Monday, June 24, 2013

Media & PR practitioners no longer control the oxygen valve

A classic ploy by media and PR professionals to kill an unwanted issue has been to 'deny it oxygen' - refusing to comment or engage on the topic publicly, via news media or other channels.

The approach has traditionally worked very effectively for both public sector and commercial communicators. Devoid of any official information, or even denials, many journalists would quickly drop a potential story in favour of topical issues where information was available, in order to meet their tight deadlines.

Only journalists with the time and their editors' permission to conduct an investigation over a significant period of time were able to really pursue matters where organisations denied them oxygen, to uncover inappropriate behaviour, wrong-doing or even simple mistakes.

Communicators in organisations still employ the oxygen deprivation technique - refusing to speak to journalists, issuing bland statements which say nothing newsworthy or simply denying that an incident has taken place.

In some respects the technique has actually become more effective, with a faster news cycle meaning there's fewer and fewer journalists with the time or editorial support to pursue issues down the rabbit hole.

However with the change in the composition of the media - from a primarily high-cost professionalised workforce to essentially anyone with internet access and the ability to create a Facebook page, blog or video - media and PR professionals are beginning to realise that they no longer control the oxygen valve.

Today it only takes a single individual with the attitude or time to take on a large organisation and pierce the veil of silence.

We've seen this occur multiple times, overseas and in Australia, the Lewinsky scandal, the Vodafail initiative, the failure of the UK super-injunction system, the exposure of systematic corruption in the Chinese Communist Party by Weibo users (the equivalent of Twitter).

These are simply the tip of a growing iceberg of examples where people, individually or collectively, are able to find their own sources of oxygen independent to the entities they are investigating.

Today media and communications professionals no longer control the oxygen valve. Individuals can share and reflect on information and rumours online through communities, gaining the oxygen and support they need from peers. They can quickly co-ordinate efforts to learn more, interrogate data and quickly and cheaply collate diverse reports into a single picture of wrongdoing.

I don't think this trend is fully understood yet in Australia's public sector. I still talk to communications and media professionals working in Australian government agencies or Ministerial offices who still believe they control the oxygen valve - they can make any story go away by refusing to engage.

Well yes - sometimes they still can do this, where the matter is of low interest or importance. However increasingly they can no longer shut off the oxygen flow.

Media professionals, wherever they work, need to recognise the new reality. A person with an internet connection, social media and search tools, can put together a volunteer coalition of supporters, or piece together a jigsaw of innocuous information into an incriminating picture.

The tools of journalism are no longer simply in the hands of a limited number of professional journalists, who recognise that their long-term interests are sometimes served by co-operating in keeping a story quiet, so that they will continue to get access to key people, information and leaks.

Today citizens are journalists - they are documenting the events in their lives and the lives of people around them. They act in their own short-term interests, rather than in the interests of a publication and while every story and issue won't gain traction, enough will.

Any media, PR or other communications professional who believes that they still have the ability to shut down almost any conversation, turning off the oxygen valve, is both deluding themselves and potentially damaging the organisation they work for.

Instead communicators need to consider new approaches - engaging with social media to manage issues, rather than simply trying to shut them down. They need to build a new balance in communications, learn techniques from customer service professionals to help them address concerns, rather than simply try to bluff their way through a crisis.

Over the next few years it will become obvious which organisations have learnt new ways to engage with a more active communities and customers, and very, very obvious which organisations have not.

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Friday, June 21, 2013

What would a federal Coalition government mean for Government 2.0 in Australia?

A month ago (20 May) I sent an email to Malcolm Turnbull, Shadow Minister for Communications and Broadband, in my capacity as a Government 2.0 commentator, asking a range of questions about how a Coalition Government, if elected later this year, would approach Government 2.0 and federal agency use of social media in official engagement (the questions from my email are included at the end of this post).

Despite a quick exchange on Twitter several weeks ago, I've received no response to my email, or even an acknowledgement of receipt.

Some might say this isn't really a high profile issue for Australia - it's not like the economy, live exports, asylum seekers, climate change or education in terms of priority for the community.

Of course, the reality is more complex - Gov 2.0 crosses most government policy and focus areas, as a way of enabling better government, improving citizen engagement, improving transparency and accountability.

Therefore, at least in my view, a government's position on Gov 2.0 is fundamental to their approach on most policy areas - whether they engage the community effectively, are transparent, accountable and influential or whether a government is more concerned about control, shutting down sources of information and limiting public engagement.

As we've seen in successive state elections across Australia, a change of government can have a significant impact on the approach and substance of online engagement by agencies, due more to the experience and views of incoming Ministers and their advisers, rather than due to ideological differences around openness and transparency.

Victoria, NSW and Queensland in particular 'held their breath' for some time after a change in political leadership, although several of these states are now forging ahead with new initiatives.

Federally we've seen the Liberal party be cautious in how it approaches social media and online engagement, and the National party is even more so.

While some elected members of both Coalition parties use social media quite well, the actual parties themselves have, on occasion, expressed concern over the risk of prominent party member saying something online that paints a target on themselves - with the Sydney Morning Herald reporting in December 2012 that the Liberal party had slapped 'a social media gag on MPs'.

This was illustrated this week as the President of the Cessnock Hunter Young Liberals branch was suspended over Twitter comments.

Despite, or perhaps because of, this caution, the Financial Review recently reported that the Liberal Party now led Labor on the use of social media, however the real question for me is how will the Coalition's caution or capability in social media translate into their policy position for agencies.

Will the Coalition support and progress - even improve - the current initiatives underway across government, to release more data and encourage appropriate use of social media channels by agencies for communication, consultation and engagement purposes?

Will it embrace and take a global leadership role in Government 2.0, forging its own path, with clear executive support and commitment?

Or will an incoming Coalition Government put on hold or even shut down existing Gov 2.0 initiatives, including sites like, and

Will it instruct agencies to reduce resourcing social media channels such as and, redirecting funds to traditional media?

Will the Coalition withdraw Australia from the Open Government Partnership (which we hadn't joined when I wrote my email below), as Russia recently did?

We simply don't yet know.

My email:

Dear Mr Turnbull,

I am Australia's leading blogger on egovernment and Government 2.0. My blog is syndicated on five continents and I speak frequently about Government 2.0 with Commonwealth agencies and state governments, as well as presenting at conferences here and overseas about the Australian Government's adoption of digital channels.

Given the increasing emphasis on open data, online public engagement and the use of social media by Commonwealth agencies, I would like to understand and report in my blog on the Coalition's Government 2.0 position and policies ahead of the next Federal election.

Please note this is not about IT spending, which often focuses on internal systems, neither is it about websites, which are still largely used in government for outbound communication.

It is about how government brings citizens inside the tent on decision making and improves transparency to deliver better governance, outcomes and efficiencies. 

I've included a number of questions below, and would appreciate any further information you can provide regarding the Coalition's policies in this area.

I understand these areas might not be considered as being within your portfolio and appreciate if you need to consult other Shadow Ministers.

I am also able to speak with you personally if that would be an easier way for you to respond. I am based in Canberra and could meet with you in a future sitting week.

  1. What is the Coalition's position on openness and transparency in government?

  2. The Labor Government, under Kevin Rudd, made a Declaration of Open Government (, via then Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner. 
    Does the Coalition, if it wins government, intend to endorse, amend, replace or rescind this Declaration of Open Government?

  3. In the latest Open Knowledge Foundation's Open Government Data Census, the Australian Government is ranked 4th behind the UK, US and Norway ( 
    Does the Coalition intend to take steps to improve the Australian Government's ranking in the Data Census should it be elected?

  4. The current Labor Government has not yet made a firm commitment to join the Open Government Partnership (, despite being invited to join in 2011 as a founding member. 58 countries are now members, with Australia increasingly conspicuous by its absence (,australia-reserves-open-government-decision.aspx). 
    What is the Coalition's position regarding Australian membership of the Open Government Partnership and will the Coalition take immediate steps should it be elected to government?

  5. In 2009 the Labor government released a beta open data site, which has subsequently been replaced with a more advanced site ( The site has a very limited subset of data, frequently in non-reusable formats, and there is no clear mandate from the Prime Minister on government release of data, as there is in the UK, US, New Zealand, Singapore, in Queensland and NSW,  amongst over 50 other federal and state jurisdictions. 
    Would a Coalition government mandate that Commonwealth agencies release the majority of their data (where personal privacy, commercial confidence and national security are not a consideration) in machine-readable formats, as Premier Campbell Newman mandated last year in Queensland and President Obama recently mandated in the US?

  6. The current Labor Government has been criticised for not mandating Government 2.0 at a Prime Ministerial level or appointing a Minister to be responsible for overseeing the Australian Public Service to improve their openness and transparency and adopt Government 2.0 tools. Whereas the Queensland Premier Campbell Newman directly spoke on the matter and appointed Ray Stevens to the position of Assistant Minister for eGovernment to oversee the Queensland Government's move towards open data. 
    Would a Coalition Government appoint a Minister, Assistant Minister or Parliamentary Secretary for eGovernment or Government 2.0 to lead this area across government?

  7. The Australian Public Service is increasingly adopting social media as a business as usual channel for monitoring, communicating with and engaging companies, stakeholder groups and the community, however in the last APS report only 36% of APS had access to social media, there was no requirement for agencies to have social media policies or strategies and there were no formal training programs in place to ensure that the Australian Public Service had the skills to effectively engage via social media.
    While I have seen excellent social media engagement by the APS, I have also seen very poor engagement - most often from agencies which ban social media access to staff.

    Would a Coalition Government take any steps to ensure that the APS was adequately trained and equipped to take best advantage of social media?
(Note - I worked in roles leading online/social media initiatives within the APS from 2006 to 2012, and currently advise and train agencies in effective social media use)

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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Do government agencies and councils deliberately make it harder for citizens to engage?

I've been watching a great TEDx talk by Dave Meslin on citizen engagement, which asks the question - if governments want to be open and engaging, why do they make it so hard for citizens to engage?

He raises a very good point, and demonstrates it very clearly in the video (below).

This is one of the areas I've struggled with for years.

Some of the processes governments and councils put in place around citizen engagement are designed to address political considerations, such as minimising the advertising spend (so government is not seen to promote itself too much), or address agency resourcing or timing limits, such as having extremely short engagement processes or 'hiding' consultations deep in a website so they receive only a few responses to analyse.

There's also cases where the people managing the consultation don't really understand the audience they are consulting. They may use specialist terminology, language or documents so long and complex they are impenetrable to the average Australian (who has an 8th grade reading level - that of a 14-15 year old), let alone the 46% of Australians who were considered functionally illiterate just a few years ago.

As an example, I recall an Australian council development proposal just a few years ago that was 385 pages long, provided via a sub-page in their website (with a limited number of printed copies) where people were expected to provide feedback within two weeks, responding via email.

Most Australians couldn't finish a 385 page novel in two weeks (given the amount of time per day they'd have available to read), let alone a complex planning document - even if they could find it in the council's website in time.

Response methods are equally an issue.

Holding a community forum or town hall meeting is still a popular way of consulting, and suits people who have the time and the interest to dedicate several hours to travel to and attend such an event in order to speak for a few minutes for or against a proposal. However many are increasingly dominated by retirees, the unemployed or students - who have the time to attend.

Professionals, people with young families, shift workers and tradies often don't have the time available when councils and agencies wish to hold these events.

Email-based online consultation, which is still the predominant way Australian governments ask for feedback via the internet, is dangerous in a number of ways. Emails may be blocked due to large document attachments or misclassified as spam and lost (as has happened on several occasions in the last few years - almost costing Ministers their jobs).

The generic form of responses received through emails may not suit the complexity of the consultation process. An email response to, for example, that 385 page document, may be very difficult to match against the key topics and themes, requiring a lot of time for a council or agency to analyse.

Then there's the cost and complexity of publishing responses. One of my pet hates while working in government online communications was the policy area who came to us and said, "we've just held a consultation and received 500 email responses - could you publish them in the website within two days please."

The resourcing required to publish email responses - even without considering the accessibility and privacy considerations - was immense, and was never budgeted for by the policy area.

These issues reflect on what I feel is the key issue with citizen engagement - not the common view that citizens are disengaged, but the challenge to governments to adapt their engagement approaches to provide the right environment and information for citizens to get involved and respond.

While governments tout their openness and transparency, how they are adopting a 'citizen-centric' focus and employing techniques like crowdsourcing and co-design to involve communities in decision-making, are they making the necessary changes in their own processes, approaches and people to ensure that citizen engagement is actually inclusion and effective?

In my view there's a long way to go - in Australia and in similar nations around the world - to retrain public servants, politicians and even the media, to put citizens at the centre of engagement.

It's not simply about engaging more or using online. It is about rewriting community engagement guidelines, redeveloping consultation procedures and revisiting political concerns to ensure that citizen engagement is indeed about engaging citizens, and not simply about ticking a procedural box in a government process.

For citizens to be central in engagement, perhaps governments and councils should be approaching citizens to involve them in codesigning their engagement processes.

Perhaps groups of citizens should be commissioned (at a small fee for their time) oversee or audit agency and council engagements, to provide advise and suggestions on how specific processes could be improved, or consultation materials adjusted to suit the audience being targeted.

Perhaps governments should even crowdsource the development of major consultation processes. Before asking citizens 'do you want....' they should ask 'how should we engage you on do you want....' for each major engagement.

Whatever the approaches taken, one thing is clear. If governments and councils want citizens to feel more engaged, they need to start by changing the way they engage.

Repeatedly using the same approaches to citizen engagement as have been used in the past is unlikely to deliver improved outcomes.

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Friday, June 14, 2013

Register now for the Canberra Gov 2.0 lunchtime event - 18 June 2013

This month the Gov 2.0 event in Canberra has been organised at the last minute to take advantage of a rare visit to Canberra by Facebook's Manager of Public Policy, Katie Harbath.

All the details are on the Eventbrite page at:

You can also find out more about Katie from her Facebook page:

See you there!

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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Sentiment analysis: where 'disabled' and 'disability' are often considered negative terms

It's come to my attention that a number of automated sentiment analysis tools include 'disabled' and 'disability' as negative terms.

This means that when calculating whether a particular statement in social media is positive or negative, the use of these words is used by these sentiment analysis tools as an indication that the statement is negative towards the topic of the statement - such as a topic, issue, individual or organisation.

I've checked a number of sentiment dictionaries online and found that both 'disabled' and 'disability' appear frequently as negative terms. However I have not yet been able to confirm whether any sentiment analysis products treat these words in this manner.

This disturbs me, given the efforts of governments and civic organisations in Australia and many other countries to remove negative stigma attached to the word 'disabled', even given its potential application in statements such as 'their system has been disabled'.

It also concerns me that agencies engaging online about disabilities or with disabled people, might accept that the sentiment reported by their social media monitoring tools indicates negativity where in actuality no negativity exists.

I would caution government agencies using automated sentiment analysis tools to get to know they work and check how terms such as 'disability' and 'disabled' are treated in these systems.

I'd welcome comments from makers of sentiment analysis tools to confirm how they treat these words or from agencies using automated sentiment tracking if they've seen these words or others rated negatively or positively in ways which might be misleading and misrepresent the actual sentiment.

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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Is it time to drop 'www' from government site promotions?

National Australia Bank (

Banks do it, utilities do it, even media does it, is it time for government to also do it - drop the 'www' from web site promotions in advertising and links?

This came to my attention while playing with the Australian Department of Health and Ageing's new my child's eHealth record app.

Looking at the information for people without an eHealth account, the help page lists the new site in two places as, and once as

It also states that people can register for an ehealth account at would work just as well.

The designation 'www' stems from the earliest days of the world wide web. It was used to indicate to web browsers that a given resource was a web page rather than a different type of content, such as a file repository (ftp).

As the web grew, so did the use of www, even though technology improved such that web browsers no longer needed it to recognise a web page and web servers no longer needed to use it to select the right page to serve.

In fact 'www' has been technically unnecessary since the late 1990s. It continued to be used out of habit by marketers, due to the use of old web server technology and as it was recognised by early internet users as a designator of a web site.

Since the early 2000s we've seen a decline in the use of 'www' in sites and site promotion as the online community matured and moved on from needing it for recognition of sites.

First pure online services such as Google and Facebook stopped using it - rebranding themselves as and

Next the news media, banks and utilities started dropping www from their website addresses. Most advertising by these organisations in Australia now excludes www, illustrated in the advertising images at right (look at the small print) as '', '' and ''.

Government has pursued a more uneven course. There's still inconsistency as to when and whether agencies and councils use 'www' or exclude it from web addresses.

I can appreciate that there may be concerns over whether government's audiences may not understand that a web address without 'www' may not be a web page - though I'd love to see the research in support (and understand what they think it might be instead).

I expect that these concerns are most commonly voiced by older public servants, who more clearly remember the early days of the internet and remember the days when 'www' was necessary.

The Australian (
However times have changed.

It seems clear Australian banks, utilities and news media are convinced 'www' is now unnecessary and have put in place consistency policies avoiding its use.

It's also clear most web-based services have also dropped the use of 'www' - to shorten their name and focus on their brand.

In fact none of the top ten sites visited by Australians still use 'www' in their branding or advertising.

Australian governments have few, if any, customers, clients or stakeholders who would not use one or more of the private services considered above. Australians are big users of web-based email, of search engines, of online banking and media.

Given government is being inconsistent - sometimes using 'www', sometimes not, this can only confuse audiences at best, or make government look less professional and old-fashioned at worst. So isn't it time for agencies to come to a common view on its use?

The Australian Government has firm web standards in place through AGIMO's webguide (which drops its own www). The Webguide already states that agencies should accomodate users who don't use 'www':
When you are setting up a website on a domain, you should ensure that the website can be reached whether or not a user adds ‘www.‘ at the front of the domain name when typing it into their browser. It is very common today for users to drop ‘www.’ from website addresses and agencies should accommodate this behaviour.
The next step is to mandate an approach - either using 'www' or dropping it.

If required 'www' should be used consistently in advertising, branding and links.

If 'www' isn't required it should be dropped from these communications devices - at least on a moving forward basis.

Either way, it's time for government across Australia to consider their policy around the use of 'www'.

Whether to ban it or use it consistently, the worst outcome is to leave things as they stand, to be inconsistent in the use of 'www'.

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Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Government 2.0 is dead, long live Government

Yesterday I gave a presentation to the Victorian Government's Communicators' Group, discussing how effective government had been at meeting the challenge of rapid change throughout the last thirty years.

As part of my presentation I revisited the area of government 2.0 - giving my view that there's no longer such a thing - it's now simply government.

Social media is now mainstream in the community and the majority of Australian federal, state and territory departments officially use social media channels as part of their business as usual engagement with citizens, stakeholders and/or staff.

We sometimes overlook how massive a change this is - the first mention of Government 2.0 in Australia that I've been able to identify was only in September 2007, and the first Twitter account was established in November 2007.

In the last five and a half years, social media has become an extremely powerful tool for governments to engage communities, source knowledge and provide support.

This is only likely to grow into the future as we all become better at using digital channels, as more services go online. Mobile has also reached a tipping point in Australia, 50% of active internet connections, and is growing fast, meaning that digital channels will undergo even more changes towards a digital first approach.

I also highlighted four examples of what I consider current best practice in public sector digital engagement, looking at the areas of citizen-led engagement, crowdsourcing, budget savings and policy codesign.

These are only opinions and at a given point in time - there's more to come as the public sector further grows its digital capabilities and expertise.

However while Gov 2.0 might have largely merged into standard public sector practices, there's still a shortage of experienced digital engagement professionals in the sector and enormous need for ongoing education, training and support.

Ultimately I expect to see digital competency as a horizontal skill, required by the majority of public servants to support their ability to effectively recommend and implement appropriate engagement and service channels to meet public needs. However there's still a long road to travel and much that agencies will need to learn and consider along the way.

I'm going to continue using the term 'Government 2.0' for some time as, despite my view, it still has some value in defining a specific set of approaches and channels for public sector engagement, and providing a focal point for discussions regarding the ongoing change governments face online.

However I believe that Government 2.0 is realistically now simply Government - with the new approaches and channels it involved now officially part and parcel of 21st century governance.

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Monday, June 03, 2013

GovHack 2013 - my top ten picks

Last weekend (31 May - 2 June) was a big weekend for Government 2.0 in Australia, with the first truly national GovHack held across eight locations, including seven of Australia's eight major states and territories.

With over $170,000 in prizes, and around 100 national and local prizes on offer, GovHack 2013 attracted 900 participants, who formed into 134 teams to create 124 apps using open government data - of which 108 were submitted by deadline.

Sponsors included a range of small, medium and large companies and included a number of government agencies, who used the event for inspiration on how open data could be used to generate new insights and improve public awareness and understanding.

I was unable to attend due to personal commitments, however kept an eye on the event remotely via the #govhack tag on Twitter, the event website and the online dashboard (image above).

The event, as anticipated, resulted in some awesome visualisations, tools and ideas - ranging from the visual mapping of immigration to Australia, which put asylum seeker arrivals in proportion; to the creation of jewelry based on open data.

Some awards have already been given out, with others to be decided by Thursday.

A process of public voting for entries is now underway - and you can vote for your favourite entries at

However here are my top ten favourite entries this year.

Immigration in proportion

This is an awesome way to visualise immigration to Australia, the type of visualisation that governments should be using to put data in perspective.

A visualisation of all immigration to Australia within 2011-12, created for Govhack 2013. Each dot represents one person.

Red dot: immigration through skilled entry, family reunion or special eligibility schemes.
Blue dot: refugees who arrive by boat (IMA = irregular maritime arrival).
Green dot: refugees who arrive by plane (non-IMA).

Refugees arriving through offshore resettlement (eg, from refugee camps overseas) are not currently shown.

Data is from Department of Immigration and Citizenship and Refugee Council of Australia.

Credits: Steve Bennett, Andrew Wise, Darren Yu.

Vote for it at:

Trove: Open it up

While I don't care much for the word games, I love the concept of Trove having its own Captcha - which government agencies could use to enlist Australians in crowdsourcing the digitalisation of our national newspaper archive.

View it at:
Vote for it at:

APS Jobs Gazetter

The APS Jobs Gazetter takes Australian Public Service (APS) jobs information, drawing from the (PDF) APS Jobs Gazette and presents it graphically by type of job over time, based on search terms entered.

This makes it possible to track the ebb and flow of different job types in the APS, very useful for detecting changing patterns in employment over time that simply cannot be achieved via other APS resources.

View it at:
Vote for it at:

Australia in review

It can be difficult to get a clear picture of the Australia's past - with data spread across many sources and many accounts giving a partial sense of each year.

Australia in review is a useful addition to this area, providing a useful and usable snapshop of Australia in each of the last 40 years - with the ability to expand to provide all kinds of custom information.

View it at:
Vote for it at:

There's many preconceptions about the major causes of death in Australia, and takes a lighthearted approach to correcting these, by presenting causes of death in one-on-one matches to the... er... death.

View it at:
Vote for it at:

Explorations in flight

Ever been interested in seeing where people come from to visit Australia, or how this has changed over the years?

Explorations in flight provides a 20-year picture of flight arrivals and departures for Australia, showing the rise in travel and changes in origin.

View it at:
Vote for it at:

Giving kids better health outcomes

This hack isn't simply interesting, but important for supporting parents and health professionals to improve the health outcomes for their kids by understanding local issues.

The data is currently only for South Australia, but hopefully will be increased to cover the entire country.

View it at:
Vote for it at:

Survival kit for international students going to NSW

This site provides information for international students on where the best places are for them to stay, relative to the university they are going to attend.

I like it because it fills a need for a group who otherwise might struggle to make the best decision for themselves due to lack of familiarity with Australia.

View it at:
Vote for it at:

The open index

How can the public critically assess which government agencies are being the most open? For that matter, how can agencies and politicians assess this?

The open index provides a useful way of measuring openness, using a variety of measures and approaches. Agree or disagree with the weightings (and it does need some work - for example more overdue QoNs is not a good thing), it is a valuable approach for providing some kind of comparison between agencies.

View it at:
Vote for it at:

Where do my taxes go?

I like this Govhack entry as it demystifies where tax money goes - something that is very hard to get in a snapshot from the budget or any other government information.

This is the type of tool I expect to see from modern tax agencies. The fun facts are a blast too.

View it at:
Vote for it at:

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