Iteration or Transformation in government: paint jobs and engines

I was recently at an event talking about all things technology with a fascinating group of people. It was a reminder to me that digital transformation has become largely confused with digital iteration, and we need to reset the narrative around this space if we are to realise the real opportunities and benefits of technology moving forward. I gave a speech recently about major paradigm shifts that have brought us to where we are and I encourage everyone to consider and explore these paradigm shifts as important context for this blog post and their own work, but this blog post will focus specifically on a couple of examples of actual transformative change worth exploring.

The TL;DR is simply that you need to be careful to not mistake iteration for transformation. Iteration is an improvement on the status quo. Transformation is a new model of working that is, hopefully, fundamentally better than the status quo. As a rule of thumb, if what you are doing is simply better, faster or cheaper, that it is probably just iterative. There are many examples from innovation and digital transformation agendas which are just improvements on the status quo, but two examples of actual transformation of government I think are worth exploring are Gov-as-an-API and mutually beneficial partnerships to address shared challenges.


Firstly, why am I even interested in “digital transformation”? Well, I’ve worked on open data in the Australian Federal Government since 2012 and very early on we recognised that open data was just a step towards the idea of “Gov as a Platform” as articulated by Tim O’Reilly nearly 10 years ago. Basically, he spoke about the potential to transform government into Government as a Platform, similar (for those unfamiliar with the “as a platform” idea) to Google Maps, or the Apple/Google app stores. Basically government could provide the data, content, transaction services and even business rules (regulation, common patterns such as means testing, building codes, etc) in a consumable, componentised and modular fashion to support a diverse ecosystem of service delivery, analysis and products by myriad agents, including private and public sector, but also citizens themselves.

Seems obvious right? I mean the private sector (the tech sector in any case) have been taking this approach for a decade.

What I have found in government is a lot of interest in “digital” where it is usually simply digitising an existing process, product or service. The understanding of consumable, modular architecture as a strategic approach to achieve greater flexibility and agility within an organisation, whilst enabling a broader ecosystem to build on top, is simply not understood by many. Certainly there are pockets that understand this, especially at the practitioner level, but agencies are naturally motivated to simply delivery what they need in isolation from a whole of government view. It was wonderful to recently see New Zealand picking up a whole of government approach in this vein but many governments are still focused on simple digitisation rather than transformation.

Why is this a problem? Well, to put it simply, government can’t scale the way it has traditionally worked to meet the needs and challenges of an increasingly changing world. Unless governments can transform to be more responsive, adaptive, collaborative and scalable, then they will become less relevant to the communities they serve and less effective in implementing government policy. Governments need to learn to adapt to the paradigm shifts from centrist to distributed models, from scarcity to surplus resources, from analogue to digital models, from command and control to collaborative relationships, and from closed to open practices.

Gov as an API

On of the greatest impacts of the DTO and the UK Government Digital Service has been to spur a race to the top around user centred design and agile across governments. However, these methods whilst necessary, are not sufficient for digital transformation, because you too easily see services created that are rapidly developed and better for citizens, but still based on bespoke siloed stacks of technology and content that aren’t reconsumable. Why does this matter? Because there are loads of components needed for multiple services, but siloed service technology stacks lead to duplication, a lack of agility in iterating and improving the user experience on an ongoing basis, a lack of programmatic access to those components which would enable system to system automation, and a complete lack of the “platform” upon which an ecosystem could be built.

When I was at the interim DTO in 2016, we fundamentally realised that no single agency would ever be naturally motivated, funded or mandated to deliver services on behalf of someone else. So rather than assuming a model wherein an agency is expected to do just that, we started considering new models. New systems wherein agencies could achieve what they needed (and were mandated and funded) to do, but where the broader ecosystem could provide multi-channel services delivery where there is no wrong door for citizens to do what they need. One channel might be the magical “life events” lens, another might be third parties, or State and Territory Governments, or citizen mashups. These agents and sectors have ongoing relationships with their users allowing them to exponentially spread and maintain user-centred design in way that government by itself can not afford to do, now or into the future.

This vision was itself was just a reflection of the Amazon, Google Maps, the Apple “apps store” and other platform models so prevalent in the private sector as described above. But governments everywhere have largely interpreted the “Gov as a Platform” idea as simply common or shared platforms. Whilst common platforms can provide savings and efficiencies, it has not enabled the system transformation needed to get true digital transformation across government.

So what does this mean practically? There are certainly pockets of people doing or experimenting in this space. Here are some of my thoughts to date based on work I’ve done in Australia (at the interim DTO) and in New Zealand (with the Department of Internal Affairs).

Firstly you can largely identify four categories of things involved in any government service:

  • Content – obvious, but taking into account the domain specific content of agencies as well as the kind of custodian or contextual content usually managed by points of aggregation or service delivery
  • Data – any type of list, source of intelligence or statistics, search queries such as ABN lookups
  • Transaction services – anything a person or business interacts with such as registration, payments, claims, reporting, etc. Obviously requires strict security frameworks
  • Business rules – the regulation, legislation, code, policy logic or even reusable patterns such as means testing which are usually hard coded into projects as required. Imagine an authoritative public API with the business logic of government available for consumption by everyone. A good example of pioneering work in this space is the Regulation as a Platform work by Data61.

These categories of components can all be made programmatically available for the delivery of your individual initiative and for broader reuse either publicly (for data, content and business rules) or securely (for transaction services). But you also need some core capabilities that are consumable for any form of digital service, below are a few to consider:

  • Identity and authentication, arguably also taking into account user consent based systems which may be provided from outside of government
  • Service analytics across digital and non digital channels to baseline the user experience and journey with govt and identify what works through evidence. This could also fuel a basic personalisation service.
  • A government web platform to pull together the government “sedan” service
  • Services register – a consumable register of government services (human services) to draw from across the board.

Imagine if we tool a conditional approach to matters, where you don’t need to provide documentation to prove your age (birth certificate, licence, passport), all of which give too much information, but rather can provide a verifiable claim that yes I am over the required age. This would both dramatically reduce the work for gov, and improve the privacy of people. See the verifiable claims work by W3C for more info on this concept, but it could be a huge transformation for how gov and privacy operates.

The three key advantages to taking this approach are:

  1. Agency agility – In splitting the front end from a consumable backend, agencies gain the ability to more rapidly iterate the customer experience of the service, taking into account changing user needs and new user platforms (mobile is just the start – augmented reality and embedded computing are just around the corner). When the back end and front end of a service are part of the one monolithic stack, it is simply too expensive and complicated to make many changes to the service.
  2. Ecosystem enablement – As identified above, a key game changer with the model is the ability for others to consume the services to support and multi-channel of services, analysis and products delivered by the broader community of government, industry and community players.
  3. Automation – the final and least sexy, though most interesting from a service improvement perspective, is automation. If your data, content, transaction systems and rules are programmatically available, suddenly you create the opportunity for the steps of a life event to be automated, where user consent is granted. The user consent part is really important, just to be clear! So rather than having 17 beautiful but distinct user services that a person has to individually complete, a user could be asked at any one of those entry points whether they’d like the other 16 steps to be automatically completed on their behalf. Perhaps the best way government can serve citizens in many cases is to get out of the way :)

Meaningful and mutually beneficial collaboration

Collaboration has become something of a buzzword in government often resulting in meetings, MOUs, principle statements or joint media releases. Occasionally there are genuine joint initiatives but there are still a lot of opportunities to explore new models of collaboration that achieve better outcomes.

Before we talk about how to collaborate, we need to address the elephant in the room: natural motivation. Government often sees consultation as something nice to have, collaboration as a nice way of getting others to contribute to something, and co-design as something to strive across the business units in your agency. If we consider the idea that government simply cannot meet the challenges or opportunities of the 21st century in isolation, if we acknowledge that government cannot scale at the same pace of the changing domains we serve, then we need to explore new models of collaboration where we actively partner with others for mutual benefit. To do this we need to identify areas for which others are naturally motivated to collaborate.

Firstly, let’s acknowledge there will always be work to do for which there are no naturally motivated partners. Why would anyone else want, at their own cost, to help you set up your mobility strategy, or implement an email server, or provide telephony services? The fact is that a reasonable amount of what any organisation does would be seen as BAU, as commodity, and thus only able to be delivered through internal capacity or contractual relationships with suppliers. So initiatives that try to improve government procurement practices can iteratively improve these customer-supplier arrangements but they don’t lend themselves to meaningful or significant collaboration.

OK, so what sort of things could be done differently? This is where you need to look critically at the purpose of your agency including the highest level goals, and identify who the natural potential allies in those goals could be. You can then approach your natural allies, identify where there are shared interests, challenges or opportunities, and collectively work together to co-design, co-invest, co-deliver and co-resource a better outcome for all involved. Individual allies could use their own resources or contractors for their contribution to the work, but the relationship is one of partnership, the effort and expertise is shared, and the outcomes are more powerful and effective than any one entity would have delivered on their own. In short, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

I will use the exciting and groundbreaking work of my current employer as a real example to demonstrate the point.

AUSTRAC is the Australian Government financial intelligence agency with some regulatory responsibilities. The purpose of the agency is threefold: 1) to detect and disrupt abuse of the financial system; 2) to strengthen the financial system against abuse; and 3) to contribute to the growth of the Australian economy. So who are natural allies in these goals… banks, law enforcement and fraud focused agencies, consumer protection organisations, regulatory organisations, fintech and regtech startups, international organisations, other governments, even individual citizens! So to tap into this ecosystem of potential allies, AUSTRAC has launched a new initiative called the “Fintel Alliance” which includes, at its heart, new models of collaborating on shared goals. There are joint intelligence operations on major investigations like the Panama Papers, joint industry initiatives to explore shared challenges and then develop prototypes and references implementations, active co-design of the new regulatory framework with industry, and international collaborations to strengthen the global financial system against abuse. The model is still in early days, but already AUSTRAC has shown that a small agency can punch well above it’s weight by working with others in new and innovative ways.

Other early DTO lessons

I’ll finish with a few lessons from the DTO. I worked at the DTO for the first 8 months (Jan – Sept 2015) when it was being set up. It was a crazy time with people from over 30 agencies thrust together to create a new vision for government services whilst simultaneously learning to speak each other’s language and think in a whole of government(s) way. We found a lot of interesting things, not least of all just how pervasive the siloed thinking of government ran. For example, internal analysis at the DTO of user research from across government agencies showed that user research tended to be through the narrow lens of an agency’s view of “it’s customers” and the services delivered by that agency. It was clear the user needs beyond the domain of the agency was seen as out of scope, or, at best, treated as a hand off point.

We started writing about a new draft vision whilst at the DTO which fundamentally was based on the idea of an evidence based, consumable approach to designing and delivering government services, built on reusable components that could be mashed up for a multi-channel ecosystem of service delivery. We tested this with users, agencies and industry with great feedback. Some of our early thinking is below, now a year and a half old, but worth referring back to:

One significant benefit of the DTO and GDS was the cycling of public servants through the agency to experience new ways of working and thinking, and applying an all of government lens across their work. This cultural transformation was then maintained in Australia, at least in part, when those individuals returned to their home agencies. A great lesson for others in this space.

A couple of other lessons learned from the DTO are below:

  • Agencies want to change. They are under pressure from citizens, governments and under budget constraints and know they need better ways to do things.
  • A sandbox is important. Agencies need somewhere to experiment, play with new tools, ideas and methods, draw on different expertise and perspectives, build prototypes and try new ideas. This is ideally best used before major projects are undertaken as a way to quickly test ideas before going to market. It also helps improve expectations of what is possible and what things should cost.
  • Everyone has an agenda, every agency will drive their own agenda with whatever the language of the day and agendas will continue to diverge from each other whilst there is not common vision.
  • Evidence is important! And there isn’t generally enough AoG evidence available. Creating an evidence base was a critical part of identifying what works and what doesn’t.
  • Agile is a very specific and useful methodology, but often gets interpreted as something loose, fast, and unreliable. Education about proper agile methods is important.
  • An AoG strategy for transformation is critical. If transformation is seen as a side project, it will never be integrated into BAU.
  • Internal brilliance needs tapping. Too often govt brings in consultants and ignores internal ideas, skills and enthusiasm. There needs to be a combination of public engagement and internal engagement to get the best outcomes.

I want to just finish by acknowledging and thanking the “interim DTO” team and early leadership for their amazing work, vision and collective efforts in establishing the DTO and imagining a better future for service delivery and for government more broadly. It was an incredible time with incredible people, and your work continues to live on and be validated by service delivery initiatives in Australia and across the world. Particular kudos to team I worked directly with, innovative and awesome public servants all! Sharyn Clarkson, Sean Minney, Mark Muir, Vanessa Roarty, Monique Kenningham, Nigel O’Keefe, Mark McKenzie, Chris Gough, Deb Blackburn, Lisa Howdin, Simon Fisher, Andrew Carter, Fran Ballard and Fiona Payne :) Also to our contractors at the time Ruth Ellison, Donna Spencer and of course, the incredible and awesome Alex Sadleir.

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