Update: I added a section on how competition can be motivating
I’ve had a lot of people and ideas in my life that have been useful to me so I wanted to share a theory I have applied in my work that might be useful to others. The concept of finding the ‘natural motivation’ of players involved is a key component when I’m planning any type of systemic change. This isn’t a particularly unique or new idea, but I am constantly surprised how rarely I see it adopted in practice, and how often things fail by not taking it into consideration. It is critical if you want to take a new idea from the domain of evangelists and into ‘business as usual’ because if you can’t embed something into the normal way people act and think, then whatever you are trying to do will be done reluctantly and at best, tacked on to normal processes as an afterthought.
In recent years I’ve been doing a lot of work to try to change systems, thinking and culture around open government, technology in government and open data, with some success. This is in part because I purposefully take an approach that tries to identify and tap into the natural motivation of all players involved. This means understanding how what I’m trying to do could benefit the very people who need to change their behaviours, and helping them want to do something new of their own volition. Why does this matter? If I asked you to spend an extra couple of hours a week at work, for no extra pay, doing something you don’t understand that seems completely unrelated to your job or life, you’d tell me to sod off. And understandably so! And yet we expect people and behaviours to simply comply if we change the rules. If I talked to you about how a new way of doing something would save you time, get a better outcome, save money or made life better in any way, you would be more interested. Then it simply becomes a matter of whether the effort is worth the benefit.
Die hard policy wonks will argue that you can always punish non compliance or create incentives if you are serious enough about the change you want to make. I would argue that you can force certain behaviour changes through punishment or reward, but if people aren’t naturally motivated to make the behaviour change themselves then the change will be both unsustainable and minimally implemented.
I’m going to use open data in government as my example of this in practice. Now I can hear a lot of people saying “well public servants should do open data by default because it is good for the community!” but remember the question above. In the first instance, if I’m asking someone to publish data without understanding why, they will see it as just extra work for no benefit – merely a compliance activity that gets in the way of their real work. People ask the understandable question of why would anyone want to divert resources and money into open data when it could be used to do something ‘real’ like build a road, deliver a better service, pay a salary, etc? Every day public servants are being asked to do more with less, so open data appears at first glance like a low priority. If the community and economy were to benefit from open data, then we had to figure out how to create a systemic change in government to publish open data naturally, or it would never scale or be sustainable.
When I took over data.gov.au, there was a reasonable number of datasets published but they weren’t being updated and nothing new was being added. It was a good first attempt, but open data had not really been normalised in agencies, so data publishing was sparodic. I quickly realised if open data was just seen as a policy and compliance issue, then this would never really change and we would hit a scaling issue of how much we could do ourselves. Through research, experimenting and experience, we did find that open data can help agencies be more effective, more efficient and more able to support an ecosystem of information and service delivery rather than all the pressure being on agencies to do everything. This was a relief because if there was no benefit to the public service itself, then realistically open data would always be prioritised lower than other activities, regardless of the political or policy whims of the few.
So we started working with agencies on the basis that although open data was the policy position that agencies were expected to adopt, there were real benefits to agencies if they adopted an open data approach. We would start an agency on the open data journey by helping them identify datasets that save them time and money, looking at resource intensive requests for data they regularly get and how to automate the publishing of that data. This then frees up resources of which a proportion can often be justified to start a small open data team. Whatever the agency motivations, there is always an opportunity for open data to support that goal if integrated properly. We focused on automation, building open data into existing processes (rather than creating a new process), supporting and promoting public reuse of data (GovHack was particularly helpful for this), identifying community priority datasets, raising public confidence in using government open data and removing barriers for publishing data. We knew centralised publishing would never scale, so we focused our efforts on a distributed publishing model where the central data.gov.au team provided technical support and a free platform for publishing data, but agencies did their own publishing with our help. Again this meant we had to help agencies understand how useful open data was to them so they could justify putting resources towards their own data publishing capacity. We knew agencies would need to report on their own success and progress with open data, so we also ensured they could access their own data utilisation analytics, which is also publicly available for a little extra motivation.
We collected examples from agecnies on the benefits to help inform and encourage other agencies, and found the key agency benefits of open data were broadly:
- Efficiency – proactively publishing data that is commonly asked for in an automated way frees up resources.
- Innovation – once data is published, so long as it is published well and kept up to date, other people and organisations will use the data to create new information, analysis and services. This innovation can be adopted by the agency, but it also takes the pressure off the agency to deliver all things to all people, by enabling others to scratch their own itch.
- Improved services – by publishing data in a programmatically accessible way, agencies found cheaper and more modular service delivery was possible through reusable data sources. Open data is often the first step for agencies on the path to more modular and API driven way of doing things (which the private sector embraced a decade ago). I believe if we could get government data, content and services API enabled by default, we would see dramatically cheaper and better services across all governments, with the opportunity for a public ecosystem of cross jurisdictional service and information delivery to emerge.
To extend the natural motivation consideration further, we realised that unless data was published in a way that people in the community could actually find and use, then all the publishing in the world would not help. We had to ensure the way data was publishing supported the natural motivation of people who want to use data, and this would in turn create a feedback loop to encourage greater publishing of data. We adopted a “civic hacker empathy” approach (with credit to Chris Gough for the concept) so that we always put ourselves in the shoes of those wanting to use data to prioritise how to publish it, and to inform and support agencies to publish data in a way that could be easily consumed. This meant agencies starting on the open data journey were not only encouraged to adopt good technical practices from day 1, but were clearly educated on the fact they wouldn’t yield the benefits from open data without publishing data well.
I should also mention that motivation doesn’t need to always come from within the individual person or the organisation. Sometimes motivation can come from a little healthy competition! I have had people in agencies utterly uninterested in open data that I’ve decided to not push (why spend effort on a closed door when there are partially open or open doors available!) who have become interested when other agencies have had some success. Don’t underestimate the power of public successes! Be as loud as you can about successes you have as this will build interest and demand, and help bring more people on your journey.
So to wrap up, I’ve been amazed how many people I meet, particularly in the federal government, who think they can change behaviour by simply having a policy, or law, or a financial incentive. The fact is, people will generally only do something because they want to, and this applies as much in the work place as anywhere else. If you try to force people to do something that they don’t want to, they will find myriad ways to avoid it or do the bare minimum they have to, which will never yield the best results. Every single barrier to open data we came across woud magically disappear if the agency and people involved were naturally morivated to do open data.
If you want to make real change, I encourage you to take an empathetic approach, think about all the players in the system, and how to ensure they are naturally motivated to change. I always tell the data.gov.au team that we always need to ensure the path of technical integrity is the path of least resistance, because this ensures an approach which is good for both the data publishers and data consumers. It goes without saying that a change is easiest to encourage when it has integrity and provides genuine benefits. In the case of open data, we simply needed to help others come on the journey for the idea to flourish. I’m proud to say the data.gov.au team have managed to dramatically increase the amount of open data available in Australia as well as support a rapidly growing capacity and appetite for open data throughout the public service. Huge kudos to the team! With the data.gov.au team now moved to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and merged with the spatial data branch from the Department of Communications, we have a stronger than ever central team to continue the journey.
Note: I should say I’m currently on maternity leave till the end of 2016, hence the time to publish some of these ideas. They are my own thoughts and not representative of any one else. I hope they are useful