Friday, May 30, 2014

Could it ever happen in Australia? 2nd annual Civic Hackathon in the White House

One of the starkest differences between Australia and the US's Government 2.0 movements is the mandate and level of support provided officially by our most influential elected officials.

In the US Government 2.0 has been championed both by the President and by leading politicians on both sides of their political divide. 

Regardless of ideology there has been a recognition by US political institutions that involving citizens more deeply in governance is a necessity in an age when almost every individual voter has access to the world's knowledge, the ability to organise, publish and influence public views in ways unprecedented in history.

An example of this is taking place today. A civic hackathon at the White House organised by the government to marshall the collective brainpower of the country's smartest people to improve one of the US government's most visible Government 2.0 tools.

The #WHhackathon has been organised to build on the US's We The People epetition site, which allows all US citizens to create and contribute to online petitions that, if they reach 100,000 petitioners, receives an official response from the US government.

The US government released the code to We The People in 2012 as open source, allowing governments around the world to reuse it to create their own epetition sites.

More recently the US government created an API for We The People, allowing other petition sites, organisations and individuals to read data from the platform and present it in new ways, creating new services.

The hackathon in the White House is designed to build on this API, creating value for the government and community while increasing government transparency and empowering citizens to influence the representatives elected to govern them.

Could this happen in Australia?

Could an Australian Prime Minister make a public statement, and unbreakable commitment, to openness in government, to investing in initiatives that help citizens participate in the governance of the country and opening up the black box of decision-making to give citizens real ways to influence outcomes?

Could an Australian Prime Minister take a leadership role in recognising that governments can't and no longer have to do all the heavy lifting in designing the systems for government, developing policy and services or achieving positive outcomes for citizens?

Could they invite in voices beyond the usual lobbyist suspects to contribute actively to the success of the country, to help in cutting costs, innovating and transforming our government to meet the challenges of the 21st century?

Well yes - an Australian Prime Minister could.

However we are yet to see one with this vision, and as a result Australia is being left behind.

Australia doesn't lack the ability, we don't lack the expertise in the public sector and we don't lack the technical smarts.

All we lack is political vision and commitment.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

How important really is open government to Australians?

The United Nations is currently running a very interesting global consultation asking people about the six issues that matter most to them.

Named myWorld2015 (, the consultation has attracted over 2.1 million responses from around the world.

Of these, there have been 14,896 responses from Australia (viewable through the data page) - and it is very interesting to see which issues the Australian respondents have put as the most important to them.

The 'usual suspects' are at the top of the list, a good education, access to clean water and sanitation, protecting forests, rivers and oceans and affordable and nutritious food.

Here's where it gets interesting.

The issue that comes fifth for Australians is "an honest and responsive government".

This issue rises to 2nd when looking at male Australian responses, and falls to 6th position when looking at female.

It is the most important issue for Australians aged over 61, ranked third for Australians aged 41-60, 5th for those aged 16-45 and 6th for those aged 15 and under.

Now I should note there's 16 issues to choose from and the only other issue directly relating to government is "political freedoms".

This ranks much lower - 11th for all Australians.

So what can be drawn from this data?

Australians do feel that "honest and responsive government" is a relatively important issue for them - less important than the environment or education, but more important than better healthcare, protection from discrimination or action on climate change.

Wrapped up in this is the notion that governments act in a truthful and upfront way, that they are accountable, transparent and, to some degree at least, open.

So if any Minister or senior public servant questions the value of open government, point them to MyWorld2015 and the views of nearly 15,000 Australians.

It might help them change their mind.

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Monday, May 26, 2014

My Speech at the Sir Rupert Hamer Record Management Awards

On 22nd May 2014 the Public Records Office of Victoria hosted the 16th annual Sir Rupert Hamer Record Management Awards.

While Records Management is not often highly regarded by people outside the field, however it plays a vital role for organisations in retaining a history of their activities and interactions and, when their actions and decisions have public impact, on the history of a state or nation.

I was honoured to be invited to be the keynote speaker and, despite having my iPad stolen at Melbourne Airport, forcing me to fall back on less well constructed notes, gave a speech about the challenges of records management in the digital age.

Unfortunately as my notes had partially been lost I don't have a full record of my speech, but what I do have is included below.

Ladies, gentlemen and distinguished guests,
 It is a great honour to have the opportunity to speak to you tonight on a topic I have become very passionate about – the importance of public records. I wanted to start by share my earliest workplace experience with record keeping. It was in my first job after university, working for a management consultancy as an analyst on Sydney’s north shore in 1992.
 Computers were just coming into offices and my new employer had paid roughly six thousand dollars on a brand-new Apple 2ci for me, with the very latest in word processing and spreadsheet programs – AppleWorks – which many of you have probably never heard of. My first week was spent climbing on desks to network my new computer to the only other computer in the office, operated by the Office Manager, using Appletalk cables. The Office Manager’s computer was probably the most valuable electronic device in the office. She used it to transcribe all of the work by the consultants into formal reports and documents. Every week she diligently backed up her computer to a tape drive. Each month the last four weeks tapes were driven to a bank a few suburbs away and stored in a safety deposit box.
 The IP in that box was the value of the company. One day, a few months after I arrived, I decided to test our backups to ensure that we could retrieve their contents. The Office Manager and I brought back several tapes from the bank and loaded each in turn into the tape recorder. For each we tried to restore all the files that had been stored – a process that took around half an hour. And in each case to her mounting horror, we found the tape was blank. It turned out that none of the tapes she’d been diligently recording for several years had stored any information, because the consultant who had set up the system had made a mistake in the settings, and no-one had ever tested the tapes before. The real value and importance of public records really didn’t strike home for me until three years ago at a conference in Perth where a representative of the WA State Records Office told us a story of how public records saved a man’s life. The story goes something like this – the man’s parents migrated to Australia in the 1940s, bringing with them the little that remained of their lives in Europe. Their names were changed on arrival and they settled in a rural region where they could continue farming as their family had for centuries. They had a son, who was born at home and baptized at the local church – which burnt down some years later, taking all its records with it. The son was never issued with a birth certificate, and as he never aspired to university or to travel, neither he nor his parents ever applied for a passport or other official papers. His parents never bothered to formally become Australian citizens and when setting up bank accounts, mortgages and businesses in the 1970s he was never required to provide a birth certificate or other official documents. Moving ahead to the 21st century, the man’s parents had died and he was still living on their farm. He found himself in financial straits and applied to the government for support for the first time in his life. This brought him to the attention of officials for the first time and, when it became clear he had no birth certificate, no passport, no living relatives and no proof that he was Australian, the government set about the process of having him deported to the country from which his parents came. He didn’t speak the language, had no living family there – even the country had disappeared following the fall of the Soviet Union.
 He tried every avenue of appeal, and when they were all exhausted he went to the WA State Records Office to see if they had any evidence that he had been born and lived in Australia for his entire life. The State Records Office went back through their archives and managed to locate the records of the small rural school he had attended as a child, providing physical documentation of his enrolment when aged 5 years old. On the basis of that information, the Australian Government ended the deportation action and granted him citizenship.
 He was able to access the benefits he was entitled to and to remain living on his farm. This story made me realise how important public records can be. They don’t only capture a record of who we were and why decisions were made. They can also have real impacts on peoples ‘lives. As Record Managers, you’re not just preserving a historic record of what happened, but building a living breathing memory of Australian lives. And I commend you all for this. Record keeping may sometimes be undervalued, but is never unimportant. When I entered government I learnt of the record keeping principles that underpin many of the activities of agencies. Most of my colleagues were diligent record keepers – diligently setting up files for every project and sending folders of printed documents to the warehouses where they were stored. It was harder in my work – which was largely online – there wasn’t always clear guidance on how online communications should be stored as records. At one stage we were instructed to print every page of our websites, and reprint pages every time they changed. Over the three months this was the agency’s policy we printed over 20,000 pages  - and even then I think we missed many of the changes. I also recall the early concern and confusion over social media record keeping in the late 2000s. Should every tweets, posts and update sent or received by an agency be captured and stored, or simply those related to decisions? What tools were available to capture social media messages, and did the government even have the legal right to take copies of updates submitted by other people? I still encounter some concerns and lack of clarity over how to manage digital conversations – and fair enough.
 For the last hundred years record managers have dealt largely in one record format – paper. Governments could easily legislate what was and wasn’t a record. Paper could easily be captured, stored and controlled. They could be easily indexed, sought and found. Paper records could be preserved for hundreds of years - and pending long-term changes to language,  they could be easily read by future generations. However the world of paper records is now disappearing. Ever since the first Australian government websites went live in 1996 we’ve seen a gradual move from physical to digital records. Suddenly many documents no longer ever exist as paper records, except if there’s a conscious choice to print them. Decisions are requested, discussed and resolved via email. Policy documents go through dozens of iterations before anyone thinks to print them. Citizen enquiries arrive via social channels and are resolved in the same way. And suddenly rather than a single format, paper, record managers have had to contend with hundreds of formats, which can appear and disappear over a short time. From WordStar and Wordpress to Tweets and Facebook posts, Pinterest pins and Disquis comments – record keeping has fragmented. Each of these formats can individually be captured, as can their context – the format and conversation thread for which each is a part. However preserving many of them for later access is becoming a challenge.
 Right now it is hard to find working versions of many old word processing programs. In the future it is likely to be hard to find tools that can reproduce government records s in a contextual form from messages on many of today’s social media platforms. Beyond this moving feast of formats, we’ve seen a huge increase and fragmentation in the types of records that governments and the public are generating.
 Alongside the white papers and reports, memos and Ministerial correspondence that governments continue to create, information is increasingly conveyed in shorter, faster and more frequent chunks through emails, tweets and SMS. I can see a future where rebuilding decision-making processes, or responding to Freedom of Information requests, increasingly involves the skills of a jigsaw master. Historians of the future will have an advantage in that so much information is captured and stored, however the ‘bones’ of the past will increasingly need to be pieced together from powdered dust – thousands or millions of small pieces of information. The other main challenge for record keepers into the future is the risk of a digital black hole. Other societies have already found that as information is digitalized more of it is only kept in a transitory way, or is stored in ways difficult to retrieved. When I worked in government, as soon as I left an agency my email address was deleted and all the emails lost – as were my folders and files on the computers I had been assigned. Yes much of this was supposed to be backed up – however it required IT skills and time to restore, a cost impost that agencies could not bear in a wholesale way. Nominally these records were kept, but to be truthful, they could never be easily accessed. This digital black hole is probably the biggest challenge for record management today. While so many records are kept, they are kept in very different ways on different platforms and can be hard to translate into retainable formats while preserving the context and conversations. Records management professionals have to understand how to best preserve each type of record, not simply in paper or even digital files, but in formats that will speak to future generations, providing not only the words but the meaning, the context and the broader environment. They need to do this with an explosion of information and data, while files formats are constantly evolving and within a world of increasing scrutiny. This is an amazingly large challenge, and an important one for the history of the state, Australia and humanity, and fortunately record managers in Victoria have the experience and expertise to take on and be successful at this challenge.

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Friday, May 16, 2014

The latest video communicating social media policy to public servants - Social Media Man

The Queensland Government recently introduced a new approach to communicate departmental social media policy to staff, a light and humorous video featuring 'Social Media Man'.

It's the latest in a line of video-based tools used to communicate social media policy to public servants in Australia, following some great work from Victoria.

The first, in March 2011, was the Victorian Department of Justice's Social Media Policy.

This video (embedded below) took a solid and dependable approach, providing a top-level view of the Department's (then new) Social Media Policy.

This video became the 'go-to' standard for government agencies across the country and was seen globally as an effective example of how agencies could leverage social channels and particularly video to better communicate with their own staff.

The video has been adapted and reused by a number of agencies and councils around the country, including the federal Department of Human Services.

(My company, Delib Australia, has the code for the video and has repurposed and redeveloped it for councils. We'd be happy to do this for you too.)

After several years of hiatus, the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC) took the bar higher earlier this year with the release in April of their Social Media Policy video.

Using a cartoon-drawing style, this video supported the release of the DPC's social media policy, which is also available on their website at

The latest entrant in the mix, hot on the heels of Victoria's DPC, is the Queensland Government's 'Social Media Man'.

A mild-manner public servant otherwise known as 'Garry', Social Media Man gives staff at DNRM, DTESB, DAFF & DEWS an overview of their obligations under their social media policy.

The video is available at Youtube:

Note this may not be publicly visible for long, given that Queensland government has chosen to prevent embedding or sharing by other sites (as evidenced by broken links from Business Insider and Mumbrella).

This is a real shame as it is, in my view, a great approach - balancing humour with a clear message.

UPDATE 1 Sept 2014: the video is now embeddable, so you can view it below.

It is my view that public sector social media policies should be public. This helps send a clear message to the community that they can trust the public service to act appropriately and not politically on social channels, building trust and respect.

There's also the consideration that governments, such as Queensland, have adopted Creative Commons as a standard licensing approach - so appropriate sharing of this type of material should not be prevented.

In lieu of being able to embed the video, here's stills of Social Media Man in action.

It will be interesting to see which governments in Australia can take this further - potentially even stepping beyond the use of videos to promote social media policy to promote other OH&S and security policies within agencies. There's a lot of scope for video that's not yet been realised.

Finally I think it is worth noting that the Queensland public service, per this video, is told to not criticise their own policy areas or department, but can engage more broadly in political expression regarding other government policies - that's currently denied Australian Public Servants by the Australian Public Service Commission's guidelines on social media use.

In my view Queensland has got their social media guidance right.

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Thursday, May 15, 2014

Giving the community an opportunity to understand and reshape the Australian Government budget for 2014-15

While common practice in many countries overseas, there's still limited authentic consultation on government budgets undertaken in Australia - and I think we're poorer for it.

Involving the community in setting budget priorities and educating them on how a budget is developed goes a long way towards building understanding and (very importantly) trust in public institutions and politicians.

Even if these processes are only used for informational or even political ends, such as Strong Choices in Queensland, they at least give the public visibility into the challenges that governments contend with.

Of course budget processes are far more valuable when they give people authentic opportunities to influence government decisions, but one step at a time.

With so little public consultation undertaken around the Australian Government's budget for 2014-15, I've worked with Fairfax Media this year to give the Australian public an opportunity to understand how it is constructed and provide their views.

Via my company Delib Australia, we've modelled budget revenues and expenditures in Budget Simulator and made this available via the Sydney Morning Herald's site.

The Australian Budget Simulator is open until the end of next week, at which point we'll be tallying up the feedback and presenting it to the Australian Government for review.

It's not likely to change any decisions, but at least it will help inform the discussion.

To share your views via the Australian Budget Simulator, visit:

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Monday, May 12, 2014

Keep an eye out for Australia's open budget

We've now suffered through most of the fun and games of budget leaking season this year, with the 2014-15 Australian Government budget now in its final 'straight'.

There were a variety of balloons floated, claims and counterclaims touted, promises apparently broken (or not, depending on who you listen to) and all the usual suspects wheeling out to give us their authoritarian views on how budget changes would break or make Australia.

This year it has even been capped off by images of the Finance Minister and Treasurer enjoying a relaxing cigar as their departmental teams work frantically behind the scenes to get the final planks of the budget in place.

In other words, it's been largely business as usual for the Australian Government budget process - following the same pattern that's been followed for thirty or more years.

There have, of course, been some changes.

The communications channels used to inform people about the budget have shifted slightly (though not as much as they could), and the community has become far more visible in its budget consultations through the widespread adoption of online social channels - though politicians and traditional media have remain largely one-way broadcasters, rather than embracing the opportunity to engage.

Some government agencies have also adapted their strategies for informing the public - using social media to broadcast their budget statements and to engage online in so far as to correct misunderstandings and address myths and beliefs which are not supported by budget papers.

In the last few years Australia even stepped to the world leading position of releasing much of the budget papers under creative commons licensing (now the standard copyright for the Australian Government) - with this stimulating the creation of new ways to view the budget, such as The OpenBudget and BudgetAus.

These services are still relatively new and have suffered from the inaccessibility of the PDF documents used to publish the reusable budget data - meaning the creators of these tools had to scrape PDFs for data, manually type or check every figure, to get a realistic budget view.

However this year, in another world first, the Australian Government budget is set to be largely released in spreadsheet formats.

A team of public servants in Finance and Treasury is aggregating all the budget numbers from a range of agencies and releasing it in an aggregated way that is easy for others to reuse.

This is a huge step forward and opens the gate to a range of community and media visualisations of the budget at a far lower commitment of effort than was possible in previous years.

So keep an eye out in the coming days for some of the budget projects that are created using this open data.

I'll try to list them in this blog in the days following the budget's release.

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Friday, May 02, 2014

The thin Gov 2.0 silver lining in the Commission of Audit report

Amongst the "crazy brave to politically suicidal" recommendations in the National Commission of Audit report, there are three recommendations for Government 2.0 and eGovernment initiatives that should bring a glow to the heart of digital enthusiasts and pragmatists.

Recommendation 61: Data says that the Australian Government should improve its data management and analytics capability, also improving the timely access to data as well as its general availability for reuse.

The recommendation makes a strong mention of open data and its ability to drive transparency and accountability within government, as well as business opportunities and social improvements.

It does, however, stop short of a strong position on opening up data. While it does recommend requiring agencies to maximise their own use of data, having the ABS and Chief Statistician develop a 'data strategy' for government and ask that agencies extend and accelerate "the publication of anonymised administrative data", it doesn't reach as far as US and UK position on ensuring data is appropriately repackaged for reuse when released, or that data beyond "administrative" is also released.

One thing the Commission of Audit did not mention in this recommendation was Australian membership of the Open Government Partnership - which the government says is currently "under re-evaluation". This is a no-brainer if the government is serious about transparency and accountability (which I know many currently doubt), and having the Australian Government confirm it was joining the OGP would support a commitment to implement this recommendation, if the government so intended.

Recommendation 62: e-Government states that the Australian Government should adopt a digital-by-default approach to citizen and business engagement, going beyond the current policy ambition (for services having 50,0000 or more transactions per year) and turning the approach to digital on its head, from opt-in, to opt-out. 

This could change the entire cultural outlook of government, leading agencies to design services for digital first and having other channels as secondary, rather than the current flawed model of taking existing paper processes and converting them to digital without transforming the services to be digitally native.

The current approach has largely led to digital services that are difficult to access, use and often seem illogical to role - prompting increased calls to service centres to understand processes, rather than reducing calls by providing online services easier to use than paper forms.

The recommended approach instead mirrors the current UK strategy of transforming services to be easier to use online than via other channels, thereby supporting a 'pull' effect whereby people choose digital because it is easier and faster to provide the outcomes required.

In fact this attention is required if the 'opt-out' strategy is to work. If the government simply forced people to use digital channels to engage by government without totally redesigning both customer-facing and back-end systems for a digital-by-default world, it would create significant pain and additional cost for citizens, businesses and public servants on an ongoing basis as systems failed to provide the experience that modern consumers expect from digital channels.

This recommendation also suggested the creation of a Chief Digital Officer for government, to be positioned in the Department of Communication, who would lead the approach, with the oversight of a Senior Minister as a Digital Champion (presumably the Communications Minister). This again largely mirrors the UK approach, although makes no mention of how the Officer would be resourced and supported to be effective in the role.

Given the resourcing committed to the Government Digital Service in the UK, it would be disappointing and counterproductive to see any Chief Digital Officer receive proportionately less resourcing to take on this type of role to transform the Australian Government.

There is also a big question mark over whether the Department of Communication would have the right levers and influence to lead a whole-of-government transformation of this type. Over the last six years we've witnessed a number of occasions where agencies with a policy bent were given service delivery obligations and failed to carry them out due to a mindset and skills mismatch. There's several good reports from the National Audit Office highlighting this issue and providing recommendations on a better way to structure these processes.

Recommendation 63: Cloud computing says that the Australian Government should take a cloud-first approach for "for all low risk, generic information and communication technology services".

This is a good step, however may require some rationalisation of ASD and AG requirements around cloud-computing to manage the administrative requirement for two Minister sign-off of most cloud-computing requests (a practice a number of agencies still appear ignorant of or are ignoring).

The second part of the recommendation, to establish a cloud-provider panel, is also a good step. The DCAAS panel is already in place, however there is room to grow.

However there does need to be some balance in that 'cloud' is merely a method of hosting software and storing data - many types of digital services can be delivered in a 'cloud' manner, or utilising some other form of (in-house, dedicated, virtual) hosting approach. Cloud gives no indication as to the type of service, so any cloud panel could end up as a hotch-potch of different services that can also be accessed through other panels and providers when delivered in different ways.

This could lead to confusion or the cloud panel becoming the 'every digital service' panel - which may not be as manageable or useful to agencies.

While I have no real issues with any of these recommendations, the fact they are included in the National Commission of Audit gives me some concern.

Given the Audit recommendations are already creating a strong backlash, despite no indication from the government on which will be accepted, I believe there is a risk that the eGovernment and Gov 2.0 recommendations, despite being steps forward, may get tarred with a negative brush simply by being included in the document.

I hope that the government can successfully navigate the communication jungle to implement them appropriately, and I expect we'll see whether this is the case over the next few weeks.

If it is not, this would become a lost opportunity for digital government in Australia, and we might not see further political leadership in the area for several years, despite the hard efforts of a number of public servants.

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Thursday, May 01, 2014

Time to enter the Step Two Intranet Innovation Awards for 2014

Step Two has just launched the 2014 Intranet Innovation Awards, the premier global awards for intranet teams.

Drawing on the best intranet work from around the world, the Intranet Innovation Awards are an opportunity for organisations to showcase their best intranet work.

Winning teams can also leverage an award into more support within their own organisations.

For more information, and to enter, visit

Entry is open until 6 June 2014.

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