Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The evolving role of social medial within government and the community

I had a great chat on Monday with one of the best online comms people in federal government, which touched on how the role of social media has evolved within agencies and how this matched the overall evolution and maturing of social use by the community in general.

I've thought through this and roughly mapped out the phases I've seen for social over the years - note this is a rough draft and others will have very different views of the progression.

Birth - 'I'm here look at me'
At its birth most people and organisations weren't quite sure what social media was for, with many starting out using social to talk about themselves and what they were doing.

Organisations often began engaging with 'look I'm here' messages - staking their claim to coolness through merely having a presence on a social channel, many without a firm strategy detailing why they were on social or how they'd use these platforms to engage with citizens, customers, stakeholders and staff.

This phase was typified by posts detailing that people were getting up, going to bed, having lunch or, from organisations, that their CEO was at such-and-such a place with such-and-such a celebrity.

Childhood - 'I'm learning about...'
As social grew in reach and users in sophistication, people began talking about topics of common interest, sharing news and information in topically based groups. The arrival of hashtags on Twitter to differentiate conversations is an example of one of the key stages on this journey as social media became less about being present and more about sharing meaningful data with relevant people and organisations.

Critical in this stage was the evolution beyond self-interest into sharing, with the reputation of social media users starting to reflect their willingness to share information rather than how they shared their own lives and activities.

Teenager - 'What's up?'
As social took hold in the mainstream, we saw a great deal of confusion - with new and advanced users beginning to collide in terms of the maturity of their use.

One particular trend was for tighter peer groups to form, with more experienced users 'circling the wagons' around their information sharing conversations as new people streamed in screaming 'look at me'.

This phase saw the creation of many expert groups who either excluded or husbanded in new users into their cliche in managed ways.

We also saw the type of information shared on shift to become more personal, with disasters fostering the use of social media for social outcomes - saving lives, directing resources, helping people cope with adverse circumstances as empathy took hold.

Organisations began using social media not just for impersonal information broadcasts but for personalised customer service and for engaging and supporting people in crisis scenarios.

More resources began being directed to social, with organisations encouraged to develop their own voices and live their values, rather than simply share information.

Young adulthood - 'Experimentation'
We're now entering the young adulthood of social media, with a majority of the population both using social and many doing so in innovative and useful ways.

The tools have been around long enough that people are beginning to explore what is possible in more systemic and mature ways.

Organisations now using social in diverse ways - still for information sharing, customer service and crisis management - but also for detecting the 'pulse' of the community, for engaging in the development of products and policies, and for building relationships with non-humans, from NASA spacecraft to coffee machines, in a social aspect to the internet of things.

We're seeing stories told via social channels and new forms of art evolving to encapsulate the global conversation that's now occurring between over a billion people day and night.

What do we have to look forward to?

Hopefully we'll see a long mature adulthood for social media, where individuals and organisations integrate social media fully within their lives, using social channels as we already use telephones as a natural part of the communication fabric of our lives, relationships and interactions.

For organisations and individuals still new to social media, it's worth trying to move quickly through your 'birth' and 'childhood', into the phases where social has the most impact and value.

While you may not be prepared, as yet, to experiment with innovative ways of using social, at least integrate it into your customer service and community engagement frameworks, even moreso than your outbound communications.

Try to develop a single voice for your social presence as an organisation - not an impersonal institution, emotionless and uncaring, nor necessary a 'human' voice representing a single person perspective, but a 'humanised' voice that represents your vision and goals with the passion and energy your staff bring to meeting them.

Social is now the main channel by which many people communicate with each other and with organisations, how they find out and share information and where they give and receive support. As an organisation you need to be prepared to be engaged and engaging, to be valuable in order to receive value from social channels. To grow up quickly and make mature use of social media.

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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The uneasy relationship between Freedom of Information and open data

 Freedom of Information (FOI) has always been a tricky area for governments, a delicate balance between accountability and exposure, with successive parliaments around the world tweaking their national and state FOI laws in attempts to prevent disclosures damaging to various governments of the day, while also meeting public and media demands for transparency.

We've seen the federal government in Australia retreat from some of the Freedom of Information (FOI) framework established under former governments, including the effective abolition of the Australian Information Commissioner by budget cuts, when legislation to end the office failed to pass the Senate.

With the three appointed Commissioners in the Office now having followed most of the rest of their staff into new rules, we have a temporary Australian Information Commissioner, for three months, as the government sorts out how to finally end the Office and transfer the function to a more formal, costly and time consuming review process.

This is far from the only tweak in recent times, with Australian FOI legislation also modified in 2013 under a former government to exclude parliamentary service agencies from FOI. This was termed fixing a loophole, that unfortunately allowed the public to request information such as a former speaker's expenses in detail.

Similarly in the UK it appears there's a retreat on FOI occurring, with the UK government calling an enquiry into FOI to look at whether they have the balance right.

What's interesting is that the UK is using its open data presence as part of the justification for the enquiry.

Open data and FOI are not always the same thing. Open data focuses on quantifiable datasets, generally numberical, that represents a current or past state for a given government service, or from data collected by government on a nation's social, economic or environment state.

While open data can expose issues in government, it is often used to identify opportunities and gaps that can be explored and improved on - leading to better services and outcomes.

FOI, on the other hand, is often far less about data and far more about correspondence, decisions and who made them. While open data may expose bad decisions, FOI exposes who made those bad decisions and, sometimes, the basis on which they were made.

That's why data is generally easier for government to release openly than documents. Exposing a bad decision can become a basis for better decision-making, while exposing a bad decision-maker can breach the public sector's responsibility to protect the government of the day, and their own senior staff.

I've previously spoken about the risk of governments using open data as a 'cover' for tightening FOI requirements, and in the UK case above, my concern appears to be being realised.

I've not yet seen this explicitly in Australia, however with the poor scrutiny of government in the media and our weak civic sector, it's likely to occur at some stage.

Don't get me wrong, I think it's fantastic to see the level of open data increasingly being released at federal, state and local levels across Australia. The snowball is rolling and we're beginning to see some of the value that open data enables - both within governments themselves and in association with the communities they serve.

However effective open data release should not become the primary way in which governments engage with Freedom of Information, nor a rationale for broadening exclusions to FOI.

As for FOI, we really need to rethink it at a fundamental level, politically, at public sector levels and in the community.

Currently (and from my experience within government), often those outside government are seen as 'the enemy', seeking to point the finger at people within government and 'bring them down'.

The reality is that government exists as part of society and must remain functionally effective and valuable. FOI can support this process, helping to identify issues and misconduct in order to improve trust in government and it's effectiveness in meeting community needs.

However this can only occur if those within government - and those without - treat FOI in this manner, as an accountability and transparency tool, not as a threat to their integrity.

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Monday, July 27, 2015

Have Australian governments & councils considered the impact of disruptive tech like driverless cars?

Last week it was announced that the first driverless car trials would begin in Australia in Adelaide. Supported by the South Australian government and the Australian Road Research Board (ARRB), the two-day trial involves Volvo's XC90, Bosch's driverfree technology and Telstra's network.

I'm a big fan of self-drive cars and have followed Google's US self driving car trials, as well as the European work by Volvo and other car makers for a number of years.

Besides the prospects of better traffic management, fewer accidents and less road deaths with consistent, tireless, undistractable computers controlling cars, self-drive cars offer the promise of more productive and leisure time for humans currently spending hours each week behind the wheel of their cars.

In a self-driving car future there's less need for private cars and massive car parks, more predictable road maintenance and potentially better population health outcomes as people don't face the stress of tail-gaters, road rage and other deplorable on-road driver behaviours.

However behind the glow of potential benefits that has governments and companies working towards a human-free driving future, there's some significant and highly disruptive impacts on industries and governments that the public sector and politicians need to consider.

Firstly, as self-drive cars take over there will no longer be any need for taxis or other paid drivers. Uber and similar companies are building logistics systems for moving humans that would allow people to simply summon a self-drive vehicle when they need it, and have it drive them to their destination.

Uber is already creating significant disruption in the taxi industry by providing an easy-to-use alternative to legacy taxi systems, with violent protests in France and governments in the US, Australia and other countries fining Uber drivers or prohibiting the service to protect the taxi industry and their existing taxi plate revenues.

Step forward a few years to when self-drive cars are widespread and taxis will simply not be able to compete for most travel needs, with paid drivers (if still allowed on the road) being a high-end service used by those who wish to show-off their wealth.

Similarly bus and truck drivers - particularly for long hauls - will find their jobs vanishing as computers, who need no sleep, replace them, making logistics systems more efficient and controllable.

Emergency services may also experience some shift in focus and reduction in staff, with paramedics focused on patients, not driving ambulances, firefighters able to plan and police able to work on cases as their cars transport them to where they are needed.

Severely disabled people will benefit, with the ability to summon a vehicle to take them to where they need to go, rather than waiting on human carers - which may also reduce the number of nurses required.

These industry dislocations will affect the number and type of jobs in an economy, necessitating rethinking of a government's priorities and approach. It may also have significant impacts on state public transit services as buses no longer require expensive drivers, potentially allowing more transport options on the road.

However there's even more profound consequences for governments who fund their activities partially through revenues raised from drivers and their mistakes.

Self-drive cars will not speed, drive dangerously or part illegally (without human intervention), meaning that speeding fines will disappear, along with parking inspectors and the fines they collect.

Drivers' license fees will vanish, together with many private car registration fees as more households shift to rely on Uber-style logistics services, which simply have a vehicle come to your door when you need it. Government parking fees may also fall dramatically, with cars redirected to low and no-cost parking locations outside city centres when not required.

With self-drive cars it's also likely that electricity will take more of a role in replacing petrol, meaning governments will raise less in fuel excise, reducing their ability to fund road maintenance and improvements.

Fortunately, with more consistent and predictable behaviour by self-drive cars, and the ability to divert vehicles to spread traffic load it's likely that road costs will diminish somewhat - however whether this offsets the reduction in revenue from car licenses and fuel is yet to be explored.

Self-drive cars are coming - they make sense to individuals, corporations and governments in many ways. Now we need some serious thinking by governments on how to manage the disruption that will be caused and how lost revenue will be replaced.

This isn't the only disruptive technology facing governments, but it is one of the biggest, with the potential for creating economy and society-wide change.

We need to begin consider the impacts of the change now, before it occurs, in order to manage it in the least impactful way for both governments and communities.

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Friday, July 24, 2015

Redefining innovation within the public service

The Canberra GovCamp dialogue was held on Wednesday, one of a series of events across Australia, both part of Public Sector Innovation Month and a lead-in to a full GovCamp in November.

Attendees included both current and former public servants, academics and private sector interested parties - all interested in discussing how to foster and focus public sector innovation towards material improvements and outcomes.

The half-day event had an interesting panel discussion on what is (and isn't) innovation, and the factors that support or hinder it's use as a tool to improve governance and service delivery outcomes, with a number of interesting points raised.

It also featured a Conversation Cafe mapping the room's views on what triggers public sector innovation and what type of innovation occurs, as well as views on the value of public sector innovation - which will be mapped together with the results from the other GovCamp Dialogues across Australia and should prove interesting reading. I tweeted the Canberra responses on Wednesday as below.

Following this, the GovCamp Dialogue gave participants a taste of how full GovCamps tend to operate, holding three participant-driven sessions where those attending could nominate topics and discuss each for twenty minutes in various groups.

This was a useful introduction to those new to GovCamps, and participants took to it with gusto.

For someone who's been around this scene for awhile, the event was a good opportunity to refresh my views on public sector innovation, and the biggest idea of the day for me was outlined by Mick Chisnall, formerly the Director of the ACT government's Government Information Office.

Mick suggested that government needed to treat innovation more as experimentation than as a project.

While I'd not thought of it specifically in this way, I believe he's on the money.

Projects in government have clearly defined scopes, resources, timeframes and steps in order to achieved the desired outcomes and don't generally support failure within the fabric of the process.

Innovation, on the other hand, is a process involving exploration and experimentation. While it can involve a defined scope and desired outcomes, often the path to success is littered with learning experiences - what might be otherwise termed 'failures'.

Innovation often involves a large component of rapid and iterative testing of assumptions and exploration of different avenues, with the data collected from each attempt helping to inform and focus the path towards the desired outcomes.

As Thomas Edison said to American Magazine in 1921:
"After we had conducted thousands of experiments on a certain project without solving the problem, one of my associates, after we had conducted the crowning experiment and it had proved a failure, expressed discouragement and disgust over our having failed to find out anything. I cheerily assured him that we had learned something. For we had learned for a certainty that the thing couldn't be done that way, and that we would have to try some other way."
This innovation process is hard to foster within today's project methodologies. Prince II, PMBoK and others of their ilk all exist to systemise projects to minimise the risk of failure and efficiently manage resources towards the delivery of a clearly defined objective.

Few support an iterative failure-led approach to success where many avenues must be explored to identify those that may be productive.

Indeed, a formal review of innovation within the APS in 2013 found that senior managers were very reluctant to discuss their failures at all, To quote from the blog post linked,
Innovations can fail and information on why this has occurred is highly important. However, there was reluctance amongst respondents to provide information on unsuccessful innovations, with around 80% survey participants stating that they “did not have a least successful innovation”.

So how do we marry innovation processes with project methodologies?

My thought is that we provide some tolerance for both the known and unknown unknowns, supporting feasibility studies and Agile-based methodologies within a project framework. We should also follow more start-up thinking around 'minimum viable product', continuous A/B testing and improvement and break larger projects into smaller goals, achievable in a few months.

We also need to foster a rethink of the concept of failure in the public service. A failure is a situation where something didn't work AND we learnt nothing at all. Even learning that a given approach doesn't work is valuable information that can support further effort towards a solution.

So long as a 'failure' allows us to redefine the scope to exclude certain paths, and data is collected and shared to understand why an approach or solution didn't work, it is not a failure.

This may require some reshaping of Project Offices and management of the expectations of public sector decision-makers, Ministers and citizens, but it would be well-worth it to support a more innovative public sector.

In an age of wicked problems we need to foster creative thinking.

This can only happen if we ensure that innovation is treated appropriately as experimental and exploratory work, rather than shoehorned into existing project management processes with little tolerance for 'failure'.

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Thursday, July 23, 2015

How important is geographic location for a digitalised public sector workforce?

Canberra is full of large buildings full of public servants, all working together on a daily basis to serve the needs of government and the community.

While some can work remotely, from their home or on the road, there's still significant barriers to teleworking in the public service.

Whether it's the need to install a secure connection in a person's home, check the OH&S layout of their kitchens or simply a reluctance on the part of managers to allow staff to work outside their sight.

While companies like Cisco have had a hotdesking approach for many years, with staff able to go into any office, sit at any desk and start working with full access to their digital files and phone, only a few government agencies have recently made it possible to hotdesk within their own environment.

There's no clear pathway for any Australian Public Servant to sit at any desk in any government office and work effectively without complex and time-consuming IT steps (if it's possible at all).

There's a large and growing productivity cost to this kind of IT inflexibility.

From the huge ICT costs  in moving workers and changing system access that's involved when governments rip agencies apart and put them back together in different configurations during Machinery of Government changes, to the lost opportunities to employ the best person for a job because they don't live - and won't move - to a specific geographic region, governments are increasingly being shoehorned into a lose-lose situation where their technical environments damage their ability to deliver outcomes.

I've had significant experience in teleworking. In the late-90s, while living in Sydney, I was also lead designer on a commercial game developed by a team in Adelaide, that I met in person a total of once.

When working for a start-up at the turn of the century, nominally in an office in Sydney, I also regularly travelled and worked from the UK, Singapore and the US.

Into the 2000s I wrote books and articles for a range of publications from my home, my local playground (having young kids), or pretty much any location where I had access to technology and close proximity to an internet connection.

After moving to Canberra I cofounded an oil exploration company with someone who soon moved to Sydney. We established a board with Directors based across Australia and in Asia, and employed a team in Texas to explore an oil field in the US, with almost all of the company's business conducted online.

However when I look at roles in government today (particularly some of the interesting digital roles that have popped up in recent times), they still require an individual to be physically situated near a specific office. Some even offer to help pay people to relocate their entire lives to be closer to these jobs. There's a little more leeway for senior executives, who might get assisted accommodation and travel to allow them to work a city away from where they live.

Sure there's still many people normalised into working in the same office with the same people every day. However there's a growing number who've learnt the art of working anywhere, building and managing remote teams and achieving bodacious goals.

Certainly there's roles that require a physical presence - face-to-face customer service (when not delivered digitally over screens), inspectors and jobs that involve moving physical goods from place to place (until robots and remotely controlled drones take over).

However I'm hard pressed to think of many other roles in government that actually require staff to be physically present in the same office all the time. Policy development, program development and delivery, grant management, communications, IT, HR, Finance, phone and online customer service, briefing Ministers and stakeholder engagement - all these roles could be delivered effectively remotely with appropriate technology, security and mindsets.

In some of these roles there may be some need to physically meet one's colleagues, customers and stakeholders for some of the time, but none require workers to all live in one geographic location, to work in one office, often in one big room like battery hens.

There's also many roles where mobility is a distinct advantage - anyone working on a whole-of-government taskforce, or who regularly meets stakeholders, moves between offices for meetings, or has a distributed team. These people would gain enormously from being able to work wherever they happen to be.

So how important is geographic location for a digitalised public sector workforce?

Objectively it's no longer important at all.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

How does government manage the consequences of an imbalance in speed of transparency & speed of accountability?

One of the emerging challenges for governments in the online age is managing the discrepancy between the speed of transparency and the speed of accountability.

With digitalisation and the internet, the speed at which government information is made public is becoming faster, with it being easier to collect, aggregate and publish information and data in near or even real-time.

We see this particularly in public transit data, where many cities around the world now publish real-time data on the location and load of their buses, trains and trams, and in the health industry where a number of states have begun offering near real-time data on the congestion in emergency waiting rooms.

We're also seeing similar near real-time reporting on river levels, dams, traffic congestion and closures, and estimated real-time reports on everything from population to national debt levels.

This trend is expanding, with the Sense-T network in Tasmania pioneering an economy-wide sensor network and data resource. Similarly the Department of Finance in Canberra is working on a system to provide real-time budget information on government expenditure down to every $500 for internal management and public transparency purposes.

This trend is a leap forward in government transparency, providing citizens, bureaucrats and politicians with far greater visibility on how our governance systems are performing and far more capability to identify trends or patterns quickly.

We're seeing a similar transparency event at the moment, with the expenses scandal enfolding the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Bronwyn Bishop, related to her use of a helicopter and several charter flights to attend political fund-raising events.

What this event has also highlighted is that while Australia's governance systems are increasing the speed of transparency, our capability to apply that information to accountable decision-making isn't consistently accelerating at the same rate.

In other words, while we increasingly can obtain the information needed for rapid decision-making, the entrenched processes and methods for decision-making in government are lagging far behind.

We see this in the failure rate of IT projects, which can drag on for years after it's clear they will fail, when laws fail to work as they should and it takes months or years to amend them, when the public has judged a politician's actions, but parliament can take no formal action for months due to being out of session.

Of course many sound reasons can and are given by bureaucrats and politicians as to why decisions need to take lots of time.

Decision-makers from the pre-internet world will say that they need to ensure they have all the necessary data, have digested it, reflected on it, considered alternatives and consequences, consulted widely and only then are able to tweak or change a decision.

This is a fair position with many defensible qualities - it reflects the world in which these people grew up, when decision-making could be undertaken leisurely while the world waited.

However both management theory and the behaviour of our communities have changed.

Start-ups grow and become huge companies based on their ability to make decisions rapidly. They are continuously experimenting and testing new approaches to 'tweak' their businesses for greater success. This is underpinned by streams of real-time data which show the consequences of each experimental change, allowing the organisations to adjust their approach in very short time-frames, minimising their potential losses from sub-optimal decisions.

The community equally reacts very quickly to evidence of poor decisions and bad outcomes, with the internet, particularly social media, fueling this trend.

While this doesn't mean the community is consistently in the right on these matters, it does require decision-makers to respond and address concerns far more rapidly than they've had to in the past - 'holding the line' or 'depriving an issue of oxygen' are no longer effective strategies for delaying decision-making into the leisurely timeframes that older decision-makers grew up with.

This issue in the disparate speed of transparency (data release) and accountability (clear and unequivocal response) is growing as more organisations release more data and more of the public is collecting, collating and releasing data from their interactions with organisations.

The imbalance is fast becoming a critical challenge for governments to manage and could lead to some very ugly consequences if politicians and agencies don't rethink their roles and update their approaches.

Of course governments could attempt to sit back and 'tough it out', trying to hold their line against the increasing speed of transparency and accountability. In my view this would result in the worst possible result in the long-term, with increasingly frustrated citizens resorting to more and more active means to have government take accountability for their decisions in the timeframes that citizens regard as appropriate.

My hope is that government can reinvent itself, drawing on both internal and external capabilities and expertise to find a path that matches fast transparency with appropriately fast accountability.

I'd like to see governments challenge themselves to test all of their historic assumptions and approaches - reconsidering how they develop policy, how they consult, how they legislate and how they engage and inform the community, in order to address a world where 'outsiders' (non-public servants) are identifying issues and worrying trends at an accelerated rate.

Perhaps we need a radical new ways to develop and enforce laws, that provide scope for experimentation within legislation for agencies to reinterpret the letter of a law in order to fulfill it's desired outcomes and spirit.

Perhaps we need continuous online consulting processes, supported by traditional face-to-face and phone/mail surveys, which allow government to monitor and understand sentiment throughout policy development and implementation and allow a 'board' of citizens to oversee and adjust programs to maximise their effectiveness over time.

Perhaps we need mechanisms for citizens to put forward policies and legislation for parliament to consider, tools that allow citizens to recall politicians for re-election or a citizen-led approach to determining what entitlements are legitimate for politicians and what they should be paid, with penalties and appropriate recourse for citizens to sack representatives who fail to uphold the values the community expects at a far greater speed than the current election cycle.

There's sure to be many other ideas and mechanisms which may help deliver a stable and sustainable democratic state in the digital age of high-speed transparency and accountability - we just need governments to start experimenting - with citizens, not on them - to discover which work best.

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Friday, July 17, 2015

Have you visited lately? We're beginning to witness the 'Open Data Multiplier'

PS News has a great report on the growth of - linking to a report on the Department of Finance's blog which indicates the site added 100 datasets in June.

The site has also upgraded to provide more data visualisation capability for users, as well as a responsive template for improved mobile access.

Most interesting was the high use of the service over GovHack, with 4,755 user sessions by 2,618 users. The most popular datasets included intellectual property government open data 2015, ABC Local online photo stories 2009-2014 and sample household electricity time of use data.

I've written about some of the interesting Govhack prototypes over at The Mandarin in the article, GovHack 2015: a wildly successful idea that keeps spawning more, where I also wrote about how participation is a useful way for agencies to test and support 'edge' innovation without committing scarce personnel and funds.

From what I've been hearing over the weeks since Govhack we're reached something of a tipping point with open data in Australia, with governments beginning to seriously recognise the value of sharing data in this manner.

Those benefits are not just external to agencies, such as transparency, economic growth or community engagement, but also internal.

Internal open data benefits to government include improving agency decision-making (through greater awareness and access to collected data), improved data quality and fostering innovation and creativity.

As a result of reaching the tipping point, I expect to see continuing significant growth in the quantity and quality of open data available across Australia, as well as more targeted and useful data as agencies become more sophisticated in their data release (as I've outlined previously in my Open Data Generations Roadmap)

This will stimulate what I've termed the Open Data Multiplier.

As with the network effect, where the value of a network increases exponentially with the number of participants (think about telephones or the internet), the Open Data Multiplier means that each additional dataset released for reuse creates a growing number of possibilities to combine it with existing data, or use it on its own, to prompt even more interesting and diverse innovations.

However the Open Data Multiplier only operates when the community and agencies are engaged with open data. Without this community both inside and outside of the public sector, data sits 'on the shelf', generating no value at all.

This is where volunteer-run events like GovHack are valuable for fostering a positive civic hacking culture.

Agencies also have a role in fostering both an internal and external culture of data-based innovation through supporting GovHack and similar events, and running their own separate challenges on agency-specific topics (as Transport for NSW and Public Transport Victoria have done).

The internal benefits don't stop at data either. The same challenge model, once adopted by government, can be used more broadly for policy and service design and in finding diverse solutions for government problems - as has been successful in and is used by VicHealth and thre ACT government.

Indeed I ran a similar service design challenge for the Victorian Government at GovHack, the first exploration of such an approach at that event. The learnings will help guide Victoria's government in identifying when to use similar approaches and in designing and running future challenges.

All of this follows on from opening up government data, creating a more permissive and experimental sandpit for innovation and sharing.

And it starts with a visit to - have you visited lately?

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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Where have all the senior public servants disappeared to?

I've been attending a number of networking and other business events in the last month across Canberra, and have noticed that amongst all the CEOs, CTOs, Financial Directors and similar, that there's been no senior public servants in attendance.

While there was a good turn-out of public servants at one event I've attended, the Life beyond Lanyards launch last week, these were mid-level or lower.

So I'm beginning to wonder about how much actual cross-fertilization is going on between senior public servants and the private sector, how much senior public servants are getting 'out there' to meet and interact meaningfully with business owners.

Of course this is one person's impression over a short time period at a limited number of events, but when I think back over the last ten years, it's rare for senior public servants to spend much time with their colleagues in the corporate sector.

Definitely there's arranged events, speaking at conferences, attending lunch seminars and the like, but as soon as their part is done, senior public servants tend to race back to the office rather than shoot the breeze with their private sector equivalents, to discuss broader issues and topics.

Of course they have good reason - senior public servants are incredibly busy meeting their commitments to Ministers, managing their organisations and keeping work flowing through approvals and initiating work programs.

The culture of Australia's public service, for the most part, involves dedicated and hard work in service of the government of the day, in order to serve the citizens of the country.

However I think that sometimes working on their business is as important as working in their business. This is something that good corporate executives and small business people alike learn - that networking to form relationships, that consulting and learning from colleagues across other industries, is a key to improving their own organisations and achieving success.

This is a key ingredient in innovation - associating with people from many walks of life, rather than simply with one's one public sector colleagues.

Successive Australian governments have recognised the value of this cross-fertilisation, and the APS has also fostered bringing private sector people into senior government roles as a way to foster a broadening of attitudes, rather than the 'groupthink' that can emerge from any group of people with similar backgrounds, career paths, values and experience.

This has had mixed success in my view, many people with extensive private sector but without public sector experience don't last that long in SES roles, due to the level of difference in approach and views.

The current fledgling program of seconding senior public servants into the private sector is another attempt at achieving the same end - bringing a broader set of viewpoints and experience (as well as larger and more complex networks) back into the public sector, thereby improving the effectiveness of policy design and delivery and fostering innovation.

I hope this works well - but I don't believe either of the above are the full solution to this wicked problem.

What we need is for senior public servants to be mandated and supported to recognise that building deep relationships across and understanding of the sectors they serve is a valid and important part of dedicated public service.

This means delegating more tasks and approval authority downwards to leave senior public servants with time, and the mandate, to spend less time checking grammar and more time associating with groups and individuals outside of government.

Who knows, it could even help foster the external credibility of government.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Does Canberra already face a shortage of experienced government ICT executives?

The Mandarin reports that six significant federal agencies are currently seeking permanent Chief Information Officers, while both the ACT government and the Federal government's Digital Transition Office recently resorted to overseas hires to fill senior leadership roles requiring strong digital backgrounds.

Does this signify a shortage of senior digital and ICT talent in Australia (or at least of talent willing to work for government)?

Or is it merely a timing issue, representing a temporary hiccup in the supply of appropriately skilled executives?

While I'm sure the current shortage will be managed, it is worth considering in the light of Australia's declining number of ICT graduates, which represents a future challenge for both government and the private sector in attracting the best talent for future ICT and digital roles.

While increasingly Australia is off-shoring ICT work, or is able to buy in foreign digital services and talent, this disguises a deeper concern - that there may not be sufficient ICT and digitally trained and experienced locals in the future able to step into senior strategic roles.

If many entry and mid-level programming and digital positions are outsourced to overseas specialists, Australia won't be providing enough locals with appropriate career paths towards senior roles to support the talent development we need as a nation.

Now this isn't a new issue, the ICT industry has been shouting about it from the rooftops for at least the last three years.

However the ICT industry doesn't have the lobbying power in Canberra of other groups, from doctors to miners, and with most of Australia's senior politicians being digital immigrants at best, there's limited recognition of the scale of the issue or what positive steps can be taken to address it.

As society grows increasingly digital, the lack of strategic talent available for business and government is likely to become a significant drag on our economy and governance capability, placing us at a relative disadvantage against countries with a good talent pipeline and positive digital policies.

So while agencies are searching for those senior ICT executives they need today, they should consider how they can future-proof their talent pipelines into the future.

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Monday, July 13, 2015

If you want to see the impact of poor user interface design, look no further than Canberra's parking meters

User interface design (or UX design) has been a buzz term for several years in government, with agencies spending significant money on ensuring their services and processes are easy for the broadest range of citizens to access and complete.

This is a good thing too - It makes good economic, reputational and even health sense to make it easy and fast for citizens to interact with government, reducing mistakes, stress and negative impressions.

Complex and difficult to user interfaces have higher error rates, resulting in frustrated and sometimes out-of-pocket citizens, extra costs for government and often a loss of trust and respect in the service outcomes and agencies responsible.

Anyone who still doesn't understand the value to both government and citizens need go no further to witness the issues poor interfaces and processes cause than Canberra's parking lots, where the current crop of parking meters are creating all kinds of problems for citizens.

For example the current parking meters in the Wilson-run car park on London Circuit follow a process that is both complex and invasive for customers, greatly increasing the time required to conduct one of the simplest tasks a citizen has to perform, renting a parking spot.

Firstly the machines have an unnecessarily complex interface, with six buttons, several unmarked, one each red and green and the other four all yellow. Little stickers have been manually attached to several of the buttons to explain their functions, although several of the yellow buttons are used for multiple purposes at different stages of purchasing a ticket and different times of day. Most have two name tags, one at top, one at bottom. Some of these tags were faded and hard to read, so would presumably need to be replaced regularly, adding unnecessary effort to the process of maintaining the machines and increasing the risk of errors by parkers.

The many buttons on Wilson parking machines in Canberra
The many buttons on Wilson parking machines in Canberra
Secondly the process to pay for a parking spot isn't as well explained or as easy as it could be. The machine first asks for a person's payment method (coins or card) and then requires entry of the car's license plate via a touch screen (so why buttons you may also ask).

Now, I don't know about everyone, but many people I know, including myself, haven't memorised our car license plates. It's never used as a form of personal identification and only rarely are people required to use it, usually when organising to service their car (and after the first service, normally a mobile number or name is sufficient for a mechanic). 

There's no benefit to the user to providing this license plate information - only to Wilsons, who I presume use it to prevent people ticket sharing if they leave a spot early, so they can profiteer by re-renting an already paid-up parking spot (which could be considered unethical profiteering, but is one of the techniques used to maximise profits in car parks).

Enter License Plate to begin (the second screen, so not the beginning!)
Enter License Plate to begin (the second screen, so not the beginning!)
There's also no signage in the car park, at the entrance or at the machine, to indicate to someone entering the car park, or waiting in line to buy a ticket, that they need to have this information at their fingertips. A parker new to the car park only finds out they need to have memorised their license plate when they reach this specific screen in the process - and they can't proceed any further without entering it.

The number and placement of machines in the car park can mean up to about a 50m walk back to your car to check, meaning a 100m round trip to retrieve this information. If there's a queue for tickets, common at peak times, this can make the ticket purchase process a 15 minute or longer process - intensely frustrating for busy professionals on their way to a meeting (speaking from personal experience).
Once past this screen the process was a little simpler, if followed precisely. The screen told me which yellow buttons to press (although I had to recognise that 'Select Earlybird' meant press the button which was marked as both 'Card' and 'E/Bird'), it took my coins quickly and efficiently dispensed my ticket.

Unfortunately the process wasn't as seamless for people ahead of me in the line who were using credit cards. Often the machine took three or more goes to recognise the card as valid and, once it had, it took on average 135 seconds to approve each transaction (I timed this). 

For credit card users, if you knew your license plate number (as regulars would learn to do), the entire process took approximately 3.5 to 4 minutes to complete, most of it spent choosing the right yellow buttons and waiting for credit card approval. At this rate each machine could service 15-20 people per hour. Cutting a minute off the credit card approval process would allow the machine to service 25-30 people per hour, This is up to a 100% increase in speed, resulting in less stressed customers, better patronage and more revenue for the car park.

Most of Canberra's public car parks have ACT government parking machines. These are different to Wilson's and have a slightly better interface - although they don't allow coin payments. 

Having used them frequently I'm not as able to look at them with unfamiliar eyes, however they provide better onscreen instructions to step people through the necessary steps, although I've witnessed people struggling to understand the '+' and '-' buttons for increasing or decreasing the parking time, with many people just paying the full amount rather than selecting a time period.

These machines don't require a license number, and don't have unnecessary buttons, so the overall impression is of a simpler process.

However these machines suffer from a similar issue to the Wilson machines for the credit card approval process, which takes a relatively long time for card approvals. While I appreciate this might be due to dialing into the bank each time, it does mean that at peak times there can be a long line of people standing and waiting for their turn, resulting in more stressed customers and potentially reductions in revenue.

I've also witnessed situations where there's insufficient room to queue safely for these machines, with people required to wait in a queue that snakes into the roads within the car park, where they and cars must dodge each other. This presents an increased risk of an accident, where a pedestrian is harmed by a car attempting to find a car spot, potentially increasing the legal risks to the ACT government.

Now these ACT government car parks do allow people to pay for their parking online, removing the queuing and waiting at the car park, when people may be rushed for time. This option is not well explained on the machines in the car parks, which is a shame as it could cut queues as people waiting could simply go online to pay. 

Incidentally I find this a very handy trick at Hoyts to avoid some of the really long queues for movies - despite their ridiculous surcharge on online purchases, when nudge theory suggests they should charge less for online purchases (including from the Candy Bar) to prompt greater take-up and reduce physical queues and staff time.

However I've heard and read many reports of people who have found online payment for car parking a frustrating process as, once parked, parking inspectors often give tickets to people who aren't displaying a parking ticket. This has even received media coverage

As a result I've not tried this process and likely won't try it until the ACT government makes it clear (on parking meters and via it's own media channels) that the online option is working correctly.

This issue seems to be purely a training and change management one, with parking inspectors needing some adjustment of their behaviour through training and support to ensure they check the online system before issuing tickets.

Tens of thousands of public servants use Canberra's parking machines regularly, and have likely noticed issues and possibly even expressed frustration with the user interface and process. Many would have adjusted their own behaviours to deal with the foibles of the systems - arriving a few minutes earlier to allow for credit card purchase approval time, memorised their license plate number and learnt the right sequence of button presses to achieve the outcome they need daily.

All of them should consider the user interface and process, reflecting on their own experience. How could it be made simpler and easier, particularly for parkers who don't use the parking every day?

Then take that thinking and reflect on the user interfaces and processes they create and administer within government. How could they be made simpler and easier for citizens and for public servants, while reducing the error rate and cost to government?

What is the impact of any poor design within their own systems - both to citizens and government? And what value could be delivered, and behaviours adjusted positively, by improving the user interface design?

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Thursday, July 09, 2015

We could resolve the electoral donations dilemma with a little digital thinking

One of the significant news stories in Australia this week is the revelation that Bill Shorten failed to correctly disclose a $40,000 electoral donation in a timely manner - breaching parliamentary requirements.

This is far from the first time a politician has done this, with repeated errors in declaring donations an ongoing issue for both major parties in Australian politics, and even affecting several minor parties and independents.

This has been called a crisis of trust, and one result has been calls for full public funding of elections - an approach that has been tried to some degree in a few other jurisdictions around the world.

Where full or near-full public funding has been attempted it has faced both legal controversies and difficulties in finding a formula that effectively funds established parties without closing the door on new electoral entrants or unfairly benefiting incumbent governments.

Australia already has partial public funding for elections, paid on a per vote basis. At the last election in September 2013 a total of $58.1 million was paid out, on the basis of $2.49 per first preference vote for candidates receiving at least 4% of the primary vote.

This 'flat rate' isn't necessarily a perfect solution either - it doesn't take into account the size of some of Australia's electorates (from Wentworth at 30 square km to Durack at 1,587,758 square km), or the significant differences in the number of voters per electorate (from 62,917 in Lingiari to Fraser with 143,564 voters). It is also open to manipulation by governments or major parties, as the amount per vote, or the threshold for payment, can be altered through legislation passed by a majority in both houses of parliament.

There's also other flaws with Australia's electoral donations laws, with donations often declared publicly through the Australian Electoral Commission 12 months or more after they are donated - often well after the election that the donors may be seeking to influence - leaving voters unable to consider the donations in the context of how they choose to vote.

Electoral donations are also often an area of contention for Australian state, territory and local governments, with varying laws in each jurisdiction, often modified by governments to suit their electoral needs. In particular NSW recently had over 10 Liberal MPs resign the party and several resign parliament due to irregularities as to who they received donations from, or roughly 25% of sitting members in their previous Liberal government.

There's also been cases of parties moving money between states or to and from their federal parties in order to evade stricter electoral declaration rules, and other kinds of shenanigans with the system between funds donated to individual politicians and to their parties.

It seems to me that a little digital thinking could resolve a large proportion of the issues with Australia's donation system, both ensuring donations are recorded and allocated appropriately and declared rapidly to the public.

Why not build a central donations website for collecting and declaring electoral donations for all parties.

The site, potentially called the Australian Electoral Donations System  (or AEDS for those who love acronyms), could provide a single electronic gateway for individuals of any political belief to donate funds from their bank account, credit card, paypal or other account to the candidate(s) and party(ies) of their choice. Every donation could be electronically transferred to the correct recipient and declared in real time as the electronic transfer occurs.

The AEDS could support both personal and corporate donations, including cash donations at events and gold coin donations, through becoming the official way of issuing tax receipts for all donations, making it unacceptable to simply hand candidates 'brown bags' of undeclared cash (a form of donation that is already illegal but hard to trace).

For easy event management, attendee management and an auction component could be built into the AEDS and a mobile app or web service used for recording donations (and attendance) at electoral events - mitigating the current issues with tracking and identifying donations through vehicles like Joe Hockey's 'North Shore Forum'.

It would become far easier for the public to see who has donated what to which parties - on a near-real-time basis, and the Australian Electoral Commission would be able to detect issues much faster - particularly where declared party income and expenditures don't match up. The AEDS may also help the Tax office to track the movement of funds and following up to verify that individuals and organisations are reporting their earnings and expenditures correctly, and even support police in identifying criminal activities linked to donations.

Done right this central donations website could even turn a profit - by taking a percentage of every donation towards its operating costs. Given that $10 million or more is given each year in donations to the federal parties (and that's only counting donations over the current $12,500 donation level), a 10% processing charge for using the AEDS could more than cover the ongoing costs of the service. This could be potentially a much lower charge when considering all the smaller donations (from $2 to $12,499) made at federal level and all of the donations to state and local politicians and parties.

The AEDS could be set-up as a start-up and run as an independent body - or even become a listed entity on the stock market (possibly expanding into offering similar electoral donations systems for other nations).

At worst case, the AEDS could be run under the auspices (or with board oversight) of the Australian Electoral Commission - though given their struggles to update their own technology I doubt the organisation has appropriate management to operate such a significant system.

Of course it would be a crazy entrepreneur to set up such a system without agreement and legislation by government, so the first step must be taken by parliament to recognise that the current electoral donation system is destroying trust and damaging the legitimacy of government - creating a strong perception, if not a reality, that our politicians are, if not for sale, at least for rent by the largest donors - be they corporations or organised crime.

Would our parliament countenance such a move?

I hope so. Removing the difficulty of managing electoral donations from parties, and the embarrassment politicians face when someone in their office forgets or incorrectly declares a donation, or they accidentally take money from an illegal donor, this type of independently-run electoral donation system would both make the lives of politicians easier and reduce their stress levels, while potentially lengthening their careers.

I've thought a great deal about how this system could work, and the problems it may face, so if anyone in government wants to discuss the idea further, drop me a line.

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Wednesday, July 08, 2015

No it's a not appropriate to load test on your citizens in production - particularly when it's a critical service

The last week has seen a range of major issues for the Australian Government's new MyTax service.

As reported across both traditional and social media, people using MyTax to file their tax returns have experienced shut-outs, had the process freeze when they were almost complete and had it fail to autofill their pre-saved details.

MyTax is an online version of the eTax software which had been the primary way for people to digitally complete their tax returns for the last fifteen years. eTax improved year on year and had enormous take-up. In all respects it was a major success for the ATO.

This is the first year the Australian Tax Office has deployed the MyTax system and integrated it with MyGov. While the intention was, and is, good - to give Australians a single way to validate themselves with multiple government agencies - the implementation in this case hasn't withstood the real world.

This isn't a unique experience and it isn't limited to government. We've seen it with certain banking services, with retailers (particularly on a certain contrived Australian online shopping day each year), with A-grade games (such as SimCity) and with a range of other online services such as Apple maps.

In fact this issue is relatively rare, in comparison to the private sector, in government, with the last major issue of this type internationally being with in the US, and the last I recall in Australia being with the MySchools site launch.

This type of issue will happen from time to time. Unforeseen bugs or network issues, denial of service attacks or other environmental issues can bring down even the most robust service, particularly at launch.

In every one of these cases there's a backlash from customers - and in every one of these cases the organisation responsible is judged based on how they manage and recover from the disaster.

In the MyTax case, while the ATO were probably aware of the risks, and may even have learnt some lessons from several of the issues highlighted above, it appears they're still struggling to manage and recover from the situation.

When asked about the siituation the CIO of the ATO, Jane King, wrote, as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, that "Capacity planning and testing was completed as part of the rolling out of the new digital design, however due to the complexity of our environment, production is always the real test."

I read this as her saying that while they did conduct testing, they were actually relying on real citizens, at real tax time, to fully evaluate how the MyTax system would perform.

Just as the UTS professor John Leaney, quoted in the SMH article above, says - this type of statement just isn't good enough.

"We're not in the 1950s; we're not even in 1990s, we've learnt a lot and from what we've learnt we apply the techniques for proper capacity modelling," Leaney said. "There should have been much better testing; it's not something you should learn the hard way on a major government system."

The ATO needs to do better at risk planning around situations like this. It needs to test capability properly and not hide behind the 'too many users' defense.

Government agencies need to carefully watch and learn from this experience - and learn the right lessons.

The first lesson is to conduct appropriate capacity testing. Look at the ABS's implementation of eCensus and the level of testing and resilience it put in place the first time eCensus was used in 2006. The ABS gave a great presentation on the topic, which I attended, which highlighted the risk mitigation steps they'd taken - from capacity testing through to multiple redundant systems and real-time monitoring with developers on standby and fallback manual systems in place.

The second lesson is to not release major systems at a time when they are going to come under a huge load. Release a new tax system in February or March, or after tax time in October, giving time to shakeout the production system and address issues before it hits peak load.

The third lesson is to avoid releasing major systems. Instead release smaller, but useful, services and progressively integrate them into a major new service, testing each carefully as they go. This is how Facebook totally replaced its back-end without any disruption to people's use of the service - modularly upgrading aspects of the service until it was completely done.

The final lesson is to plan your recovery before your system fails. Design a failover plan for what happens if the system doesn't work for people, a manual solution if required. The ATO should direct anyone with issues to a hotline where they can complete their tax return over the phone, or via screen sharing, so no-one is left waiting for days or in a position of financial distress due to not receiving a tax return fast.

I feel for the ATO (particularly their ICT team) and don't blame them for the issues they're having with MyTax, however I do hold the agency responsible for how the ATO recovers from this disaster.

They need to stop defending their implementation of MyTax and focus on ways to meet citizen needs - even outside the MyTax system - to ensure that the 'tax returns get through'.

Otherwise this issue could turn into another Apple maps-style disaster, or even worse, as there's no 'competitor' to the ATO that citizens can turn to to complete their tax returns. At least, not yet...

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Tuesday, July 07, 2015

It's not been quiet on Australia's Government 2.0 front

While I've been very tardy at posting this year, due to busyness, significant life and work changes and a general lassitude brought on from blogging for so many years, the Government 2.0 scene in Australia has continued to progress.

While some of the faces and names have changed, and the public sector talks more about innovation, 'digital government' and 'digital transformation' than about Government 2.0, the overall direction remains the same - increasing use of modern digital tools and techniques to improve the operation and outcomes of government.

In the last six months we've seen a number of major initiatives take shape.

At a federal level the big news is the Digital Transition Office (DTO), modeled on the UK Government Digital Service (GDS) and the US Digital Service (USDS), was formed early this year with seconded staff and officially launched on 1 July with a budget of $254.7 million over four years. The DTO knuckled down to work even before it had a CEO or budget, and some of its activities and thinking is being shared on the DTO blog - with much more to come.

Recently the new CEO of the DTO was announced (replacing seconded SES officers), with the government choosing an overseas candidate who had developed a similar approach before - Paul Shetler, formerly Director of the GDS.

While it's sad there's little in the way of Australian talent ready at this level, it's good the government has taken the step of appointing someone with the experience and nous to take on this difficult public sector role.

Also in Canberra, the Australian Public Service recently launched Public Sector Innovation Month, an event that has grown from strength to strength over the last few years. While I was interstate for the launch (on 6 July), I'm involved with a number of the scheduled events, and will try to provide some insights into the mood and activities throughout July.

DFAT also recently ran a wildly successful internal idea-sourcing process. Over 40% of DFAT staff participated, with 392 ideas and 16,000 votes submitted. A number of the ideas are being progressed, with a lucky few funded and recognised at a whole-of-DFAT event. I'm hopeful other agencies will take note of this approach and it's well designed process (facilitated by Collabforge) and consider ways to unlock the ideas and experience of their (highly experienced) staff.

Nationally this month saw the return of GovHack, with 31 sites and around 2,000 registered participants across Australia and New Zealand. With 276 completed projects across 400 teams, this has been the biggest and best organised GovHack (according to the anecdotal reports I've received) so far.

I spend GovHack in the Melbourne site, managing and mentoring teams for the Victorian Government's challenge, Taking government services digital. This was the first time GovHack had offered a challenge to hack government without the need to mash-up open data and was an exciting pilot for involving the public in digital service design.

Given that Melbourne, as the largest venue for GovHack in 2015, had more hackers and projects than all of GovHack in 2012, the growth of this event has been staggering, yet well managed.

The last few months have also seen the initiation of Service Victoria, an agency established within Victoria's Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC), to take on the redevelopment of high volume and high cost Victorian government services in a collaborative way with the agencies that 'own' those transactions, as well as the integration of into DPC to provide it with a more central outlook and greater cloud.

The WA government has taken firm steps towards an open data portal, building on some of the great work done by local agencies and volunteers, while the ACT has rationalised and centralised its focus on innovation to improve effectiveness and attempted to hire a Chief Digital Officer (albeit unsuccessfully).

NSW has continue to move slowly towards greater adoption of open data, while Queensland and South Australia are seeing a slight pause as they rethink their ICT strategies and political foci.

The Northern Territory and Tasmania still lag behind other states, though renewed attempts are underway in Hobart to reinvigorate a move towards greater use of digital across government.

Larger local governments, particularly Melbourne and Brisbane, are pushing forward with strong digital agendas, while outside of government the OKFN have moved past their establishment phase and is beginning to support real change, while Code for Australia,a newer group, is beginning to flex its wings and create partnerships with governments to embed innovative Fellows to push along digital initiatives.

Across the board there's still limited political direction and focus on the value digital can have for government, although both Turnbull at federal level and the latest Victorian Government have demonstrated clear commitment and advocacy on digital's power to improve outcomes.

The role of the community in encouraging, supporting, and occasionally chastising, governments to become more digital remains huge, and we're now beginning to see agencies recognise the need for digital leads, separate to existing executives. This is a huge opportunity for anyone who wants to work in a senior level in digital while achieving lasting social and economic good for the nation, states or local communities, and will continue to grow as more agencies identify their lack.

So overall, Australia is still very much in the early stages of the digital transformation of government, with pockets of maturity helping to bring lagging areas up to speed.

There's a long way to go before government is truly digitally enabled - inside and out - but most governments now have their feet firmly planted on the road and recognise the value that striding forward will bring.

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