Government as an API: how to change the system

A couple of months ago I gave a short speech about Gov as an API at an AIIA event. Basically I believe that unless we make government data, content and transaction services API enabled and mashable, then we are simply improving upon the status quo. 1000 services designed to be much better are still 1000 services that could be integrated for users, automated at the backend, or otherwise transformed into part of a system rather than the unique siloed systems that we have today. I think the future is mashable government, and the private sector has already gone down this path so governments need to catch up!

When I rewatched it I felt it captured my thoughts around this topic really well, so below is the video and the transcript. Enjoy! Comments welcome.

The first thing is I want to talk about gov as an API. This is kind of like on steroids, but this goes way above and beyond data and gets into something far more profound. But just a step back, the to the concept of Government as a platform. Around the world a lot of Governments have adopted the idea of Government as a platform: let’s use common platforms, let’s use common standards, let’s try and be more efficient and effective. It’s generally been interpreted as creating platforms within Government that are common. But I think that we can do a lot better.

So Government as an API is about making Government one big conceptual API. Making the stuff that Government does discoverable programmatically, making the stuff that it does consumable programmatically, making Government the platform or a platform on which industry and citizens and indeed other Governments can actually innovate and value add. So there are many examples of this which I’ll get to but the concept here is getting towards the idea of mashable Government. Now I’m not here representing my employers or my current job or any of that kind of stuff. I’m just here speaking as a geek in Government doing some cool stuff. And obviously you’ve had the Digital Transformation Office mentioned today. There’s stuff coming about that but I’m working in there at the moment doing some cool stuff that I’m looking forward to telling you all about. So keep an eye out.

But I want you to consider the concept of mashable Government. So Australia is a country where we have a fairly egalitarian democratic view of the world. So in our minds and this is important to note, in our minds there is a role for Government. Now there’s obviously some differences around the edges about how big or small or how much I should do or shouldn’t do or whatever but the concept is that, that we’re not going to have Government going anywhere. Government will continue to deliver things, Government has a role of delivering things. The idea of mashable Government is making what the Government does more accessible, more mashable. As a citizen when you want to find something out you don’t care which jurisdiction it is, you don’t care which agency it is, you don’t care in some cases you know you don’t care who you’re talking to, you don’t care what number you have to call, you just want to get what you need. Part of the problem of course is what are all the services of Government? There is no single place right now. What are all of the, you know what’s all the content, you know with over a thousand websites or more but with lots and lots of websites just in the Federal Government and thousands more across the state and territories, where’s the right place to go? And you know sometimes people talk about you know what if we had improved SEO? Or what if we had improved themes or templates and such. If everyone has improved SEO you still have the same exact problem today, don’t you? You do a google search and then you still have lots of things to choose from and which one’s authoritative? Which one’s the most useful? Which one’s the most available?

The concept of Government as an API is making content, services, API’s, data, you know the stuff that Government produces either directly or indirectly more available to collate in a way that is user centric. That actually puts the user at the centre of the design but then also puts the understanding that other people, businesses or Governments will be able to provide value on top of what we do. So I want to imagine that all of that is available and that everything was API enabled. I want you to imagine third party re-use new applications, I mean we see small examples of that today. So to give you a couple of examples of where Governments already experimenting with this idea. obviously my little baby is one little example of this, it’s a microcosm. But whilst ever data, open data was just a list of things, a catalogue of stuff it was never going to be that high value.

So what we did when we re-launched a couple of years ago was we said what makes data valuable to people? Well programmatic access. Discovery is useful but if you can’t get access to it, it’s almost just annoying to be able to find it but not be able to access it. So how do we make it most useful? How do we make it most reusable, most high value in capacity shall we say? In potentia? So it was about programmatic access. It was about good meta data, it was about making it so it’s a value to citizens and industry but also to Government itself. If a Government agency needs to build a service, a citizen service to do something, rather than building an API to an internal system that’s privately available only to their application which would cost them money you know they could put the data in Whether it’s spatial or tabular and soon to be relational, you know different data types have different data provision needs so being able to centralise that function reduces the cost of providing it, making it easy for agencies to get the most out of their data, reduce the cost of delivering what they need to deliver on top of the data also creates an opportunity for external innovation. And I know that there’s already been loads of applications and analysis and uses of data that’s on and it’s only increasing everyday. Because we took open data from being a retrospective, freedom of information, compliance issue, which was never going to be sexy, right? We moved it towards how you can do things better. This is how we can enable innovation. This is how agencies can find each other’s data better and re-use it and not have to keep continually repeat the wheel. So we built a business proposition for that started to make it successful. So that’s been cool.

There’s been experimentation of gov as an API in the ATO. With the SBR API. With the ABN lookup or ABN lookup API. There’s so many businesses out there. I’m sure there’s a bunch in the room. When you build an application where someone puts in a business name into a app or into an application or a transaction or whatever. You can use the ABN lookup API to validate the business name. So you know it’s a really simple validation service, it means that you don’t have, as unfortunately we have right now in the whole of Government contracts data set 279 different spellings for the Department of Defence. You can start to actually get that, use what Government already has as validation services, as something to build upon. You know I really look forward to having whole of Government up to date spatial data that’s really available so people can build value on top of it. That’ll be very exciting. You know at some point I hope that happens but. Industry, experimented this with energy ratings data set. It’s a very quick example, they had to build an app as you know Ministers love to see. But they built a very, very useful app to actually compare when you’re in the store. You know your fridges and all the rest of it to see what’s best for you. But what they found, by putting the data on they saved money immediately and there’s a brilliant video if you go looking for this that the Department of Industry put together with Martin Hoffman that you should have a look at, which is very good. But what they found is by having the data out there, all the companies, all the retail companies that have to by law put the energy rating of every electrical device they sell on their brochures traditionally they did it by goggling, right? What’s the energy rating of this, whatever other retail companies using we’ll use that.

Completely out of date and unauthorised and not true, inaccurate. So by having the data set publically available kept up to date on a daily basis, suddenly they were able to massively reduce the cost of compliance for a piece of regulatory you know, so it actually reduced red tape. And then other application started being developed that were very useful and you know Government doesn’t have all the answers and no one pretends that. People love to pretend also that Government also has no answers. I think there’s a healthy balance in between. We’ve got a whole bunch of cool, innovators in Government doing cool stuff but we have to work in partnership and part of that includes using our stuff to enable cool innovation out there.

ABS obviously does a lot of work with API’s and that’s been wonderful to see. But also the National Health Services Directory. I don’t know who, how many people here know that? But you know it’s a directory of thousands, tens of thousands, of health services across Australia. All API enabled. Brilliant sort of work. So API enabled computing and systems and modular program design, agile program design is you know pretty typical for all of you. Because you’re in industry and you’re kind of used to that and you’re used to getting up to date with the latest thing that’ll make you competitive.

Moving Government towards that kind of approach will take a little longer but you know, but it has started. But if you take an API enabled approach to your systems design it is relatively easy to progress to taking an API approach to exposing that publically.

So, I think I only had ten minutes so imagine if all the public Government information services were carefully, were usefully right, usefully discoverable. Not just through using a google search, which appropriate metadata were and even consumable in some cases, you know what if you could actually consume some of those transaction systems or information or services and be able to then re-use it somewhere else. Because when someone is you know about to I don’t know, have a baby, they google for it first right and then they go to probably a baby, they don’t think to come to government in the first instance. So we need to make it easier for Government to go to them. When they go to, why wouldn’t be able to present to them the information that they need from Government as well. This is where we’re starting to sort of think when we start following the rabbit warren of gov as an API.

So, start thinking about what you would use. If all of these things were discoverable or if even some of them were discoverable and consumable, how would you use it? How would you innovate? How would you better serve your customers by leveraging Government as an API? So Government has and always will play a part. This is about making Government just another platform to help enable our wonderful egalitarian and democratic society. Thank you very much.

Postnote: adopting APIs as a strategy, not just a technical side effect is key here. Adopting modular architecture so that agencies can adopt the best of breed components for a system today, tomorrow and into the future, without lock in. I think just cobbling APIs on top of existing systems would miss the greater opportunity of taking a modular architecture design approach which creates more flexible, adaptable, affordable and resilient systems than the traditional single stack solution.

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Returning to data and Gov 2.0 from the DTO

I have been working at the newly created Digital Transformation Office in the Federal Government since January this year helping to set it up, create a vision, get some good people in and build some stuff. I was working in and then running a small, highly skilled and awesome team focused on how to dramatically improve information (websites) and transaction services across government. This included a bunch of cool ideas around whole of government service analytics, building a discovery layer (read APIs) for all government data, content and services, working with agencies to improve content and SEO, working on reporting mechanisms for the DTO, and looking at ways to usefully reduce the huge number of websites currently run by the Federal public service amongst other things. You can see some of our team blog posts about this work.

It has been an awesome trip and we built some great stuff, but now I need to return to my work on data, gov 2.0 and supporting the Australian Government CTO John Sheridan in looking at whole of government technology, procurement and common platforms. I can also work more closely with Sharyn Clarkson and the Online Services Branch on the range of whole of government platforms and solutions they run today, particularly the highly popular GovCMS. It has been a difficult choice but basically it came down to where my skills and efforts are best placed at this point in time. Plus I miss working on open data!

I wanted to say a final public thank you to everyone I worked with at the DTO, past and present. It has been a genuine privilege to work in the diverse teams and leadership from across over 20 agencies in the one team! It gave me a lot of insight to the different cultures, capabilities and assumptions in different departments, and I think we all challenged each other and created a bigger and better vision for the effort. I have learned much and enjoyed the collaborative nature of the broader DTO team.

I believe the DTO has two major opportunities ahead: as a a force of awesome and a catalyst for change. As a force of awesome, the DTO can show how delivery and service design can be done with modern tools and methods, can provide a safe sandpit for experimentation, can set the baseline for the whole APS through the digital service standard, and can support genuine culture change across the APS through training, guidance and provision of expertise/advisers in agencies. As a catalyst for change, the DTO can support the many, many people across the APS who want transformation, who want to do things better, and who can be further empowered, armed and supported to do just that through the work of the DTO. Building stronger relationships across the public services of Australia will be critical to this broader cultural change and evolution to modern technologies and methodologies.

I continue to support the efforts of the DTO and the broader digital transformation agenda and I wish Paul Shetler and the whole team good luck with an ambitious and inspiring vision for the future. If we could all make an approach that was data/evidence driven, user centric, mashable/modular, collaborative and cross government(s) the norm, we would overcome the natural silos of government, we would establish the truly collaborative public service we all crave and we would be better able to support the community. I have long believed that the path of technical integrity is the most important guiding principle of everything I do, and I will continue to contribute to the broader discussions about “digital transformation” in government.

Stay tuned for updates on the blog, and I look forward to spending the next 4 months kicking a few goals before I go on maternity leave :)

Posted in Aus Community, gov20, Government, Tech | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Technocracy: a short look at the impact of technology on modern political and power structures

Below is an essay I wrote for some study that I thought might be fun to share. If you like this, please see the other blog posts tagged as Gov 2.0. Please note, this is a personal essay and not representative of anyone else :)

In recent centuries we have seen a dramatic change in the world brought about by the rise of and proliferation of modern democracies. This shift in governance structures gives the common individual a specific role in the power structure, and differs sharply from more traditional top down power structures. This change has instilled in many of the world’s population some common assumptions about the roles, responsibilities and rights of citizens and their governing bodies. Though there will always exist a natural tension between those in power and those governed, modern governments are generally expected to be a benevolent and accountable mechanism that balances this tension for the good of the society as a whole.

In recent decades the Internet has rapidly further evolved the expectations and individual capacity of people around the globe through, for the first time in history, the mass distribution of the traditional bastions of power. With a third of the world online and countries starting to enshrine access to the Internet as a human right, individuals have more power than ever before to influence and shape their lives and the lives of people around them. It is easier that ever for people to congregate, albeit virtually, according to common interests and goals, regardless of their location, beliefs, language, culture or other age old barriers to collaboration. This is having a direct and dramatic impact on governments and traditional power structures everywhere, and is both extending and challenging the principles and foundations of democracy.

This short paper outlines how the Internet has empowered individuals in an unprecedented and prolific way, and how this has changed and continues to change the balance of power in societies around the world, including how governments and democracies work.

Democracy and equality

The concept of an individual having any implicit rights or equality isn’t new, let alone the idea that an individual in a society should have some say over the ruling of the society. Indeed the idea of democracy itself has been around since the ancient Greeks in 500 BCE. The basis for modern democracies lies with the Parliament of England in the 11th century at a time when the laws of the Crown largely relied upon the support of the clergy and nobility, and the Great Council was formed for consultation and to gain consent from power brokers. In subsequent centuries, great concerns about leadership and taxes effectively led to a strongly increased role in administrative power and oversight by the parliament rather than the Crown.

The practical basis for modern government structures with elected official had emerged by the 17th century. This idea was already established in England, but also took root in the United States. This was closely followed by multiple suffrage movements from the 19th and 20th centuries which expanded the right to participate in modern democracies from (typically) adult white property owners to almost all adults in those societies.

It is quite astounding to consider the dramatic change from very hierarchical, largely unaccountable and highly centralised power systems to democratic ones in which those in powers are expected to be held to account. This shift from top down power, to distributed, representative and accountable power is an important step to understand modern expectations.

Democracy itself is sustainable only when the key principle of equality is deeply ingrained in the population at large. This principle has been largely infused into Western culture and democracies, independent of religion, including in largely secular and multicultural democracies such as Australia. This is important because an assumption of equality underpins stability in a system that puts into the hands of its citizens the ability to make a decision. If one component of the society feels another doesn’t have an equal right to a vote, then outcomes other than their own are not accepted as legitimate. This has been an ongoing challenge in some parts of the world more than others.

In many ways there is a huge gap between the fearful sentiments of Thomas Hobbes, who preferred a complete and powerful authority to keep the supposed ‘brutish nature’ of mankind at bay, and the aspirations of John Locke who felt that even governments should be held to account and the role of the government was to secure the natural rights of the individual to life, liberty and property. Yet both of these men and indeed, many political theorists over many years, have started from a premise that all men are equal – either equally capable of taking from and harming others, or equal with regards to their individual rights.

Arguably, the Western notion of individual rights is rooted in religion. The Christian idea that all men are created equal under a deity presents an interesting contrast to traditional power structures that assume one person, family or group have more rights than the rest, although ironically various churches have not treated all people equally either. Christianity has deeply influenced many political thinkers and the forming of modern democracies, many of which which look very similar to the mixed regime system described by Saint Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Thelogiae essays:

Some, indeed, say that the best constitution is a combination of all existing forms, and they praise the Lacedemonian because it is made up of oligarchy, monarchy, and democracy, the king forming the monarchy, and the council of elders the oligarchy, while the democratic element is represented by the Ephors: for the Ephors are selected from the people.

The assumption of equality has been enshrined in key influential documents including the United States Declaration of Independence, 1776:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

More recently in the 20th Century, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights goes even further to define and enshrine equality and rights, marking them as important for the entire society:

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world… – 1st sentence of the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. – Article 1 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)

The evolution of the concepts of equality and “rights” is important to understand as they provide the basis for how the Internet is having such a disruptive impact on traditional power structures, whilst also being a natural extension of an evolution in human thinking that has been hundreds of years in the making.

Great expectations

Although only a third of the world is online, in many countries this means the vast bulk of the population. In Australia over 88% of households are online as of 2012. Constant online access starts to drive a series of new expectations and behaviours in a community, especially one where equality has already been so deeply ingrained as a basic principle.

Over time a series of Internet-based instincts and perspectives have become mainstream, arguably driven by the very nature of the technology and the tools that we use online. For example, the Internet was developed to “route around damage” which means the technology can withstand technical interruption by another hardware or software means. Where damage is interpreted in a social sense, such as perhaps censorship or locking away access to knowledge, individuals instinctively seek and develop a work around and you see something quite profound. A society has emerged that doesn’t blindly accept limitations put upon them. This is quite a challenge for traditional power structures.

The Internet has become both an extension and an enabler of equality and power by massively distributing both to ordinary people around the world. How has power and equality been distributed? When you consider what constitutes power, four elements come to mind: publishing, communications, monitoring and enforcement.

Publishing – in times gone past the ideas that spread beyond a small geographical area either traveled word of mouth via trade routes, or made it into a book. Only the wealthy could afford to print and distribute the written word, so publishing and dissemination of information was a power limited to a small number of people. Today the spreading of ideas is extremely easy, cheap and can be done anonymously. Anyone can start a blog, use social media, and the proliferation of information creation and dissemination is unprecedented. How does this change society? Firstly there is an assumption that an individual can tell their story to a global audience, which means an official story is easily challenged not only by the intended audience, but by the people about whom the story is written. Individuals online expect both to have their say, and to find multiple perspectives that they can weigh up, and determine for themselves what is most credible. This presents significant challenges to traditional powers such as governments in establishing an authoritative voice unless they can establish trust with the citizens they serve.

Communications– individuals have always had some method to communicate with individuals in other communities and countries, but up until recent decades these methods have been quite expensive, slow and oftentimes controlled. This has meant that historically, people have tended to form social and professional relationships with those close by, largely out of convenience. The Internet has made it easy to communicate, collaborate with, and coordinate with individuals and groups all around the world, in real time. This has made massive and global civil responses and movements possible, which has challenged traditional and geographically defined powers substantially. It has also presented a significant challenge for governments to predict and control information flow and relationships within the society. It also created a challenge for how to support the best interests of citizens, given the tension between what is good for a geographically defined nation state doesn’t always align with what is good for an online and trans-nationally focused citizen.

Monitoring – traditional power structures have always had ways to monitor the masses. Monitoring helps maintain rule of law through assisting in the enforcement of laws, and is often upheld through self-reporting as those affected by broken laws will report issues to hold detractors to account. In just the last 50 years, modern technologies like CCTV have made monitoring of the people a trivial task, where video cameras can record what is happening 24 hours a day. Foucault spoke of the panopticon gaol design as a metaphor for a modern surveillance state, where everyone is constantly watched on camera. The panopticon was a gaol design wherein detainees could not tell if they were being observed by gaolers or not, enabling in principle, less gaolers to control a large number of prisoners. In the same way prisoners would theoretically behave better under observation, Foucault was concerned that omnipresent surveillance would lead to all individuals being more conservative and limited in themselves if they knew they could be watched at any time. The Internet has turned this model on its head. Although governments can more easily monitor citizens than ever before, individuals can also monitor each other and indeed, monitor governments for misbehaviour. This has led to individuals, governments, companies and other entities all being held to account publicly, sometimes violently or unfairly so.

Enforcement – enforcement of laws are a key role of a power structure, to ensure the rules of a society are maintained for the benefit of stability and prosperity. Enforcement can take many forms including physical (gaol, punishment) or psychological (pressure, public humiliation). Power structures have many ways of enforcing the rules of a society on individuals, but the Internet gives individuals substantial enforcement tools of their own. Power used to be who had the biggest sword, or gun, or police force. Now that major powers and indeed, economies, rely so heavily upon the Internet, there is a power in the ability to disrupt communications. In taking down a government or corporate website or online service, an individual or small group of individuals can have an impact far greater than in the past on power structures in their society, and can do so anonymously. This becomes quite profound as citizen groups can emerge with their own philosophical premise and the tools to monitor and enforce their perspective.

Property – property has always been a strong basis of law and order and still plays an important part in democracy, though perspectives towards property are arguably starting to shift. Copyright was invented to protect the “intellectual property” of a person against copying at a time when copying was quite a physical business, and when the mode of distributing information was very expensive. Now, digital information is so easy to copy that it has created a change in expectations and a struggle for traditional models of intellectual property. New models of copyright have emerged that explicitly support copying (copyleft) and some have been successful, such as with the Open Source software industry or with remix music culture. 3D printing will change the game again as we will see in the near future the massive distribution of the ability to copy physical goods, not just virtual ones. This is already creating havoc with those who seek to protect traditional approaches to property but it also presents an extraordinary opportunity for mankind to have greater distribution of physical wealth, not just virtual wealth. Particularly if you consider the current use of 3D printing to create transplant organs, or the potential of 3D printing combined with some form of nano technology that could reassemble matter into food or other essential living items. That is starting to step into science fiction, but we should consider the broader potential of these new technologies before we decide to arbitrarily limit them based on traditional views of copyright, as we are already starting to see.

By massively distributing publishing, communications, monitoring and enforcement, and with the coming potential massive distribution of property, technology and the Internet has created an ad hoc, self-determined and grassroots power base that challenges traditional power structures and governments.

With great power…

Individuals online find themselves more empowered and self-determined than ever before, regardless of the socio-political nature of their circumstances. They can share and seek information directly from other individuals, bypassing traditional gatekeepers of knowledge. They can coordinate with like-minded citizens both nationally and internationally and establish communities of interest that transcend geo-politics. They can monitor elected officials, bureaucrats, companies and other individuals, and even hold them all to account.

To leverage these opportunities fully requires a reasonable amount of technical literacy. As such, many technologists are on the front line, playing a special role in supporting, challenging and sometimes overthrowing modern power structures. As technical literacy is permeating mainstream culture more individuals are able to leverage these disrupters, but technologist activists are often the most effective at disrupting power through the use of technology and the Internet.

Of course, whilst the Internet is a threat to traditional centralised power structures, it also presents an unprecedented opportunity to leverage the skills, knowledge and efforts of an entire society in the running of government, for the benefit of all. Citizen engagement in democracy and government beyond the ballot box presents the ability to co-develop, or co-design the future of the society, including the services and rules that support stability and prosperity. Arguably, citizen buy-in and support is now an important part of the stability of a society and success of a policy.

Disrupting the status quo

The combination of improved capacity for self-determination by individuals along with the increasingly pervasive assumptions of equality and rights have led to many examples of traditional power structures being held to account, challenged, and in some cases, overthrown.

Governments are able to be held more strongly to account than ever before. The Open Australia Foundation is a small group of technologists in Australia who create tools to improve transparency and citizen engagement in the Australian democracy. They created Open Australia, a site that made the public parliamentary record more accessible to individuals through making it searchable, subscribable and easy to browse and comment on. They also have projects such as Planning Alerts which notifies citizens of planned development in their area, Election Leaflets where citizens upload political pamphlets for public record and accountability, and Right to Know, a site to assist the general public in pursuing information and public records from the government under Freedom of Information. These are all projects that monitor, engage and inform citizens about government.

Wikileaks is a website and organisation that provides an anonymous way for individuals to anonymously leak sensitive information, often classified government information. Key examples include video and documents from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, about the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, United States diplomatic cables and million of emails from Syrian political and corporate figures. Some of the information revealed by Wikileaks has had quite dramatic consequences with the media and citizens around the world responding to the information. Arguably, many of the Arab Spring uprisings throughout the Middle East from December 2010 were provoked by the release of the US diplomatic cables by Wikileaks, as it demonstrated very clearly the level of corruption in many countries. The Internet also played a vital part in many of these uprisings, some of which saw governments deposed, as social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook provided the mechanism for massive coordination of protests, but importantly also provided a way to get citizen coverage of the protests and police/army brutality, creating global audience, commentary and pressure on the governments and support for the protesters.

Citizen journalism is an interesting challenge to governments because the route to communicate with the general public has traditionally been through the media. The media has presented for many years a reasonably predictable mechanism for governments to communicate an official statement and shape public narrative. But the Internet has facilitated any individual to publish online to a global audience, and this has resulted in a much more robust exchange of ideas and less clear cut public narrative about any particular issue, sometimes directly challenging official statements. A particularly interesting case of this was the Salam Pax blog during the 2003 Iraq invasion by the United States. Official news from the US would largely talk about the success of the campaign to overthrown Suddam Hussein. The Salam Pax blog provided the view of a 29 year old educated Iraqi architect living in Baghdad and experiencing the invasion as a citizen, which contrasted quite significantly at times with official US Government reports. This type of contrast will continue to be a challenge to governments.

On the flip side, the Internet has also provided new ways for governments themselves to support and engage citizens. There has been the growth of a global open government movement, where governments themselves try to improve transparency, public engagement and services delivery using the Internet. Open data is a good example of this, with governments going above and beyond traditional freedom of information obligations to proactively release raw data online for public scrutiny. Digital services allow citizens to interact with their government online rather than the inconvenience of having to physically attend a shopfront. Many governments around the world are making public commitments to improving the transparency, engagement and services for their citizens. We now also see more politicians and bureaucrats engaging directly with citizens online through the use of social media, blogs and sophisticated public consultations tools. Governments have become, in short, more engaged, more responsive and more accountable to more people than ever before.


Only in recent centuries have power structures emerged with a specific role for common individual citizens. The relationship between individuals and power structures has long been about the balance between what the power could enforce and what the population would accept. With the emergence of power structures that support and enshrine the principles of equality and human rights, individuals around the world have come to expect the capacity to determine their own future. The growth of and proliferation of democracy has been a key shift in how individuals relate to power and governance structures.

New technologies and the Internet has gone on to massively distribute the traditionally centralised powers of publishing, communications, monitoring and enforcement (with property on the way). This distribution of power through the means of technology has seen democracy evolve into something of a technocracy, a system which has effectively tipped the balance of power from institutions to individuals.


Hobbes, T. The Leviathan, ed. by R. Tuck, Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Aquinas, T. Sum. Theol. i-ii. 105. 1, trans. A. C. Pegis, Whether the old law enjoined fitting precepts concerning rulers?

Uzgalis, William, “John Locke”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

See additional useful references linked throughout essay.

Posted in gov20, Government, society5, Tech | 1 Comment

Collaborative innovation in the public service: Game of Thrones style

I recently gave a speech about “collaborative innovation” in the public service, and I thought I’d post it here for those interested :)

The short version was that governments everywhere, or more specifically, public services everywhere are unlikely to get more money to do the same work, and are struggling to deliver and to transform how they do things under the pressure of rapidly changing citizen expectations. The speech used Game of Thrones as a bit of a metaphor for the public service, and basically challenged public servants (the audience), whatever their level, to take personal responsibility for change, to innovate (in the true sense of the word), to collaborate, to lead, to put the citizen first and to engage beyond the confines of their desk, business unit, department or jurisdiction to co-develop develop better ways of doing things. It basically said that the public service needs to better work across the silos.

The long version is below, on YouTube or you can check out the full transcript:

The first thing I guess I wanted to talk about was pressure number one on government. I’m still new to government. I’ve been working in I guess the public service, be it federal or state, only for a couple of years. Prior to that I was an adviser in a politician’s office, but don’t hold that against me, I’m strictly apolitical. Prior to that I was in the industry for 10 years and I’ve been involved in non-profits, I’ve been involved in communities, I’ve been involved in online communities for 15 years. I sort of got a bit of an idea what’s going on when it comes to online communities and online engagement. It’s interesting for me to see a lot of these things done they’ve become very popular and very interesting.

My background is systems administration, which a lot of people would think is very boring, but it’s been a very useful skill for me because in everything I’ve done, I’ve tried to figure out what all the moving parts are, what the inputs are, where the configurations files are; how to tweak those configurations to get the better outputs. The entire thing has been building up my knowledge of the whole system, how the societal-wide system, if you like, operates.

One of the main of pressures I’ve noticed on government of course is around resources. Everyone has less to do more. In some cases, some of those pressures are around fatigued systems that haven’t had investment for 20 years. Fatigued people who have been trying to do more with less for many years. Some of that is around assumptions. There’s a lot of assumptions about what it takes to innovate. I’ve had people say, “Oh yeah, we can totally do an online survey that’ll cost you $4 million.” “Oh my, really? Okay. I’m going to just use Survey Monkey, that’s cool.” There are a lot of perceptions that I would suggest a little out of date.

It was a very opportunistic and a very wonderful thing that I worked in the ACT Government prior to coming into the federal government. A lot of people in the federal government look down on working in other jurisdictions, but it was very useful because when you see what some of the state territory and local governments do with the tiny fraction of the funding that the federal government has, it’s really quite humbling to start to say, “Well why do we have these assumptions that a project is going to cost a billion dollars?”

I think our perceptions about what’s possible today is a little bit out of whack. Some of those resources problems are also limitations for the self-imposed, our assumptions, our expectations and such. So first major pressure that we’re dealing with is around resources, both the real issue and I would argue a slight issue of perception. This is the only gory one (slide), so turn away from it if you like, I should have said that before sorry.

The second pressure is around changing expectations. Citizens now, because of the Internet, are more powerful than ever before. This is a real challenge for entities such as government or a large traditional power brokers shall we say. Having citizens that can solve their own problems, they can make their own applications that can pull data from wherever we like, that can screen scrape what we put online, is a very different situation to whether it be the Game of Thrones land or Medieval times, even up to even only 100 years ago; the role of a citizen was more about being a subject and they were basically subject to whatever you wanted. A citizen today is able to engage and if you’re not responsive to them, if government don’t be agile and actually fill up a role then that void gets picked up by other people, so the internet society is a major pressure of the changing expectations of the public that we serve is a major pressure. When fundamentally, government can’t in a lot of cases innovate quickly enough, particularly in isolation, to solve the new challenges of today and to adapt and grab on to the new opportunities of today.

We (public servants) need to collaborate. We need to collaborate across government. We need to collaborate across jurisdictions and we need to collaborate across society and I would argue the world. These are things that are very, very foreign concepts to a lot of people in the public service. One of the reasons I chose this topic today was because when I undertook to kick off again, which is just about to hit its first anniversary and I recommend that you come along on the 17th of July, but when I kicked that off, the first thing I did was say, “Well who else is doing stuff? What are they doing? How’s that working? What’s the best practice?” When I chatted to other jurisdictions in Australia, when I chatted to other countries, I sat down and grilled for a couple of hours the guys to find out exactly how they do it, how it’s resourced, what their model was. It was fabulous because it really helped us create a strategy which has really worked and it’s continuing to work in Australia.

A lot of these problems and pressures are relatively new, we can’t use old methods to solve these problems. So to quote another Game of Thrones-ism,  if we look back, we are lost.

The third pressure and it’s not too gory, this one. The third pressure is upper management. They don’t always get what we’re trying to do. Let’s be honest, right? I’m very lucky I work for a very innovative, collaborative person who delegates responsibilities down … Audience Member: And still has his head. Pia Waugh: … and still has his head. Well actually it’s the other way around. Upper management is Joffrey Baratheon; but I guess you could say it that way, too. In engaging with upper management, a lot of the time and this has been touched on by several speakers earlier today, a lot of the time they have risks. To manage they have to maintain reputation and when you say we can’t do it that way, if you can’t give a solution that will solve the problem, then what do you expect to happen? We need to engage with upper management to understand what their concerns are, what their risks are and help mitigate those risks. If we can’t do that then it is in a lot of cases to our detriment that our projects are not going to be able to get up.

We need to figure out what the agendas are, we need to be able to align what we’re trying to do effectively and we need to be able to help provide those solutions and engage more constructively, I would suggest, with upper management.

Okay, but the biggest issue, the biggest issue I believe is around what I call systemic silos. So this is how people see government, it’s remote, it’s very hard to get to; it’s one entity. It’s a bit crumbling, a bit off in the realm, it’s out of touch with people, it’s off in the clouds and it’s untouchable. It’s very hard to get to, there’s winding dangerous road you might fall off. Most importantly, it’s one entity. When people have a good or bad experience with your department, they just see that as government. We are all exactly judged by the best and the worst examples of all of these and yet we’re all motivated to work independently of each other in order to meet fairly arbitrary, goals in some cases. In terms of how government sees people, they’re these trouble-making people that climbing up to try and destroy us. They’re a threat, they’re outsiders, they don’t get it. If only we could teach them how government works and then this will all be okay.

Well, it’s not their job; I mean half of the people in government don’t know how government works. By the time you take MOG changes into account, by the time you take changes of functions, changes of management, changes of different approaches, different cultures throughout the public service, the amount of time someone has said to me, “The public service can’t innovate.” I’m like, “Well, the public service is myriad organisations with myriad cultures.” It’s not one entity and yet people see us as one entity. It’s not I think the job of the citizen to understand the complexities of government, but rather the job of the government to abstract the complexities of government to get a better engagement and service for citizens. That’s our job, which means if you’re not collaborating and looking across government, then you’re not actually doing your job, in my opinion. But again, I’m still possibly seen as one of these troublemakers, that’s okay.

This is how government sees government (map of the Realm), a whole map of fiefdoms, of castles to defend, of armies that are beating at your door, people trying to take your food and this is just one department. We don’t have this concept of that flag has these skills that we could use. These people are doing this project; here’s this fantastic thing happening over there that we could chat to. We’re not doing that enough across departments, across jurisdictions, let alone internationally and there’s some fantastic opportunities to actually tap into some of those skills. The solution in my opinion, this massive barrier to doing the work of the public service better is systemic silos. So what’s the solution?

The solution is we need to share. We’re all taught as children to share the cookie and yet as we get into primary school and high school we’re told to hide our cookie. Keep it away. Oh you don’t want to share the cookie because there’s only one cookie and if you gave any of it away you don’t have any cookie left. Well, there’s only so many potatoes in this metaphor and if we don’t share those potatoes then someone’s going to starve and probably the person who’s going to starve is actually right now delivering a service that if they’re not there to deliver, we’re going to have to figure out how to deliver for the one potato that we have. So I’m feeling we have to collaborate and to share those resources is I think a very important step forward.

Innovative collaboration. Innovative collaboration is a totally made up term as are a lot of things are I guess. It’s the concept of actually forging strategic partnerships. I’ve actually had a number of projects now. I didn’t have a lot of funding for I don’t need a lot of funding for because fundamentally, a lot of agencies want to publish data because they see it now to be in their best interest. It helps them improve their policy outcomes, helps them improve their services, helps them improve efficiency in their organisations. Now that we’ve sort of hit that tipping point of agencies wanting to do this stuff increasingly so, it’s not completely proliferated yet, but I’m working on it; now that we sort of hit that tipping point, I’ve got a number of agencies that say, “Well, we’d love to open data but we just need a data model registry.” “Oh, cool. Do you have one?” “Yes, we do but we don’t have anywhere to host it.” “Okay, how about I host it for you. You develop it and I’ll host it. Rock!” I’ve got five of those projects happening right now where I’ve aligned the motivation and the goals of what we’re doing with the motivation and goals of five other departments and we have actually have some fantastic outcomes coming out that meet all the needs of all the players involved, plus create a whole of government improved service.

I think this idea of having a shared load, pooling our resources, pooling our skills, getting a better outcome for everyone is a very important way of thinking. It gives you better improved outcomes in terms of dealing again with upper management. If you start from a premise that most people do, well we’ve only got this number of people and this amount of money and therefore, we’re only going to be able to get this outcome. In a year’s time you’ll be told, “That’s fine, just still do it 20% less.” If you say our engagement with this agency is going to help us get more resilience in a project and more expertise on a project and by the way, upper management, it means we’re splitting the cost with someone else, that starts to help the conversation. You can start to leverage resources across multiple departments, across society and across the world.

Here’s a little how-to, just a couple of ideas, I’m going to go into this into a little bit more detail. In the first case research, so I’m a child of the internet, I’m a little bit unique for my age bracket and that my mom was a geek, so I have been using computers since I was four, 30 years ago. A lot of people my age got their first taste of computing and the internet when they got to university or at best maybe high school whereas I was playing with computers very young. In fact, there’s a wonderful photo if you want to check it out, of my mom and I sitting and looking at the computer very black and white and there’s this beautiful photo of this mother with a tiny child at the computer. What I tell people is that it’s a cute photo but actually my mom had spent three days programming that system and when her back was turned, just five minutes, I completely broke it. The picture is actually of her fixing my first breaking of a system. I guess I could have had a career in testing but anyway I got in big trouble.

One of the things about being a child of the internet or someone, who’s really adopted the internet into the way that I think, is that my work space is not limited to the desk area that I have. I don’t start with a project and sort of go, okay, what’s on my computer, who’s in my immediate team, who’s in my area, my business area. I start with what’s happening in the world. The idea of research is not just to say what’s happening elsewhere so that we can integrate into what we are going to do, but to start to see the whole world as your work space or as your playground or as your sandpit, whichever metaphor you prefer. In this way, you can start to automatically as opposed to by force, start to get into a collaborative mindset.

Research is very important. You need to establish something. You need to actually do something. This is an important one that’s why I’ve got it in bold. You need to demonstrate that success and you need to wrap up. I think a lot of times people get very caught up with establishing a community and then maintaining that community for the sake of maintaining the community. What are the outcomes? You need to identify fairly quickly, is this going to have an outcome or is this sort of a community, an ongoing community which is not necessarily outcome driven? Part of this is around, again, understanding how the system works and how you can actually work in the system. Some of that research is about understanding projects and skills. I’ll jump into a little bit. So what already exists? If I had a mammoth (slide), I’d totally do cool stuff. What exists out there? What are the people and skills that are out there? What are the motivations that exist in those people that are already out there? How can I align with those? What are the projects that are already doing cool stuff? What are the agendas and priorities and I guess systemic motivations that are out there? What tech exists?

And this is why I always contend and I always slip into a talk somewhere, so I’ll slip it in here, you need to have a geek involved somewhere. How many people here would consider yourselves geeks? Not many. You need to have people that have technical literacy in order to make sure that your great idea, your shiny vision; your shiny policy can actually be implemented. If you don’t have a techie person, then you don’t have the person who has a very, very good skill at identifying opportunities and risks. You can say, “Well we’ll just go to our IT department and they’ll give us quote of how much it does to do a survey.” Well in that case, okay, not necessarily our case, it was $4 million. So you need to have techie people who will help you keep your finger on the pulse of what’s possible, what’s probable and how it’s going to possibly work. I highly recommend, you don’t need to be that person but you need to have the different skills in the room.

This is where and I said this on Twitter, I do actually recommend Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘The Tipping Point’, not because he’s the most brilliant author in the world, but because he has a concept in there that’s very important. Maybe I’ll save you reading it now, but of having three skills – connectedness, so the connector; the maven, your researcher sort of person; and your sales person. Those three skills, one person might have all or none of those skills, but a project needs to have all of those skills represented in some format for the project to go from nothing to being successful or massively distributed. It’s a very interesting concept. It’s been very beneficial to a lot of projects I’ve been involved in. I’ve run a lot of volunteer projects. The biggest of which is happening this weekend, which is GovHack. Having 1,300 participants in an 11-city event only with volunteer organisers is a fairly big deal and part of the reason we can do that is because we align natural motivation with the common vision and we get geeks involved obviously.

What already exists? Identifying the opportunities, identifying what’s out there, treating the world like a basket of goodies that you can draw from. Secondly, you want to form an A team. Communities are great and communities are important. Communities establish a ongoing presence from which you can engage in, draw from, get support and all those kinds of things. This kind of community is very, very important, but innovative collaboration is about building a team to do something, a project team. You want to have your A-list. You want to have a wide variety of skills. You want to have doers. You want to establish the common and different needs of the individuals involved and they might be across departments or across governments or from society. Establishing what is common of the people involved that you want to get out of it and establishing then what’s different is important to making sure that when you go to announce this, that everyone’s needs is taken care of or that it doesn’t put someone off side or whatever. You need to understand the dynamics of your group very, very well and you need to have the right people in the room. You want to plan realistic outcomes and milestones. These need to be tangible.

This is where I get just super pragmatic and I apologise, but if you’re building a team to build the project report to build the team, maybe you’ve lost your way just slightly. If the return on investment or the business case that you’re writing takes 10 times the amount of time to do the project, itself, maybe you could do a little optimisation. So just sort of sitting back and saying what is the scale of what we’re trying to do. What are the tangible outcomes and what is actually necessary for this? This comes back to the concept of again, managing and mapping risk to projects. If the risk is very, very, very low, then maybe the amount of time and effort that goes into building the enormous structure of governance around it, can be somewhat minimised. This is taking a engaged proactive approach with the risk I think is very important in this kind of thing and making sure that the outcomes are actually achievable and tangible. This is also important because if you have tangible outcomes then you can demonstrate tangible outcomes. You need to also avoid scope creep.

I had a project recently that didn’t end up happening. It was a very interesting lesson to me though where something simple was asked and I came out with a way to do it in four weeks. Brilliant! Then the scope started to creep significantly and then it became this and this and then this and then we want to have an elephant with bells on it. Well, you can have the elephants with bells if you do this in this way in six months. So how about you have that as a second project? Anyway, so basically try to hold your ground. Often enough when people ask for something, they don’t know what they’re asking for. We need to be the people that are on the front line saying, “What you want to achieve fundamentally, you’re not going to achieve the way that you’re trying to achieve it. So how about we think about what the actual end goal that we all want is and how to achieve that? And by the way, I’m the technical expert and you should believe me and if you don’t, ask another technical expert but for God’s sake, don’t leave it to someone who doesn’t know how to implement this, please.”

You want to plan your goals. You want to ensure and this another important bit that there is actually someone responsible for each bit, otherwise, your planning committee will get together in another four weeks or eight weeks and will say, “So, how is action A going? Oh nothing’s happened. Okay, how’s action B going?” You need to actually make sure that this nominated responsibilities and they again should align to those individuals’ natural motivations and systemic motivations.

My next bit, don’t reinvent the wheel. I find a lot of projects where someone has gone on and completely recreated something. The amount of time when someone said, “Well that’s a really good piece of software but let’s rewrite it in another language.” In technical land, this is very common, but I see it happen in a process perspective, I see it happen in a policy perspective. Again, going back to see what’s available is very important, but I’ll just throw in another thing here, the idea of taking responsibility is a very scary thing, apparently, in the public service. Let’s go back to the wheel. If your wheel is perfect, you’ve developed it, you’ve designed it, you’ve spent six years getting it to this point and it’s shiny and it’s beautiful and it works, but it’s not connected to a car, what’s the point, seriously?

You want to make sure that what you’re doing needs to actually contribute to something bigger, needs to actually be part of the engine, because if your wheel or if your cog is perfectly defined but the engine as a whole doesn’t work, then there’s a problem there and sometimes that’s out of your control. Quite often what’s missing is someone actually looking end to end and saying, “Well, the reason there’s a problem is because there’s actually a spanner, just here.” If we remove that spanner and I know it’s not my job to remove that spanner, but if someone removed that spanner the whole thing would work. Sometimes it’s very scary for some people to do and I understand that, but you need to understand what you’re doing and how it fits into the bigger picture and how the bigger picture is or isn’t working, I would suggest.

Monitoring. Obviously, measuring and monitoring success in Game of Thrones was a lot more messy than it is for us. They had to deal with birds, they had to feed them, they had to deal with what they fed them. To measure and monitor your project is a lot easier in a lot of cases. There’s a lot of ways to automate it. There’s a lot of ways to come up with it at the beginning. How do we define success, if you don’t define it then you don’t know if you’ve got there. These things are all kind of obvious, but I remember having a real epiphany moment when a very senior person from another department actually, I was talking to him about the challenge that I’m having with a project and I said, “Well if you’re doing this great thing, then why aren’t you shouting it from the rooftop. This is wonderful. It’s very innovative, it’s very clever. You’ve solved a really great problem.” Then he looked at me and said, “Well Pia, you know success is just as bad as failure, don’t you?” It really struck me and then I realised I guess any sort of success or failure is seen as attention and the moment someone puts attention then it’s not very scary. I put to you that having success, having defensible projects, having evidence that actually underpins why, what you’re doing is important, is probably one of the most important things that you can do today to make sure that you continue getting funding, resources and all these kinds of things. Measuring, monitoring, reporting is more important now than ever and luckily and coincidentally, it’s easier now than ever. There’s a lot of ways that we can automate this stuff. There’s a lot of ways that we can put in place these mechanisms from the start of a project. There’s a lot of ways we can use technology to help. We need to define success, we need to defend and promote the outcomes of those projects.

Share the glory. If it’s you sitting on the throne then everyone starts to get a little antsy. I like to say that shared glory is the key to a sustainable success. I’ve had a number of projects and I don’t think I’ve told John this, but I’ve had a couple of things where I’ve collaborated with someone and then I’ve let them announce their part of it first, because that’s a good way to get great relationship. It doesn’t really matter to me if I announce it now or in a week’s time. It helps share the success, it helps share the glory. It means everyone is a little bit more on site and it builds trust. The point that was made earlier today about trust is a very important one and the way that you build trust is by having integrity, following through on what you’re doing and to share the glory a little. Sharing the glory is a very important part because if everyone feels like they’re getting out of the collaboration what they need to justify their work, to justify to their bosses, to justify their investment of time, then that’s a very good thing for everyone.

Everything great starts small. This goes to the point of doing pilots, doing demos. How many of you have heard the term release early, release often? Not many. It’s a technology sector idea, but the idea is rather than taking, in big terms, rather than taking four years to scope something out and then get $100 million and then implement it, yeah I know, right? You actually start to do smaller modular projects and if it fails straight away, then at least you haven’t spent four years and $100 million failing. The other part of release early, release often is fail early, fail often, which sounds very scary in the public sector but it’s a very important thing because from failure and from early releases, you get lessons. You can iteratively improve projects or policies or outcomes that you’re doing if you continually getting out there and actually testing with people and demoing and doing pilots. It’s a very, very useful thing to realise that sometimes even the tiniest baby step is still a step and for yourselves as individuals, we don’t always get the big success that we hope and so you need to make sure that you have a continuous success loop in your own environment and for yourself to make sure that you maintain your own sense of moving forward, I guess, so even small steps are very important steps. Audience Member: Fail early, fail often to succeed sooner. Pia Waugh: That’s probably a better sentence.

There’s a lot of lessons that we can learn from other sector and from other industries, from both the corporate and community sectors, that don’t always necessarily translate in the first instance; but they’re tried and true in those sectors. Understanding why they work and why they do or in some cases don’t map to our sector, I think is very important.

Finally, this is the last thing I want to leave you with. The amount of times that I hear someone say, “Oh, we can’t possibly do that. We need to have good leadership. Leadership is what will take us over the line.” We are the leaders of this sector. We are the future of the public service and so there’s a question about you need to start acting it as well, not you, all of us. You lead through doing. You establish change through being the change you want to see, to quote another great guy. When you actually realising that a large proportion of the SES are actually retiring in the next five to ten years, and realising that we are all the future of the public service means that we can be those leaders. Now if you go to your boss and say, “I want to do this great, cool thing and it’s going to be great and I’m going to go and work with all these other people. I’m going to spend lots of your money.” Yeah, they’re going to probably get a little nervous. If you say to them “here’s why this is going to be good for you, I want to make you look good, I want to achieve something great that’s going to help our work, it’s going to help our area, it’s going to help our department, it’s going to help our Minister, it aligns with all of these things” you’re going to have a better chance of getting it through. There’s a lot of ways that you can demonstrate leadership just at our level, just by working to people directly.

So I spoke before about how the first thing I did was go and research what everyone else was doing, I followed that up by establishing an informal forum. A series of informal get togethers. One of those informal get togethers is across jurisdictional meeting with open data people from other jurisdictions. What that means is every two months I meet with the people who are in charge of the open data policies and practice from most of the states and territories, from a bunch of local governments, from a few other departments at the federal level, just to talk about what we’re all doing; made very clear from the start, this is not formal, this is not mandatory, it’s not top down, it’s not the feds trying to tell you what to do, which is an unfortunate although often accurate picture that the other jurisdictions have of us, which is unfortunate because there’s so much we can learn from them. By just setting that up and getting the tone of that right, everyone is sharing policy, sharing outcomes, sharing projects, starting to share a code, starting to share functionality and we’ve got to a point only I guess eight months into the establishment of that group, where we really started to get some great benefits for everyone and it’s bringing everyone’s base line up.

There’s a lot of leadership to be had at every level and identifying what you can do in your job today is very important rather than waiting for the permission. I remember and I’m going to say a little story that I hope John doesn’t mind, I remember when I started in my job and I got a week into the job and I said to John, “So, I’ve been here a week, I really don’t know if this is what you wanted from me. Are you happy with how I’m going?” He said, “Well Pia, don’t change what you’re doing, but I just want to give you a bit of feedback. I’ve never been in a meeting before with outsiders, with vendors or whatever and had an EL speak before.” I said, “Oh, what’s wrong with your department? What’s wrong with ELs?” Because certainly by a particular level you have expertise, you have knowledge, you have something to contribute, so why wouldn’t you be encouraging people of all levels but certainly of senior levels to be actually speaking and engaging in the meetings. It was a really interesting thought experiment and discussion to be had about the culture.

The amount of people that have said to me, just quietly, “Hey, we’d love to do that but we don’t want to get any criticism.” Well, criticism comes in two forms. It’s either constructive or unconstructive. Now it can be given negatively, it can be given positively, it can be given in a little bottle in the sea, but it only comes in those two forms. If it’s constructive, even if yelled at you online, if it’s something to learn from, take that, roll with it. If it’s unconstructive, you can ignore it safely. It’s about having self knowledge, an understanding of a certain amount of clarity and comfort with the idea that you can improve, that sometimes other people will be the mechanism for you to improve, in a lot of cases it will be other people will be the mechanism for you to improve. Conflict is not a bad thing. Conflict is actually a very healthy thing in a lot of ways, if you engage with it. It’s really up to us about how we engage with conflict or with criticism.

This is again where I’m going to be a slight outsider, but it’s very, very hard, not that I’ve seen this directly, but everything I hear is that it’s very, very hard to get rid of someone in the public service. I put to you, why would you not be brave? Seriously. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say, “Oh, I’m so scared about criticism. I’m so scared blah, blah, blah,” and at the same time it be difficult to be fired, why not be brave? We can do great things and it’s up to us as individuals to not wait for that permission to do great things. We can all do great things at lots and lots of different levels. Yes, there will be bad bosses and yes, there will be good bosses, but if you continually pin your ability to shine on those external factors and wait, then you’ll be waiting a long time. Anyway, it’s just my opinion.

So be the leader, be the leader that you want to see. That’s I guess what I wanted to talk about with collaborative innovation.

Posted in gov20, Government | 5 Comments

Essays: Improving the Public Policy Cycle Model

I don’t have nearly enough time to blog these days, but I am doing a bunch of writing for university. I decided I would publish a selection of the (hopefully) more interesting essays that people might find interesting :) Please note, my academic writing is pretty awful, but hopefully some of the ideas, research and references are useful. 

For this essay, I had the most fun in developing my own alternative public policy model at the end of the essay. Would love to hear your thoughts. Enjoy and comments welcome!

Question: Critically assess the accuracy of and relevance to Australian public policy of the Bridgman and Davis policy cycle model.

The public policy cycle developed by Peter Bridgman and Glyn Davis is both relevant to Australian public policy and simultaneously not an accurate representation of developing policy in practice. This essay outlines some of the ways the policy cycle model both assists and distracts from quality policy development in Australia and provides an alternative model as a thought experiment based on the authors policy experience and reflecting on the research conducted around the applicability of Bridgman and Davis’ policy cycle model.


In 1998 Peter Bridgman and Glyn Davis released the first edition of The Australian Policy Handbook, a guide developed to assist public servants to understand and develop sound public policy. The book includes a policy cycle model, developed by Bridgman and Davis, which portrays a number of cyclic logical steps for developing and iteratively improving public policy. This policy model has attracted much analysis, scrutiny, criticism and debate since it was first developed, and it continues to be taught as a useful tool in the kit of any public servant. The fifth edition of the Handbook was the most recent, being released in 2012 which includes Catherine Althaus who joined Bridgman and Davis on the fourth edition in 2007.

The policy cycle model

The policy cycle model presented in the Handbook is below:


The model consists of eight steps in a circle that is meant to encourage an ongoing, cyclic and iterative approach to developing and improving policy over time with the benefit of cumulative inputs and experience. The eight steps of the policy cycle are:

  1. Issue identification – a new issue emerges through some mechanism.

  2. Policy analysis – research and analysis of the policy problem to establish sufficient information to make decisions about the policy.

  3. Policy instrument development – the identification of which instruments of government are appropriate to implement the policy. Could include legislation, programs, regulation, etc.

  4. Consultation (which permeates the entire process) – garnering of external and independent expertise and information to inform the policy development.

  5. Coordination – once a policy position is prepared it needs to be coordinated through the mechanisms and machinations of government. This could include engagement with the financial, Cabinet and parliamentary processes.

  6. Decision – a decision is made by the appropriate person or body, often a Minister or the Cabinet.

  7. Implementation – once approved the policy then needs to be implemented.

  8. Evaluation – an important process to measure, monitor and evaluate the policy implementation.

In the first instance is it worth reflecting on the stages of the model, which implies the entire policy process is centrally managed and coordinated by the policy makers which is rarely true, and thus gives very little indication of who is involved, where policies originate, external factors and pressures, how policies go from a concept to being acted upon. Even to just develop a position resources must be allocated and the development of a policy is thus prioritised above the development of some other policy competing for resourcing. Bridgman and Davis establish very little in helping the policy practitioner or entrepreneur to understand the broader picture which is vital in the development and successful implementation of a policy.

The policy cycle model is relevant to Australian public policy in two key ways: 1) that it both presents a useful reference model for identifying various potential parts of policy development; and 2) it is instructive for policy entrepreneurs to understand the expectations and approach taken by their peers in the public service, given that the Bridgman and Davis model has been taught to public servants for a number of years. In the first instance the model presents a basic framework that policy makers can use to go about the thinking of and planning for their policy development. In practise, some stages may be skipped, reversed or compressed depending upon the context, or a completely different approach altogether may be taken, but the model gives a starting point in the absence of anything formally imposed.

Bridgman and Davis themselves paint a picture of vast complexity in policy making whilst holding up their model as both an explanatory and prescriptive approach, albeit with some caveats. This is problematic because public policy development almost never follows a cleanly structured process. Many criticisms of the policy cycle model question its accuracy as a descriptive model given it doesn’t map to the experiences of policy makers. This draws into question the relevance of the model as a prescriptive approach as it is too linear and simplistic to represent even a basic policy development process. Dr Cosmo Howard conducted many interviews with senior public servants in Australia and found that the policy cycle model developed by Bridgman and Davis didn’t broadly match the experiences of policy makers. Although they did identify various aspects of the model that did play a part in their policy development work to varying degrees, the model was seen as too linear, too structured, and generally not reflective of the at times quite different approaches from policy to policy (Howard, 2005). The model was however seen as a good starting point to plan and think about individual policy development processes.

Howard also discovered that political engagement changed throughout the process and from policy to policy depending on government priorities, making a consistent approach to policy development quite difficult to articulate. The common need for policy makers to respond to political demands and tight timelines often leads to an inability to follow a structured policy development process resulting in rushed or pre-canned policies that lack due process or public consultation (Howard, 2005). In this way the policy cycle model as presented does not prepare policy-makers in any pragmatic way for the pressures to respond to the realities of policy making in the public service. Colebatch (2005) also criticised the model as having “not much concern to demonstrate that these prescriptions are derived from practice, or that following them will lead to better outcomes”. Fundamentally, Bridgman and Davis don’t present much evidence to support their policy cycle model or to support the notion that implementation of the model will bring about better policy outcomes.

Policy development is often heavily influenced by political players and agendas, which is not captured in the Bridgman and Davis’ policy cycle model. Some policies are effectively handed over to the public service to develop and implement, but often policies have strong political involvement with the outcomes of policy development ultimately given to the respective Minister for consideration, who may also take the policy to Cabinet for final ratification. This means even the most evidence based, logical, widely consulted and highly researched policy position can be overturned entirely at the behest of the government of the day (Howard, 2005) . The policy cycle model does not capture nor prepare public servants for how to manage this process. Arguably, the most important aspects to successful policy entrepreneurship lie outside the policy development cycle entirely, in the mapping and navigation of the treacherous waters of stakeholder and public management, myriad political and other agendas, and other policy areas competing for prioritisation and limited resources.

The changing role of the public in the 21st century is not captured by the policy cycle model. The proliferation of digital information and communications creates new challenges and opportunities for modern policy makers. They must now compete for influence and attention in an ever expanding and contestable market of experts, perspectives and potential policies (Howard, 2005), which is a real challenge for policy makers used to being the single trusted source of knowledge for decision makers. This has moved policy development and influence away from the traditional Machiavellian bureaucratic approach of an internal, specialised, tightly controlled monopoly on advice, towards a more transparent and inclusive though more complex approach to policy making. Although Bridgman and Davis go part of the way to reflecting this post-Machiavellian approach to policy by explicitly including consultation and the role of various external actors in policy making, they still maintain the Machiavellian role of the public servant at the centre of the policy making process.

The model does not clearly articulate the need for public buy-in and communication of the policy throughout the cycle, from development to implementation. There are a number of recent examples of policies that have been developed and implemented well by any traditional public service standards, but the general public have seen as complete failures due to a lack of or negative public narrative around the policies. Key examples include the Building the Education Revolution policy and the insulation scheme. In the case of both, the policy implementation largely met the policy goals and independent analysis showed the policies to be quite successful through quantitative and qualitative assessment. However, both policies were announced very publicly and politically prior to implementation and then had little to no public narrative throughout implementation leaving the the public narrative around both to be determined by media reporting on issues and the Government Opposition who were motivated to undermine the policies. The policy cycle model in focusing on consultation ignores the necessity of a public engagement and communication strategy throughout the entire process.

The Internet also presents significant opportunities for policy makers to get better policy outcomes through public and transparent policy development. The model down not reflect how to strengthen a policy position in an open environment of competing ideas and expertise (aka, the Internet), though it is arguably one of the greatest opportunities to establish evidence-based, peer reviewed policy positions with a broad range of expertise, experience and public buy-in from experts, stakeholders and those who might be affected by a policy. This establishes a public record for consideration by government. A Minister or the Cabinet has the right to deviate from these publicly developed policy recommendations as our democratically elected representatives, but it increases the accountability and transparency of the political decision making regarding policy development, thus improving the likelihood of an evidence-based rather than purely political outcome. History has shown that transparency in decision making tends to improve outcomes as it aligns the motivations of those involved to pursue what they can defend publicly. Currently the lack of transparency at the political end of policy decision making has led to a number of examples where policy makers are asked to rationalise policy decisions rather than investigate the best possible policy approach (Howard, 2005). Within the public service there is a joke about developing policy-based evidence rather than the generally desired public service approach of developing evidence-based policy.

Although there are clearly issues with any policy cycle model in practise due to the myriad factors involved and the at times quite complex landscape of influences, by constantly referencing throughout their book the importance of “good process” to “help create better policy” (Bridgman & Davis, 2012), they both imply their model is a “good process” and subtly encourage a check-box style, formally structured and iterative approach to policy development. The policy cycle in practice becomes impractical and inappropriate for much policy development (Everett, 2003). Essentially, it gives new and inexperienced policy makers a false sense of confidence in a model put forward as descriptive which is at best just a useful point of reference. In a book review of the 5th edition of the Handbook, Kevin Rozzoli supports this by criticising the policy cycle model as being too generic and academic rather than practical, and compares it to the relatively pragmatic policy guide by Eugene Bardach (2012).

Bridgman and Davis do concede that their policy cycle model is not an accurate portrayal of policy practice, calling it “an ideal type from which every reality must curve away” (Bridgman & Davis, 2012). However, they still teach it as a prescriptive and normative model from which policy developers can begin. This unfortunately provides policy developers with an imperfect model that can’t be implemented in practise and little guidance to tell when it is implemented well or how to successfully “curve away”. At best, the model establishes some useful ideas that policy makers should consider, but as a normative model, it rapidly loses traction as every implementation of the model inevitably will “curve away”.

The model also embeds in the minds of public servants some subtle assumptions about policy development that are questionable such as: the role of the public service as a source of policy; the idea that good policy will be naturally adopted; a simplistic view of implementation when that is arguably the most tricky aspect of policy-making; a top down approach to policy that doesn’t explicitly engage or value input from administrators, implementers or stakeholders throughout the entire process; and very little assistance including no framework in the model for the process of healthy termination or finalisation of policies. Bridgman and Davis effectively promote the virtues of a centralised policy approach whereby the public service controls the process, inputs and outputs of public policy development. However, this perspective is somewhat self serving according to Colebatch, as it supports a central agency agenda approach. The model reinforces a perspective that policy makers control the process and consult where necessary as opposed to being just part of a necessarily diverse ecosystem where they must engage with experts, implementers, the political agenda, the general public and more to create robust policy positions that might be adopted and successfully implemented. The model and handbook as a whole reinforce the somewhat dated and Machiavellian idea of policy making as a standalone profession, with policy makers the trusted source of policies. Although Bridgman and Davis emphasise that consultation should happen throughout the process, modern policy development requires ongoing input and indeed co-design from independent experts, policy implementers and those affected by the policy. This is implied but the model offers no pragmatic way to do policy engagement in this way. Without these three perspectives built into any policy proposal, the outcomes are unlikely to be informed, pragmatic, measurable, implementable or easily accepted by the target communities.

The final problem with the Bridgman and Davis public policy development model is that by focusing so completely on the policy development process and not looking at implementation nor in considering the engagement of policy implementers in the policy development process, the policy is unlikely to be pragmatic or take implementation opportunities and issues into account. Basically, the policy cycle model encourages policy makers to focus on a policy itself, iterative and cyclic though it may be, as an outcome rather than practical outcomes that support the policy goals. The means is mistaken for the ends. This approach artificially delineates policy development from implementation and the motivations of those involved in each are not necessarily aligned.

The context of the model in the handbook is also somewhat misleading which affects the accuracy and relevance of the model. The book over simplifies the roles of various actors in policy development, placing policy responsibility clearly in the domain of Cabinet, Ministers, the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet and senior departmental officers (Bridgman and Davis, 2012 Figure 2.1). Arguably, this conflicts with the supposed point of the book to support even quite junior or inexperienced public servants throughout a government administration to develop policy. It does not match reality in practise thus confusing students at best or establishing misplaced confidence in outcomes derived from policies developed according to the Handbook at worst.


An alternative model

Part of the reason the Bridgman and Davis policy cycle model has had such traction is because it was created in the absence of much in the way of pragmatic advice to policy makers and thus has been useful at filling a need, regardless as to how effective is has been in doing so. The authors have however, not significantly revisited the model since it was developed in 1998. This would be quite useful given new technologies have established both new mechanisms for public engagement and new public expectations to co-develop or at least have a say about the policies that shape their lives.

From my own experience, policy entrepreneurship in modern Australia requires a highly pragmatic approach that takes into account the various new technologies, influences, motivations, agendas, competing interests, external factors and policy actors involved. This means researching in the first instance the landscape and then shaping the policy development process accordingly to maximise the quality and potential adoptability of the policy position developed. As a bit of a thought experiment, below is my attempt at a more usefully descriptive and thus potentially more useful prescriptive policy model. I have included the main aspects involved in policy development, but have included a number of additional factors that might be useful to policy makers and policy entrepreneurs looking to successfully develop and implement new and iterative policies.


It is also important to identify the inherent motivations of the various actors involved in the pursuit, development of and implementation of a policy. In this way it is possible to align motivations with policy goals or vice versa to get the best and most sustainable policy outcomes. Where these motivations conflict or leave gaps in achieving the policy goals, it is unlikely a policy will be successfully implemented or sustainable in the medium to long term. This process of proactively identifying motivations and effectively dealing with them is missing from the policy cycle model.


The Bridgman and Davis policy cycle model is demonstrably inaccurate and yet is held up by its authors as a reasonable descriptive and prescriptive normative approach to policy development. Evidence is lacking for both the model accuracy and any tangible benefits in applying the model to a policy development process and research into policy development across the public service continually deviates from and often directly contradicts the model. Although Bridgman and Davis concede policy development in practise will deviate from their model, there is very little useful guidance as to how to implement or deviate from the model effectively. The model is also inaccurate in that is overly simplifies policy development, leaving policy practitioners to learn for themselves about external factors, the various policy actors involved throughout the process, the changing nature of public and political expectations and myriad other realities that affect modern policy development and implementation in the Australian public service.

Regardless of the policy cycle model inaccuracy, it has existed and been taught for nearly sixteen years. It has shaped the perspectives and processes of countless public servants and thus is relevant in the Australian public service in so far as it has been used as a normative model or starting point for countless policy developments and provides a common understanding and lexicon for engaging with these policy makers.

The model is therefore both inaccurate and relevant to policy entrepreneurs in the Australian public service today. I believe a review and rewrite of the model would greatly improve the advice and guidance available for policy makers and policy entrepreneurs within the Australian public service and beyond.

(Please note, as is the usual case with academic references, most of these are not publicly freely available at all. Sorry. It is an ongoing bug bear of mine and many others).

Althaus, C, Bridgman, P and Davis, G. 2012, The Australian Policy Handbook. Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 5th ed.

Bridgman, P and Davis, G. 2004, The Australian Policy Handbook. Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 3rd ed.

Bardach, E. 2012, A practical guide for policy analysis: the eightfold path to more effective problem solving, 4th Edition. New York. Chatham House Publishers.

Everett, S. 2003, The Policy Cycle: Democratic Process or Rational Paradigm Revisited?, The Australian Journal of Public Administration, 62(2) 65-70

Howard, C. 2005, The Policy Cycle: a Model of Post-Machiavellian Policy Making?, The Australian Journal of Public Administration, Vol. 64, No. 3, pp3-13.

Rozzoli, K. 2013, Book Review of The Australian Policy Handbook: Fifth Edition., Australasian Parliamentary Review, Autumn 2013, Vol 28, No. 1.

Posted in gov20, Government | Tagged , | 4 Comments

The new citizenship: digital citizenship

Recently I was invited to give a TEDx talk at a Canberra event for women speakers. It was a good opportunity to have some fun with some ideas I’ve been playing with for a while around the concept of being a citizen in the era of the Internet, and what that means for individuals and traditional power structures in society, including government. A snipped transcript below. Enjoy and comments welcome :) I’ve put a few links that might be of interest throughout and the slides are in the video for reference.

Video is at

Digital Citizenship

I want to talk to you about digital citizenship and how, not only the geek will inherit the earth but, indeed, we already have. All the peoples just don’t know it yet.

Powerful individuals

We are in the most exciting of times. People are connected from birth and are engaged across the world. We are more powerful as individuals than ever before. We have, particularly in communities and societies like Australia, we have a population that has all of our basic needs taken care of. So we have got time to kill. And we’ve got resources. Time and resources gives a greater opportunity for introspection which has led over the last hundred years in particular, to enormous progress. To the establishment of the concept of individual rights and strange ideas like the concept that animals might actually have feelings and perhaps maybe shouldn’t be treated awfully or just as a food source.

We’ve had these huge, enormous revolutions and evolutions of thought and perspective for a long, long time but it’s been growing exponentially. It’s a combination of the growth in democracy, the rise of the concept of individual rights, and the concept of individuals being able to participate in the macro forces that shape their world.

But it’s also a combination of technology and the explosion in what an individual can achieve both as a individual but also en mass collaborating dynamically across the globe. It’s the fact that many of us are kind of fat, content and happy and now wanting to make a bit of a difference, which is quite exciting. So what we’ve got is a massive and unprecedented distribution of power.

Distributed power

We’ve got the distribution of publishing. The ability to publish whatever you want. Whether you do it through formal mechanisms or anonymously. You can distribute to a global audience with less barriers to entry than ever before. We have the distribution of the ability to communicate with whomever your please. The ability to monitor, which has traditionally been a top down thing for ensuring laws are followed and taxes are paid. But now people can monitor sideways, they can monitor up. They can monitor their governments. They can monitor companies. There is the distribution of enforcement. This gets a little tricky because if anyone can enforce than anyone can enforce any thing. And you start to get a little bit of active concerns there but it is an interesting time. Finally with the advent of 3D printing starting to get mainstream, we’re seeing the massive distribution of, of property.

And if you think about these five concepts – publishing, communications, monitoring, enforcement and property – these five power bases have traditionally been centralised. We usually look at the industrial revolution and the broadcast age as two majors periods in history but arguably they’re both actually part of the same era. Because both of them are about the centralised creation of stuff – whether it’s physical or information – by a small number of people that could afford to do so, and then distributed to the rest of the population.

The idea that anyone can create any of these things and distribute it to anyone else, or indeed for their own purposes is a whole new thing and very exciting. And what that means is that the relationship between people and governments and industry has changed quite fundamentally. Traditional institutions and bastions of any sort of power are struggling with this and are finding it rather scary but it is creating an imperative to change. It is also creating new questions about legitimacy and power relations between people, companies and governments.

Individuals however, are thriving in this environment. There’s always arguments about trolls and about whether the power’s being used trivially. The fact is the Internet isn’t all unicorns or all doom. It is something different, it is something exciting and it is something that is empowering people in a way that’s unprecedented and often unexpected.

The term singularity is one of those fluffy things that’s been touted around by futurists but it does have a fairly specific meaning which is kind of handy. The concept of the distance between things getting smaller. Whether that’s the distance between you and your publisher, you and your food, you and your network or you and your device. The concept of approaching the singularity is about reducing those distances between. Now, of course the internet has reduced the distance between people quite significantly and I put to you that we’re in a period of a “democratic singularity” because the distance between people and power has dramatically reduced.

People are in many ways now as powerful as a lot of the institutions which frame and shape their lives. So to paraphrase and slightly turn on it’s head the quote by William Gibson: the future is here and it is already widely distributed. So we’ve approached the democratic singularity and it’s starting to make democracy a lot more participatory, a lot more democratic.

Changing expectations

So, what does this mean in reality? What does this actually translate to for us as people, as a society, as a “global village”, to quote Marshall McLuhan. There’s quite massive changing expectations of individual. I see a lot of people focused on the shift in power from the West to the East. But I believe the more interesting shift is the shift in power from institutions to individuals.

That is the more fascinating shift not just because individuals have power but because it is changing our expectations as a society. And when you start to get a massive change of expectations across an entire community of people, that starts to change behaviors, change economics, change socials patterns, change social norms. 

What are those changing expectations? Well, the internet teaches us a lot of things. The foundation technical principles of the internet are effectively shaping the social characteristics of this new society. This distributed society or “Society 5″ if you will.

Some of the expectations are the ability to access what you want. The ability to talk to whom you want. The ability to cross reference. When I was a kid and you did a essay on anything you had to go look at Encyclopedia Britannica. It was a single source of truth. The concept that you could get multiple perspectives, some of which might be skewed by the way, but still to concept of getting the context of those different perspectives and a little comparison was hard and alien for the average person. Now you can often talk to someone who is there right now let alone find myriad sources to help inform your view. You can get a point of comparison against traditionally official sources like a government source or media report. People online start to intuitively understand that the world’s actually a lot more gray than we are generally taught in school and such. Learning that the world is gray is great because you start to say, “you know what? You could be right and I could be right and that doesn’t make either perspective necessarily invalid, and that isn’t a terrible thing.” It doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive or a zero sum game, or a single view of history. We can both have a perspective and be mutually respectful in a lot of cases and actually have a more diverse and interesting world as a result.

Changing expectations are helping many people overcome barriers that traditionally stopped them from being socially successful: economically, reputationally, etc. People are more empowered to basically be a superhero which is kinda cool. Online communities can be one of the most exciting and powerful places to be because it starts to transcend limitations and make it possible for people to excel in a way that perhaps traditionally they weren’t able to. So, it’s very exciting. 

Individual power also brings a lot of responsibility. We’ve got all these power structures but at the end of the day there’s usually a techie implementing the big red button so the role of geeks in this world is very important. We are the ones who enable technology to be used for any agenda. Everything is basically based on technology, right? So everything is reliant upon technology. Well, this means we are exactly as free as the tools that we use. 

Technical freedom

If the tool that you’re using for social networking only allows you to talk to people in the same geographic area as you then you’re limited. If the email tool you’re using only allows you to send to someone who has another secure network then you’re only as free as that tool. Tech literacy becomes an enabler or an inhibitor, and it defines an individuals privacy. Because you might say to yourself, oh you know, I will never tell anyone where I am at a particular point in time cause I don’t want someone to rob my house while I’m out on holiday. But you’ll still put a photo up that you’re Argentina right now, because that’s fun, so now people know. Technical literacy for the masses is really important but largely, at this point, confined to the geeks. So hacker ethos ends up being a really important part of this.

For those that don’t know, hacker is not a rude word. It’s not a bad word. It’s the concept of having a creative and clever approach to technology and applying tech in cool and exciting ways. It helps people scratch an itch, test their skills, solve tricky problems collaboratively. Hacker ethos is a very important thing because you start to say freedom, including technical freedom is actually very, very important. It’s very high on the list. And with this ethos, technologists know that to implement and facilitate technologies that actually hobble our fellow citizens kind of screws them over.

Geeks will always be the most free in a digital society because we will always know how to route around the damage. Again, going back to the technical construct of the internet. But fundamentally we have a role to play to actually be leaders and pioneers in this society and to help lead the masses into a better future.


There’s also a lot of other sorts of dangers. Tools don’t discriminate. The same tools that can lead a wonderful social revolution or empower individuals to tell their stories is the same technology that can be used by criminals or those with a nefarious agenda. This is an important reason to remember we shouldn’t lock down the internet because someone can use it for a bad reason in the same way we don’t ban cars just because someone used a vehicle to rob a bank. The idea of hobbling technology because it’s used in a bad way is a highly frustrating one.

Another danger is “privilege cringe”. In communities like Australia we’re sort of taught to say, well, you’ve got privilege because you’ve been brought up in a safe stable environment, you’ve got an education, you’ve got enough money, you’ve got a sense of being able to go out and conquer the world. But you’ve got to hide that because you should be embarrassed of your opportunities when so many others have so little. I suggest to you all that you in this room, and pretty much anyone that would probably come and watch a TED event or go to a TED talk or watch it online, is the sort of person who is probably reasonably privileged in a lot of ways and you can use your privilege to influence the world in a powerful and positive way.

You’ve got access to the internet which makes you part of the third of the world that has access. So use your privilege for the power of good! This is the point. We are more powerful than ever before so if you’re not using your power for the power of good, if you’re not actually contributing to making the world a better place, what are you doing?

Hipsters are a major danger. Billy Bragg made the perfect quote which is, cynicism is the perfect enemy of progress. There is nothing more frustrating than actually making progress and having people tear you down because you haven’t done it exactly so.

Another danger is misdirection. We have a lot of people in Australia who want to do good. That’s very exciting and really cool. But Australians tend to say, I’m going to go to another country and feed some poor people and that’ll make me feel good, that’ll be doing some good and that’ll be great. Me personally, that would really not be good for people because I don’t cook very well. Deciding how you can actually contribute to making the world a better place in a way is like finding a lever? You need to identify what you are good at, what real differences you can make when you apply your skills very specifically. Where do you push to get a major change rather than, rather than contributing to actually maintaining the status quo? How do you rewrite the rules? How do you actually help those people that need help all around the world, including here in Australia, in a way that actually helps them sustainably? Enthused misdirection is I guess where I’m getting at.

And of course, one of the most frustrating dangers is hyperbole. It is literally destroying us. Figuratively speaking ;)

So there’s a lot of dangers, there’s a lot of issues but there is a lot of opportunities and a lot of capacities to do awesome. How many people here have been to a TED talk of some sort before? So keep your hand up if, after that, you went out and did something world changing. OK. So now you’re gonna do that, yeah? Right. So next time we do this all of those hands will stay up.


I’ll make couple of last points. My terrible little diagram here maps the concept that if you look at the last 5,000 years. The quality of life for individuals in a many societies has been down here fairly low for a long time. In millennia past, kings come and go, people get killed, properties taken. All sorts of things happen and individuals were very much at the behest of the powers of the day but you just keep plowing your fields and try to be all right. But is has slowly improved over a long time time, and the collective epiphany of the individual starts to happen, the idea of having rights, the idea that things could be better and that the people could contribute to their own future and democracy starts to kick off. The many suffrage movements addressing gender, ethnicity and other biases with more and more individuals in societies starting to be granted more equal recognition and rights.

The last hundred years, boom! It has soared up here somewhere. And I’m not tall enough to actually make the point, right? This is so exciting! So where are we going to go next?

How do we contribute to the future if we’re not involved in shaping the future. If we aren’t involved, then other powerful individuals are going to shape it for us. And this, this is the thing I’ve really learned by working in government, but working in the Minister’s office, by working in the public service. I specifically went to work in for a politician – even though I’m very strongly apolitical – to work in the government and in the public service because I wanted to understand the executive, legislative, and administrative arms of the entity that shapes our lives so much. I feel like I have a fairly good understanding of that now and there’s a lot of people who influence your lives every day.

Tipping point

Have we really hit this tipping point? You know, is it, is it really any different today than it was yesterday? Well, we’ve had this exponential progress, we’ve got a third of the world online, we’ve got these super human powerful individuals in a large chunk of different societies around the world. I argue that we have hit and passed the tipping point but the realisation hasn’t hit everyone yet.

So, the question is for you to figure out your super power. How do you best contribute it to making the world a better place?

Powers and kryptonite

For me, going and working in a soup kitchen will not help anybody. I could possibly design a robot that creates super delicious and nutritional food to actually feed people. But me doing it myself would actually probably give them food poisoning and wouldn’t help anyone. You need to figure out your specific super powers so you can deploy them to some effect. Figure out how you can contribute to the world. Also figure out your kryptonite.

What biases do you have in place? What weaknesses do you have? What things will actually get in the way of you trying to do what you’re doing? I quite often see people apply critical analysis and critical thinking tools without any self-awareness and the problem is that we are super clever beings and we can rationalize anything we want if, emotionally, we like it or dislike it.

So try and have both self-awareness and critical analysis and now you’ve got a very powerful way to do some good. So I’m going to just finish with a quote.


What better place than here? What better time than now? All hell can’t stop us now — RATM

The future is being determined whether you like it or not. But it’s not really being determined by the traditional players in a lot of ways. The power’s been distributed. It’s not just the politicians or the scholars or the researchers or corporates. It’s being invented right here, right now. You are contributing to that future either passively or actively. So you may as well get up and be active about it.

We’re heading towards this and we’ve possibly even hit the tipping point of a digital singularity and a democratic singularity. So, what are you going do about it? I invite you to share with me in the creating the future together.

Thank you very much.

You might also be interested in my blog post on Creating Open Government for a Digital Society and I think the old nugget of noblesse oblige applies here very well.

Posted in gov20, Government, society5, Tech | Leave a comment

Antarctica Adventure!

Recently I adventured to Antarctica. It’s not every day you get to say that and it has always been a dream of mine to travel to the south pole (or close to it!) and to see the glaciers, penguins, whales and birds that inhabit such a remote environment. There is something liberating and awesome (in the full sense of the word) in going somewhere where very few humans have traveled. Especially for someone like me who is spends so much time online.

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Being Australian and unused to real cold, I think I was also attracted to exploring a truly cold problem with travelling to Antarctica is, as it turns out, the 48-60 hours of torment you need to go through to get there and to get back. The Drake Passage is the strip of open sea between the bottom of South America and the Peninsula of the Antarctic continent. It is by far the most direct way by ship to get to Antarctica and the port town of Ushuaia is well set up to support intrepid travelers in this venture. We took off from Ushuaia on a calm Wednesday afternoon and within a few hours, were into the dreaded Drake. I found whilst ever I was lying down I was ok but walking around was torture! So I ended up staying in bed about 40 hours by which time it had calmed down significantly. See my little video of the more calm but still awful parts :) And that was apparently a calm crossing! Ah well, turns out I don’t have sea legs. At least I wasn’t actually sick and I certainly caught up with a few months of sleep deprivation so arguably, it was the perfect enforced rest!

Now the adventure begins! We were accompanied by a number of stunning and enormous birds, including Cape Pestrels and a number of Albatrosses. Then we came across a Blue Whale which is apparently quite a rare thing to see in the Drake. It gave us a little show and then went on its way. We entered the Gerlache Strait and saw our first ice which was quite exciting, but by the end of the trip these early views were just breadcrumbs! We landed at Cuverville Island which was stunning! I had taken the snowshoeing option and so with 12 other adventurous travellers, we started up the snow covered hill to get some better views. We saw a large colony of Gentoo penguins which was fun, they are quite curious and cute creatures. We had to be careful to not block any “penguin highways” so often was giving way to scores of them as we explored. We saw a Leopard Seal in the water, which managed to catch one unfortunate penguin for lunch.

We then landed at Neko Harbour, our first step onto the actual Antarctic continent! Again, more stunning views and Gentoo penguins. We had the good fortune to also have time that day to land at Port Lockroy, an old British station in Antarctica and the southern most post office in the world. I send a bunch of postcards to friends and family on the 23rd December, I guess we’ll see how long they take to make the trip. We got to see a number of the Snowy Sheathbill birds, which is a bit of a scavenger. It eats everything, including penguin poo, which is truly horrible. Although their eating habits are awful, they are quite beautiful and I was lucky enough to score a really good shot of one mid flight.

The next day we traveled down the Lemaire Channel to Petermann Island where we saw more Gentoo penguins, but also Adalie penguins, which are terribly cute! Again we did some snowshoeing which was excellent. I took some time to just sit and drink in the remoteness and the pristine environment that is Antarctica. It was humbling and wonderful to remember how truly small we all are and the magnificence of this world on which we reside. We saw some Minke Whales in the water beside the ship.

In the afternoon we broke through a few kilometres of ice and took the small boats (zodiacs) a short distance, then walked a half kilometre over ocean ice to land at Vernadsky Base, a Ukranian scientific post. The dozen or so scientists there hadn’t seen any other humans for 8 months are were very pleased to see us :) All of them were men and when I asked why there weren’t any women scientists there I had a one word answer from our young Ukranian guide: politics. Interesting… At any rate it was fascinating and it looks like they do some incredible science down there. There was also a small Elephant Seal who crawled up to the bar to say hi. They also have the southern most bar in the world, and there were treated to home made sugar based vodka, which was actually pretty good. So good in fact that one of the guests from our ship drank a dozen shots, then exchanged her bra in exchange for some snow mobile moonlighting around the base. Was quite hilarious and poor expedition leader dealt with it very diplomatically.

To cap off a fantastic day, the catering crew put on a BBQ on the deck of the Ocean Nova which was a cold but excellent affair. The mulled wine and hot apple dessert went down particularly well against the cold! We did a trivia night which was great fun, and our team, “The Rise of the Gentoo” won! There was much celebration though the sweet victory was snatched from us when they found a score card for a team that hadn’t been marked. Ah well, all is fair in love and war! I had only one question for our expedition leader, would we see any Orca? Orca are a new favourite animal of mine. They are brilliant, social and strategic animals. Well worth looking into.

The next morning we were woken particularly early as there were some Orca in the water! I was first on deck, in my pyjamas and I have to admit I squealed quite a lot, much to the amusement of our new American friends. At one point I saw all five Orca come to the surface and I could only watch in awe. They really are stunning animals. I learned from the on board whale expert that Orca have some particularly unique hunting techniques. Often the come across a seal or two on a small iceberg surrounded by water and ao they swim up to it in formation and then dive and hit their tails simultaneously creating a small tidal wave that washes the seal off into the water ready for the taking. Very clever animals. Then they always share the spoils of a hunt amongst the pod, and often will simply daze a victim to teach young Orca how to hunt before dealing a death blow. Apparently Orca have been known to kill much larger animals including Humpback Whales.

Anyway, the rest of day we did some zodiac trips (the small courier boats) around Paradise Harbour which was bitterly cold, and then around the Melchior Islands in Dallman Bay which was spectacular. One of the birds down here is the Antarctic Cormorant, closely related to the Cormorants in Australia. They look quite similar :) We got to see number of them nesting. Going back through the Drake I had to confine myself to my room again, which meant I missed seeing Humpback Whales. This was unfortunate but I really did struggle to travel around the ship when in the Drake without getting very ill.

On a final note, I traveled with the Antarctica XX1, which has a caring and wonderful crew. The crew includes scientists, naturists, biologists and others who genuinely love Antarctica. As a result we had a number of amazing lectures throughout the trip about the wildlife and ecosystem of Antarctica. Learning about Krill, ice flow, climate change and the migratory patterns of the whales was awesome. I wish I had been able to attend more talks but I couldn’t get up during most of the Drake :/ The rest of the crew who looked after navigation, feeding us, cleaning and all the other operations were just amazing. A huge thank you to you all for making this voyage the trip of a lifetime!

One thing I didn’t anticipate was the land sickness! 24 hours after getting off the boat and I still feel the sway of the ocean! All of my photos, plus a couple of group photos and a video or two are up on my flickr account in the Antarctica 2013 set at You can also see photos from Buenos Aires if you are interested at

A special thank you also to Jamie, our exhibition leader who delivered an incredible itinerary under some quite trying circumstances, and all the expedition crew! You guys totally rock :)

I met some amazing new friends on the trip, and got to spend some quality time with existing friends. You don’t go on adventures like this without meeting other people of a similar adventurous mindset, which is always wonderful.

For everyone else, I highly highly recommend you check out the Antarctica XXI (Ocean Nova) trips if you are interested in going to Antarctica or the Arctic.

For all my friends, yes I did scope out Antartica for a potential future conference, but given the only LUGs there are Gentoos, I think we should all spare ourselves the pain ;)

Below are links to some additional reading about the places we visited as provided by the Antarctic XX1 crew, the list of animals that were sighted throughout the journey and some other bits and pieces that might be of interest. Below are also some excellent quotes about Antarctica that were on the ship intranet that I just had to post to give you a flavour of what we experienced :)

  • AXXI_Logbook_SE2-1314 (PDF) Log book for the trip. Includes animals we saw, where we went and some details of our activities. Lovely work by the Antarctica XXI crew :)
  • Daily-program (PDF) – our daily program for the journey
  • Info-landings (PDF) – information about the landing sites we went to

The church says the earth is flat, but I know that it is round, for I have seen the shadow on the moon, and I have more faith in a shadow than in the church. — Ferdinando Magallanes

We were the only pulsating creatures in a dead world of ice. — Frederick Albert Cook

Below the 40th latitude there is no law; below the 50th no god; below the 60th no common sense and below the 70th no intelligence whatsoever. — Kim Stanley Robinson

I have never heard or felt or seen a wind like this. I wondered why it did not carry away the earth. — Cherry-Garrard

Great God ! this is an awful place. — Robert Falcon Scott, referring to the South Pole

Human effort is not futile, but Man fights against the giant forces of Nature in the spirit of humility. — Ernest Shackleton

Had we lived I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions …. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale. — Robert Falcon Scott

People do not decide to become extraordinary. They decide to accomplish extraordinary things. — Edmund Hillary

Superhuman effort isn’t worth a damn unless it achieves results. — Ernest Shackleton Adventure is just bad planning. — Roald Amundsen

For scientific leadership, give me Scott; for swift and efficient travel, Amundsen; but when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems to be no way out, get on your knees and pray for Shackleton. — Sir Raymond Priestley

Posted in Personal | Tagged | 2 Comments

The imperatives for changing how we do government

Below are some of the interesting imperatives I have observed as key drivers for changing how governments do things, especially in Australia. I thought it might be of interest for some of you :) Particularly those trying to understand “digital government”, and why technology is now so vital for government services delivery:

  • Changing public expectations – public expectations have fundamentally changed, not just with technology and everyone being connected to each other via ubiquitous mobile computing, but our basic assumptions and instincts are changing, such as the innate assumption of routing around damage, where damage might be technical or social. I’ve gone into my observations in some depth in a blog post called Online Culture – Part 1: Unicorns and Doom (2011).
  • Tipping point of digital engagement with government – in 2009 Australia had more citizens engaging with government  online than through any other means. This digital tipping point creates a strong business case to move to digitally delivered services, as a digital approach enables more citizens to self serve online and frees up expensive human resources for our more vulnerable, complex or disengaged members of the community.
  • Fiscal constraints over a number of years have largely led to IT Departments having done more for less for years, with limited investment in doing things differently, and effectively a legacy technology millstone. New investment is needed but no one has money for it, and IT Departments have in many cases, resorted to being focused on maintenance rather than project work (an upgrade of a system that maintains the status quo is still maintenance in my books). Systems have reached a difficult point where the fat has been trimmed and trimmed, but the demands have grown. In order to scale government services to growing needs in a way that enables more citizens to self service, new approaches are necessary, and the capability to aggregate services and information (through open APIs and open data) as well as user-centric design underpins this capability.
  • Disconnect between business and IT – there has been for some time a growing problem of business units disengaging with IT. As cheap cloud services have started to appear, many parts of government (esp Comms and HR) have more recently started to just avoid IT altogether and do their own thing. On one hand this enables some more innovative approaches, but it also leads directly to a problem in whole of government consistency, reliability, standards and generally a distribution of services which is the exact opposite of a citizen centric approach. It’s important that we figure out how to get IT re-engaged in the business, policy and strategic development of government such that these approaches are more informed and implementable, and such that governments use, develop, fund and prioritise technology in alignment with a broader vision.
  • Highly connected and mobile community and workforce – the opportunities (and risks) are immense, and it is important that governments take an informed and sustainable approach to this space. For instance, in developing public facing mobile services, a mobile optimised web services approach is more inclusive, cost efficient and sustainable than native applications development, but by making secure system APIs and open data available, the government can also facilitate public and private competition and innovation in services delivery.
  • New opportunities for high speed Internet are obviously a big deal in Australia (and also New Zealand) at the moment with the new infrastructure being rolled out (FTTP in both countries), and setting up to better support and engaging with citizens digitally now, before mainstream adoption, is rather important and urgent.
  • Impact of politics and media on policy – the public service is generally motivated to have an evidence-based approach to policy, and where this approach is developed in a transparent and iterative way, in collaboration with the broader society, it means government can engage directly with citizens rather than through the prism of politics or the media, each which have their own motivations and imperatives.
  • Prioritisation of ICT spending – it is difficult to ensure the government investment and prioritisation of ICT projects aligns with the strategic goals of the organisation and government, especially where the goals are not clearly articulated.
  • Communications and trust – with anyone able to publish pretty much anything, it is incumbent on governments to be a part of the public narrative as custodians of a lot of information and research. By doing this in a transparent and apolitical way, the public service can be a value and trusted source.
  • The expensive overhead of replication of effort across governments – consolidating where possible is vital to improve efficiencies, but also to put in place the mechanisms to support whole of government approaches.
  • Skills – a high technical literacy directly supports the capacity to innovate across government and across the society in every sector. As such this should be prioritised in our education systems, way above and well beyond “office productivity” tools.

Note: I originally had some of this in another blog post about open data and digital government in NZ, buried some way down. Have republished with some updated ideas.

Posted in gov20, Government | 2 Comments

Embrace your inner geek: speech to launch QUT OSS community

This was a speech I gave in Brisbane to launch the QUT OSS group. It talks about FOSS, hacker culture, open government/data, and why we all need to embrace our inner geek :)

Welcome to the beginning of something magnificent. I have had the luck, privilege and honour to be involved in some pretty awesome things over the 15 or so years I’ve been in the tech sector, and I can honestly say it has been my involvement in the free and Open Source software community that has been one of the biggest contributors.

It has connected me to amazing and inspiring geeks and communities nationally and internationally, it has given me an appreciation of the fact that we are exactly as free as the tools we use and the skills we possess, it has given me a sense of great responsibility as part of the pioneer warrior class of our age, and it has given me the instincts and tools to do great things and route around issues that get in the way of awesomeness.

As such it is really excited to be part of launching this new student focused Open Source group at QUT, especially one with academic and industry backing so congratulations to QUT, Red Hat, Microsoft and Tech One.

It’s also worth mentioning that Open Source skills are in high demand, both nationally and internationally, and something like 2/3 of Open Source developers are doing so in some professional capacity.

So thanks in advance for having me, and I should say up front that I am here in a voluntary capacity and not to represent my employer or any other organisation.

Who am I? Many things: martial artist, musician, public servant, recently recovered ministerial adviser, but most of all, I am a proud and reasonably successful geek.

Geek Culture

So firstly, why does being a geek make me so proud? Because technology underpins everything we do in modern society. It underpins industry, progress, government, democracy, a more empowered, equitable and meritocratic society. Basically technology supports and enhances everything I care about, so being part of that sector means I can play some small part in making the world a better place.

It is the geeks of this world that create and forge the world we live in today. I like to go to non-geek events and tell people who usually take us completely for granted, “we made the Internet, you’re welcome”, just to try to embed a broader appreciation for tech literacy and creativity.

Geeks are the pioneers of the modern age. We are carving out the future one bit at a time, and leading the charge for mainstream culture. As such we have, I believe, a great responsibility to ensure our powers are used to improve life for all people, but that is another lecture entirely.

Geek culture is one of the driving forces of innovation and progress today, and it is organisations that embrace technology as an enabler and strategic benefit that are able to rapidly adapt to emerging opportunities and challenges.

FOSS culture is drawn very strongly from the hacker culture of the 60’s and 70’s. Unfortunately the term hacker has been stolen by the media and spooks to imply bad or illegal behaviours, which we would refer to as black hat hacking or cracking. But true hacker culture is all about being creative and clever with technology, building cool stuff, showing off one’s skills, scratching an itch.

Hacker culture led to free software culture in the 80’s and 90’s, also known as Open Source in business speak, which also led to a broader free culture movement in the 90’s and 00’s with Creative Commons, Wikipedia and other online cultural commons. And now we are seeing a strong emergence of open government and open science movements which is very exciting.

Open Source

A lot of people are aware of the enormity of Wikipedia. Even though Open Source well predates Wikipedia, it ends up being a good tool to articulate to the general population the importance of Open Source.

Wikipedia is a globally crowdsourced phenomenon than, love it or hate it, has made knowledge more accessible than every before. I personally believe that the greatest success of Wikipedia is in demonstrating that truth is perception, and the “truth” held in the pages of Wikipedia ends up, ideally anyway, being the most credible middle ground of perspectives available. The discussion pages of any page give a wonderful insight to any contradicting perspectives or controversies and it teaches us the importance of taking everything with a grain of salt.

Open Source is the software equivalent of Wikipedia. There are literally hundreds of thousands if not millions of Open Source software projects in the world, and you would used thousands of the most mature and useful ones every day, without even knowing it. Open Source operating systems like Linux or MINIX powers your cars, devices, phones, telephone exchanges and the majority of servers and super computers in the world. Open Source web tools like WordPress, Drupal or indeed WikiMedia (the software behind Wikipedia) power an enormous amount of websites you go to everyday. Even Google heavily uses Open Source software to build the worlds most reliable infrastructure. If doesn’t work, you generally check your own network reliability first.

Open Source is all about people working together to scratch a mutual itch, sharing in the development and maintenance of software that is developed in an open and collaborative way. You can build on the top of existing Open Source software platforms as a technical foundation for innovation, or employ Open Source development methodologies to better innovate internally. I’m still terrified by the number of organisations I see that don’t use base code revision systems and email around zip files!

Open Source means you can leverage expertise far beyond what you could ever hope to hire, and you build your business around services. The IT sector used to be all about services before the proprietary lowest common denominator approach to software emerged in the 80s.

But we have seen the IT sector largely swing heavily back to services, except in the case on niche software markets, and companies compete on quality of services and whole solution delivery rather than specific products. Services companies that leverage Open Source often find their cost of delivery lower, particularly in the age of “cloud” software as a service, where customers want to access software functionality as a utility based on usage.

Open Source can help improve quality and cost effectiveness of technology solutions as it creates greater competition at the services level.

The Open Source movement has given us an enormous collective repository of stable, useful, innovative, responsive and secure software solutions. I must emphasise secure because many eyes reviewing code means a better chance of identifying and fixing issues. Security through obscurity is a myth and it always frustrates me when people buy into the line that Open Source is somehow less secure than proprietary solutions because you can see the code.

If you want to know about government use of Open Source, check out the Open Source policy on the Department of Finance and Deregulation website. It’s a pretty good policy not only because it encourages procurement processes to consider Open Source equally, but because it encourages government agencies to contribute to and get involved in the Open Source community.

Open Government

It has been fascinating to see a lot of Open Source geeks taking their instincts and skills with them into other avenues. And to see non-technical and non-Open Source people converging on the same basic principles of openness and collaboration for mutual gain from completely different avenues.

For me, the most exciting recent evolution of hacker ethos is the Open Government movement.

Open Government has always been associated with parliamentary and bureacratic transparency bureaucratic, such as Freedom of Information and Hansard.

I currently work primarily on the nexus where open government meets technology. Where we start to look at what government means in a digital age where citizens are more empowered than ever before, where globalisation challenges sovereignty, where the need to adapt and evolve in the public service is vital to provide iterative, personalised and timely responses to new challenges and opportunities both locally and globally.

There are three key pillars of what we like to call “Government 2.0”. A stupid term I know, but bear with me:

  1. Participatory governance – this is about engaging the broader public in the decision making processes of government to both leverage the skills, expertise and knowledge of the population for better policy outcomes, and to give citizens a way to engage directly with decisions and programs that affect their every day lives. Many people think about democratic engagement as political engagement, but I content that the public service has a big role to play in engaging citizens directly in co-developing the future together.
  2. Citizen centricity – this is about designing government services with the citizen at the centre of the design. Imagine if you will, and I know many in the room are somewhat technical, imagine government as an API, where you can easily aggregate information and services thematically or in a deeply personalised way for citizens, regardless of the structure or machinery of government changes. Imagine being able to change your address in one location, and have one place to ask questions or get the services you need. This is the vision of and indeed there are several initiatives that delivery on this vision including the Canberra Connect service in the ACT, which is worth looking at. In the ACT you can go into any Canberra Connect location for all your Territory/Local government needs, and they then interface with all the systems of that government behind the scenes in a way that is seamless to a citizen. It is vital that governments and agencies start to realise that citizens don’t care about the structures of government, and neither should they have to. It is up to us all to start thinking about how we do government in a whole of government way to best serve the public.
  3. Open and transparent government – this translates as both parliamentary transparency, but also opening up government data and APIs. Open data also opens up opportunities for greater analysis, policy development, mobile service delivery, public transaprency and trust, economic development through new services and products being developed in the private sector, and much more.

Open Data

Open data is very much my personal focus at the moment. I’m now in charge of, which we are in the process of migrating to an excellent Open Source data repository called CKAN which will be up soon. There is currently a beta up for people to play with.

I also am the head cat herder for a volunteer run project called GovHack which ran only just a week ago, where we had 1000 participants from 8 cities, including here in Brisbane, all working with government data to build 130 new hacks including mashups, data visualisations, mobile and other applications, interactive websites and more. GovHack shows clearly the benefits to society when you open up government data for public use, particularly if it is available in a machine readable way and is available under a very permissive copyright such as Creative Commons.

I would highly recommend you check out my blog posts about open data around the world from when I went to a conference in Helsinki last year and got to meet luminaries in this space including Hans Rosling, Dr Tim Hubbard and Rufus Pollock. I also did some work with the New Zealand Government looking at NZ open data practice and policy which might be useful, where we were also able to identify some major imperatives for changing how governments work.

The exciting thing is how keen government agencies in Federal, State, Territory and Local governments are to open up their data! To engage meaningfully with citizens. And to evolve their service delivery to be more personalised and effective for everyone. We are truly living in a very exciting time for technologists, democracy and the broader society.

Though to be fair, governments don’t really have much choice. Citizens are more empowered than ever before and governments have to adapt, delivery responsive, iterative and personalised services and policy, or risk losing relevance. We have seen the massive distribution now of every traditional bastion of power, from publishing, communications, monitoring, enforcement, and even property is about to dramatically shift, with the leaps in 3D printing and nano technologies. Ultimately governments are under a lot of pressure to adapt the way we do things, and it is a wonderful thing.

The Federal Australian Government already has in place several policies that directly support opening up government data:

Australia has also recently signed up to the Open Government Partnership, an international consortia of over 65 governments which will be a very exciting step for open data and other aspects of open government.

At the State and Territory level, there is also a lot of movement around open data. Queensland and the ACT launched your new open data platform late last year with some good success. NSW and South Australia have launched new platforms in the last few weeks with hundreds of new data sets. Western Australia and Victoria have been publishing some great data for some time and everyone is looking at how they can do so better!

Many local governments have been very active in trying to open up data, and a huge shout out to the Gold Coast City Council here in Queensland who have been working very hard and doing great things in this space!

It is worth noting that the NSW government currently have a big open data policy consultation happening which closes on the 17th June and is well worth looking into and contributing to.

Embracing geekiness

One of my biggest bug bears is when people say “I’m sorry the software can’t do that”. It is the learned helplessness of the tech illiterate that is our biggest challenge for innovating and being globally competitive, and as countries like Australia are overwhelming well off, with the vast majority of our citizens living high quality lives, it is this learned helplessness that is becoming the difference between the haves and have nots. The empowered and the disempowered.

Teaching everyone to embrace their inner geek isn’t just about improving productivity, efficiency, innovation and competitiveness, it is about empowering our people to be safer, smarter, more collaborative and more empowered citizens in a digital world.

If everyone learnt and experienced even the tiniest amount of programming, we would all have embedded that wonderful instinct that says “the software can do whatever we can imagine”.

Open Source communities and ethos gives us a clear vision as to how we can overcome every traditional barrier to collaboration to make awesome stuff in a sustainable way. It teaches us that enlightened self interest in the age of the Internet translates directly to open and mutually beneficial collaboration.

We can all stand on the shoulders of giants that have come before, and become the giants that support the next generation of pioneers. We can all contribute to making this world just a bit more awesome.

So get out there, embrace your inner geek and join the open movement. Be it Open Source, open government or open knowledge, and whatever your particular skills, you can help shape the future for us all.

Thank you for coming today, thank you to Jim for inviting me to be a part of this launch, and good luck to you all in your endeavours with this new project. I look forward to working with you to create the future of our society, together.

Posted in Aus Community, education, FOSS, gov20, Government, society5 | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

So you want to change the world?

Recently I spoke at BarCamp Canberra about my tips and tricks to changing the world. I thought it might be useful to get people thinking about how they can best contribute to the world, according to their skills and passions.

Completely coincidentally, my most excellent boss did a talk a few sessions ahead of me which was the American Civil War version of the same thing :) I highly recommend it. John Sheridan – Lincoln, Lee and ICT: Lessons from the Civil War.

So you want to change the world?

Here are the tactics I use to some success. I heartily recommend you find what works for you. Then you will have no excuse but to join me in implementing Operation World Awesomeness.

The Short Version:

No wasted movement.

The Long Version:

1) Pick your battles: there are a million things you could do. What do you most care about? What can you maintain constructive and positive energy about even in the face of towering adverseries and significant challenges? What do you think you can make a difference in? There is a subtle difference between choosing to knock down a mountain with your forehead, and renting a bulldozer. If you find yourself expending enormous energy on something, but not making a difference, you need to be comfortable to change tactics.

2) Work to your strengths: everyone is good at something. If you choose to contribute to your battle in a way that doesn’t work to your strengths, whatever they are, then you are wasting energy. You are not contributing in the best way you can. You need to really know yourself, understand what you can and can’t do, then do what you can do well, and supplement your army with the skills of others. Everyone has a part to play and a meaningful way to contribute. FWIW, I work to know myself through my martial arts training, which provides a useful cognitive and physical toolkit to engage in the world with clarity. Find what works for you. As Sun Tzu said: know yourself.

3) Identify success: Figure out what success actually looks like, otherwise you don’t have either a measurement of progress, nor a measurement of completion. I’ve seen too many activists get caught up on a battle and continued fighting well beyond the battle being won, or indeed keep hitting their heads against a battle that can’t be won. It’s important to continually be monitoring and measuring, holding yourself to account, and ensuring you are making progress. If not, change tactics.

4) Reconnaissance: do your research. Whatever your area of interest there is likely a body of work that has come before you that you can build upon. Learn about the environment you are working in, the politics, the various motivations and interests at play, the history and structure of your particular battlefield. Find levers in the system that you can press for maximum effect, rather than just straining against the weight of a mountain. Identify the various moving parts of the system and you have the best chance to have a constructive and positive influence.

5) Networks & Mentors: identify all the players in your field. Who is involved, influential, constructive, destructive, effective, etc. It is important to understand the motivations at play so you can engage meaningfully, collaboratively and build a mutually beneficial network in the persuit of awesomeness. Strong mentors are a vital asset and they will teach you how to navigate the rapids and make things happen. A strong network of allies is also vital to keep you on track, and accountable, and true to your own purpose. People usually strive to meet the expectations of those around them, so surround yourself with high expectations. Knowing your network also helps you identify issues and opportunities early.

6) Sustainability: have you put in place a succession plan? How will your legacy continue on without you? It’s important if your work is to continue on that it not be utterly reliant upon one individual. You need to share your vision, passion and success. Glory shared is glory sustained, so bring others on board, encourage and support them to succeed. Always give recognition and thanks to people who do great stuff.

7) Patience: remember the long game. Nothing changes overnight. It always take a lot of work and persistence, and remembering the long game will help during those times when it doesn’t feel like you are making progress. Again, your network is vital as it will help you maintain your strength, confidence and patience :) Speaking of which, a huge thanks to Geoff Mason for reminding me of this one on the day.

8) Shifting power: it is worth noting that we are living in the most exciting of times. Truly. Individuals are more empowered than ever before to do great things. The Internet has created a mechanism for the mass distribution of power, but putting into the hands of all people (all those online anyway), the tools to:

  1. publish and access knowledge;
  2. communicate and collaborate with people all around the world;
  3. monitor and hold others to account including companies, governments and individuals;
  4. act as enforcers for whatever code or law they uphold. This is of course quite controversial but fascinating nonetheless; and
  5. finally, with the advances in 3D printing and nanotechnology, we are on the cusp of all people having unprecedented access to property.

Side note: Poverty and hunger, we shall overcome you yet! Then we just urgently need to prioritise education of all the people. But that is a post for another day :) Check out my blog post on Unicorns and Doom, which goes into my thoughts on how online culture is fundamentally changing society.

This last aspect is particularly fascinating as it changes the game from one between the haves and the have nots, to one between those with and those without skills and knowledge. We are moving from a material wealth differentiation in society towards an intellectual wealth differentiation. Arguable we always had the latter, but the former has long been a bastion for law, structures, power and hierarchies. And it is all changing.

“What better place than here, what better time than now?” — RATM

Posted in gov20, Government, society5, Tech | 6 Comments