public than previous technology-related topics and an election issue, but only a minor one, largely dealt with by the responsible Minister rather than a Prime Minister and entire government.

With the NBN and Coalition broadband policy we have seen a very different approach, with technology becoming a major and central electoral issue for the first time. The NBN is a leading topic for the Prime Minister and all of her Ministers, while the Coalition has taken the step to publicly release their rival policy a long way before the election, demonstrating the importance they place on countering the government's position.

This is unprecedented for what could be considered a technology issue and reflects the growing importance placed on internet access and use by Australian communities, businesses and government itself.

So what does this mean for the future?

The importance placed on broadband, whatever the outcome of the next election, means that politicians and their advisors are having to learn more to talk on technology topics, to discuss areas like broadband, ehealth, elearning, video conferencing and digital content.

Politicians who saw the internet as simply additional channels for communicating messages to electorates are now required to come face-to-face with how their electorates are using these channel and wish to use them in engaging with governments.

This flows to politicians having to learn more about the opportunities for governments to use digital channels to become more efficient, cutting costs, improving communication and engagement and becoming more open, transparent and collaborative.

In fact it is unlikely we'll see many new politicians enter parliament who don't have some awareness, appreciation and understanding of the value and importance of technology to Australia.

For a long time people working in and around the technology industry have deplored the low attention played to technology in politics and, besides a few leading lights, the lack of understanding of the potential ability for digital technology to drive Australia's economy and improve our governance.

I think this time is now coming to an end. 

With politicians more aware and engaged with technology issues, due to their higher awareness in the public eye, the implications are that all political parties at all levels of government will need to pay more attention to the impact of technology on society and on government.

They'll need to begin to think more deeply and holistically about how to leverage technology to improve their communities and their government agencies.

The notion of Government 2.0, or whatever political parties choose to call it, will become a more important part of their policy platform and there will be more focus - and funding - for how agencies go about using digital channels to improve government policy development and operations.

We're at the end of the beginning for Government 2.0, and at the beginning of an appreciation and understanding that Government 2.0 is simply Government.

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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Web and social media reporting can help Communication get a seat at the decision-makers' table

Yesterday morning I attended the first OPC IT WebEx event for the year, where we heard from three great speakers on intranet development, accessibility and the changing face of the media in Australia.

One particular statement that stuck in my mind was from David Pembroke, CEO of Content Group, who said that it was important for communications people to bring numbers to the table to gain a seat alongside other decision-makers, such as CFOs and CIOs who already have numbers in hand to support their positions.

While most agencies now track the traffic to their website and report raw numbers of followers, comments and mentions on their social channels, I believe there's still a way to go before these numbers are provided in the right way to the right people at the right time to help Communications areas - and particularly Online Communications - have the impact and the influence it deserves.

This has been brought home to me by Slideshare, which recently began sending me reports on the number of views and interactions on the various presentations I've uploaded to the service over the years.

Simply being able to see these basic stats has made me take more notice of the material I'm putting on Slideshare and whether or not it has a wider audience that I should consider when developing my slides.

I'm even considering paying money for an account to get more detailed statistics that will help me finetune material to better match what audiences want.

When working in Government I did place a considerable amount of effort into providing web statistics back to the areas responsible for specific content. I believe this type of reporting is critical to help policy and program areas receive regular and actionable feedback on what they are putting online to help inform their customers, clients, stakeholders and other audiences.

In fact, without web reporting many of these areas only receive ad hoc and irregular feedback on the content they are producing - an annual survey, or some Ministerial Correspondence. This makes it harder for them to understand whether their content is targeted correctly and also means they place much lower emphasis on what they are communicating online - what isn't measured isn't managed or valued.

Now with social media in the picture, web reporting needs to jump to a higher level of competency. While agencies might have made some steps to ensure that various areas of their business are receiving reports on the content they are providing through websites, the new frontier is to provide them with actionable information on what people are saying about their programs and policies across the broader web.

This helps areas within agencies not only assess how people are responding to the information they do provide online, but also gives them some understanding of what questions and issues are being discussed due to the lack of content.

In other words, web reporting helps tell agencies the quality and effectiveness of their own website content. Social media reporting helps tell agencies about the community's content needs beyond existing content.

The benefits to agencies of this social media monitoring are immense, not only can we capture known unknowns, but also the unknown unknowns - intelligence that could shape the entire way a program or campaign is designed and communicated.

It is also very important to differentiate social media monitoring from media monitoring - something that is getting harder to do as media monitoring companies move to bundle social within their media offerings.

Media monitoring tracks what commentators say about an agency and its activities when posturing to a broad audience.

Social media monitoring tracks what your customers and stakeholders are saying about an agency and its activities to each other.

In other words social media monitoring can provides a granular and specific view on what your actual customers think and understand about specific programs and how they interact with them in the real world, while media monitoring only provides a shallow reputational view on what people are saying for an audience - which may simply be an act.

So while there is a clear incentive for Online and Communication teams to roll social media monitoring in as an extension to (traditional) media monitoring, it can be dangerous to consider the intelligence received through both avenues in the same light.

As agencies get better at both web reporting and social media monitoring, and develop standardised ways to communicate actionable insights to the right people, at the right time, we're likely to see more ability for the groups providing these insights to have meaningful influence on agency decisions. This is right and proper - better information leads to better decisions and outcomes.

However it is up to Communication and Online teams and their leadership to recognise how web and social monitoring can advance their ability to positively influence decisions and take the lead on providing insights, otherwise they will find themselves on the margins as more traditional numbers-orientated disciplines take over the responsibility for these activities.

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Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Opening the vault - Open data in Queensland - watch the livestream

Today the 'Opening the vault' event is being held in Brisbane, discussing open data in the context of the state.

Following from the Queensland Government's commitment to open data (with the appointment of Australia's first e-Government Assistant Minister), the event was opened by Premier Newman and is being livestreamed on the web - demonstrating the level of importance placed on this area in the state.

You may follow the event on Twitter using the #dataqld hashtag, and watch the livestream at data.qld.gov.au.

Keep an eye on the session after 11:30am Queensland time (12:30pm AEST) for the finalists in the latest data competition and to vote on who should win.

I've also embedded the livestream below.

Streaming by Ustream

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Innovating in the public sector - The Pitch: Five presentations. Five minutes. Five big ideas.

The Institute of Public Administration Australia (IPAA), in partnership with the CPA Australia, has introduced a fantastic innovation competition for public servants.

Named The Pitch, In an IPAA first, the 2013 IPAA National Conference is providing an opportunity to pitch ideas for an original policy initiative or public sector innovation that could make people's lives better and/or the public service smarter, better and broader.

The creators of the best five ideas will receive a free invitation to the IPAA's National Conference in November and have five-minutes to pitch their idea to senior public sector decision makers in Canberra.

The winner of The Pitch will also receive a cash prize of $500.

There's also a category for younger (to 36yrs old) entrants, the CPA Australia Young Professionals Pitch Competition, with a $200 prize, where the winner will become one of the five finalists (and presumably eligible to win the $500 prize as well).

Entry is open to anyone in Australia, and ideas will be judged against the following criteria:

  • originality of the idea 
  • capacity of the idea to help government improve people's lives 
  • innovation 
  • practicality and cost effectiveness 
  • ability to address the topic 
  • engaging presentation style (during the pitch), and 
  • length of pitch (not to exceed 5 minutes).
For more information, and to enter The Pitch, visit: http://ipaa2013.org.au/get-involved/the-pitch

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Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Vote Compass - not just interesting, but useful for government and the public

Vote Compass App for Australia
The ABC has launched the Vote Compass service
in Australia, designed to help the public match their policy views with the official platforms of Australian political parties.

Vote Compass (votecompass.ca) was developed by political scientists in Canada, where it has been used for both Canadian and US elections. Asides from helping citizens discover which political parties their policy views match, it has been used to stimulate discussion and engagement and identify the underlying policy concerns in the community.

It is particularly useful where political parties do a poor job (sometimes deliberately) of making their policies accessible online in comprable formats to allow citizens to easily understand where parties stand on specific issues and what they offer voters.

Unfortunately it is not always in the interests of political parties to make all their policies widely known. Either because they don't clearly differentiate the party, they have not had significant costing and scrutiny or they might place sections of the community offside if they were widely communicated (such as the now abandoned internet filtering policy released by the Labor party five days prior to the 2007 election).

Some substitute services have emerged - notably the Australian Christian Lobby's Australia Votes site, which compares party policies from the perspective of a particular Christian perspective, the sadly defunct GovMonitor site, and the ABC provides a basic comparison each election.

They do it a little better in the UK, where the Vote for Policies site provides a comparison of the policies of six parties and allows people to 'place' themselves via their views.

I've also suggest the creation of an XML schema for party policies to provide a consistent way for the public to view and compare policies. As this relies on either the support of political parties to adopt the approach, or a community-based organisation to do the 'heavy lifting', I don't see this as a short-term goal.

Services such as Vote Compass are therefore important democratic tools to ensure that citizens have an informed vote in elections, even if political parties would prefer them not to.

However they also have potential value for the public service and government as well.

Views on Government Spending (2011 Canadian election)
Vote Compass, and similar tools that ask citizens where they stand on policy issues, can provide a far more granulated view on the attitudes and concerns of the public than single policy studies or broadbrush voting polls.

With a little demographic data - age, gender, education level, employment status, postcode and maybe a few others - having a view of citizens across policies helps identify and group audiences and map affinities based on similar policy groups (social services, foreign policy, education and so on).

This type of cross-policy data is rarely collected by agencies, who focus almost exclusively on their own policy areas and may miss insights or opportunities across policy domains - similar to how scientists in specific disciplines can miss cross-discipline insights, such as the application of physicists' chaos theory to biological populations or to fluid dynamics.

Where this data is being collected by entities outside of government (even the ABC, which tends to remain at arms length), these insights may not be realised or accepted by policy areas within the public sector.

Demographics on views of Government spending
(2011 Canadian election)
In my view this makes a decent case for the government to consider adopting or developing tools similar to Vote Compass to help provide agencies and politicians with better insights into citizens, while simultaneously using these tools to give citizens better insights into government policy alternatives.

Certainly this type of information would be useful for the localisation of policy delivery by region - which may make the Department of Regional Australia the logical manager of the process.

For this to happen there would need to be an understanding within government that improving the public understanding of policy positions is a benefit to democracy, rather than a partisan activity designed to support a particular viewpoint. Also there'd have to be a consistent and open way of sharing the information, so it isn't limited to the party which happens to hold government - such as the public release of an online 'policy map' which map policy views on by electorate, age, gender and other demographics in an appropriately anonymised manner.

Of course an organisation such as the ABC might take Vote Compass a little further and, rather than simply using the data they collect to map views to customise reporting across their local radio network, could release it publicly to help everyone.

Should governments rely on media organisations, even publicly-funded ones - to provide this kind of public service?

Or should the education of voters and the use of insights from citizens to inform policy decisions and local delivery be a primary concern of the core of government?

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Monday, April 01, 2013

Breaking news: Australian Government to appoint Government 2.0 Minister

I've just learnt from an inside source that the Australian Government has decided to go several steps further than the Queensland Government (who appointed an Assistant Minister for eGovernment last year), by appointing Australia's first Government 2.0 Minister.

The new Minister, who will be announced later today, will be responsible for taking forward the government's open government, open data and spatial initiatives, with the goal of ensuring that Australia becomes known as the most open and transparent nation in the world, driving government accountability, improved public engagement, economic activity through data and making it harder for inaccurate data to be 'spun' in traditional or new media.

The new Minister will lead a newly formed agency, probably to be called the Department of Openness, Innovation and Transparency (DOIT).

This department will be formed from the CTO-led section of AGIMO (explaining the recent separation of CIO and CTO), the Office of Spatial Policy and sections of the Department of Innovation focused on public sector innovation, particularly DesignGov.

The new department will also oversee the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner.

DOIT will have a mandate to ensure other commonwealth agencies develop and implement open data and Gov 2.0 plans under a 'Digital First' strategy, similar to the UK's 'Digital by Default' approach.

Under this mandate the department will take on the role of maintaining whole of government standards for social media engagement, mobile app development, accessibility and open copyright, as well as sophisticated searchable (topic/agency/use) registers for all mobile apps, social media channels and Gov 2.0 tools created by commonwealth agencies (more expansive than the lists in Australia.gov.au).

The department will be responsible for developing, managing and maintaining whole-of-government web services, including existing GovSpace, GovDex and Data.gov.au sites, as well as creating new services, which may include an Australian equivalent of Challenge.gov, an epetitions site, a 'govforge' site for sharing and reusing code across agencies and a whole-of-government FOI site as a central repository containing all agency releases.

The new department will also take responsibility under the APS200 for unlocking Australia's geospatial data and finalising the development of an open source 'mymaps' system, which will form the basis for the public release of all future public sector map information - a universal base map and WebGIS system that every agency will use.

The new Minister and Department were to be announced in February, however this was delayed due to budgetary considerations and political distractions (such as leadership speculation).

The announcement of the Minister will occur later today (Monday 1 April 2013), with the news that Australia is joining the Open Government Partnership, relaunching data.gov.au using CKAN and creating the pilot.australia.gov.au site (not yet live) as a visionary testbed to demonstrate how modern technologies can transform how government agencies design and manage websites.

So who will be the Minister responsible for this new Department?

Now that would be telling, but I've sure you can all guess... that today was 1st April, and this is an April Fools prank.

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