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Trust, truth & authenticity (in Aotearoa NZ)

Background: When I got back to Aotearoa, having worked in NSW and Canadian Governments in the interim, I thought it might be helpful to share some insights and comparison of the service delivery models of Service NSW, Service Canada and the New Zealand Government. My goal was to share what truly integrated services can look like 🙂 The paper ended up also going into proposing a “Service Aotearoa” model, and inevitably touched upon challenges around public trust and the trustworthiness of public services and public institutions. This first paper is available here for folk interested and was framed around two problem areas, namely that fractured, inconsistent and confusing service delivery is ineffective at meeting and adapting to the diverse needs of New Zealanders; and trust and truth needed to make successful policy and operate services effectively.

When the NZ Government Justice Committee Inquiry into the 2020 General Election and Referendum was calling for submissions, I thought the issues of trust and trustworthiness might be helpful to contribute, especially with the rise and weaponisation of deep fakes, which will very likely affect coming elections globally. Of course, public trust is directly impacted by the public’s experience with the public sector, which is heavily influenced by their experience with services, so the Service Aotearoa model mode it into that paper 🙂

The full paper I submitted to the Justice Committee is available here, and key excerpts are copied below for convenience. I’ve included the introduction, problem statements, and final word on why these problems are urgent to consider. Some proposed solutions and the service delivery models analysis is in the appendix of the paper 🙂

Introduction

This submission was prepared by Pia Andrews on one of the themes of the 2020 Election Inquiry, namely:

Theme 2.  The integrity and security of our electoral system in light of emerging challenges, with a particular focus on technology and social media.

From the terms of reference for the Inquiry into the 2020 General Election and Referendum

The submission touches upon topics beyond this theme, and beyond the 4 themes outlined for the 2020 Election Inquiry. It addresses the impact of new technologies such as “deepfakes” and increasingly self referential social media echo chambers of misinformation, and goes further to address the key challenges of trust, truth and authenticity in the 21st century, and subsequent impact on electoral integrity. 

The New Zealand General Election is a core tenet for representative democracy with free and fair elections that have the trust and respect of the community. This supports a civil society where the Government may exercise power with the explicit consent and social contract with the electorate. The public sector in New Zealand has a special role in providing a social, regulatory and financial platform upon which the community and individuals should be able to economically, socially, culturally and environmentally thrive. However, the increasing gap between the needs of New Zealanders in a digitally enabled, globalised and artificial intelligence world, and the inability of the public sector to proactively identify, respond to and holistically meet those evolving needs, creates a negative impact on public trust and confidence that can quickly extend to declining trust in public and democratic institutions. 

The public sector delivery of an effective response to COVID, in partnership with the team of five million New Zealanders, initially drove public trust in some parts of the community to record levels. This trust enabled one of the world’s most effective responses, but is already declining. For trust is to be sustained and channelled into adapting to an increasingly uncertain post COVID world, there needs to be a conscious effort to address and prioritise public trust and confidence in public institutions. 

If one part of the public sector is considered untrustworthy by the communities served, then we all are at risk of the serious implications of reduced public confidence and trust across the board. Reduced public confidence in the public sector leads to people simply not trusting, engaging with or respecting as legitimate the services, policies, laws or democratic outcomes administered by the public sector.

For this reason, the recommendations identified in this paper, whilst relevant to electoral integrity, go well beyond the mandate of the Electoral Commission. In the author’s view, even a strong Electoral Commission will not be able to maintain public trust or confidence in the New Zealand electoral system if trust in the broader public sector continues to decline.

My thanks to Thomas Andrews, Sean Audain, Brenda Wallace, Hamish Fraser, James Ting-Edwards and others who helped edit and peer review this submission. I hope it provides useful context, ideas and discussion points to help with future elections, but also to contribute in some small way to reforming the New Zealand Central Government public sector for the benefit of the people and communities of New Zealand Aotearoa.

The problem areas: an overview

The paper focuses on two key problem areas, both of which apply to the electoral integrity theme above and to the public sector more broadly: 

  1. Problem 1: Authenticity and truth – people tend to believe what they see and are grappling with the way computers can convey misleading information. Deep fake technology can automate the creation of believable videos of anyone saying anything – no matter how offensive or outrageous. We are about to enter a very dark age where individuals, governments and communities are increasingly and proactively “gamed” or “played” en masse for profit, crime, sabotage or even just for fun. Beyond the authenticity of information, facts, fiction and fakes coexist online, and citizens are increasingly struggling to navigate truth. On one hand, one person’s truth is another’s lie, but there are possibly some better ways to help support citizens and communities to navigate truth in the 21st century, and to help populate the public domain with robust and trustworthy data and facts, where and when they exist. 
  2. Problem 2: Trust in public institutions – Governments and public sectors the world over are facing an impending trust and confidence crisis, and must carefully and collaboratively engage on the question of what structures, processes, oversight and forms of transparency and public scrutiny would be considered trustworthy by the public today. Otherwise, public institutions will lose trust, as will the democratic outcomes, social and economic services, policies and laws that they uphold.

The recommendations in this submission aim to help create a sustainable pathway and meaningful progress on these two problem areas in the short to medium future, in advance of and in preparation for the next general election. The New Zealand public service is far from alone in emerging from the COVID-19 crisis into a world that has experienced profound changes. Internationally, these changes have led to a clear divergence in strategy between:

  1. governments who desire a “return to a pre COVID normal”; versus
  2. governments for whom “return to normal” is considered infeasible, undesirable or unwise, and seek instead to transform themselves in response to new economic, social and climate realities. 

Governments in the latter category are prioritising major policy, structural and service delivery reform to ensure greater policy agility and improved quality of life outcomes. This crisis is a key motivator for writing this discussion paper to encourage the New Zealand Government and public sector to discuss immediate and systemic reforms and consciously decide whether New Zealand intends to “return to normal” or genuinely “build back better”. 

Key recommendations in this submission fall under two high level proposals, both of which would include a range of initiatives:

  • Proposal 1: That the New Zealand Government establishes a Taskforce to understand what New Zealanders need to better navigate truth and authenticity and explore the potential role(s) of the public sector, fourth estate and other sectors in supporting this, now and into the future.
  • Proposal 2: That the New Zealand Government establishes a program [which includes building trustworthy governance, decision making and infrastructure, as well as building trustworthy public services] to improve and safeguard the trust of New Zealanders in public institutions, including the critical establishment of participatory and trustworthy governance that improves quality of life for New Zealanders.

Please see the problem areas and respective proposals outlined below. 

Problem 1: the general public has decreasing means of effectively navigating truth and authenticity online

A key problem facing democracy and electoral integrity internationally is the growing reach and sophistication of misinformation and deepfake technologies in a context of declining trust in information institutions (such as news media, science, academia and public sectors). These concepts are not simply headline-grabbing or political soundbites imported from other jurisdictions. They are serious and growing challenges to truth, and are increasingly being used for gaming public opinion by foreign and domestic actors (human and machine), with very few mechanisms to effectively counter or mitigate the effects thereof. We can consider misinformation and the dissemination thereof, as two problems:

“At a US Senate intelligence committee hearing in May last year, the Republican senator Marco Rubio warned that deepfakes would be used in “the next wave of attacks against America and western democracies”. Rubio imagined a scenario in which a provocative clip could go viral on the eve of an election, before analysts were able to determine it was a fake.

“Democracies appear to be gravely threatened by the speed at which disinformation can be created and spread via social media, where the incentive to share the most sensationalist content outweighs the incentive to perform the tiresome work of verification” (Parkin, 2019).

Parkin, S. The Rise of Deepfake the the Threat to Democracy, (2019), The Guardian

The New Zealand Law Society commissioned a report into deepfakes in 2019 (Distorting Reality: Deepfakes and the Rise of Deception), which has a range of recommendations worth considering but it also makes the point that the main threat is from international and machine/AI sources, so domestic laws will not provide much protection.

The issues of truth and trust are integral to the relationship between government and citizens, and as seen from developments in other democracies, and the threats from digital deep fakes, social media misinformation campaigns and similar technologies has become a realised and growing danger. In the past we have relied upon independent media institutions and broadcasting controls to identify and mitigate these risks but with the disruption and bypassing of these channels through self-reinforcing social media echo chambers online, combined with exponential growth in misinformation, it is clear that the implications for future elections, public messaging, public policy and social cohesion are potentially dire. The question for government is what role, if any, should the public sector or the judiciary play in trying to support citizens to navigate these treacherous waters? 

It is critical to start this work as soon as possible, so that New Zealand is in a position to have a well supported general public (or at least means to support the general public) prior to the next election, which will likely be rife with deep fakes that will create chaos for public dialogue, civility and perceived electoral integrity. Such misinformation also creates profound security threats, and whilst our intelligence agencies have traditionally provided a degree of protection against such threats, the highly permeable, borderless and individual worlds created by social media suggest that partnership with more community based methods will be required to ensure the sector can continue to meet the challenge of higher order threats to New Zealand’s security.

Problem 2: Proactively building public trust in public institutions is important to social, economic and democratic stability in New Zealand

Public sectors globally are struggling to shift from simply seeking permission (or social licence), to actually operating in a more trustworthy way. This means reimagining public institutions and governance in the digital age to take into account the impact, opportunities and challenges of the internet, of increasingly empowered individuals and communities, of economic and cultural globalisation, and of greater public expectations for effective and human centred public services. In an era also characterised by increasing change and rolling emergencies (pandemics, environmental, terrorism, regional instability, cyber threats, etc), it is critical and urgent to improve and stabilise trust in public institutions, and establish participatory, trustworthy and beneficial (to society) governance that people can rely upon with confidence. This includes necessarily reimagining and transforming the public sector to be holistic, proactive, collaborative and citizen-centric. To enable this stability and advancement, the public must be able to trust in a public sector that conducts itself on a reliable, referenceable and transparent foundation of truth and trustworthy accountability. 

Operating in a trustworthy way means first acknowledging that the public needs to be confident in public servants’ decisions and actions to be able to trust the outcomes of our efforts. To operate in a trustworthy way, the public should be engaged up front in co-designing what “good” would look like, which would necessarily involve public visibility to the accountability, transparency and oversight mechanisms of governance. This includes ease of appealability and auditability of government policies, services, regulations and programs, and parity across the system. One department operating in a way that erodes public trust has a net trust deficit impact on all public institutions, so certain norms must prevail across the sector. For instance, taxation rules are quite easy to find and apply, and yet entitlement and eligibility of social services are hard to determine and are kept more obscure. Another example is how some statistics are readily available to the public, but the respective success metrics and reporting of individual programs and policies is far harder to find. 

Public institutions exist to support public good and quality of life, so there should never be a stronger imperative than ensuring and promoting that New Zealanders get the support and services they are eligible for and entitled to. Yet, we often see short term pressures (like reduced or reprioritised budgets, failing IT systems or the latest Ministerial priority) drive a lot of reactive behaviours and short term planning in the public sector. It is critical that the public sector always take the long view and plan resources accordingly. It is important that the public sector equally serve the Government of the day, the Parliament and the People, in a balanced, independent and sustainable way that maintains the trust of them all.

The concept of public infrastructure as it relates to public health, public education and public transport is fairly well understood, but where is the public digital infrastructure that our communities and various sectors should be able to rely upon and trust? For instance, where is the publicly available reference implementation of machine readable legislation and regulation for ease of service delivery, compliance and public scrutiny? Or the list of all public services with the respective eligibility and calculation information? Or the proactive and public modelling tools to understand the impact of change or emergencies? Where is the publicly accessible record of key decisions and actions taken, with traceability to their legal or policy authority? There is so much confidence the public sector could inspire by simply working more in the light, and less in darkness. To be fair, much of the opaqueness of governance is simply a matter of habit and inherited practices, but the lack of genuine systemic transformation has led us to a point where the New Zealand public sector is, as a whole, several steps behind the society and economy it purports to serve.

Public sector services must also be considered trustworthy, as citizens want to feel supported, empowered, respected and confident in the public sector to help them when they need it. Reform of public sector services is a critical part of ensuring and growing public trust in public institutions. Modern government is complex in any dimension, be it scale, number of services or processes followed. As the public sector seeks to embrace tools like AI to deliver outcomes and greater value to taxpayers, it is important to understand how these technologies interact with NZ laws and institutions. In this respect, New Zealand would be better served by an informed democracy than it would be by just a data driven governance. In aiming for an informed and participatory democracy, the explainability and transparency of a decision is a key building block. 

Explainability and transparency of AI and data analytics components is vital to understanding issues of bias, exception and application within these decision making processes and are critical to upholding the principles of Administrative Law in an increasingly technologically powered public sector. In short the advice and actions of the public service derived from digital tools must be able to be seen and explained. Capturing and assuring the explainability of a decision or action taken by the public service is critical for the ability to audit, appeal, and maintain both the reality and perception of integrity of our public institutions. It is also critical for ensuring the actions and decisions are lawful, permitted, correctly executed and properly recorded for posterity. It is also important to ensure and regularly test the end-to-end explainability and capture of decisions and information for the work done in the public sector, especially where it relates to anything that directly impacts people — like social services, taxation, justice, regulation, or penalties. Moves like the Algorithm Charter from StatsNZ are only a first step to addressing these issues.

To be a trusted advisor for an informed democracy, the public sector has ALWAYS required to explain administrative decision-making. It also means a high requirement on public servants to differentiate fact from fiction. Administrative Law principles require that decision-makers only make decisions within their delegated power, take into account relevant evidence, and provide their decision together with reasons and authority for the decision and avenue for appeal. The public sector is uniquely experienced and obligated in this respect. The public service challenge is to mobilise this experience and ensure the principle and practice of Administrative Law is upheld in an increasingly complex technologically and data-driven public sector.

As we plan for the potential impacts enter the age of Artificial Intelligence, public sectors should also be actively planning what an augmented society and public sector looks like, one that embeds values, trust and accountability at the heart of what we do, whilst using machines to support better responsiveness, modelling, service delivery and to maintain diligent and proactive protection of the people, whānau and communities we serve. There is a serious opportunity to combine modern tools with participatory governance to reimagine and humanise government policies and services. As it stands, the incremental and iterative implementations of new technologies, including most AI projects, are likely to deliver more inhuman and mechanised public services. New Zealand risks missing the opportunity to design a modern public service that gets the best of humans and machines working together for the best public and community outcomes. The worst possible outcome is to be continually playing catch-up against the rapidly evolving misinformation technologies that already exist and which have already been deployed against the general population.

There has been recent precedent on the legitimacy of automated decision making and auditability in the Australian courts. In late 2018 the landmark court case of (Joe Pintarich v Deputy Commissioner of Taxation) ruled that an automated piece of correspondence was not considered a ‘decision’ because there was no mental process accompanying it. This creates a question of legitimacy for all machine-generated decisions in Australia as was stated in substantial detail by the dissenting judge. But it should also be a major driver for agencies to invest in and mandate explainability for all significant decision-making, recorded for posterity, so that decisions can be trusted. 

The important work to transform the public sector to operate in a more trustworthy way would result in open, engaged, auditable and fair government for the digital age, with high quality and trusted services that provide a dignified experience for New Zealanders and a genuine increase in public trust and confidence in public institutions. This would position government sectors, services, policies and capabilities as trusted and adaptive foundations of New Zealand’s future.

The Proposals

The proposals in full are in the full paper I submitted to the Justice Committee is, available here. Below is the high level overview of proposals to the problem statements above:

Proposal 1: establish a Taskforce or programme to understand needs and develop strategies for supporting New Zealanders to navigate truth and authenticity online, ahead of the next election

Below are some specific recommendations a Taskforce could consider for the next election and beyond::

  • It would clearly be impossible to provide a service to verify the authenticity of all information on the internet for citizens. The scale of new content being generated, by humans and increasingly by bots and software, is impossible to manage through traditional escalation and review methods. But there are some types of information that could be made available in a more verifiable way, for example official or political content. The Electoral Commission could provide a realtime electoral, political and public sector messages/information validation service. Citizens could use such a service to check the authenticity/source of political and official messages about the next election and to distinguish deep fakes from authentic official materials. This can be complemented with public awareness campaigns.
  • Provide education services, directly and in partnership with trusted community entities and organisations, with a campaign to raise public awareness about misinformation, deep fakes and the increasing likelihood of being actively gamed by domestic and international actors, especially around election time. f 
  • The Electoral Commission could engage with, and support, trusted and community initiatives that identify and mitigate misinformation, such as the recent efforts by Tohatoha and other organisations in New Zealand. Ideally this would be done in collaboration with the Fourth Estate to help rapidly debunk emergent misinformation campaigns quickly for and to the general public.
  • The New Zealand Government could consider all information for which the public sector is authoritative, to be mandated as being publicly available for reuse, for validation and to help contribute facts and data to the public domain.
  • It is worth noting the New Zealand Police and intelligence agencies already monitor for and engage with the community around misinformation, as it is directly linked to security threats and radicalisation efforts. Some of the intelligence from these operations could potentially feed into broader public engagement efforts early, as they are likely in a position to identify early patterns of misinformation. The Taskforce could work with the NZ Police and intelligence agencies to consider the flow of information and early patterns and indicators of misinformation and better leverage these systems and operations for broader public engagement and support services.
  • The people of New Zealand have a broad range of independent organisations they trust and engage with every day. If the New Zealand Government collaborated with and shared information, patterns, and insights to entities and organisations that the public trust, including Iwis, public libraries, and Citizen Advice Bureaus, it would help them support their communities navigate truth and authenticity. Such information services would need to be constrained to factual information because if such a pipeline of information was set up and used in any way for political or ideologically motivated information sharing, then those organisations would disengage entirely.

Proposal 2: A programme of public sector reforms to improve and safeguard the trust of New Zealanders in public institutions

In order to grow and sustain public trust, the public sector needs to be more accessible, transparent, responsive to and engaged with the people and whānau served. Generating trust is difficult and complex due to collective experiences, and the personal nature of relationships that trust is built from. Trust in the public sector could be dramatically improved in two key ways, both of which apply to the Electoral Commission, but must also apply across all portfolios:

2.1 – Establish and implement dramatically more trustworthy and participatory practices and governance of public institutions, public policies and public services, that takes into account and plans for modern and emerging technologies, increasing change of community needs and the environment in which we live, and the need to partner with people and communities in shaping policies and services.

2.2 Dramatically improve the quality, availability and delivery of public services to the people and communities of New Zealand, to better serve people and ensure they get the help they need and are entitled to.

Last word: What changed? Why is this urgent now?

Public sectors around the world are facing increasing challenges as the speed, scale and complexity of modern life grows exponentially. The 21st century is known as the anthropocene – as large, complex and globalised systems enmesh our societies on a scale unseen in previous history. The 20th century saw a global population rise from 1.6 billion to 6 billion, two world wars that spurred the creation of global power and economic structures as well as enduring global divisions, and the number of nations rose from 77 to almost 200. The twentieth century also saw the emergence of a global middle class, an enormous increase in living standards and the emergence of the internet and digital technologies. These global megatrends have changed the experience, connectivity, access to knowledge, and empowerment of individual people everywhere. As humanity has bound itself together in integrated global systems this has also integrated the shocks and stresses experienced by those systems into global experiences such as climate change, COVID19 and fundamental restructurings of the global economy. The public sector must continue to serve in this evolving, integrated context leading to new challenges for democracies worldwide.

The public sector has an important role in a society like New Zealand Aotearoa not only to a) serve democracy, but also to b) support a high quality of life for New Zealand, and c) maintain economic and social balance through various types of direct and indirect regulation, services, and public infrastructure. It  is therefore critical that we take a moment to consider the role(s) of the public sector in the 21st century, and whether there are any new areas of need that the public service could play a unique role in supporting or regulating.

“Traditional” approaches to policy, service delivery and regulation were designed in an analog and industrial age and are increasingly slow and ineffective, with increasingly hard to predict outcomes and unintended consequences given the dramatic increase of complexity and interdependency today. The functional separation between policy and implementation over recent decades further compounded these issues, and created unnecessarily siloed operations with limitations on end to end visibility of policy delivery. Most public sectors are now simply unable to meet the changing needs of the people and communities we serve at the speed of change with any level of certainty or agility. Decades of austerity, hollowing out expertise, fragmentation of interdependent functions that are forced to compete, outsourcing and the inevitable growing existential crisis have all left public sectors less prepared than ever, at a time when people most need us. Public sectors have become too reactive, constantly pivoting all efforts to the latest emergency, media release or Ministerial whim, whilst not investing in baseline systems/capabilities, transformation, programs or new services that are needed to be proactive and resilient. 

Policy and delivery folk should be hand in hand throughout the entire process and the baton passing between functionally segmented teams must end.

COVID has been a dramatic reminder of the broad ineffectiveness of government systems to respond to rapidly changing needs, in three (3) distinct ways. We saw:

  1. the heavy use of emergency powers relied upon to get anything of substance done, demonstrating key systemic barriers, but rather than changing the problematic business as usual processes, many are reverting to usual practice as soon as practical. 
  2. superhuman efforts that barely scratched the surface of the problems. The usual resourcing response to pressure it to just increase resources rather than to change how we respond to the problem, but there are not exponential resources available, so ironically, 
  3. inequities have been compounded by governments pressing on the same old levers with the same old processes without being able to measure, monitor and iterative or pivot in real time in response to the impacts of change.

With COVID driving an unprecedented amount of change in public sectors globally, it makes sense to consider machinery of government assumptions and what “good” looks like in the 21st century. 

In late 2020, there was a major UNDP summit called NextGenGov, where all attendees reflected the same sentiment that public sectors need significant reform to be effective and responsive to rolling emergencies moving forward. Dr Sania Nishtar (Special Assistant to the Prime Minister of Pakistan on Poverty Alleviation and Social Protection) put it best:

‘it is neither feasible nor desirable to return to pre-COVID status quo’. 

Something to reflect on, for all of us. It is a final and timely reminder that if we are to transform our public sectors to be trustworthy and fit for purpose in the 21st century, then we need to take just a little time to collaboratively design what “good” would look like for New Zealand Aotearoa, and by extension what is required from the public sector to support that vision. Otherwise we run the risk of continuously just playing whack-a-mole with emerging problems and reinventing the past with shiny new things.

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Reflections on public sector transformation and COVID

Public sectors around the world are facing unprecedented challenges as the speed, scale and complexity of modern life grows exponentially. The 21st century is a large, complex, globalised and digital age unlike anything in the history of humans, but our systems of governance were largely forged in the industrial age. The 20th century alone saw enough change to merit a rethink: global population rose from 1.6 billion to 6 billion, two world wars spurred the creation of global economic and power structures, the number of nations rose from 77 to almost 200, and of course we entered the age of electronics and the internet, changing forever the experience, connectivity, access to knowledge, and increased individual empowerment of people everywhere. Between Climate Change, COVID-19, and globalism, nations worldwide are also now preparing for the likelihood of rolling emergencies, whether health, environmental, economic or social.

“Traditional” approaches to policy, service delivery and regulation are too slow, increasingly ineffective and result in increasingly hard to predict outcomes, making most public sectors and governments increasingly unable to meet the changing needs of the communities we serve.

Decades of austerity, hollowing out expertise, fragmentation of interdependent functions that are forced to compete, outsourcing and the inevitable ensuing existential crises have all left public sectors less prepared than ever, at a the time when people most need us. Trust is declining and yet public sectors often feel unable to be authoritative sources of facts or information, independent of political or ideological influence, which exacerbates the trust and confidence deficit. Public sectors have become too reactive, too “business” focused, constantly pivoting all efforts on the latest emergency, cost efficiency, media release or whim of the Minister, whilst not investing in baseline systems, transformation, programs or services that are needed to be proactive and resilient. A values-based public sector that is engaged with, responsive to and serving the needs of (1) the Government, (2) the Parliament AND (3) the people – a difficult balancing act to be sure! – is critical, both to maintaining the trust of all three masters, and to being genuinely effective over time 🙂

Whether it is regulation, services or financial management, public sectors everywhere also need to embrace change as the new norm, which means our systems, processes and structures need to be engaged in continuously measuring, monitoring and responding to change, throughout the entire policy-delivery lifecycle. This means policy and delivery folk should be hand in hand throughout the entire process, so the baton passing between functionally segmented teams can end.

Faux transformation

Sadly today, most “transformation programs” appear to fall into one of three types:

  • Iteration or automation – iterative improvements, automation or new tech just thrown at existing processes and services, which doesn’t address the actual needs, systemic problems, or the gaping policy-delivery continuum chasm that has widened significantly in recent decades; or
  • Efficiency restructures – well marketed austerity measures to reduce the cost of government without actually improving the performance, policy outcomes or impact of government; or
  • Experimentation at the periphery – real transformation skills or units that are kept at the fringe and unable to drive or affect systemic change across any given public sector.

Most “transformation programs” I see are simply not particularly transformative, particularly when you scratch the surface to find how they would change things in future. If you answer is “we’ll have a new system” or “an x% improvement”, then it probably isn’t transformation, it is probably an iteration. Transformation should result in exponential solutions to exponential problems and a test driven and high confidence policy-delivery continuum that takes days not months for implementation, with the effects of new policies clearly seen through consistently measured, monitored and continuously improved delivery. You should have a clear and clearly understood future state in mind to transformation towards, otherwise it is certainly iteration on the status quo.

There are good exceptions to this normative pattern. Estonia, Taiwan, South Korea, Canada and several nations across South East Asia have and are investing in genuine and systemic transformation programs, often focused on improving the citizen experience as well as the quality of life of their citizens and communities. My favourite quote from 2020 was from Dr Sania Nishtar (Special Assistant to the Prime Minister of Pakistan on Poverty Alleviation and Social Protection) when she said ‘it is neither feasible nor desirable to return to the pre-COVID status’. It was part of a major UNDP summit on NextGenGov, where all attendees reflected the same sentiment that COVID exposed significant gaps in our public sectors, and we all need significant reform to be effective and responsive to rolling emergencies moving forward.

So what does good transformation look like?

I would categorise true transformation efforts in three types, with all three needed:

  1. Policy and service transformation means addressing and reimagining the policy-delivery continuum in the 21st century, and bringing policy and implementation people together in the same process and indeed, the same (virtual) room. This would mean new policies are better informed, able to be tested from inception through to implementation, are able to be immediately or at least swiftly implemented upon enactment in Parliament and are then continuously measured, monitored and iterated in accordance with the intended policy outcome. The exact same infrastructure used for delivery should be used for policy, and vice versa, to ensure there is no gap between, and to ensure policy outcomes are best realised whilst also responding to ongoing change. After all, when policy outcomes are not realized, regardless of whose fault it     was, it is everyone’s failure. This kind of transformation is possible within any one department or agency, but ideally needs leadership across all of government to ensure consistency of policy impact and benefits realisation.
  2. Organizational transformation would mean getting back to basics and having a clear vision of the purpose and intended impact of the department as a whole, with clear overarching measurement of those goals, and clear line of sight for how all programs contribute to those goals, and with all staff clear in how their work supports the goals. This type of transformation requires structural cultural transformation that builds on the shared values and goals of the department, but gains a consistency of behaviours that are constructive and empathetic. This kind of transformation is entirely possible within the domain of any one department or agency, if the leadership support and participate in it.
  3. Systemic transformation means the addressing and reimagining of the public sector as a whole, including its role in society, the structures, incentive systems, assurance processes, budget management, 21st century levers (like open government), staff support and relationship to other sectors. It also means having a clear vision for what it means to be a proud, empowered and skilled public servant today, which necessarily includes system and design thinking, participatory governance skills and digital literacy (not just skills). This can’t be done in any one department and requires all of public sector investment, coordination and cross government mandate. This level of transformation has started to happen in some countries but it is early days and needs prioritization if public sectors are to truly and systemically transform. Such transformation efforts often focus on structure, but need to include scope for transformation of policy, services, workforce, funding and more across government.

As we enter the age of Artificial Intelligence, public sectors should also be planning what an augmented public sector looks like, one that keeps values, trust and accountability at the heart of what we do, whilst using machines to support better responsiveness, modelling, service delivery and to maintain diligent and proactive protection of the people and communities we serve. Most AI projects seem to be about iterative efforts, automation or cost savings, which misses the opportunity to design a modern public service that gets the best of humans and machines working together for the best public outcomes.

COVID-19

COVID has been a dramatic reminder of the ineffectiveness of government systems to respond to changing needs in at least three distinct ways:

  • heavy use of emergency powers have been relied upon to get anything of substance done, demonstrating key systemic barriers, but rather than changing the problematic business as usual processes, many are reverting to usual practice as soon as practical;
  • superhuman efforts have barely scratched the surface of the problems. The usual resourcing response to pressure it to just increase resources rather than to change how we respond to the problem, but there are not exponential resources available, so ironically the
  • inequities have been compounded by governments pressing on the same old levers with the same old processes without being able to measure, monitor and iterative or pivot in real time in response to the impacts of change.

Sadly, the pressure for ‘good news stories’ often drives a self-congratulatory tone and an increase to an already siloed mindset, as public servants struggle to respond to increased and often diametrically opposed expectations and needs from the public and political domains. Many have also mistaken teleworking for transformation, potentially missing a critical opportunity to transform towards a 21st century public sector.

Last word

I’m planning to do a bit more writing about this, so please leave your comments and thoughts below. I’d be keen to hear how you differentiate transformation from iterative efforts, and how to ensure we are doing both. There is, of course, value to be found in some iterative efforts. It is when 100% of our time and effort is focused on iteration that we see public sectors simply revert to playing whack-a-mole against an exponentially growing problem space, hence the need to have SOME proportion of our resource on genuine transformation efforts. Proportional planning is critical so we address both the important and the urgent, not one without the other.

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Sadly leaving the NSW Government

This week was sadly my last week with the NSW Government, Department of Customer Service, formerly the Department of Finance, Services and Innovation. I am sad to be leaving such an exciting place at such an exciting time, but after 12 months of commuting from Canberra to Sydney. The hardest part of working in the NSW Government has been, by far, the commute. I have been leaving my little family every week for 3, 4 or 5 days, and although we have explored possibilities to move, my family and I have to continue living in Canberra for the time being. It has got to the point where my almost 4 year old has asked me to choose her over work, a heart breaking scenario as many will understand. 

I wanted to publicly thank everyone I worked with, particularly my amazing teams who have put their heart, soul and minds to the task of making exceptional public services in an exceptional public sector. I am really proud of the two Branches I had the privilege and delight to lead, and I know whatever comes next, that those 160 or so individuals will continue to do great things wherever they go. 

I remain delighted and amazed at the unique opportunity in NSW Government to lead the way for truly innovative, holistic and user centred approaches to government. The commitment and leadership from William Murphy, Glenn King, Greg Wells, Damon Rees, Emma Hogan, Tim Reardon, Annette O’Callaghan, Michael Coutts-Trotter (and many others across the NSW Government senior executive) genuinely to my mind, has created the best conditions anywhere in Australia (and likely the world!) to make great and positive change in the public service.

I want to take a moment to also directly thank Martin Hoffman, Glenn, Greg, William, Amanda Ianna and all those who have supported me in the roles, as well as everyone from my two Branches over that 12 months for their support, belief and commitment. It has been a genuine privilege and delight to be a part of this exceptional department, and to see the incredible work across our Branches.

I have only been in the NSW Government for 12 months, and in that time was the ED for Digital Government Policy and Innovation for 9 months, and then ED Data, Insights and Transformation for a further 3 months.

In just 9 months, the Digital Government Policy and Innovation team achieved a lot in the NSW Government digital space, including:

  • Australia’s first Policy Lab (bringing agile test driven and user centred design methods into a traditional policy team),
  • the Digital Government Policy Landscape (mapping all digital gov policies for agencies) including IoT & a roadmap for an AI Ethics Framework and AI Strategy,
  • the NSW Government Digital Design Standard and a strong community of practice to contribute and collaborate, 
  • evolution of the Digital NSW Accelerator (DNA) to include delivery capabilities,
  • the School Online Enrolment system,
  • an operational and cross government Life Journeys Program (and subsequent life journey based navigators),
  • a world leading Rules as Code exemplars and early exploration of developing human and machine readable legislation from scratch(Better Rules),
  • establishment of a digital talent pool for NSW Gov,
  • great improvements to data.nsw and whole of government data policy and the Information Management Framework,
  • capability uplift across the NSW public sector including the Data Champions network and digital champions,
  • a prototype whole of government CX Pipeline,
  • the Innovation NSW team were recognised as one of Apolitical’s 100+ teams teaching government the skills of the future with a range of Innovation NSW projects including several Pitch to Pilot events, Future Economy breakfast series,
  • and the improvements to engagement/support we provided across whole of government.

For the last 3 months I was lucky to lead the newly formed and very exciting Data, Insights and Transformation Branch, which included the Data Analytics Centre, the Behavioural Insights Unit, and a new Transformation function to explore how we could design a modern public service fit for the 21st century. In only 3 months we

  • established a strong team culture, developed a clear cohesive work program, strategic objectives and service offerings,
  • chaired the ethics board for behavioural insights projects, which was a great experience, and
  • were seeing new interest, leads and engagement from agencies who wanted to engage with the Data Analytics Centre, Behavioural Insights Unit or our new Transformation function.

It was wonderful to work with such a fantastic group of people and I learned a lot, including from the incredible leadership team and my boss, William Murphy, who shared the following kind words about my leaving:

As a passionate advocate for digital and transformative approaches to deliver great public services, Pia has also been working steadily to deliver on whole-of-government approaches such as Government as a Platform, service analytics and our newly formed Transformation agenda to reimagine government.

Her unique and effective blend of systems thinking, technical creativity and vision will ensure the next stage in her career will be just as rewarding as her time with Customer Service has been.

Pia has made the difficult decision to leave Customer Service to spend more time with her Canberra-based family.

The great work Pia and her teams have done over the last twelve months has without a doubt set up the NSW digital and customer transformation agenda for success.

I want to thank her for the commitment and drive she has shown in her work with the NSW Government, and wish her well with her future endeavours. I’m confident her focus on building exceptional teams, her vision for NSW digital transformation and the relationships she has built across the sector will continue.

For my part, I’m not sure what will come next, but I’m going to have a holiday first to rest, and probably spend October simply writing down all my big ideas and doing some work on rules as code before I look for the next adventure.

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Aus Community gov20 Government Tech

Digital government: it all starts with open

This is a short video I did on the importance of openness for digital government, for the EngageTech Forum 2018. I’ve had a few people reuse it for other events so I thought I should blog it properly 🙂 Please see the transcript below. 

<Conference introductory remarks>

I wanted to talk about why openness and engagement is so critical for our work in a modern public service.

For me, looking at digital government, it’s not just about digital services, it’s about how we transform governments for the 21st century: how we do service delivery, engagement, collaboration, and how we do policy, legislation and regulation. How we make public services fit for purpose so they can serve you, the people, communities and economy of the 21st century.

For me, a lot of people think about digital and think about technology, but open government is a founding premise, a founding principle for digital government. Open that’s not digital doesn’t scale, and digital that’s not open doesn’t last. That doesn’t just mean looking at things like open source, open content and open APIs, but it means being open. Open to change. Being open to people and doing things with people, not just to people.

There’s a fundamental cultural, technical and process shift that we need to make, and it all starts with open.

<closing conference remarks>

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gov20 Government Tech

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 data.gov.au 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. Data.gov.au 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 data.gov.au 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 data.gov.au. 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 data.gov.au 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 data.gov.au 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 data.gov.au 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 baby.com, why wouldn’t baby.com 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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Aus Community gov20 Government Tech

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 data.gov.au blog, and I look forward to spending the next 4 months kicking a few goals before I go on maternity leave 🙂

Categories
gov20 Government

Vivek Kundra and some lessons learnt about tech in gov

Last night I heard Vivek Kundra speak about innovation, technology and Gov 2.0 at a dinner hosted by AIIA and Salesforce. It was a fascinating talk in that it exceeded my expectations significantly.

I had reasonable expectations that his experience as CIO of the US Federal Government and his insights to the US open government agenda would be interesting, but he also talked about the “epic war between the status quo and progress”, the inertia in government, the major shift in power from gov to the people, how tech in enabling a new form of democracy, the need to hire great people (and get rid of those not on board) and how issues like SOPA demonstrate that the people can overturn traditional power broker agendas through grassroots efforts.

He also spoke about the need to reform gov IT procurement practices to demand good services from the sector, to put them on notice and to engage smaller innovative players in the market. It was fascinating to see someone who was so senior in government take that strong a stance, but it makes sense. Government is the number one purchaser of tech, so how it engages the market has a profound impact. And as a huge customer, government should be able to demand the best possible service. At the same time, without great people internally who are empowered and incentivised, it’s hard to drive progress.

When asked how to actually drive tech innovation in government, policy, procurement and workforce reforms were very important, but fundamentally workforce. Vivek said that there needs to be rigour in hiring practices, a culture of getting the best people into the public service, a culture that rejects blockers and gets rid of those who don’t get on board with progress.

Some comments from Vivek that I thought useful and thought provoking (as captured by live tweeting on #gov2au from the evening):

  • The danger is to not move, to play safe. It’s vital to move and be thoughtful but bold to use the opportunity.
  • Often Gov collaboration is stalled by an us vs them attitude. This needs to be overcome.
  • It is now easier to innovate and compete due to new tech, and those that innovate dominate, as they fill the space.
  • Indian gov drove aggressive FOI changes, results of the transformation was short term pushback and issues, but longer term transparency and improvement of gov.
  • NBN is an enormous and exciting opportunity for Australia and for open government and Australia can play a leadership role.

I have to say, it was very interesting and stimulating. It kicked off some great discussions in the group too.

I have seen a few people respond to the Vivek coverage quite negatively. There is, of course, a lot of hype and fluff out there around Gov 2.0 and “cloud”, but it doesn’t mean you don’t listen critically, research what people say and come to your own conclusions. I am constantly surprised by people who insist on loudly voicing blatant cynicism, pessimism and general negativity, seemingly oblivious to the fact that this establishes a narrative that undermines the (often) valid and good points they are trying to make, whilst making it harder for other people to get actually get things done.

I would like to put out there that the more leadership shown by everyone in the tech community, especially the Gov 2.0 community and the media, the better a chance we all have of achieving great things.

Be the change you want to see, and all that 🙂

I highly recommend people check out Vivek’s talk from the AIIA Summit on Cloud. It was a good example of thought leadership by a person who has actually got things done, a change agent who has made a difference. I’ve been told you should be able to watch it and all the summit talks online here tonight.

Thank you to Loretta form AIIA and Phil from Salesforce for agreeing to have Vivek speak to the Gov 2.0 community. A big thanks to Vivek too, it was great to meet you 🙂 People can follow Vivek on @vivekkundra on Twitter.

It is worth mentioning that neither the AIIA nor Salesforce asked for anything in return for doing a Gov 2.0 discussion with Vivek, Salesforce paid for the dinner after the talk, and in the interview below I spoke with Vivek off the cuff without any direction from AIIA or Salesforce.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QNMj4jd3q88[/youtube]

TRANSCRIPT

Pia: So I’m here with Vivek Kundra, he’s here in Australia touring around and talking to a lot of people and I just thought I’d take the opportunity to ask him a couple of questions for the Gov 2.0 community peeps out there, around Australia.

So, hi, welcome to Australia.

Vivek: Thanks for chatting with me, I appreciate it.

Pia: Yeah, that’s cool. Can you just give us a bit of an overview about your ideas on driving tech innovation in government. What you see to be the core things you need to do?

Vivek: Well obviously it always starts with the people and one of the most important things that needs to happen in government, around the world, is they need to be able to hire the right kind of people to drive innovation and be change agents. You can’t legislate and you can’t essentially mandate innovation itself so it starts with that.

Secondly I think you need need bold leadership. If you look at what President Obama did, he made technology a central part of how his administration was going to achieve some of the policy objectives that he had set out.

And the third, you need to be able to distrupt the status quo by making sure that you have a culture that celebrates failure. That doesn’t actually go out there and punish those that are at the bleeding edge.

Pia: And, I mean, if you’ve got that leadership  at the top level and you’ve got your, you’ll always have your enthusiastic geeks at the grassroots level, how do you drive that change in that rather large middle level?

Vivek: I should think it’s easier if you have a number of people on the front lines. The geeks kinda banding together trying to find a new way. But you’ve got to be able to make sure is that the middle management, unfortunately a lot of times you have people who are incentivised by the number of dollars that they manage and the number of years they’ve been in the job and that’s where from a political leadership perspective it’s very very important to make sure that you’re reaching out and embracing those that are on the front lines that understand the issues and understand the innovation that must be driven, and frankly reward those managers that are going to support, encourage and embrace that notion and that culture and those people.

At the same time the reality is, and we don’t talk about this often, we also have to be able to make the hard choices. If there are managers or people that are getting in the way, the Dr No’s, they are basically in deleriction of their duty. And what I mean by that is that’s not what the people of a country expect of their government. They’re basically putting their personal interests over the interests of the people.

Pia: OK, and finally ‘cos we don’t have a lot of time, what are your observations and thoughts about what is happening in Australia and some of the opportunities and challenges for Australia? Seeing you’re here and seeing what’s going on.

Vivek: Well I’m actually very excited. I think it’s amazing country with an entrepreneurial culture, to the number of meetings I’ve had and meeting people like you who are doing some amazing work in the public sector, whether it’s been public participation, fundamentally rethinking what a modern democracy looks like.

I’ve also seen some of the really really bold steps that are being taken to invest in strategic infrastructure. So the National Broadband Network is one example. You look at what’s happening as far as the government’s concerned. You’re seeing some of these technologies come into the goveernment.

But the fear I have is that you want to make sure you continue on that trajectory. It’s very easy for those people in the government who want to preserve the status quo to win out. And I think there is an epic battle going on between the past and the future. And it’s really really important that, from a policy perspective, that there are appropriate incentives for those who are architecting the future, to be the ones that are driving the country.

Pia: And do you think that epic battle presents a bit of a power shift from small groups of people to the broader community to engage…

Vivek: Well absolutely, it’s clear. We see it every day, whether it’s in Australia or anywhere else in the world. Therre is this shift in power from a few government officials behind closed doors to the masses, it’s real. And technologies that didn’t exist before exist today that have made this possible in terms of the very structures that are needed.

So the ability for anyone with a front row seat to their government with a mobile device. That’s amazing! We don’t think about it, we take it for granted, but now every citizen can be a co-creator. Every citizen can be a watchdog and hold their government accountable. Every citizen can actually go out there and be part of the digital public square and that is what I think is super exciting about the time we are living in.

Pia: Yep, sure. Well thank you very much.

Vivek: Thank you.

Pia: And I look forward to next time you come to Australia.

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Government Tech

Cloud computing: finding the silver lining

Working in a political office means I am privy to the sorts of sales pitches that lobbyists, industry and community groups are constantly pushing on politicians. It can be weird, informative, amusing and at times plain scary, and I’m really valuing the critical thinking subject I took at University to help me better assess everything that comes my way 🙂

Anyway, seeing my passion and expertise is around technology, I do try to keep across what is happening as much as I can. Most of the big ICT companies are pushing the cloud computing pitch extremely hard, but I’ve found the moment you ask many of them questions about privacy, data portability, data export & archival, open standards, interoperability and issues of jurisdiction, just to name a few, they seem to baulk.

I think there are certainly a lot of opportunities in ‘the cloud’, but I think there is a lot of hype around this topic and I wanted to jot down a few thoughts that I think people should take into consideration when looking into cloud computing strategies. This is not a highly technical overview, but rather a bit of a mythbuster for those without a technical background to help in navigating the hype.

Sam Johnston pointed out to me earlier tonight a useful basic approach to ensuring you get an open cloud service which provides for the interoperability, portability and strategic control you want to maintain when moving to the cloud. If you have any good resources about cloud computing, please add it to the comments 🙂

I also strongly recommend you read the Open Cloud Manifesto which talks about this issue in greater depth, and touches upon other elements to consider when moving to the cloud.

Where is the cloud?

The term cloud computing came from the idea of services being delivered over the Internet, because the Internet has traditionally been represented  on network diagrams as, you guessed it, a cloud. Some people use the term as the new SOA (and for all those who had to deal with the onslaught of SOA hype, you may enjoy http://soafacts.com/) and cloud can mean pretty much anything, which is why it is important to clarify what your vendor is trying to sell you. After all, services running in the cloud are still running on servers somewhere, so moving stuff to the cloud is moving stuff to someone else’s infrastructure and hoping they do a better, cheaper job.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t use cloud computing, but you should be very careful to understand exactly what you are getting, and you should be strategic. Charles Stross fans will already be familiar with the idea of the separation of data and processing power, and the cloud can provide enormous processing power without you having to necessarily hand over the reins to your data or your technology strategy. Cloud computing is not an all or nothing option.

Personally I believe you should always choose the best of breed tool for the job, committing to open standards and interoperability, and then you can mash tech together for your exact best needs rather than shifting to and away from cumbersome large solutions that try to be everything, and end up doing nothing particularly well, but I’ll leave that for another blog post 🙂

Saving the environment?

Whilst there is certainly an argument to consolidating old and largely unused hardware to reduce your carbon footprint and electricity bills, moving things into the cloud does not magically reduce your carbon footprint to zero. As mentioned, there are still servers out there, so the environmental benefits can be calculated by how much better the vendor is at efficiently using their infrastructure, than you. Again, it is just worth investigating the detail to understand the actual environmental impact, if this is important to you. Remember, refrigeration is a big contributor to carbon emissions, so it isn’t just about the hardware 🙂

How much money can I save?

There are certainly some great opportunities to save money by using cloud computing for some of your systems. Often you can get online services that can be cheaper than the cost of maintaining and running your own systems. It might be worthwhile to consider the cost against that of shared services under your control though rather than looking straight to the “cloud”. For instance, in Australia there is a large amount of projects around government data centre consolidation, where some costs savings can be found but the data, software, infrastructure and strategy stays under their control.

It is also worth considering the exit cost of any new solutions. Can you get access to export your data at any time, is it safely archived somewhere you can access in the unlikely but possible case of your cloud provider folding, or a contract disagreement? Can you migrate your data/service from the cloud vendor to another vendor/solution relatively easily? These are all important considerations when faced with “the cloud will save you money”.

What about my data?

What format is your data stored in within the cloud? Physically where is the data and what are you legal obligations in relation to data? This is an important concern for government where you shouldn’t store particular data sets outside of your legal jurisdiction, and government departments and agencies often have quite stringent privacy and other obligations.

Can you get immediate access to the most recent data if the “cloud” dissipates (had to make a joke like this sometime, sorry)? Where is the data archived? If you can export your data, is it available in a format that other applications can use?

All these are important considerations, because if your data is being updated in the cloud, but is not truly retrievable, you have a real problem.

The silver lining

There are a lot of opportunities to be found in cloud computing and you will find many, many blogs and presentations espousing the benefits of cloud computing. I wanted to write a short blog post to help people consider some of the issues. If you choose to move some stuff into the cloud, you are choosing to hand over the keys to your most treasured possession, so you need to make sure you aren’t locking yourself out.

You aren’t powerless in this transaction. You need to know what you want, know your exit strategy, be sure that your cloud solution is open enough to be flexible and interoperable, be comfortable with how much control you are giving up, and be sure you retain enough control to meet your obligations.

If you are comfortable with all of this, you can engage confidently with cloud vendors and demand what you need rather than being content with what you are offered 🙂