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Government Tech

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. So 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 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.

I am available to be heard by the Justice Committee to discuss, answer questions or extrapolate on any of the problem statements or recommendations from this submission. I am a long term and dedicated public servant who has worked in the tech sector for many years, so I thank you for providing the opportunity to contribute to such an important matter.

I highly suggest that the Committee gets a briefing on all these matters from officials. There is an interesting question on which mix of Commissions, departments and agencies would be responsible for systemic change.

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.

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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gov20 Government

Renewal of the public service is everyone’s job

This article originally appeared in the Public Sector journal July 2021. It is reproduced here with the permission of IPANZ (Institute of Public Administration New Zealand).

Pia Andrews sees wonderful opportunities in the new Public Service Act 2020 (New Zealand).

As someone who is passionate about public sector renewal and transformation, I was fascinated to read the new Public Service Act. I believe it provides a powerful lever for systemic change, but a lever is only effective when you use it.

I’ve heard different opinions about the Act across Aotearoa. Some see it as the start of getting the sector back to being a vehicle for public good. Some view it with scepticism. To my mind, both of these perspectives are valid, because the Act provides both a light on the hill, and a stark counter-factual to the daily experience of many. 

At the end of the day, the Act is what you make of it, what we all make of it. If you are one of the many people “waiting for it to be implemented”, then I suggest you are, at best, missing an opportunity. I urge you to do everything in your power to take this moment and make it count. The lever is there, let’s use it. 

This article examines key aspects of the Act, then provides some practical examples of how it could be applied. 

Unpacking the new Public Service Act (2020)

The Purpose of the Act is bold because it recognises the need for change and modernisation, for establishing a shared purpose, and for better ways of working that are more collaborative, transparent, and outcomes focused. Most importantly, the Act affirms that the fundamental characteristic of the public service is to “act with a spirit of service to the community”.

But we need to look back in time to understand why such a legislative intervention was needed.

From the mid-1980s, there was a global shift in public sectors away from service to the public and towards managerialism and artificial “business” imperatives. This pseudo-business approach, combined with subsequent generations of leadership who increasingly see themselves more as executives than stewards of public good, has resulted in some institutions losing their core purpose, losing their stewardship culture, and losing touch with the public they serve. 

Short-termism has become rewarded at the cost of long-term planning and delivery of public value. The Act’s purpose supports a balanced public service approach that actively holds the role of caretaker of the long term public interest, while supporting democratic, constitutional and successive governments, and actively engaging citizens. It is with this balance that resources, no matter how stretched, could be purposefully and proportionally distributed to both urgent short term priorities as well as strategic long term ones. 

Principles and values

The principles and values reinforce a way of working that is politically neutral, free and frank, merit based, and focused on long-term planning, with a commitment to open government and stewardship. The values reinforce a way of behaving that is impartial, accountable, trustworthy, respectful, and responsive to the people of New Zealand. These provide a powerful call to action for all public servants and a systemic framework for a culture that rewards high integrity and brave pursuit of values-based public good for Aotearoa.

Crown’s relationship with Māori

Public service leaders are “responsible for developing and maintaining the capability of the public service to engage with Māori and to understand Māori perspectives.” This requires us all to seek to understand different ways of thinking, living and seeing the world, including our own worldview. It presents an opportunity to shift towards an open-minded and respectful partnership framework with ngā Iwi and Māori. You can start small by simply taking the time to understand the whakapapa, stories, values and whanaungatanga of the people you work with and serve. A greater engagement of and understanding of Mātauranga Māori could help us all live up to the intent, sovereignty, and community empowerment outlined in Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

Integrity and conduct

The Act states “… public service employees have all the rights and freedoms affirmed in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990”. To have public servants acknowledged as actual people with rights and responsibilities like any other citizen might seem an unnecessary truism, but this simple acknowledgment promotes a public service that trusts in and empowers all public servants to be an active part of civil society. It also improves the confidence of public servants to engage effectively and openly with others (citizens, ngā Iwi, other sectors, experts, community forums). By contrast, there are many jurisdictions around the world that inhibit, intimidate, or simply prohibit public servants from having any role in civil society.

Joint operational agreements

The Act supports the establishment of “joint operational agreements”, which always need to be hosted by an existing department. The challenge is new initiatives may be constrained by the host departments, so when establishing these new agreements, carefully consider how to structure and empower them to do something differently or better, otherwise they will simply become carbon copies of their hosts.

Applying the Act to two problem areas

Problem #1: Maintaining trust in the public service 

Trust is hard won and easily lost. Public institutions globally are struggling to shift from simply seeking trust, to being more trustworthy. Trust in the public service is certainly impacted by real or perceived issues with services, policies or decision making, and reduced confidence can lead to people not trusting, engaging with, or respecting the policies or democratic outcomes administered by the public sector. 

Ways to apply the Act: 

  • Engage the public to inclusively co-design “trustworthy” policies, programmes, services and infrastructure that reflect societal values and needs. 
  • Explore what would be needed to support transparent, appealable, and auditable decisions and services that are traceable back to law, such as publicly available and testable legislation as code. 
  • Be operationally transparent – publish your operating procedures, governance, oversight mechanisms reports, etc. Make it easy for the public to find, learn about, keep up to date with, and contribute to your programme, and publicly track your progress and impact. 
  • Ensure that reports to the Public Service Commissioner on progress towards goals are publicly available.
  • Embed, measure, and monitor the various accountabilities and performance requirements outlined in the Act.
  • Take a human and whānau-centred approach, not just a user-centric approach. 
  • Apply the Wellbeing Framework into policy proposals, funding proposals, measurement and performance frameworks, and independent baselining. 

Problem #2: Focusing on long-term planning and policy futures  

The public service has become largely reactive. While there are exceptions – like the Department of Conservation 50-year goals and planning – most agencies are largely driven by the latest urgency, budget or electoral cycle. But how can you take the right next step if you don’t know where you are going? 

Ways to apply the Act:

  • Dedicate a percentage (I suggest 15%) of your programme resource to community engagement efforts, long-term planning, and staff innovation.
  • Establish a joint “policy futures” operational agreement between all policy units to co-resource policy proposals and optimistic futures for Aotearoa that draw on research, emerging trends, public values and changing needs.
  • Assume and monitor for continuous change in everything you do. Be operationally proactive.
  • Consider how your department could better support community initiatives. Provide public infrastructure (including digital) for others to build on.

Conclusion and what next?

The Act reminds public servants of our responsibilities to communities, but it also recognises us as independent  individuals with a democratic right to be engaged in civil society. It promotes a more adaptive, confident and collaborative public service and includes stronger recognition of the role of the public service to support partnership between Māori and the Crown. 

At all levels, individuals, teams, divisions and departments should take time to review and apply the Act to all programs, structures, services, policies and ways of working, to nudge the entire machinery of government towards a greater “spirit of service to the community”. Here are some more things you could try today:

  • Be proud and have a voice! Join user groups, meet-ups, blogs, and communities of practice, and explore what “good” could look like for Aotearoa. Actively resist cynicism or complacency. 
  • Close the policy-implementation divide through multi-disciplinary design and delivery of policies and services.
  • Raise thoughtful opportunities to apply the Act with your team leads, managers, executives, and leaders and at conferences and hui.
  • Question the status quo and take time to learn about the history of the public sector. 
  • Explore what it means to be participatory, trustworthy, and equitable in the 21st century.
  • Actively watch for and resist the use of technology, structure, hierarchy, or policy to dehumanise or disempower the people and communities you serve.

This path will not be easy, and some people will be systemically or personally motivated to maintain the status quo. But there are many more public servants who want to create change for the better, so use forums like GOVIS and IPANZ to support each other. Being the kindest and calmest person in the room will often help, but sometimes this will also mean not staying in an environment that doesn’t support the sort of public service you believe in. 

For all those who work so hard every day just to keep the lights on, may I suggest it is perhaps time to stop allowing yourself to be someone else’s crutch? Only then can we start to collectively repair and renew where things are broken.`

I’ll finish by saying the people of this wonderful country are relying on you. So please be brave, be bold, and together we have a chance of creating a more participatory, trustworthy, and humane public service, powered by the spirit of service that lies inside every public servant. 

With thanks to Simon Minto, Colin Benjamin, Ben Briggs, Kim Murphy-Stewart, Michelle Edgerley, Victoria Wray, Chris Cormack (Kaihuawaere Matihiko, Catalyst IT), Karen McNamara, and Thomas Andrews, for peer reviewing.

Categories
gov20 Government Tech

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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Choose Your Own Adventure Government Tech

A quick reflection on digital for posterity

On the eve of moving to Ottawa to join the Service Canada team (squee!) I thought it would be helpful to share a few things for posterity. There are three things below:

  • Some observations that might be useful
  • A short overview of the Pia Review: 20 articles about digital public sector reform
  • Additional references I think are outstanding and worth considering in public sector digital/reform programs, especially policy transformation

Some observations

Moving from deficit to aspirational planning

Risk! Risk!! Risk!!! That one word is responsible for an incredible amount of fear, inaction, redirection of investment and counter-productive behaviours, especially by public sectors for whom the stakes for the economy and society are so high. But when you focus all your efforts on mitigating risks, you are trying to drive by only using the rear vision mirror, planning your next step based on the issues you’ve already experienced without looking to where you need to be. It ultimately leads to people driving slower and slower, often grinding to a halt, because any action is considered more risky than inaction. This doesn’t really help our metaphorical driver to pick up the kids from school or get supplies from the store. In any case, inaction bears as many risks as no action in a world that is continually changing. For example, if our metaphorical driver was to stop the car in an intersection they will likely be hit by another vehicle, or eventually starve to death.

Action is necessary. Change is inevitable. So public sectors must balance our time between being responsive (not reactive) to change and risks, and being proactive towards a clear goals or future state.

Of course, risk mitigation is what many in government think they need to most urgently address however, to only engage this is to buy into and perpetuate the myth that the increasing pace of change is itself a bad thing. This is the difference between user polling and user research: users think they need faster horses but actually they need a better way to transport more people over longer distances, which could lead to alternatives from horses. Shifting from a change pessimistic framing to change optimism is critical for public sectors to start to build responsiveness into their policy, program and project management. Until public servants embrace change as normal, natural and part of their work, then fear and fear based behaviours will drive reactivism and sub-optimal outcomes.

The OPSI model for innovation would be a helpful tool to ask senior public servants what proportion of their digital investment is in which box, as this will help identify how aspirational vs reactive, and how top down or bottom up they are, noting that there really should be some investment and tactics in all four quadrants.

Innovation-Facets-Diamond-1024x630My observation of many government digital programs is that teams spend a lot of their time doing top down (directed) work that focuses on areas of certainty, but misses out in building the capacity or vision required for bottom up innovation, or anything that genuinely explores and engages in areas of uncertainty. Central agencies and digital transformation teams are in the important and unique position to independently stand back to see the forest for the trees, and help shape systemic responses to all of system problems. My biggest recommendation would be for the these teams to support public sector partners to embrace change optimism, proactive planning, and responsiveness/resilience into their approaches, so as to be more genuinely strategic and effective in dealing with change, but more importantly, to better plan strategically towards something meaningful for their context.

Repeatability and scale

All digital efforts might be considered through the lens of repeatability and scale.

  • If you are doing something, anything, could you publish it or a version of it for others to learn from or reuse? Can you work in the open for any of your work (not just publish after the fact)? If policy development, new services or even experimental projects could be done openly from the start, they will help drive a race to the top between departments.
  • How would the thing you are considering scale? How would you scale impact without scaling resources? Basically, for anything you, if you’d need to dramatically scale resources to implement, then you are not getting an exponential response to the problem.

Sometimes doing non scalable work is fine to test an idea, but actively trying to differentiate between work that addresses symptomatic relief versus work that addresses causal factors is critical, otherwise you will inevitably find 100% of your work program focused on symptomatic relief.

It is critical to balance programs according to both fast value (short term delivery projects) and long value (multi month/year program delivery), reactive and proactive measures, symptomatic relief and addressing causal factors, & differentiating between program foundations (gov as a platform) and programs themselves. When governments don’t invest in digital foundations, they end up duplicating infrastructure for each and every program, which leads to the reduction of capacity, agility and responsiveness to change.

Digital foundations

Most government digital programs seem to focus on small experiments, which is great for individual initiatives, but may not lay the reusable digital foundations for many programs. I would suggest that in whatever projects the team embark upon, some effort be made to explore and demonstrate what the digital foundations for government should look like. For example:

  • Digital public infrastructure – what are the things government is uniquely responsible for that it should make available as digital public infrastructure for others to build upon, and indeed for itself to consume. Eg, legislation as code, services registers, transactional service APIs, core information and data assets (spatial, research, statistics, budgets, etc), central budget management systems. “Government as a Platform” is a digital and transformation strategy, not just a technology approach.
  • Policy transformation and closing the implementation gap –  many policy teams think the issues of policy intent not being realised is not their problem, so showing the value of multidisciplinary, test-driven and end to end policy design and implementation will dramatically shift digital efforts towards more holistic, sustainable and predictable policy and societal outcomes.
  • Participatory governance – departments need to engage the public in policy, services or program design, so demonstrating the value or participatory governance is key. this is not a nice to have, but rather a necessary part of delivering good services. Here is a recent article with some concepts and methods to consider and the team needs to have capabilities to enable this, that aren’t just communications skills, but rather genuine and subject matter expertise engagement.
  • Life Journey programs – putting digital transformation efforts,, policies, service delivery improvements and indeed any other government work in the context of life journeys helps to make it real, get multiple entities that play a part on that journey naturally involved and invested, and drives horizontal collaboration across and between jurisdictions. New Zealand led the way in this, NSW Government extended the methodology, Estonia has started the journey and they are systemically benefiting.
  • I’ve spoken about designing better futures, and I do believe this is also a digital foundation, as it provides a lens through which to prioritise, implement and realise value from all of the above. Getting public servants to “design the good” from a citizen perspective, a business perspective, an agency perspective, Government perspective and from a society perspective helps flush out assumptions, direction and hypotheses that need testing.

The Pia Review

I recently wrote a series of 20 articles about digital transformation and reform in public sectors. It was something I did for fun, in my own time, as a way of both recording and sharing my lessons learned from 20 years working at the intersection of tech, government and society (half in the private sector, half in the public sector). I called it the Public Sector Pia Review and I’ve been delighted by how it has been received, with a global audience republishing, sharing, commenting, and most important, starting new discussions about the sort of public sector they want and the sort of public servants they want to be. Below is a deck that has an insight from each of the 20 articles, and links throughout.

This is not just meant to be a series about digital, but rather about the matter of public sector reform in the broadest sense, and I hope it is a useful contribution to better public sectors, not just better public services.

The Pia Review – 20 years in 20 slides

There is also a collated version of the articles in two parts. These compilations are linked below for convenience, and all articles are linked in the references below for context.

  • Public-Sector-Pia-Review-Part-1 (6MB PDF) — essays written to provide practical tips, methods, tricks and ideas to help public servants to their best possible work today for the best possible public outcomes; and
  • Reimagining government (will link once published) — essays about possible futures, the big existential, systemic or structural challenges and opportunities as I’ve experienced them, paradigm shifts and the urgent need for everyone to reimagine how they best serve the government, the parliament and the people, today and into the future.

A huge thank you to the Mandarin, specifically Harley Dennett, for the support and encouragement to do this, as well as thanks to all the peer reviewers and contributors, and of course my wonderful husband Thomas who peer reviewed several articles, including the trickier ones!

My digital references and links from 2019

Below are a number of useful references for consideration in any digital government strategy, program or project, including some of mine 🙂

General reading

Life Journeys as a Strategy

Life Journey programs, whilst largely misunderstood and quite new to government, provide a surprisingly effective way to drive cross agency collaboration, holistic service and system design, prioritisation of investment for best outcomes, and a way to really connect policy, services and human outcomes with all involved on the usual service delivery supply chains in public sectors. Please refer to the following references, noting that New Zealand were the first to really explore this space, and are being rapidly followed by other governments around the world. Also please note the important difference between customer journey mapping (common), customer mapping that spans services but is still limited to a single agency/department (also common), and true life journey mapping which necessarily spans agencies, jurisdictions and even sectors (rare) like having a child, end of life, starting school or becoming an adult.

Policy transformation

Data in Government

Designing better futures to transform towards

If you don’t design a future state to work towards, then you end up just designing reactively to current, past or potential issues. This leads to a lack of strategic or cohesive direction in any particular direction, which leads to systemic fragmentation and ultimately system ineffectiveness and cannibalism. A clear direction isn’t just about principles or goals, it needs to be something people can see, connect with, align their work towards to (even if they aren’t in your team), and get enthusiastic about. This is how you create change at scale, when people buy into the agenda, at all levels, and start naturally walking in the same direction regardless of their role. Here are some examples for consideration.

Rules as Code

Please find the relevant Rules as Code links below for easy reference.

Better Rules and RaC examples

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Choose Your Own Adventure gov20 Government Personal Tech

Where next: Spring starts when a heartbeat’s pounding…

Today I’m delighted to announce the next big adventure for my little family and I.

For my part, I will be joining the inspirational, aspirational and world leading Service Canada to help drive the Benefits Delivery Modernization program with Benoit Long, Tammy Belanger and their wonderful team, in collaboration with our wonderful colleagues across the Canadian Government! This enormous program aims to dramatically improve the experience of Canadians with a broad range of government services, whilst transforming the organization and helping create the digital foundations for a truly responsive, effective and human-centred public sector 🙂

This is a true digital transformation opportunity which will make a difference in the lives of so many people. It provides a chance to implement and really realise the benefits of human-centred service design, modular architecture (and Government as a Platform), Rules as Code, data analytics, life journey mapping, and all I have been working on for the last 10 years. I am extremely humbled and thankful for the chance to work with and learn from such a forward thinking team, whilst being able to contribute my experience and expertise to such an important and ambitious agenda.

I can’t wait to work with colleagues across ESDC and the broader Government of Canada, as well as from the many innovative provincial governments. I’ve been lucky enough to attend FWD50 in Ottawa for the last 3 years, and I am consistently impressed by the digital and public sector talent in Canada. Of course, because Canada is one of the “Digital Nations“, it also presents a great opportunity to collaborate closely with other leading digital governments, as I also found when working in New Zealand.

We’ll be moving to Ottawa in early March, so we will see everyone in Canada soon, and will be using the next month or so packing up, spending time with Australian friends and family, and learning about our new home 🙂

My husband and little one are looking forward to learning about Canadian and Indigenous cultures, learning French (and hopefully some Indigenous languages too, if appropriate!), introducing more z’s into my English, experiencing the cold (yes, snow is a novelty for Australians) and contributing how we can to the community in Ottawa. Over the coming years we will be exploring Canada and I can’t wait to share the particularly local culinary delight that is a Beavertail (a large, flat, hot doughnut like pastry) with my family!

For those who didn’t pick up the reference, the blog title had dual meaning: we are of course heading to Ottawa in the Spring, having had a last Australian Summer for a while (gah!), and it also was a little call out to one of the great Canadian bands, that I’ve loved for years, the Tragically Hip 🙂

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Digital excellence in Ballarat

In December I had the opportunity to work with Matthew Swards and the Business Improvements team in the Ballarat Council to provide a little support for their ambitious digital and data program. The Ballarat Council developed the Ballarat Digital Services Strategy a couple of years ago, which is excellent and sets a strong direction for human centred, integrated, inclusive and data driven government services. Councils face all the same challenges that I’ve found in Federal and State Governments, so many of the same strategies apply, but it was a true delight to see some of the exceptional work happening in data and digital in Ballarat.

The Ballarat Digital Services Strategy has a clear intent which I found to be a great foundation for program planning and balancing short term delivery with long term sustainable architecture and system responsiveness to change:

  1. Develop online services that are citizen centric and integrated from the user’s perspective;
  2. Ensure where possible citizens and businesses are not left behind by a lack of digital capability;
  3. Harness technology to enhance and support innovation within council business units;
  4. Design systems, solutions and data repositories strategically but deploy them tactically;
  5. Create and articulate clear purpose by aligning projects and priorities with council’s priorities;
  6. Achieve best value for ratepayers by focusing on cost efficiency and cost transparency;
  7. Build, lead and leverage community partnerships in order to achieve better outcomes; and
  8. Re-use resources, data and systems in order to reduce overall costs and implementation times.

The Business Improvement team has been working across Council to try to meet these goals, and there has been great progress on several fronts from several different parts of the Council.  I only had a few days but got to see great work on opening more Council data, improving Council data quality, bringing more user centred approaches to service design and delivery, exploration of emerging technologies (including IoT) for Council services, and helping bring a user-centred, multi-discplinary and agile approach to service design and delivery, working closely with business and IT teams. It was particularly great to see cross Council groups around big ticket programs to draw on expertise and capabilities across the organisation, as this kind of horizontal governance is critical for holistic and coordinated efforts for big community outcomes.

Whilst in town, Matthew Swards and I wandered the 5 minutes walk to the tech precinct to catch up with George Fong, who gave us a quick tour, including to the local Tech School, as well as a great chat about digital strategies, connectivity, access, inclusiveness and foundations for regional and remote communities to engage in the digital economy. The local talent and innovation in Ballarat is great to see, and in such close vicinity to the Council itself! The opportunities for collaboration are many and it was great to see cross sector discussions about what is good for the future of Ballarat 🙂

The Tech School blew my mind! It is a great State Government initiative to have a shared technology centre for all the local schools to use, and included state of the art gaming, 3D digital and printing tech, a robotics lab, and even an industrial strength food lab! I told a few people that people would move to Ballarat for their kids to have access to such a facility, to which I was told “this is just one of 10 across the state”.

It was great to work with the Business Improvement team and consider ways to drive the digital and data agenda for the Council and for Ballarat more broadly. It was also great to be able to leverage so many openly available government standards and design systems, such as the GDS and DTA Digital Service Standards and the NSW Design System. Open governments approaches like this make it easier for all levels of government across the world to leverage good practice, reuse standards and code, and deliver better services for the community. It was excellent timing that the Australian National API Design Standard was released this week, as it will also be of great use to Ballarat Council and all other Councils across Australia. Victoria has a special advantage as well because of the Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV), which works with and supports all Victorian Councils. The amount of great innovation and coordinated co-development around Council needs is extraordinary, and you could imagine the opportunities for better services if MAV and the Councils were to adopt a standard Digital Service Standard for Councils 🙂

Many thanks to Matt and the BI team at Ballarat Council, as well as those who made the time to meet and discuss all things digital and data. I hope my small contribution can help, and I’m confident that Ballarat will continue to be a shining example of digital and data excellence in government. It was truly a delight to see great work happening in yet another innovative Local Council in Australia, it certainly seems a compelling place to live 🙂

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Aus Community Geek Girls gov20 Government society5 Tech Uncategorized

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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Choose Your Own Adventure gov20 Government society5 Tech

Lessons from Canada and France: FWD50 2018 and SIIViM

A couple of weeks ago I had a whirlwind trip to Canada, France and back again, in 6 days! I spoke at the FWD50 conference in Ottawa, Canada, which is an optimistic and inspiring event focused on the next 50 days, weeks and years of society, with a special focus on transforming our public sectors for the 21st century. Then I went to Nevers, France for SIIViM, a regional Governments event exploring digital government, open data, open source and smart cities. At both events I shared my lessons and work, as well as met with folk from the Canadian, regional French, US and Taiwanese Governments (amongst others). I also met with OECD, industry and open source folk and came back with new ideas, connections and opportunities to collaborate for our ambitious human-centred digital government transformation work in NSW. Many thanks to the FWD50 organisers and ADULLACT (a French Free Software non-profit organisation) for bringing me over and providing the opportunity to learn and share my experiences.

My contributions

I gave several speeches in my personal professional capacity (meaning I was not formally representing any of my employers past or present) which may be of interest:

Insights from Canada

In between the three presentations I gave, I got to catch up with a range of wonderful people to talk about transforming and improving public sectors.

I spoke to the Canadian School of Public Service:

  • The Canadian Government is creating a Digital Academy to develop better digital acumen across the public sector, better digital leaders, and a community that is ongoing, engaged and mutually supportive. Check out this video on the value of the Canadian Digital Academy.
  • There was strong interest in innovation of public management, including AI in regulation making.
  • They are building a modern policy capability, a tiger team approach, to support policy modernisation and transformation across government.

I visited the Canadian Digital Service and had a great chat with some of the people there, as well as a tour of their new office. It was great to see how much has been achieved in the last year and to exchange stories and lessons on trying to drive change in government. A big thank you to Sean Boot who coordinated the visit and showed me around, great to catch up Sean!

  • We spoke about the challenges faced when under pressure to deliver services whilst trying to transform government, and the need to balance foundational work (like reusable components, standards, capability uplift, modular architecture) with service redesign or improvements.
  • We spoke about legislation as code and the New Zealand entitlements engine we developed as an example of reusable rules for more integrated service delivery. I recommended the Canadian dev team chat to the NZ dev team about OpenFisca Aotearoa.
  • We spoke about emerging tech and how we can prepare public sectors for change, as well as the challenges and benefits of product vs service vs system design.
  • I heard about several great Canadian projects including one helping veterans get access to services and entitlements.
  • We also talked about GCcollab, the open source all of government collaboration suite which is being heavily used across agencies, particularly by policy folk.

I also got to catch up with some folk from the Canadian Treasury Board Secretariat to talk about open government, digital transformation, funding approaches, policy innovation and more. Thanks very much Thom Kearney who is always doing interesting things and connecting people to do interesting things 🙂

I managed to also get a little time to chat to Michael Karlin, who is driving the ethical AI and algorithmic transparency work in the Canadian Government. It was great to hear where the work is up to and find opportunities to collaborate.

I also met a lot of non-Canadians at the conference, a few takeaways were:

  • Audrey Tang, Digital Minister for Taiwan – Audrey was, as usual, wonderfully inspiring. Her talk pushed the audience to think much bigger and bolder about radical transparency, citizen empowerment and an engaged State. Audrey shared some great pamphlets with me in 8 languages that showed how open government in Taiwan works, which includes issues raised by citizens, prioritised by government, consulted on openly, and fixed collaboratively with citizens. Audrey also shared how they do public consultations in the local language of an area and then transcribe to Mandarin for accessibility. I love this idea and want to consider how we could do multi-lingual consultations better in Australia.
  • I caught up with the always extraordinary Audrey Lobo-Pulo who is a brilliant data scientist and advocate for Opening Government Models. Audrey introduced me to Natalie Evans Harris who had worked in the office of the US Chief Technology Officer and had a lot of expertise around digitising public services.

Insights from France

The SIIViM conference itself was fascinating. A lot of focus on open data, “Smart Cities”, IoT, Virtual Reality, and autonomous cars.

Whilst there we got into a discussion about digital asset valuation and how software/data may be measured as an asset,but is usually not valued as a public asset. Often when data is valued as an asset it quickly leads to cost recovery activities or asset depreciation which can get tricky when we are talking about foundational datasets that could be available as digital public infrastructure for digital society.

When in Paris, I was delighted to meet up with Alex Roberts from the OECD (formerly of DesignGov and Public Sector Innovation Network fame) and Jamie, to talk about innovation in government. We talked about the new OECD Declaration of Public Innovation Alex has developed which beautifully frames the four different innovation types as being across two spectrums of certainty/uncertainty, and directed/undirected, which nicely frames the different forms of innovation efforts I’ve seen over the years. Great work Alex! There is also a report on innovation in the innovation in the Canadian Government worth reading. Perhaps OECD could come to NSW Government next? 😉

I also met with Roberto Di Cosmo who founded the Software Heritage initiative, which is like a super archive for software repositories that stores the code in a uniform data model for the purpose of analysis, science and posterity. Roberto has been involved in the French Free and Open Source Software community for a long time and he told me about the French Government investment in Open Source with 200m euros invested in 10 years (40% public money and 60% private investment). Fascinating and it explains why so many great French Government technologies are Open Source!

I got to catch up with the excellent Matti Schneider, who worked with my team in New Zealand for a few weeks on OpenFisca. I highly recommend Matti’s talk about the French State Incubator (a public sector innovation lab) or another talk on turning legislation into code from New Zealand. Matti kindly gave me a short tour of central Paris from a historical context, and I got to hear about the three Parisian revolutions and see significant landmarks along the way. Fascinating, and as always, there are lessons relevant to the present moment.

To wrap it all up, Patrick introduced me to Mark from the US National Archives who shared some thoughts about https://www.lockss.org/ and the importance of ensuring validity of historic digital archives. I also met Margaret from ICANN who talked about the personal empowerment of staff to make good decisions and to engage in stopping things that are wrong, unfair or inconsistent with the mission. She encouraged me to be humble about evidence and realistic about change being inevitable.

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UNDP 2018: Evidence based vs experimentation based policy

Recently I have a remote talk to a UNDP event about Evidence based versus experimentation based policy. Below are the notes.
  • We invented all of this, and we can reinvent it. We can co-create a better future for everyone, if we choose. But if we settle for making things just a bit better, a bit more sustainable, a bit anything, then we will fundamentally fail the world because change and complexity is growing exponentially, and we need an exponential response to keep up.
  • There is a dramatic shift in paradigm from control to enablement, from being a king in a castle to a node in a network, which assumes a more collaborative approach to governance.
  • Evidence based approaches are great to identify issues, but we need experimentation based approaches, equitably co-designed with communities, so create sustainable and effective solutions. Evidence based solutions often are normative rather than transformative.
  • We need both evidence and experimentation based policy making, combined with system thinking and public engagement to make a real difference.
  • Digital transformation is often mistaken for meaning the digitisation of or service design led improvement of services, but digital transformation means creating institutions that are fit for purpose for the 21st century, from policy, regulation, services, public engagement, a full rethink and redesign of our social, economic and political systems.
  • History in implementation, and we realised that it was the disconnect between policy and implementation, the idea of policy as separate to implementation is undermining the possibility of meeting the policy intent through implementation.
  • Measurement ends up being limited to the context of function rather than outcomes.
  • Urgently need to reform how we do policy, regulation and legislation, to embrace an outcomes based approach, to bring design thinking and system design into the process from the start, from policy development in the first instance.
  • Working in the open is essential to getting both the demand and supply of evidence based policy, and working openly also means engaging in the shared design of policy and services with the communities we serve, to draw on the experience, expertise and values of the communities.
  • Public Values Management
  • Evidence based AND experimentation based policy.
  • Examples:
    • Service Innovation Lab – NZ
      • Service design and delivery – rapid prototyping is trusted for service design
      • Applying design thinking to regulation and policy
      • Legislation as code – rapid testing of policy and legislation, Holidays Act, it is critical if we want to have a chance of ensuring traceable, accountable and trusted decision making by public sectors as we see more automated decision making with the adoption of AI and ML grow.
      • Simultaneous legislation and implementation, to ensure implementation has a chance of meeting the original policy intent.
    • Taiwan – Uber case study, civic deliberation
    • Their Future Matters – data driven insights and outcomes mapping and then co-design of solutions, co-design with Aboriginal NGOs
    • 50 year optimistic future – to collaboratively design what a contextual, cultural and values driven “good” looks like for a society, so we can reverse engineer what we need to put in place to get us there.
  • Final point – if we want people to trust our policies, services and legislation, we need to do open government data, models, traceable and accountable decision making, and representative and transparent public participation in policy.
  • Links: