Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Australian government has put digital government and open data in the centre

With the change in Prime Minister to Malcolm Turnbull there was always likely to be a shift in the prominence of digital and IT within government.

The new administrative arrangements released earlier this week demonstrated this clearly, with the Digital Transition Office moving from the Communications portfolio to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Gov 2.0 and open data functions moving from Finance also into the DPC.

This means little to the Australian public, who simply expect government to do its job well, but means a great deal within government itself. It is a very strong signal to Secretaries and their teams that digital transformation and open data are serious priorities for the current government and need appropriate attention, resourcing and support.

What's also interesting is how these changes and others going on both publicly and behind closed doors in Canberra are about shifting the structures and cultures in Canberra towards a more collaborative, consultative and engaging one.

While signature government policies on asylum seekers, climate change and other key areas haven't changed under Turnbull, or at least not yet (a matter of significant commentary on social media at the moment), I would argue that the structural changes that have been started are far more significant in terms of shifting how the Australian government functions in the long term.

Historically while policies have changed regularly, and often quickly, as governments are elected or react to circumstance and public views, the public service had been slower to adapt to 21st Century realities, held back by its legislative design and shape, its obligations and the cultures it has evolved over the decades.

To reboot how government operates, enable more innovative and relevant policy approaches and allow in widespread adoption of modern business practice it was always going to take more than changes in policy settings - an elected government had to be willing to reach deep into the gullet of the public sector and change its operations in a fundamental way.

Few governments have been prepared to do this in more than a cosmetic way, due to the challenges in changing such a large and complex beast which was actually performing well by global standards. However the system has been fraying at the edges for some time, with capability losses and rigid legacy approaches making it harder and harder for elected governments to implement their policy and  create real positive change for Australians.

I have witnessed situations where agencies were incapable of implementing certain government policies, necessitating either shifts of responsibility or the creation of new agencies, as well as situations where Ministers and public servants found their capability to be productive was restricted, rather than enabled, by legacy IT systems and regulation which has grown like weeds over decades.

If the Turnbull government is serious about its intention to systemically change how government functions in Canberra, reshaping the role of the public sector in policy design, service delivery and rapid accountability, then one of its most significant legacies may be to future-proof the Australian government for the next century.

The structural change underway is not about rewinding government's clockwork, but about replacing cogs with computer chips and agile digital programs.

It's not just about connecting public servants to the wider community, but about letting the community lead and drive policy agendas, with the public sector as a expert facilitation support.

If this works it changes everything about how government works in Australia, though perceptual changes will take longer to be obvious to citizens.

These changes will take time. There will be fumbles and missteps and significant resistance both from internal and external players who enjoy the benefits of the failing status quo. Some resistance will be overt, but most will be covert, and often couched in supportive words but with no supportive activity. Some will be deliberate and calculated, but much will be instinctive or based on old world paradigms by people who simply haven't grasped the realities of our changing world - particularly outside the Canberra bubble.

However if these changes do not occur, rebound with a subsequent government or are given lip service only due to being 'too hard', Australia will face a more frightening scenario. A scenario in which our governance structures fail to support Australians to be competitive in our changing world. Where we become a sunset economy of resources and agriculture and our most talented scientists and computer specialists leave for greater opportunities offshore, leaving Australians to buy our own successes at retail prices.

Events will tell us how serious Turnbull's government will be - and how successful. However if the current government doesn't succeed in this systemic change, the big question will be, who could?

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Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Now it gets interesting - Australia has its first digitally literate Prime Minister

Rudd & Gillard could work the Twitters.

Abbott understood the need to engage digitally, if not the tech, the value or the full impact (and mistakenly thought one of his Ministers had invented the Internet).

Even Howard got onboard the digital express with a few YouTube videos.

However Australia has never before in its history had a digitally literate Prime Minister of the likes of Malcolm Turnbull.

This could mean nothing, or it could mean enormous change if the Australian Government is told to lift its game on digital engagement and treat technology as an integral part of designing and implementing government business rather than as a service to be called on when needed.

Turnbull has already laid down a positioning statement in this area, stating in his inaugural media announcement as PM that "We need an open government, an open government that recognises that there is an enormous sum of wisdom both within our colleagues in this building and, of course, further afield."

We'll see quite quickly which is true by Turnbull's approach to several of the key planks of openness and digital transformation.

Key steps would include endorsing and progressing Australia's membership of the Open Government Partnership, something agreed to by the Gillard government but was placed on the perpetual back burner by Abbott as he focused on closing, rather than opening up, government.

I'd also expect to see a rethink of the government's position on the Office of the Information Commissioner - an agency the Abbott government failed to legislate to remove but has been killing by degrees by cutting funding and refusing to replace Commissioners.

Another sign of change would be an elevation of the role of the Digital Transformation Office, making more of its approaches mandatory and providing more teeth to the agency when dealing with big and slow moving Departments more interested in the status quo. 

This could include shifting  the DTO back to the Prime Minister's department, but with a direct reporting line to Turnbull that minimizes the obfuscation prevalent within that department at senior levels. 

Other areas that could use attention include the open data space, which is run on a shoestring by Finance and could greatly magnify its impact with additional resourcing and mandates, and, of course, the NBN - Turnbull's former responsibility as Communications Minister. 

A shift back to a FTTH approach, delivered more cost-effectively than the previous Labor model, would provide Australia with the infrastructure it needs for the 21st century and cement Turnbull as a visionary with Australia's long-term future at heart.

There's also many things that could be done at a micro-level within agencies to shift the reliance on corporate IT suppliers, 1990s systems and large, virtually undeliverable technology projects - many of which could be led by a revitalised AGIMO in association with the DTO.

Of course Turnbull may have other fish to fry, he has quite a lot to do to get the Liberals back to an electoral-ready position within 12 months, and if not re-elected much of the program above could find itself on the scrap heap of a new government that wants to do things differently.

However I am hopeful that we'll see some true digital leadership from Turnbull whilst he is Prime Minister and potentially some real shifts in how government is delivered in Australia, to the benefit of all Australians now and in the future.

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Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Innovation requires innovators, not silver bullet processes & superstar visionaries

I'm seeing something that disturbs me happening in the innovation space across government. Something that suggests that 'innovation' is becoming more of a buzzword than a real change in organisational culture.

On one front, as agencies 'buy into' the innovation mantra, they are developing processes for fostering innovation - systems designed to fast-track innovative ideas from the bottom and middle of their hierarchies to allow top-level scrutiny, prioritisation and allocation of resources.

While these processes mean well, and do help some innovations scale the senior attention ladder more rapidly, they also put a structure and framework around what is and isn't innovation, which can become unhealthy over time.

People who are good at figuring out systems, and the 'realities' limiting senior thinking will gain priority over those with less experience with managing hierarchies - potentially perpetuating the dislocation of some groups of innovators within government, those whose ideas are 'too radical', 'too politically impractical' or 'too difficult or expensive' based on the experience of senior public sector leaders.

Of course innovations that fit the mental models held by long-term leadership, that are 'incremental', 'politically uncontroversial' and 'win-win' (aka no powerful group will have their nose put out of joint) will be given pride of place and will be supported - perpetuating, rather than disrupting how these agencies operate.

Certainly these incremental innovations are valuable and can provide real value in service, cost and outcome terms - however they may also lock agencies into legacy modes of behaviour and thought.

Making a horse-drawn carriage better, faster and more cost-effectively is worth doing, and may reflect the career experience of senior officials - but will fail to deliver the right experience for citizens who want cars.

Innovation that is truly transformational often costs jobs and requires radical rethinking of approach, structure and culture. It's uncomfortable, unpleasant to many, and requires firm direction to embed.

This type of innovation is unlikely to be supported in agency innovation processes - senior officials rarely support initiatives that will see them lose their power base or job.

Processes also have a tendency to ossify. Government is comprised of processes on processes on processes - it's processes all the way down. Many of these processes don't deliver the outcomes the community wants, or are difficult for public servants to even complete, particularly in efficient and effective ways. How does proceduralising innovation help fix this situation and 'break the loop'?

The answer, of course, is that it doesn't. It simply normalises innovation into current public sector workplace models and encourages innovation that has immediate application to existing processes.

The approach essentially turns innovation into a process for improving the effectiveness of other government processes, often without questioning whether these processes need to exist at all.

Over time it is  likely that innovation processes in government will also ossify - that each year they will deliver less return than the year before as innovations that 'fit the right mould' decline, and innovations that are outside the mould increase.

This happens in a rapidly changing landscape - where our knowledge doubles twice in  a year and organisations are perpetually playing catch-up. We simply don't have the experience to develop processes that can adapt quickly enough to reflect environmental change - or the expertise to develop a process that allows us to adapt our processes as quickly as required.

On the other hand, government innovation is starting to become the province of 'visionaries' and 'champions' - people who are singled out as having the 'it' factor that helps pave the way for the plebeian public servants doing the actual innovating.

There's some familiar names in this group - as you'd expect. A number I know personally and have enormous respect for, based on their energy and ability to articulate their views.

Without disparaging this group, which at times I've also been included in, innovation isn't about 'lighthouse' personalities who stand out amidst the crowd, speak at conferences and are interviewed across the media.

Innovation is about the quiet person in the corner who figures out how to cut a step in a government process that saves 50,000 businesses each $500 per year, the geeky IT guy who prefers computers to people, who develops a backend system that improves their agency's security against foreign hackers three-fold or the introverted policy officer who analyses the data and devises a policy that balances political concerns while facilitating a new billion-dollar export industry for Australia.

Innovation is about everyone in government who has ever questioned why things are done in a particular way, and gone about improving them - officially or unofficially, via the designated innovation approach or not, irregardless of whether they ever get an award or speak to a crowd.

Everyone in government can innovate, and everyone should be given the permission, freedom, support and encouragement to do so, whenever they ask 'why?'

For me the real public service innovation champions and visionaries are the public servants we never hear from or see. The ones that work deep in the structures of agencies and innovate not because it's mandated or supported, but because they care about how government operates and impacts citizens, and can see how to improve it.

Succeed or fail these people wish to make their organisations better places to work and more effective deliverers of value to the community and take actions to achieve these goals.

Yes we need the visionaries and champions, to stand up and inspire, give permission or facilitate innovators.

Yes we need some processes and systems to collate, assess and prioritise resourcing for innovations so that they happen and are effective.

But what we need to celebrate are the innovators themselves - the people who think of a better way, and act to see it realised.

They are the true heros of innovation, not the folks on the stage or the systems that allow senior managers to feel comfortable in their own skins.

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Monday, September 07, 2015

What defines you on social media?

While travelling to and from the GovHack international awards red carpet event (which was great BTW), I've been reading 'So you've been publicly shamed', the latest book by Jon Ronson (the author of The men who stare at goats), and was reflecting on some of the experiences he talks about.

A common theme throughout the book is how easy it can be for a single comment or photo to define a person on social media and become their personal brand - whether they wish it to or not.

In many instances the defining tweet or image is created in a moment of passion, humour or poor judgement - a moment of weakness or lack of clarity where a poorly worded joke or action becomes misinterpreted and spreads widely across the Internet.

Avoiding online media is no defense against the potential for an individual to be incorrectly defined. Ronson gives an example of an individual whose moment of infamy has affected, to varying extents, over 60 people who share the same name.

Even for individuals who choose not to have their own social accounts, it can only require someone to quote their comment (accurately or not) or sharing an image or video of their actions online to create a storm of concern.

So if an absence from social media is ineffective and all of us who are online are prone to moments where our judgement and anticipation is not perfect, what is the appropriate way to minimise the risk of mislabeling or public shaming?

One of the approaches explored by Ronson involved ensuring that an individual is honestly represented online, not by a single misinterpreted comment, but by the sum of their actions, views and experience.

When there's only a few search results for an individual's name they can easily be defined in Google, and hence online, as being a single thing - be it accurate or not. Even worse, if someone is effectively invisible online they may find themselves defined by someone else who shares their name.

When an individual has a history on the Internet, with an honest record of their thoughts and actions and are continuing to update this through posts, tweets, articles and images, they are far less likely to find themselves defined (or misdefined) by a single perceived mistake.

While a sarcastic comment or badly timed photo may still reach further than normal engagement would, it is far harder for strangers to define an individual as just one thing online.

In my view this principle applies as strongly for organisations as it does for individuals. 

We've seen many social media disasters over the years spurred by a poorly timed or worded comment. Where the organisation or individual 'shuts down' ('removing the oxygen' in PR speak) or changes their behaviour ('damage control') it grant the mistake greater credibility and can lead to far greater attention and negative.

Acknowledging the mistake, taking appropriate remedial steps immediately (such as an apology or correction), and then moving forward with normal engagement levels is often the most effective approach to address a single instance of error or community concern.

Also critical is having a rich and deep history of engagement, a 'resume' demonstrating how that organisation has engaged effectively over a significant period of time. This makes it very difficult for detractors to position an organisation as one (negative) thing, or for individuals stumbling on the error to accidentally assume that it represents the true values and approach of the organisation.

On that basis I believe that the best thing that both individuals and organisations can do to mitigate the risk of misunderstandings and public shaming online is to clearly define themselves, and keep defining themselves through ongoing effective online engagement.

Being absent, silent or putting up the barricades when an error is made creates space for others to define you, in ways that are likely inaccurate and almost always do not represent your own values and actions.

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Saturday, September 05, 2015

GovHack 2015 International and National winners

Below is a list of all of the GovHack 2015 International and National winners...

The GovHack 2015 International categories had competitors across Australia and New Zealand: 

The International Best Disaster Mitigation Hack,
The International Digital Humanities Hack
International Bounty for Best WWI Hacks

The GovHack 2015 Australian National Major Categories were open to all Australian participants:

The Best Digital Transformation Hack
The Best Open Government Data Hack
The Best Science Hack
The Best Policy Insights Hack 
The Best Data Journalism Hack
The Best Entrepreneurial Hack

The GovHack 2015 Australian National Team Awards were open to all Australian participants: 

The Best Youth Team (18 years and under) The winning hack is:
Best Higher Education Team
Best Public Servant Team
Best Professional Team

The Australian National Bounty prizes were open to all Australian participants:

The most useful Product or Service for the Public Bounty
ABC regional bounty
The Statistics data bounty
The Charity data bounty
The Taxation data bounty
The Scientific data bounty
The National Map bounty
The Structure of government bounty 
The Air conditioner and energy bounty
The Geoscience Australia data bounty
The Intellectual Property data bounty
The Health and welfare bounty
The Open Source bounty
The Indigenous issues bounty

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Liveblog from GovHack 2015 International Awards event

Tonight I am liveblogging from the GovHack 2015 International Awards, a red carpet event for roughly 250 GovHack national and international finalists, dignitaries, journalists, entrepreneurs and organisers where over $300,000 in prizes will be awarded by government and industry.

The event is the culmination of GovHack 2015, which this year smashed it's own records in terms of number of participants (about 2,000), number of completed projects (300), number of sites (30) and number of participating government agencies (well over 20).

In face just the Melbourne GovHack venue attracted more hackers and completed more projects than did all of GovHack only three years ago.

As the fifth GovHack, this was also the first to go international, with events held in New Zealand as well as Australia.

Some of the awesome hacks included,

  • An Internet of Things device that estimates train passenger counts in real-time
  • A smart energy meter app allowing communities, neighbours, and friends to compete to save energy
  • An interactive application that pays tribute to the Indigenous community who served during World War I and World War II.
  • An application that draws on over 12 million examiner citations and 8 million patent applications

The full list of complete GovHack 2015 projects can be viewed in the GovHack Hackerspace, with previous years' projects visible from the GovHack website.

Watch the Periscope recording of the awards.

Live Blog GovHack 2015 Liveblog

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Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Treat digital as a adjective, not a noun

Alun Probert (formerly of NSW government) has written a good piece on how sometime digital decisions are simply good business.

I think he's spot on about this, and about the danger of treating digital as a silver bullet.

Government is in the business of achieving great outcomes for society. Any government who fails to keep this central to their thinking is likely to find itself at the receiving end of significant pressure, ranging from social media complaints all the way up to violent revolution (depending on how far they've strayed).

Digital has a major role in achieving these great outcomes, however it isn't the only approach, nor always the best.

In my view digital should be considered a adjective, not a noun.

The goal is never to 'go digital' - that's just as ridiculous as suggesting that the goal is to 'go telephone' or 'go print'.

Digital, as an area, encompasses a range of tools and techniques that can help an organisation to achieve its goals more effectively or efficiently, but it should not replace those goals - government must be driven by social and citizen needs.

So where does this leave the notion of places like the 'Digital Transformation Office' - it certainly doesn't invalidate them. The goal is improving governance, improving citizen services, reducing costs, increasing compliance, improving outcomes. This is achieved through transforming what already exists, with a key toolkit being digital.

Provided the people leading and working in places like the Digital Transformation Office are clear on what their end goal is (which I believe they are), this can produce great outcomes for citizens, the country, politicians and government agencies themselves.

It's only when 'digital' becomes a noun - the goal, rather than part of the process - that the value is distorted and often lost.

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