Friday, September 30, 2016

Australian government ePetitions compared to international models

Australians might be surprised to learn that the Australian parliament only agreed to formally accept ePetitions in July 2015.

That was five years after it was formally recommended to parliament and follows a trend towards epetitions set by other digitally advanced democratic nations, such as the UK and USA.

In September 2016 the Australian Department of Parliamentary Services launched its epetition site allowing people to create and sign epetitions at - yes that is quite a mouthful.

I've reviewed Australia's site compared to comparative sites released in the US, UK and Canada to form some conclusions on how well we've done.

However, unfortunately for Australians, the model used for Australia doesn't measure up well.

UK - ePetitions

The UK's epetitions site launched in August 2011 at and has been restructured several times over the last five years.

Today it is a sleek, easy to access platform that hides all the technical mechanics the UK parliament requires for petitions behind a usable and simple step-by-step process.

It's very simple to find and sign a petition, with the process for responses explained clearly on each petition's page. 

Sharing tools are embedded to make it simple to encourage others to sign. It's easy to view signatures geographically by electorate (great for parliamentarians and respondents alike).

The data for each petition is immediately available via a standards-compliant data format.

The process for creating new petitions is also simple and seamless.

It uses plain English and employs a range of assistive approaches to ease first-time petitioners through the process. This includes examples of how to write a petition and flagging information that will be required in later steps so the petitioner can pre-prepare.

The site uses text matching to find similar petitions so that a petitioner can choose to sign a pre-existing petition, rather than create a near-identical one - a step that saves effort for both petitioners and for the public servants who need to manage the system.

There's clear warnings when a petitioner reaches irrevocable steps, and the system supports and encourages sharing - to help the petitioner get the petition to audiences who may wish to sign.

All in all it's a solid and well-thought out system with excellent usability - very important when considering that most people rarely petition government and need a helping hand to navigate what can be a complex and seemingly irrational process for those who do not think like bureaucrats or politicians.

USA - WethePeople

The US's epetitions site is similarly five years old - launching in September 2011. Named WethePeople and located at, the site is structured differently, but is just as simple to use, as the UK's version.

While the site doesn't offer the same geographic mapping as the UK site does, it does provide very clear step by step instructions for both signing and creating petitions and is equally clear on the goal number of signatures required for consideration.

The government's responses to epetitions (which must reach 100,000 signatures to get a response) are clearly provided with the petitions themselves, making it easy to understand what was asked and how it was responded to.

The US system requires that people creating a petition must create an account - a small barrier to entry, but one that helps with screening. 

It also makes it easy to track repeat petitioners - a useful thing for a government, if slightly invasive in privacy terms for an individual.

Something I don't like about the site is that after creating an account it sends a confirmation email with a randomly assigned password in plain text. People who don't respond straight away could easily get caught out with identity theft, although the site does force you to change it after you confirm your email.

However when changing your address the site does provide an idea of how strong your password is and makes helpful suggestions on how to improve it (something I think all government sites requiring login should do by default).

Once a petitioner has an account they also get a dashboard to track their petitions, though unfortunately it doesn't also track petitions they have signed or autofill your details when you choose to sign a petition. This may be done for privacy reasons, but there's also huge convenience and utility in these steps.

The process for creating a petition is brilliant - laid out step by step.  

The ability to look at past successful petitions as examples is a nice touch and very helpful for first-time petitioners, and the filtering approach helps guides people to structure their petitions well. 

Later in the process petitioners also get to tag their petitions by topic, providing a useful way of filtering them to the appropriate agency and providing useful statistics for the government on the 'hot topics' for citizens.

The system doesn't have the matching of similar petitions as the UK system does, but nevertheless it's very polished and well executed.

Canada - e-Petitions 

Now the Canadian epetition system is interesting as it debuted in December 2015, less than a year before Australia's system. As such it hasn't had the same amount of time as US and UK sites to refine and restructure based on use. but has the opportunity to learn from their experiences to implement the best of both sites in a Canadian context.

The site is very simply named, similar to the US and UK epetition platforms, but has taken a different approach to either the US or UK sites.

There's no ability to see the latest petitions on the main page, users must use a search tool or click to see all live petitions. This shifts the propensity for people to browse and choose to sign by adding a small 'one click' barrier to the visibility of petitions.

When a user clicks on 'View all petitions', what they see doesn't really provide enough information to decide whether to sign. Another click is needed to view the details of any specific petition. However the screen does help people refine down to a topical area quickly, unlike the US and UK sites and the keywords by petition are useful, if perhaps put ahead of more useful information such as the title and summary of what a petition is asking.

The language, unfortunately, is a touch more bureaucratic than in the US and UK sites, with petitions titled by number and reference. These may be useful to bureaucrats, but have limited meaning for users and could have been hidden from petitioners and respondents.

Petitions provide a numerical breakdown of respondents by provinces, but no map view and no easy way to download the data without screen-scraping.

Responding to a petition is slightly more complex than in the US and UK epetition sites, with it being mandatory to provide an address and phone number as well as the usual name, email address and confirmation that you're really a resident of the country. The response form is also less friendly than the other sites, using now old-fashioned red asterisks to denote mandatory fields.

Creating a petition involves an equally complex sign-up form, where a user must avow they're a Canadian - so I've not looked into the creation process. I do anticipate that it would not quite be as sleek and refined as the US and UK versions.

The responses to petitions, like in the US site, include all petition information and those that have been responded to can be found easily through the top menu of the site. However the responses are provided as PDFs rather than within the page. This adds an extra step to the process of reviewing a response and most are only one page long, so I feel this is a poor approach, adding complexity with no benefit for users.

Australia - e-Petitions

Similar to the Canadian site, Australia's epetition site is quite new, so some rough edges can be expected. 

However I did not expect as many rough edges as I found, given there's some excellent examples above to learn from.

Also as the code for WethePeople is available as opensource, it is it relatively quick and easy to start with all the US's experience and build from there. 

To start with, Australia's epetitions site doesn't have a short web address like, it is deeply buried in the site at

Now it could be argued that as Senate, House of Representatives and Committees might all accept petitions but operate differently, it needed to be buried within each of these section of the site. 

However this could have been easily handled through a single multi-choice question in a petitions process, leaving all petitions to live at the same simple address - without requiring petitioners to do the hard work of understanding how government operated.

On top of this the petitions process doesn't come up in the first page of search results when looking for 'petitions' - a critical but easily fixable mistake. 

This type of simple oversight dominates the entire Australian epetitions process, with it being pretty clear than the work was done with little reference to international benchmarks or usability testing.

Moving on to the actual processes, there's currently no petitions listed so it's not possible to analyse the process for signing a petition. I would have expected that the APH would have done some work to ensure there were a few petitions at launch, as other governments did. 

Clearly this wasn't the case, with the APH potentially taking more of a 'build it and they will come' approach rather than promoting the availability of the site widely before and during its launch. The impression that leaves me is that the APH didn't really want to create this site and doesn't really welcome petitions - they'd prefer to not hear from citizens or have the hard work of dealing with any resulting work.

Regardless of whether this was the case - the impression, or perception, is the thing - and the lack of any petitions to sign at launch reflects badly on the site.

Moving on to the creation process, the process for doing so is well explained in the first page (image above) - though with far more text than is necessary (as illustrated by the other epetition sites above).

Some of the steps on this page, and later pages, are not well communicated, using very subjective and bureaucratic terms - such as "Language (must be moderate)". 

I'm not sure what 'moderate' actually means and I doubt most Australians would be able to guess what a bureaucrat would consider 'moderate language'.

However using more words to explain these types of terms would be a mistake - instead the entire page should be written in plain English, aimed at about the 5th grade level. 

In fact I quickly tested the language on the main page, and it scored at a current grade level of 10.5 - well above what is considered acceptable. The subsequent creation pages score even higher, with terms bandied around that are rarely used outside of Canberra's bureaucracy and would serve to confuse, frustrate or even upset many Australians.

The process for filling in an epetition is OK, clearly stepped out, but with far too many steps (and words) on each page. There's no way to compare your petition with existing petitions - as the UK site does - though as there's no existing petitions to compare with I'm not too concerned about this as yet.

It will become a source of additional work for public servants and frustrations for users down the track however.

There's a lot more questions and information requested than in other epetition processes - with a lot of form fields to complete, which will effectively deter many people from establishing an epetition. Whether this is a good thing, however, depends on whether you're a bureaucrat first or a citizen first (I think it's a poor approach).

Nowhere could I see clarity on the thresholds at which you might get a response to a petition, making the entire process seem like a black box - a digital black box, but a black box nonetheless.

The entire process felt very cold and impersonal, unlike the UK and US experiences - which were warm and inviting.

Given parliament serves citizens, I think it is better to strive to leave users feeling they were important welcomed guests rather than nuisances and intruders into a hostile space.
This lack of warmth was particularly characterised by the final 'thanks for submitting a petition' page - which neither thanked the petitioner, nor gave them a feeling they were important and valued. 

Even the title of the page remained 'Request a new e-petition' rather than thanking the petitioner for their engagement in Australia's democracy.

Given how often politicians and public servants complain that Australians are disengaged from politics and democracy, the way this entire epetition creation process was constructed makes it very clear that the government itself holds a lot of responsibility for pushing people away, rather than welcoming their contribution.


So given my review of the four epetition processes, from Australia, Canada, the UK and US, I can say that I'd happily and enthusiastically recommend both the US and UK approaches, slightly favouring the UK due to it's maps and sharing tools.

Canada's site is OK for a first attempt. It doesn't appear to have learnt a great deal from the US and UK experiences and asks more than it needs from citizens, but it remains usable and functional if not inviting.

Unfortunately Australia's epetitions site is a very poor effort, and reflects poorly on the government, our public service and Australia's claims of being innovative and digitally progressive.

About the most positive thing I can say about it is that at least we now have the site - so there's a starting point to improve from.

However any competent usability designer would not have built the site in the way it has been built - and it seems more of a 'tick and flick' developed with internal resources on little or no funds (not that it would have cost a great deal to have done a good job).

I'm very disappointed at the APH's efforts - and have created an epetition for people to sign accordingly (though I doubt it will make it through the APH's scrutiny process - which is far more involved than for any other jurisdiction compared).

I truly hope the APH spends more time looking at benchmarks internationally and can convince the government that epetitions are a key interaction tool with citizens, so having them feel invited and effective is critical for supporting a positive view of government.

I'll be looking in on the site from time to time to see how its going - and would happily help the APH improve the site if asked (in fact I reached out last July, but never heard from them).

This isn't just a box that government has to tick, it's a vital avenue for citizens to engage with government and an advanced democracy like Australia should recognise the importance of doing it well.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Party time for GovCMS as it hits 102 sites, well ahead of target

It's party time at the Department of Finance as GovCMS continues its growth surge, from 78 sites less than a month ago to 102 sites this week.

This means the Drupal-based platform is tracking 70% ahead of its 2016 targets, demonstrating how successful a well-engineered and supported digital platform can be in government if well designed and supported.

While some of the growth may have come from agencies shifting away from GovSpace, which shuts down next year, part is also coming from state, territory and local governments who are beginning to consider the platform seriously.

While mandating a single webCMS and platform might be a step too far for Australian governments, the approach of providing a cheap and effective platform, with full standards support, a growing developer base and interoperability of plugins and modules (which can be reused across agency sites), is providing a strong 'pull' effect.

This 'pull', rather than a 'push' (mandated) approach to service design is one that government can also apply to citizen and business services, so I'm hopeful that the GovCMS experience is demonstrating to agencies how the carrot can be more powerful than the stick.

Given that even the Digital Transformation office has now fallen into line, after the DTO initially considered building its own WebCMS for the site, GovCMS has been a massive success for government in Australia, and for the Department of Finance in particular.

GovCMS is supported by Acquia, the commercial entity created by the developers of the open-source Drupal platform, with a variety of local development partners involved in the development of specific agency sites.

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Friday, September 23, 2016

Innovative leadership involves walking in the rain

I've rarely seen a better example of leadership in action than in the juxtaposition of these two photos, kindly shared on LinkedIn by Jean-Michel Wu of McCann Worldwide.

Now let's be clear up front - these are carefully selected images, presenting single moments in time - so they aren't necessarily representative of the style of either leader represented, either the US's political leader, Barack Obama, or business leader (and Republican Presidential nominee) Donald Trump.

However the notion of a leader who shields himself, at the expense of others, as compared to a leader who shields others before themselves, is one that anyone aspiring to leadership or in a leadership role should reflect on.

We've seen many examples of 'leaders' who fail to take responsibility for their own actions, or for the actions of those under their direction. These so-called leaders shield themselves while actively or passively allowing others to take the blame for actions or inaction that they were ultimately responsible for.

Example abound of this practice. In government there's functionaries falling on their swords to protect their Ministers, and senior public servants pushing the blame downhill, to junior staff, or to vendors.

In the private sector there's many examples of this type of behaviour, although it is not as often on public display. However it is sufficiently common that it has become an advertising punchline.

When this type of behaviour is displayed by leaders it erodes trust and respect - in them and in the organisations they lead.

When the behaviour becomes public it can be devastating to an organisation's brand and reputation - but even if it remains hidden within the walls, it can significantly affect an organisation's performance over time.

One of the casualties is likely to be innovation and invention, as employees witnessing 'scapegoating' or 'passing the buck' behaviour by their leaders will be less inclined to take risks in order to avoid getting the blame.

Another casualty is organisational culture, which will tend to become more secretive as staff hide potential mistakes and fearful, as staff worry about being made the next example.

Whereas a leader who shields others, 'running interference' and supporting their staff will foster a very different culture. Staff will be more inclined to innovate as they know they won't be blamed for failure, and their managers will ensure they get credit for their successes.

A shielding approach also gives teams the room to solve problems rather than hide them, paying enormous dividends in the long-run.

Cultures will be more open and inclusive with this second type of leader. Staff more collaborative and sharing, rather than hoarding information to protect their roles.

Of course there must still remain appropriate mechanisms for managing poor performance - but these will be seen as fair and equitable, rather than vindictive or aimed at protecting the upper echelons from their own decisions and actions.

Organisations that encourage, foster and employ leaders who choose to shield their staff, even sometimes at personal expense, will ultimately be more successful - more innovative and more adaptable.

So if your organisation is trying to foster an innovation culture, a good start is for its leaders to walk the talk by walking in the rain.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Breakthrough or Buddy-up - Two Strategies for Chief Digital Officers

Growth of the Chief Digital Officer (CDO) role has been incredibly rapid over the last few year, reflecting the increasing importance of technology to organisational success and survival.

However not all CDO roles are created equal, with enormous variation in their responsibilities, resourcing and capability to generate change, in the form of digital transformation, in the organisations they serve. Some have direct responsibility for business lines and IT teams, others serve primarily as advocates and influencers in the C-suite, with little in the way of direct reports or operational responsibilities.

The candidates appointed as CDOs have also vary enormously in background, some from 'pure' IT careers, others from a mix of IT and business and still others from business-based disciplines.

 An additional complication is that due to there being so many new CDO roles emerging, in many cases both the organisation and candidate are new to the role. This means the definition of the role might not be as clear as for well-established and understood roles, organisations may be less clear on what characteristics they require.

 A new CDO must also find their way and negotiate their position in the C-suite in a game of reverse musical chairs, where other executives may be looking for ways to gain advantage from the new seat and player at the table.

(Graphic courtesy of CDO Club.
Keep an eye out for the Chief Digital Officers Worldwide update for 2016)

In many cases CDOs have been external hires, including from international sources. Some public sector organisations have brought in experience from the private sector, though I've not seen the reverse as yet.

This can add additional complexity to the role. An 'outsider' brings their own cultural and workplace practices, which is often an advantage in a CDO role, but can require a significant adaptive phase for both the Officer and organisation. New CDOs from different environments can require some time to build the relationships and alliances necessary to achieve results and to learn how to navigate an organisation's formal and informal decision-making processes.

When it comes to performing the role successful, there's a spectrum of strategies available to a new CDO.

At one end of the scale there's the 'breakthrough' approach, where the CDO mandates and forces change on an organisation.

At the other end is the 'buddy-up' approach, where the CDO functions as an expert adviser and councillor, supporting colleagues and staff to make change themselves.

I've been fortunate enough to observe both approaches in practice, witness the comparative successes and failures over time.

In this post I wanted to provide a little insight into how these strategies can, and are, applied, the potential outcomes for the choice a CDO makes and what organisations should look for when hiring the right CDO for them.

Looking at the 'breakthrough' approach first - in its purest form this is a 'no holds barred', even violent, way to stimulate organisational change by actively pushing through any barriers to digital transformation.

It requires a forceful and driven CDO with massive resilience who is prepared to take on personal consequences for their strategic approach. Within an organisation it often results in adversarial situations where a digital transformation is imposed on unwilling business and IT areas, ending careers and bruising many survivors.

Internationally many CDOs who have adopted this strategy to a significant extent have had quite short tenures, coming into an organisation and driving digital transformation relentlessly for a year or two, then either moving on to the next appointment or requiring a personal break to rebuild their resilience.

It is not a tactic for executives who wish a long-term career with a specific organisation, or even in a specific industry or country, as the crash through tactics are not congenial to building good long-term relationships and alliances.

Used strategically this approach can break down long-term barriers to change and innovation, squeeze out old-fashioned and outdated thinking and renew an organisation to move forward in a more cost-effective and digital way. Some organisations may require this 'shock treatment' to shift from their current track to a more sustainable one, whereas the buddy-up approach would not provide significant impetus for them to transform.

Used poorly, this strategy can alienate potential allies, damage competent individuals and generate a 'winners and losers' culture, where people feel forced to choose sides. Any resulting digital transformation can be short-lived, reliant on the CDO remaining in their role, with other executives and middle-managers rolling back to their comfort zone after the CDO is gone.

A common tactic for individuals who oppose this approach is to simply wait until the CDO moves on, although sometimes repairing the damage a breakthrough strategy does to trust and respect within an organisation can take years.

The buddy-up approach is far more collegiate and is built on alliances and expertise rather than direct power and force. This strategy is better attuned to patient executives who are willing and able to spend the time building trust and leading executives and staff to a place where they feel empowered to choose adopt digitally transformational changes, rather than having these changes forcefully imposed on them.

The approach builds good long term relations and suits executives who wish to build a long-term career in an organisation or across a sector. It works well in situations where a CDO has little direct power (direct responsibilities or budget) but is a respected key influencer, with peer-level access to others in the C-suite.

The speed of digital transformation achievable using this strategy tends to be far slower, particularly in the initial stages, than via the more aggressive breakthrough approach and may not suit organisations that require a rapid transformation. However, in the longer term, the pace of change can accelerate rapidly as it no longer must be solely driven by the CDO but has become embedded in how the organisation operates.

For organisations with firmly bedded down cultures, there's a risk that the buddy-up approach will get lost in the mix, with the CDO's efforts absorbed into the organisation rather than propagating change. We've seen this many times in the past, where the introduction of a new approach becomes so diluted within the existing culture that, like a drop of ink in a glass of water, it vanishes without a trace.

Used strategically the buddy-up approach is very effective at bringing the organisation with a CDO, generating a deep-rooted top-to-bottom change in culture over time. By avoiding adversarial and 'winner take all' situations, staff across the organisation retain their unity in being on the same team without aggressive competitive, or even bullying, behaviours.

Used poorly the buddy-up approach can be ineffective, with the CDO ignored, or their efforts co-opted and absorbed into business as usual without the level of digital transformation required by an organisation. Also, due to a slower ramp up as trust relations are built, the approach can be too slow for organisations facing imminent threats to their survival.

Fortunately many CDOs understand that their role involves using a blend of the strategies above, based on their resources, influence and environment. Knowing when to apply a breakthrough strategy rather than a buddy-up strategy is the real art of being a CDO, and organisations should be careful to select executives who have demonstrated a careful balance of both, even in situations where one strategy needs to be dominant.

The real danger for organisations - and CDOs - is when they rely too heavily on either the breakthrough or buddy-up strategy.

An over-reliance on breakthrough risks any digital transformation successes being short-term, poorly embedded in an organisation and leading to a 'pushback' that can damage digital initiatives in the organisation for years to come.

An over-reliance on buddy-up can conversely result in a failure to implement the digital transformation required, leaving an organisation in a worse position as its rivals and markets shift.

When hiring CDOs, it's important to not just look at their past short-term successes in transformation, but also their record of fostering enduring digital transformational change and strong relationships.

Those who rely too much on breakthrough tend to have shining successes to their credit, but poor senior relationships and a trail of past engagements where organisations cannot demonstrate significant lasting business value from the CDO's efforts.

CDOs who prefer buddy-up approaches can appear to have less spectacular careers, with most of their successes shared, but come well-recommended and respected. Again it is important to consider if their past engagements have resulted in lasting business value to the organisations they have served.

For those aspiring to be a Chief Digital Officer, it is important to develop the capability to apply both breakthrough and buddy-up strategies, and particularly the emotional intelligence to know which is appropriate to apply. Having experience using both strategies effectively is of enormous benefit when seeking a CDO role.

It's also critical for those stepping into a CDO role to understand and negotiate the use of breakthrough and buddy-up strategies, to ensure that the CEO, Board and other executives understand why the CDO is taking a particular course at a particular time.

A CDO more experienced with buddy-up strategies will need to communicate clearly why the alliance approach to collective change is being applied when working in an organisation that took on a CDO to aid in a rapid digital transformation.

Conversely a CDO selecting breakthrough tactics will need to make it clear why they are choosing an aggressive approach to digital transformation to avoid alienating other executives and staff who may feel trampled or excluded, and losing their mandate before the transformation is embedded.

Most importantly for any prospective or new CDO is the ability to know your own strengths and weaknesses, and seek opportunities where your personal attributes are beneficial to your role.

Using myself as an example, in my roles in large organisations I've often strayed too far into breakthrough territory, reflective of my past experience in business startups, where speed of outcomes is paramount over relationships or process. I've also had several roles where breakthrough was the only viable strategy due to the timeframe and environment.

I have learnt from others, who have mastered the approach, to apply more buddy-up tactics - particularly during my experience in government, where strategic alliances are essential to foster deeper and longer-term digital transformation.

However my natural inclination is more towards breakthrough, and I perform better in environments where, on balance, I can use this strategy more often.

Others may find they naturally prefer to apply buddy-up strategies, or are evenly balanced between the two.

Whatever your personal preferences, you'll likely do best in a role that reflects how you operate.

However regardless of whether you're applying breakthrough or buddy-up strategies, keep in mind the ultimate goal - to redesign organisations to be successful in a digital world.

Organisations live or die by their people, and selecting the right match of CDO and organisation, and the right blend of buddy-up and breakthrough strategies is essential for their digital transformation and success.

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Thursday, September 15, 2016

Farewell to - a bold and successful government initiaitve

On the 25th August the Department of Finance in Canberra announced that its bold experiment in providing a central website infrastructure for agencies, Govspace, was coming to an end after almost seven years.

I still remember feeling excited at the original launch of Govspace.

At the time I was working in the Department of Health as Online Communications Director.

I was theoretically responsible for the department's entire web presence, although many of the 150+ websites operated by the department were directly controlled by the business area funding their development.

It was still a time when business areas wanted a new website for every new initiative and would pay through the nose for those sites.

Business areas would often spend tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to digital agencies, or our internal IT team, to have each new site built.

It was a frustrating time for me as there wasn't a simple way for the department to procure low cost sites. We didn't have the capability to easily build or buy websites based on open source web content management systems (WebCMSes), such as WordPress, that used free or cheap themes rather than hand-crafted custom-designed graphical interfaces.

Even Health's internal IT team had to charge six figure sums for simple websites due to the costs they had to incur and offset when using the department's mandated internal web content management platform (Lotus Notes) to deliver them. Each internally built site had to be custom coded and designed by experienced IT staff, making it a relatively slow, as well as expensive, process.

So when the Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO) in the Department of Finance unveiled Govspace in March 2010, the floodgates opened.

Suddenly every agency could access a low-cost open source webCMS on pre-approved secure government infrastructure. It could be used to deliver both small specialist websites as well as services such as blogs.

Finance were trusted, reliable, secure and a central government agency - one of 'us' (government) not one of 'them' (private sector companies).

Govspace launched with a single pilot site, the Department of Treasury’s Standard Business Reporting blog. The platform expanded quickly, reaching 25 sites using the platform in a year.

I was one of the first to leap on. I worked within Health to dissuade one of our Communications teams from paying a digital agency at least $40,000 for a new website for an information campaign and convinced them to trust me (and Finance) to make use of the Govspace infrastructure - which at the time came at the very attractive price of 'free'.

Finance was able to spin the site up in a matter of weeks, WordPress was easy to use, so the Comms team was able to directly put the content in place. We had the website live within six weeks - compared to a 3-6 month process with a digital agency.

In the end we did spend some public money, about $42 on a custom WordPress theme, but saved the department over $35,000.

At an internal planning day shortly after the site went live the Comms team proudly shared how easy it had been to get the website in place. This lead to a flood of interest from other area.

That one site raised the internal awareness that the Department had been paying too much for websites, leading to enormous savings over time.

Govspace wasn't designed to cater for every site - it was primarily a platform for simple Gov 2.0-style sites, with blogs and other interactive features. Even so my team helped put at least another half-dozen new websites onto the platform over the next few years.

Even when Finance had to bite the bullet and start charging agencies for the costs they incurred for the platform, Govspace remained one of the lowest cost website options for government.

You can read the posts from the first birthday of Govspace, from AGIMO's then Branch Manager, Peter Alexander (now COO for the Digital Transformation Office) and from AGIMO's Mike T (with my comment still below).

Govspace continued to grow in use over several years, with over 110 government sites using the platform at some stage. The chart below shows the traffic for periods I've been able to source data for.

Over the last few years the site has seen a natural decline as agencies shifted to GovCMS, Drupal or their own lower cost WebCMS frameworks.

Today Govspace hosts 26 live public sites - virtually the same number as the platform had after 12 months.

With Finance's decision to close the platform all those sites will have to move to their own infrastructure by the start of 2017. After that, Govspace will be no more.

While this makes me sad, I support the decision by Finance to close down the GovSpace platform. It had a good run. However Govspace is fast being replaced by more modern web platforms, particularly GovCMS.

I'd like to personally thank all the relevant staff at the Department of Finance for how diligently they ran and maintained the platform, even after AGIMO was disbanded and running a whole-of-government infrastructure stopped being an important role for the department.

While for many inside and outside government the closure of Govspace might be seen as just the termination of a 'surplus to needs' service, I believe this is the end of an era for government IT.

Govspace was instrumental in revolutionising many aspects of how Australian government viewed digital.

The platform helped transform how Australian government agencies looked at website development and costs.

The use of WordPress for a public whole-of-government platform also widened the door for open source software to be considered by agencies.

Govspace helped propel government web sites from a 20th century 'brochure-ware' approach to become more engaging and interactive.

The impact of Govspace has echoed across government, and will continue to echo for years to come as agencies continue on their digital transformation journeys.

Farewell Govspace and thank you to everyone involved with the platform. Your contribution to government's digital transformation has not been overlooked.

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Monday, September 12, 2016

Confusing innovation with outcomes

I've been involved in an interesting Facebook chat around the definition of a startup, which has coalesced my thoughts on the approach of organisations towards innovation.

Innovation has become a buzzword in the last few years, with both corporations and governments focused on the notion that they need innovation to remain effective and relevant.

I've been fundamentally uneasy with a lot of the views expressed around this notion. From the Australian Government's '#ideasboom' to the notion that appointing an Innovation Director who in some way takes 'ownership' of innovation for an organisation, will solve an organisation's competitive and cost-efficiency challenges.

I also have my concerns about the ideation processes springing up across government and the private sector.

It's great to see the flood of ideas and the unclogging of the old-fashioned 'suggestions box'. However these processes need to be well-supported with training and capability to assess the ideas and then help people to realise them in practical trials, to really determine which really do solve problems or improve outcomes.

Don't get this wrong - I'm a big proponent of innovation.

The process of identifying a problem (that often others do not see), of finding a new solution (whether involving old or new technology) and of then testing and trialling that solution until it becomes clear whether it's an improvement or not is essential to every organisation who wishes to continue to exist.

However focusing on the ideas and innovation is a confusion of process and goal.

Ideas and innovation are tools to solve problems. They are not ends in themselves.

Ideas are a thousandth of a bitcoin a dozen and anyone who sets out to 'innovate' is starting with the wrong end of the stick - the process, not the desired outcome.

Instead organisations should focus on the other end, the problems, preferably invisible and painful ones. They can be considered 'big' or 'small', this doesn't matter - what matters is that there's significant pain caused by it, and significant benefit to solving it. Solving a problem that costs every employee only 5 minutes each day will save an organisation with 1,000 people 416 hours per week - the equivalent of ten staff, or 1% of their headcount.

Often the best problems are invisible to most people in the organisation, they simply work around the problem, using manual steps to bridge processes, walk the long way around an obstacle and eventually forget that it is there.

'Managing' the problem becomes part of the basic experience, the social norm, of working there, just like the example in the video below - and very few question it.

The real innovator is the person who both thinks - why is that obstacle there? AND then acts to remove it.

A simple test that can be performed in any organisation is to put a chair with a sign 'Please do not move' on it in the middle of a regular walkway.

Look at who walks around the chair, versus those who complains about the chair being there, versus those who actually take an action to remove the chair as an obstacle.

You want people who are prepared to address the obstacle on your problem-solving team. They are the people prepared to ask 'why is this so' (identifying the problem), then experiment with potential solutions to remove the problem from the equation.

For organisations that wish to set a higher bar, change the sign to read, ''Please do not move. By order of the CEO - this area is monitored by CCTV'.

Now you'll really find out who is willing to take a risk to achieve a better outcome.

Ideas and innovation remain critical tools for problem-solving, and fostering both within organisations is critical, but avoid the trap of confusing them with the improved outcomes that their use is designed to achieve.

Treat them as tools, not goals and avoid building complex systems and hierarchies around who is 'allowed' to use them within an organisation.

Everyone in your organisation has ideas. Everyone can innovate. Not everyone can identify the problem, visualise a better outcome and use ideas and innovation as tools to turn that visualisation into reality.

Use ideation processes and Innovation Directors to foster an environment where problem-identification and solving is the social norm for your organisation.

To foster an environment where the reaction to a new problem or inefficiency is to take action to address it, trying different approaches until the optimal solution is found, rather than to kick it upstairs, ignore it or simply 'walk around' it with more staff and expense.

The most successful organisations - public and private - will be those that foster active problem-solving, not nebulous 'ideas' or 'innovation'. Those that remain clear on what are the goals and what are the tools.

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Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Don't ask for more information than you need (and make it clear why you're asking what you're asking)

I've just become aware of the ACT Government's consultation for a new license plate slogan.

Hosted at Your Say, the government is asking for ideas for a 30-character or less slogan, with the best ideas to be put to a public vote later this year.

I support this type of consultation approach - it provides for broad public input, with a screening step (via a panel of judges) to manage any inappropriate suggestions before a public vote.

The consultation also does a great job of explaining the process timeframe; when the decision will be made and when the license plate will be released.

One of the 'tricks of the trade' for consultations - and and engagements - is to ask the minimum number of questions required to meet the purpose of the process.

While there's often temptation to ask a few additional questions, where data might be interesting but is non-essential to the consultation's purpose, each additional question can reduce the response rate significantly.

These additional non-essential questions can also call into question what the consultation is actually designed to achieve. This can, at worst, lead to suspicion and loss of trust, but at minimum is likely to cut the honesty and number of responses, potentially damaging the ability of the consultation to achieve its purpose.

Sometimes, of course, there can be questions that appear non-essential but are necessary for the consultation to achieve its goals. In this case, the organisation engaging should make it as clear as possible why the questions are being asked, without damaging the engagement process itself.

Unfortunately it seems that the ACT government hasn't fully thought this through in its license plate slogan consultation.

Alongside asking for the slogan and where the respondent lives (important for getting ideas expressly from Canberra residents), the slogan also asks for the name and a contact number/email, as well as age and gender.

While the consultation does a good job of explaining why name and contact information might be useful, so that the finalists and winning respondent can be contacted, it's unclear why either age or gender are required in this process.

Age is a compulsory field while Gender is optional, but realistically neither is important information in the review process, nor is there an explanation as to why the ACT government would need this information.

Now this might seem a trivial thing to the agency involved in the process, after all age and gender aren't hugely personal information and, in the case of gender, is often determinable from name alone.

However by adding these fields - whether compulsory or not - the response form becomes that much more complex, and can discourage some people from responding.

That doesn't mean that this process won't get a good response rate, but it is likely to be less than it would otherwise be.

Of course it's hard to prove this in this case, as we don't have the luxury of an AB test to compare approaches - but from experience, overall responses go down when additional (and unnecessary) questions are asked.

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