Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Do you have a new case study for the Public Sector Innovation Showcase?

The Australian Government is seeking new case studies for the Public Sector Innovation Showcase.

Discussed in the blog post, Revitalising and revising the innovation showcase,

"The Public Sector Innovation Showcase will enable government agencies and departments to share and celebrate case studies of innovation, and to consider how they might apply such innovative practices within their own operations to achieve better outcomes."
If you have a great case study for the showcase, check out the submission guidelines.

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Sunday, April 13, 2014

GovHack registration opens - with ten locations across Australia for 2014

GovHack 2014 has just opened for registration with 10 locations across Australia, being:

  • Brisbane GovHack
  • Canberra GovHack
  • GovHack FNQ (Cairns)
  • Gold Coast GovHack
  • GovHack Tasmania
  • Melbourne GovHack
  • Perth GovHack
  • Sydney GovHack
  • Unleashed Adelaide
  • Unleashed Mount Gambier 

While competition details are not yet available, the official 2014 datasets will be put online over the next two months.

There will be a data event a month before GovHack where data custodians can present about the official datasets and allowing Govhack registrants to ask questions about the quality, formatting and other information about the data.

There will also be a red carpet event a month after GovHack to celebrate the winners.

To register visit govhack.org/register-2014

For more information visit: govhack.org/2014/04/11/3-months-till-govhack-2014/

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Monday, April 07, 2014

APSC's current online participation guidance becoming an unwanted and unneeded distraction

There's been a great deal of scrutiny of the APSC's revised guidance on social media participation by public servants since it came into effect in early 2012 (coincidentally about the time I left the public service).

Initially dubbed by some parts of the media as the 'Jericho amendments' (sorry Greg!), the 2012 guidance has regularly been criticised by a wide range of commentators including former public servants such as Bernard Keane,  Greg Jericho and myself.

The guidance, Circular 2012/1: Revisions to the Commission's guidance on making public comment and participating online, significantly narrowed the scope of what public servants could personally say publicly online (even while anonymous).

The original APSC Guidance on online participation from 2009 was, in my view, balanced and well-considered. It placed some necessary constraints on how public servants spoke personally in public social media channels about their own agency and the policies they worked on. This original guidance would not have been out-of-place in any workplace.

However the 2012 revision extended this much further, stating that it was not appropriate for public servants to make public comment that was:

"so harsh or extreme in its criticism of the Government, a member of parliament from another political party, or their respective policies, that it raises questions about the APS employee’s capacity to work professionally, efficiently or impartially. Such comment does not have to relate to the employee’s area of work"

In other words - any matter which might be the subject of a policy from any party with representation in parliament, even where the individual public servant was unaware of the policy and regardless of whether the public servant worked in the area.

This covers a large number of policies, from a large number of minor parties - potentially impacting on many areas of a public servant's lives.

For example it could make it difficult and uncomfortable for someone working, say, in the Communication portfolio, to publicly state their concerns about the NDIS, our diplomatic position on Sri Lanka or the treatment of Indigenous people in the Northern Territory - even where they are the parent of a disabled person, have a partner of Sri Lankan descent and their own family comes from the Northern Territory.

'So harsh or extreme' is not well defined by the guidance. It is subject to individual rulings by agency leadership, which could lead to inconsistency, as well as makes the words a potential tool for managers or colleagues to legally bully staff.

There's also no time limit on comments implied in the guidance - so if you've said nasty things online about a local member while at university, before even considering a role in the APS, you have no implicit right of appeal based on when you said it.

Even these types of retrospective comments could still 'raise questions about the APS employee’s capacity to work professionally, efficiently or impartially'.

Effectively, anything you've ever said publicly could be used to expel you from the public service at any future time.

You may note that I left the public service about the time the revised guidance came into effect. Without a doubt this blog would have fallen foul of this guidance retrospectively if I had not.

I saw another impact of the APSC participation guidance a few weeks ago when I spoke at a Records Management conference in Melbourne. In the afternoon there was a broad discussion by delegates of current record keeping legislation at state and federal level.

While state public servants were happy to publicly discuss the issues they saw with their state legislation and how to fix them, several federal public servants refused to comment to the group on Australian Government regarding record keeping law.

One of them confided to me personally that, while he was aware of several major issues with the current law, he was not prepared to air these issues or their potential solutions 'publicly' (amidst a group of his peers and some non-government people at a forum), as APSC guidance on participation meant that if he criticised government policy or laws it could end his career.

Rightly or wrongly he believed this, based on the APSC's Circular 2012/1: Revisions to the Commission's guidance on making public comment and participating online.

I was appalled to see experts silenced and self-censoring in this way. In my view this reduces government effectiveness and productivity by reducing the capability for the public service to improve and develop good policy.

My understanding is that the current APSC leadership remains comfortable with the current phrasing and while many senior public sector leaders and other officers have expressed disagreement with the revised policy to me privately, no-one senior is prepared to 'rock the boat'.

In the words of one public sector senior executive to me, the senior leadership are in 'survival mode' right now and no-one wants to call unwanted attention to themselves which could damage their effectiveness in other areas, or their future career.

Now the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet's policy on reporting inappropriate social media behaviour has cast another spotlight on this APSC guidance.

The media has portrayed the PM&C's policy as 'dob in colleagues' and on social media it has been portrayed as a step towards a police state.

In my view the actual intent of the PM&C guidance is quite benign.

There's nothing inappropriate about asking your staff to report fraudulent or bullying behaviour by their colleagues when they see it, and many agencies and companies have processes to support this behaviour as it improves workplaces, reducing corruption and improving productivity.

The concept of having staff at Prime Minister and Cabinet report back to the agency if they see their colleagues behaving badly on social media, criticising their own agency or policies, is no different to reporting other inappropriate behaviour.

Except when it is combined with the enormous reach of the current APSC guidance.

The combination of APSC guidance and the PM&C policy make it appear the public service is becoming a political auxiliary to the current government - even though APSC guidance pre-dates the current government and the PM&C policy is otherwise benign.

The high level of attention now cast onto this guidance and policy has now achieved the exact reverse of their intended purpose - they have damaged public trust and respect in the public service and Australian Government.

This is not due to inappropriate online behaviour by low-level public sector staff, but to the risk-averse decision of a few senior public sector leaders, who agreed to put the revised APSC guidance in place.

The current APSC guidance has now become an unwanted and unneeded distraction to a public service which has largely performed exceptionally well on social channels and had very few cases of inappropriate online behaviour by staff.

I would also not expect Ministers to be too happy at having their agendas sidelined by a few senior public servants, who decided in 2012 to enforce APS social media guidance that was too broad, too available to abuse and too invasive for the public or media to ignore.

The current storm will blow over, it always does, however the damage has already been done.

I hope the APSC recognise their part in this and revisit the scope and wording of Circular 2012/1.

It could, with some support and education, lead to improved engagement by public servants in public debate which, given their depth of experience, professionalism and knowledge, would be a good outcome for Australia's democracy.

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Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Remember the date - RE blog post on Australian Public Servant banned for wearing Google Glass

Just in case anyone overreacted to my blog post this morning about an Australian public servant being banned from their department's offices for wearing Google Glass, I'd like to remind you of today's date.

April 1.

Note that while the event I detailed isn't real, it's not that far off from reality.

There are at least 8 Google Glass in Australia. There's a number of other personal recording devices already available on the market, such as the pen cameras already under trial use by Victorian Police (and reportedly already the subject of an internal memo banning staff from filming internal meetings).

Will we see wearing Google Glass banned within government offices, and what will happen when (not if) an MP wears a pair into Parliament?

There is a need for agencies to ensure that their policies around privacy and security are sufficiently robust to handle any type of recording device - regardless of form - and to support the legitimate use of technologies such as Google Glass for the benefit of citizens and agencies.

And given the fast spread of these technologies, these reviews need to happen sooner, not later.

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April Fools Prank: Australian public servant wearing Google Goggles banned from departmental offices and warned away from all government buildings

I know some people were taken in by this post earlier this week, while others called it out as an April Fools prank. I can confirm it was a prank - but one that's not far away from being realised.

Is your agency ready for the first staff member, or visitor, who walks into your office wearing Google Glass?

I've learnt from a source in a major Australian Government department that a public servant who showed up for work yesterday morning wearing Google Glass was unceremoniously escorted out of the building by security.

The public servant was given written correspondence from HR, signed by a senior manager, banning them access to any departmental offices and was warned away from entering any other Australian Government offices wearing Google Glass until their case was fully investigated.
Promotional image of Google Glass from Google

The letter included details that simply by wearing Google Glass the public servant might pose a privacy risk to other staff, and that it also raised security concerns in the workplace as senior management could not know what the person was filming or photographing.

It referenced an article in yesterday's Australian Financial Review (since updated), which highlighted the potential collision between Australia's new privacy laws and the use of personal recording devices such as Google Glass, Proposed privacy laws put blinkers on Google Glass.

Apparently the public servant had borrowed a pair of Google Glass from a friend, who had access to one of the few (around eight) pairs of Google Glasses in Australia through his work.

He had worn them to work to show his colleagues their capabilities and begin a discussion of the ramifications for their department in providing services to the public.

The public servant is now being investigated to determine whether they had ever previously brought 'personal recording devices' to work - apparently ignoring the mobile phones carried by most workers today.

The public servant is currently being threatened with a reassessment of their grade and has been requested to undertake a psychological evaluation to assess whether this is a once-off or a pattern of behaviour, due to the tendency of the individual to bring 'new and unapproved technologies' into the office.

I'll provide more details as I get them, however I have been asked not to identify the agency or individual as it could prejudice the process.

New technologies are a challenge for society and organisations, as they can transform social norms and over-turn bureaucratic apple carts.

However it is important to avoid over-reacting to potential risks and consider the benefits as well.

In this case I think the department has massively over-reacted, possibly because one or a few senior people had read an article in a newspaper (the AFR article referenced above) and leapt to the worst conclusions.

I've seen this happen previously in concerns over social media, where a few individuals, without personal experience of specific channels, have reviewed a (scaremongering) media representation of the risks at face value and responded without due consideration and thought.

In this situation, politely asking the person to refrain from recording and transmitting on premises, except with consent and where there's no potentially confidential documents in the background, could have sufficed. Or even asking them not to wear them on premises until the department could look at their capabilities first.

However it doesn't surprise me to see an agency leap first and then ask for forgiveness later - isn't that what we're often told to do in the workplace?

It is also important to keep in mind that just because the form changes, the policy may not need to. It may be possible to consider cameras, mobile phones, Google Glass, smart watches and even artificial eyes with cameras within the same policy framework - both the risks AND the benefits.

What agencies need to avoid doing is leaping at shadows and, where technology already exists (like the Google Glass), take the necessary steps to review their privacy and security policies to ensure that they cover devices adequately.

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