RegTech – a primer for the uninitiated

Whilst working at AUSTRAC I wrote a brief about RegTech which was quite helpful. I was given permission to blog the generically useful parts of it for general consumption 🙂 Thanks Leanne!

Overview – This brief is the most important thing you will read in planning transformation! Government can’t regulate in the way we have traditionally done. Traditional approaches are too small, too slow and too ineffective. We need to explore new ways to regulate and achieve the goal of a stronger financial sector resistance to abuse that leverages data, automation, machine learning, technology and collaboration. We are here to help!

The key here is to put technology at the heart of the business strategy, rather than as simply an implementation mechanism. By embracing technology thinking, which means getting geeks into the strategy and policy rooms, we can build the foundation of a modern, responsive, agile, proactive and interactive regulator that can properly scale.

The automation of compliance with RegTech has the potential to overcome individual foibles and human error in a way that provides the quantum leap in culture and compliance that our regulators, customers, policy makers and the community are increasingly demanding… The Holy Grail is when we start to actually write regulation and legislation in code. Imagine the productivity gains and compliance savings of instantaneous certified compliance… We are now in one of the most exciting phases in the development of FinTech since the inception of e-banking.Treasurer Morrison, FinTech Australia Summit, Nov 2016

On the back of the FinTech boom, there is a growth in companies focused on “RegTech” solutions and services to merge technology and regulation/compliance needs for a more 21st century approach to the problem space. It is seen as a logical next step to the FinTech boom, given the high costs and complexity of regulation in the financial sector, but the implications for the broader regulatory sector are significant. The term only started being widely used in 2015. Other governments have started exploring this space, with the UK Government investing significantly.

Core themes of RegTech can be summarised as: data; automation; security; disruption; and enabling collaboration. There is also an overall drive towards everything being closer to real-time, with new data or information informing models, responses and risk in an ongoing self-adjusting fashion.

  • Data driven regulation – better monitoring, better use of available big and small data holdings to inform modelling and analysis (rather than always asking a human to give new information), assessment on the fly, shared data and modelling, trends and forecasting, data analytics for forward looking projections rather than just retrospective analysis, data driven risk and adaptive modelling, programmatic delivery of regulations (regulation as a platform).
  • Automation – reporting, compliance, risk modelling of transactions to determine what should be reported as “suspicious”, system to system registration and escalation, use of machine learning and AI, a more blended approach to work combining humans and machines.
  • Security – biometrics, customer checks, new approaches to KYC, digital identification and assurance, sharing of identity information for greater validation and integrity checking.
  • Disruptive technologies – blockchain, cloud, machine learning, APIs, cryptography, augmented reality and crypto-currencies just to start!
  • Enabling collaboration – for-profit regulation activities, regulation/compliance services and products built on the back of government rules/systems/data, access to distributed ledgers, distributed risk models and shared data/systems, broader private sector innovation on the back of regulator open data and systems.

Some useful references for the more curious:

Iteration or Transformation in government: paint jobs and engines

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

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

Background

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

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

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

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

Gov as an API

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The three key advantages to taking this approach are:

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

Meaningful and mutually beneficial collaboration

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other early DTO lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

Choose your own adventure – keynote

This is a blog version of the keynote I gave at linux.conf.au 2017. Many thanks to everyone who gave such warm feedback, and I hope it helps spur people to think about systemic change and building the future. The speech can be watched at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J6IqGuxCKa8.

I genuinely believe we are at a tipping point right now. A very important tipping point where we have at our disposal all the philosophical and technical means to invent whatever world we want, but we’re at risk of reinventing the past with shiny new things. This talk is about trying to make active choices about how we want to live in future and what tools we keep or discard to get there. Passive choices are still a choice, they are choosing the status quo. We spend a lot of our time tinkering around the edges of life as it is, providing symptomatic relief for problems we find, but we need to take a broader systems based view and understand what systemic change we can make to properly address those problems.

We evolved over hundreds of thousands of years using a cooperative competitive social structure that helped us work together to flourish in every habitat, rapidly and increasingly evolve an learn, and establish culture, language, trade and travel. We were constantly building on what came before and we built our tools as we went.

In recent millennia we invented systems of complex differentiated and interdependent skills, leading to increasingly rapid advancements in how we live and organise ourselves physically, politically, economically and socially, especially as we started building huge cities. Lots of people meant a lot of time to specialise, and with more of our basic needs taken care of, we had more time for philosophy and dreaming.

Great progress created great surplus, creating great power, which we generally centralised in our great cities under rulers that weren’t always so great. Of course, great power also created great inequalities so sometimes we burned down those great cities, just to level the playing field. We often took a symptomatic relief approach to bad leaders by replacing them, without fundamentally changing the system.

But in recent centuries we developed the novel idea that all people have inalienable rights and can be individually powerful. This paved the way for a massive culture shift and distribution of power combined with heightened expectations of individuals in playing a role in their own destiny, leading us to the world as we know it today. Inalienable rights paved the way for people thinking differently about their place in the world, the control they had over their lives and how much control they were happy to cede to others. This makes us, individually, the most powerful we have ever beed, which changes the game moving forward.

You see, the internet was both a product and an amplifier of this philosophical transition, and of course it lies at the heart of our community. Technology has, in large part, only sped up the cooperative competitive models of adapting, evolving and flourishing we have always had. But the idea that anyone has a right to life and liberty started a decentralisation of power and introduced the need for legitimate governance based on the consent of citizens (thank you Locke).

Citizens have the powers of publishing, communications, monitoring, property, even enforcement. So in recent decades we have shifted fundamentally from kings in castles to nodes in a network, from scarcity to surplus or reuse models, from closed to open systems, and the rate of human progress only continues to grow towards an asymptoic climb we can’t even imagine.

To help capture this, I thought I’d make a handy change.log on human progress to date.

# Notable changes to homo sapiens – change.log
## [2.1.0] – 1990s CE “technology revolution & internet”
### Changed
– New comms protocol to distribute “rights”. Printing press patch unexpectedly useful for distributing resources. Moved from basic multi-core to clusters of independent processors with exponential growth in power distribution.

## [2.0.0] – 1789 CE “independence movements”
### Added
– Implemented new user permissions called “rights”, early prototype of multi-core processing with distributed power & comms.

## [1.2.0] – 1760 CE “industrial revolution”
### Changed
– Agricultural libraries replaced by industrial libraries, still single core but heaps faster.

## [1.1.1] – 1440 CE “gutenberg”
### Patched
– Printing press a minor patch for more efficient instructions distribution, wonder if it’d be more broadly useful?

## [1.1.0] – 2,000 BCE “cities era”
### Changed
– Switched rural for urban operating environment. Access to more resources but still on single core.

## [1.0.0] – 8,000 BCE “agricultural revolution”
### Added
– New agricultural libraries, likely will create surplus and population explosion. Heaps less resource intensive.

## [0.1.0] – 250,000 BCE “homo sapiens”
### Added
– Created fork from homo erectus, wasn’t confident in project direction though they may still submit contributions…

(For more information about human evolution, see https://www.bighistoryproject.com)

The point to this rapid and highly oversimplified historical introduction is threefold: 1) we are more powerful than ever before, 2) the rate of change is only increasing, and 3) we made all this up, and we can make it up again. It is important to recognise that we made all of this up. Intellectually we all understand this but it matters because we often assume things are how they are, and then limit ourselves to working within the constraints of the status quo. But what we invented, we can change, if we choose.

We can choose our own adventure, or we let others choose on our behalf. And if we unthinkingly implement the thinking, assumptions and outdated paradigms of the past, then we are choosing to reimplement the past.

Although we are more individually and collectively powerful than ever before, how often do you hear “but that’s just how we’ve always done it”, “but that’s not traditional”, or “change is too hard”. We are demonstrably and historically utter masters at change, but life has become so big, so fast, and so interrelated that change has become scary for many people, so you see them satisfied by either ignoring change or making iterative improvements to the status quo. But we can do better. We must do better.

I believe we are at a significant tipping point in history. The world and the very foundations our society were built on have changed, but we are still largely stuck in the past in how we think and plan for the future. If we don’t make some active decisions about how we live, think and act, then we will find ourselves subconsciously reinforcing the status quo at every turn and not in a position to genuinely create a better future for all.

So what could we do?

  • Solve poverty and hunger: distributed property through nanotechnology and 3D printing, universal education and income.
  • Work 2 days a week, automate the rest: work, see “Why the Future is Workless” by Tim Dunlop
  • Embrace and extend our selves: Transhumanism, para olympics, “He was more than a dolphin, but from another dolphin’s point of view he might have seemed like something less.” — William Gibson, from Johnny Mnemonic. Why are we so conservative about what it means to be human? About our picture of self? Why do we get caught up on what is “natural” when almost nothing we do is natural.
  • Overcome the tyranny of distance: rockets for international travel, interstellar travel, the opportunity to have new systems of organising ourselves
  • Global citizens: Build a mighty global nation where everyone can flourish and have their rights represented beyond the narrow geopolitical nature of states: peer to peer economy, international rights, transparent gov, digital democracy, overcome state boundaries,
  • ?? What else ?? I’m just scratching the surface!

So how can we build a better world? Luckily, the human species has geeks. Geeks, all of us, are special because we are the pioneers of the modern age and we get to build the operating system for all our fellow humans. So it is our job to ensure what we do makes the world a better place.

rOml is going to talk more about future options for open source in the Friday keynote, but I want to explore how we can individually and collectively build for the future, not for the past.

I would suggest, given our role as creators, it is incumbent on us to both ensure we build a great future world that supports all the freedoms we believe in. It means we need to be individually aware of our unconscious bias, what beliefs and assumptions we hold, who benefits from our work, whether diversity is reflected in our life and work, what impact we have on society, what we care about and the future we wish to see.

Collectively we need to be more aware of whether we are contributing to future or past models, whether belief systems are helping or hindering progress, how we treat others and what from the past we want to keep versus what we want to get rid of.

Right now we have a lot going on. On the one hand, we have a lot of opportunities to improve things and the tools and knowledge at our disposal to do so. On the other hand we have locked up so much of our knowledge and tools, traditional institutions are struggling to maintain their authority and control, citizens are understandably frustrated and increasingly taking matters into their own hands, we have greater inequality than ever before, an obsession with work at the cost of living, and we are expected to sacrifice our humanity at the alter of economics

Questions to ask yourself:

Who are/aren’t you building for?
What is the default position in society?
What does being human mean to you?
What do we value in society?
What assumptions and unconscious bias do you have?
How are you helping non-geeks help themselves?
What future do you want to see?

What should be the rights, responsibilities and roles of
citizens, governments, companies, academia?

Finally,we must also help our fellow humans shift from being consumers to creators. We are all only as free as the tools we use, and though geeks will always be able to route around damage, be that technical or social, many of our fellow humans do not have the same freedoms we do.

Fundamental paradigm shifts we need to consider in building the future.

Scarcity → Surplus
Closed → Open
Centralised → Distributed
Analogue → Digital
Belief → Rationalism
Win/lose → Cooperative competitive
Nationalism → Transnationalism
Normative humans → Formative humans

Open source is the best possible modern expression of cooperative competitiveness that also integrates our philosophical shift towards human rights and powerful citizens, so I know it will continue to thrive and win when pitted against closed models, broadly speaking.

But in inventing the future, we need to be so very careful that we don’t simply rebuild the past with new shiny tools. We need to keep one eye always on the future we want to build, on how what we are doing contributes to that future, and to ensuring we have enough self awareness and commitment to ensuring we don’t accidentally embed in our efforts the outdated and oftentimes repressive habits of the past.

To paraphrase Gandhi, build the change you want to see. And build it today.

Thank you, and I hope you will join me in forging a better future.

Moving to …

Last October data.gov.au was moved from the Department of Finance to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) and I moved with the team before going on maternity leave in January. In July of this year, whilst still on maternity leave, I announced that I was leaving PM&C but didn’t say what the next gig was. In choosing my work I’ve always tried to choose new areas, new parts of the broader system to better understand the big picture. It’s part of my sysadmin background – I like to understand the whole system and where the config files are so I can start tweaking and making improvements. These days I see everything as a system, and anything as a “config file”, so there is a lot to learn and tinker with!

Over the past 3 months, my little family (including new baby) has been living in New Zealand on a bit of a sabbatical, partly to spend time with the new bub during that lovely 6-8 months period, but partly for us to have the time and space to consider next steps, personally and professionally. Whilst in New Zealand I was invited to spend a month working with the data.govt.nz team which was awesome, and to share some of my thoughts on digital government and what systemic “digital transformation” could mean. It was fun and I had incredible feedback from my work there, which was wonderful and humbling. Although tempting to stay, I wanted to return to Australia for a fascinating new opportunity to expand my professional horizons.

Thus far I’ve worked in the private sector, non-profits and voluntary projects, political sphere (as an advisor), and in the Federal and State/Territory public sectors. I took some time whilst on maternity leave to think about what I wanted to experience next, and where I could do some good whilst building on my experience and skills to date. I had some interesting offers but having done further tertiary study recently into public policy, governance, global organisations and the highly complex world of international relations, I wanted to better understand both the regulatory sphere and how international systems work. I also wanted to work somewhere where I could have some flexibility for balancing my new family life.

I’m pleased to say that my next gig ticks all the boxes! I’ll be starting next week at AUSTRAC, the Australian financial intelligence agency and regulator where I’ll be focusing on international data projects. I’m particularly excited to be working for the brilliant Dr Maria Milosavljevic (Chief Innovation Officer for AUSTRAC) who has a great track record of work at a number of agencies, including as CIO of the Australian Crime Commission. I am also looking forward to working with the CEO, Paul Jevtovic APM, who is a strong and visionary leader for the organisation, and I believe a real change agent for the broader public sector.

It should be an exciting time and I look forward to sharing more about my work over the coming months! Wish me luck 🙂

Personal submission to the Productivity Commission Review on Public Sector Data

My name is Pia Waugh and this is my personal submission to the Productivity Commission Review on Public Sector Data. It does not reflect the priorities or agenda of my employers past, present or future, though it does draw on my expertise and experience in driving the open data agenda and running data portals in the ACT and Commonwealth Governments from 2011 till 2015. I was invited by the Productivity Commission to do a submission and thought I could provide some useful ideas for consideration. I note I have been on maternity leave since January 2016 and am not employed by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet or working on data.gov.au at the time of writing this submission. This submission is also influenced by my work and collaboration with other Government jurisdictions across Australia, overseas and various organisations in the private and community sectors. I’m more than happy to discuss these ideas or others if useful to the Productivity Commission.

I would like to thank all those program and policy managers, civic hackers, experts, advocates, data publishers, data users, public servants and vendors whom I have had the pleasure to work with and have contributed to my understanding of this space. I’d also like to say a very special thank you to the Australian Government Chief Technology Officer, John Sheridan, who gave me the freedom to do what was needed with data.gov.au, and to Allan Barger who was my right hand man in rebooting the agenda in 2013, supporting agencies and helping establish a culture of data publishing and sharing across the public sector. I think we achieved a lot in only a few years with a very small but highly skilled team. A big thank you also to Alex Sadleir and Steven De Costa who were great to work with and made it easy to have an agile and responsive approach to building the foundation for an important piece of data infrastructure for the Australian Government.

Finally, this is a collection of some of my ideas and feedback for use by the Productivity Commission however, it doesn’t include everything I could possibly have to say on this topic because, frankly, we have a small baby who is taking most of my time at the moment. Please feel free to add your comments, criticisms or other ideas to the comments below! It is all licensed as Creative Commons 4.0 By Attribution, so I hope it is useful to others working in this space.

The Importance of Vision

Without a vision, we stumble blindly in the darkness. Without a vision, the work and behaviours of people and organisations are inevitably driven by other competing and often short term priorities. In the case of large and complex organisms like the Australian Public Service, if there is no cohesive vision, no clear goal to aim for, then each individual department is going to do things their own way, driven by their own priorities, budgets, Ministerial whims and you end up with what we largely have today: a cacophony of increasingly divergent approaches driven by tribalism that make collaboration, interoperability, common systems and data reuse impossible (or prohibitively expensive).

If however, you can establish a common vision, then even a strongly decentralised system can converge on the goal. If we can establish a common vision for public data, then the implementation of data programs and policies across the APS should become naturally more consistent and common in practice, with people naturally motivated to collaborate, to share expertise, and to reuse systems, standards and approaches in pursuit of the same goal.

My vision for public data is two-pronged and a bit of a paradigm shift: data by design and gov as an API! “Data by design” is about taking a data driven approach to the business of government and “gov as an API” is about changing the way we use, consume, publish and share data to properly enable a data driven public service and a broader network of innovation. The implementation of these ideas would create mashable government that could span departments, jurisdictions and international boundaries. In a heavily globalised world, no government is in isolation and it is only by making government data, content and services API enabled and reusable/interfacable, that we, collectively, can start to build the kind of analysis, products and services that meet the necessarily cross jurisdictional needs of all Australians, of all people.

More specifically, my vision is a data driven approach to the entire business of government that supports:

  • evidence based and iterative policy making and implementation;

  • transparent, accountable and responsible Government;

  • an open competitive marketplace built on mashable government data, content and services; and

  • a more efficient, effective and responsive public service.

What this requires is not so simple, but is utterly achievable if we could embed a more holistic whole of government approach in the work of individual departments, and then identify and fill the gaps through a central capacity that is responsible for driving a whole of government approach. Too often we see the data agenda oversimplified into what outcomes are desired (data visualisations, dashboards, analysis, etc) however, it is only in establishing multipurpose data infrastructure which can be reused for many different purposes that we will enable the kind of insights, innovation, efficiencies and effectiveness that all the latest reports on realising the value of data allude to. Without actual data, all the reports, policies, mission statements, programs and governance committees are essentially wasting time. But to get better government data, we need to build capacity and motivation in the public sector. We need to build a data driven culture in government. We also need to grow consumer confidence because a) demand helps drive supply, and b) if data users outside the public sector don’t trust that they can find, use and rely upon at least some government data, then we won’t ever see serious reuse of government data by the private sector, researchers, non-profits, citizens or the broader community.

Below is a quick breakdown of each of these priorities, followed by specific recommendations for each:

data infrastructure that supports multiple types of reuse. Ideally all data infrastructure developed by all government entities should be built in a modular, API enabled way to support data reuse beyond the original purpose to enable greater sharing, analysis, aggregation (where required) and publishing. It is often hard for agencies to know what common infrastructure already exists and it is easy for gaps to emerge, so another part of this is to map the data infrastructure requirements for all government data purposes, identify where solutions exist and any gaps. Where whole of government approaches are identified, common data infrastructure should be made available for whole of government use, to reduce the barrier to publishing and sharing data for departments. Too often, large expensive data projects are implemented in individual agencies as single purpose analytics solutions that don’t make the underlying data accessible for any other purpose. If such projects separated the data infrastructure from the analytics solutions, then the data infrastructure could be built to support myriad reuse including multiple analytics solutions, aggregation, sharing and publishing. If government data infrastructure was built like any other national infrastructure, it should enable a competitive marketplace of analysis, products and service delivery both domestically and globally. A useful analogy to consider is the example of roads. Roads are not typically built just from one address to another and are certainly not made to only support certain types of vehicles. It would be extremely inefficient if everyone built their own custom roads and then had to build custom vehicles for each type of road. It is more efficient to build common roads to a minimum technical standard that any type of vehicle can use to support both immediate transport needs, but also unknown transport needs into the future. Similarly we need to build multipurpose data infrastructure to support many types of uses.

greater publisher capacity and motivation to share and publish data. Currently the range of publishing capacity across the APS is extremely broad, from agencies that do nothing to agencies that are prolific publishers. This is driven primarily by different cultures and responsibilities of agencies and if we are to improve the use of data, we need to improve the supply of data across the entire public sector. This means education and support for agencies to help them understand the value to their BAU work. The time and money saved by publishing data, opportunities to improve data quality, the innovation opportunities and the ability to improve decision making are all great motivations once understood, but generally the data agenda is only pitched in political terms that have little to no meaning to data publishers. Otherwise there is no natural motivation to publish or share data, and the strongest policy or regulation in the world does not create sustainable change or effective outcomes if you cannot establish a motivation to comply. Whilst ever publishing data is seen as merely a compliance issue, it will be unlikely for agencies to invest the time and skills to publish data well, that is, to publish the sort of data that consumers want to use.

greater consumer confidence to improve the value realised from government data. Supply is nothing without demand and currently there is a relatively small (but growing) demand for government data, largely because people won’t use what they don’t trust. In the current landscape is difficult to find data and even if one can find it, it is often not machine readable or not freely available, is out of date and generally hard to use. There is not a high level of consumer confidence in what is provided by government so many people don’t even bother to look. If they do look, they find myriad data sources of ranging quality and inevitably waste many hours trying to get an outcome. There is a reasonable demand for data for research and the research community tends to jump through hoops – albeit reluctantly and at great cost – to gain access to government data. However, the private and civic sectors are yet to seriously engage apart form a few interesting outliers. We need to make finding and using useful data easy, and start to build consumer confidence or we will never even scratch the surface of the billions of dollars of untapped potential predicted by various studies. The data infrastructure section is obviously an important part of building consumer confidence as it should make it easier for consumers to find and have confidence in what they need, but it also requires improving the data culture across the APS, better outreach and communications, better education for public servants and citizens on how to engage in the agenda, and targeted programs to improve the publishing of data already in demand. What we don’t need is yet another “tell us what data you want” because people want to see progress.

a data driven culture that embeds in all public servants an understanding of the role of data in the every day work of the public service, from program management, policy development, regulation and even basic reporting. It is important to take data from being seen as a specialist niche delegated only to highly specialised teams and put data front and centre as part of the responsibilities of all public servants – especially management – in their BAU activities. Developing this culture requires education, data driven requirements for new programs and policies, some basic skills development but mostly the proliferation of an awareness of what data is, why it is important, and how to engage appropriate data skills in the BAU work to ensure a data driven approach. Only with data can a truly evidence driven approach to policy be taken, and only with data can a meaningful iterative approach be taken over time.

Finally, obviously the approach above requires an appropriately skilled team to drive policy, coordination and implementation of the agenda in collaboration with the broader APS. This team should reside in a central agenda to have whole of government imprimatur, and needs a mix of policy, commercial, engagement and technical data skills. The experience of data programs around the world shows that when you split policy and implementation, you inevitably get both a policy team lacking in the expertise to drive meaningful policy and an implementation team paralysed by policy indecision and an unclear mandate. This space is changing so rapidly that policy and implementation need to be agile and mutually reinforcing with a strong focus on getting things done.

As we examine the interesting opportunities presented by new developments such as blockchain and big data, we need to seriously understand the shift in paradigm from scarcity to surplus, from centralised to distributed systems, and from pre-planned to iterative approaches, if we are to create an effective public service for the 21st century.

There is already a lot of good work happening, so the recommendations in this submission are meant to improve and augment the landscape, not replicate. I will leave areas of specialisation to the specialists, and have tried to make recommendations that are supportive of a holistic approach to developing a data-driven public service in Australia.

Current Landscape

There has been progress in recent years towards a more data driven public sector however, these initiatives tend to be done by individual teams in isolation from the broader public service. Although we have seen some excellent exemplars of big data and open data, and some good work to clarify and communicate the intent of a data driven public service through policy and reviews, most projects have simply expanded upon the status quo thinking of government as a series of heavily fortified castles that take the extraordinary effort of letting in outsiders (including other departments) only under strictly controlled conditions and with great reluctance and cost. There is very little sharing at the implementation level (though an increasing amount of sharing of ideas and experience) and very rarely are new initiatives consulted across the APS for a whole of government perspective. Very rarely are actual data and infrastructure experts encouraged or supported to work directly together across agency or jurisdiction lines, which is a great pity. Although we have seen the idea of the value of data start to be realised and prioritised, we still see the implementation of data projects largely delegated to small, overworked and highly specialised internal teams that are largely not in the habit of collaborating externally and thus there is a lot of reinvention and diversity in what is done.

If we are to realise the real benefits of data in government and the broader economy, we need to challenge some of the status quo thinking and approaches towards data. We need to consider government (and the data it collects) as a platform for others to build upon rather than the delivery mechanism for all things to all people. We also need to better map what is needed for a data-driven public service rather than falling victim to the attractive (and common, and cheap) notion of simply identifying existing programs of work and claiming them to be sufficient to meet the goals of the agenda.

Globally this is still a fairly new space. Certain data specialisations have matured in government (eg. census/statistics, some spatial, some science data) but there is still a lack of a cohesive approach to data in any one agency. Even specialist data agencies tend to not look beyond the specialised data to have a holistic data driven approach to everything. In this way, it is critical to develop a holistic approach to data at all levels of the public service to embed the principles of data driven decision making in everything we do. Catalogues are not enough. Specialist data projects are not enough. Publishing data isn’t enough. Reporting number of datasets quickly becomes meaningless. We need to measure our success in this space by how well data is helping the public service to make better decisions, build better services, develop and iterate responsive and evidence based policy agendas, measure progress and understand the environment in which we operate.

Ideally, government agencies need to adopt a dramatic shift in thinking to assume in the first instance that the best results will be discovered through collaboration, through sharing, through helping people help themselves. There also needs in the APS to be a shift away from thinking that a policy, framework, governance structure or other artificial constructs are sufficient outcomes. Such mechanisms can be useful, but they can also be a distraction from getting anything tangible done. Such mechanisms often add layers of complexity and cost to what they purport to achieve. Ultimately, it is only what is actually implemented that will drive an outcome and I strongly believe an outcomes driven approach must be applied to the public data agenda for it to achieve its potential.

References

In recent years there has been a lot of progress. Below is a quick list to ensure they are known and built upon for the future. It is also useful to recognise the good work of the government agencies to date.

  • Public Data Toolkit – the data.gov.au team have pulled together a large repository of information, guidance and reports over the past 3 years on our open data toolkit at http://toolkit.data.gov.au. There are also some useful contributions from the Department of Communications Spatial Policy Branch. The Toolkit has links to various guidance from different authoritative agencies across the APS as well as general information about data management and publishing which would be useful to this review.

  • The Productivity Commission is already aware of the Legislative and other Barriers Workshop I ran at PM&C before going on maternity leave, and I commend the outcomes of that session to the Review.

  • The Financial Sector Inquiry (the “Murray Inquiry”) has some excellent recommendations regarding the use of data-drive approaches to streamline the work and reporting of the public sector which, if implemented, would generate cost and time savings as well as the useful side effect of putting in place data driven practices and approaches which can be further leveraged for other purposes.

  • Gov 2.0 Report and the Ahead of the Game Report – these are hard to find copies of online now, but have some good recommendations and ideas about a more data centric and evidence based public sector and I commend them both to the Review. I’m happy to provide copies if required.

  • There are many notable APS agency efforts which I recommend the Productivity Commission engage with, if they haven’t already. Below are a few I have come across to date, and it is far from an exhaustive list:

    • PM&C (Public Data Management Report/Implementation & Public Data Policy Statement)

    • Finance (running and rebooting data.gov.au, budget publishing, data integration in GovCMS)

    • ABS (multi agency arrangement, ABS.Stat)

    • DHS (analytics skills program, data infrastructure and analysis work)

    • Immigration (analytics and data publishing)

    • Social Services (benefits of data publishing)

    • Treasury (Budget work)

    • ANDS (catalogue work and upskilling in research sector)

    • NDI (super computer functionality for science)

    • ATO (smarter data program, automated and publications data publishing, service analytics, analytics, dev lab, innovationspace)

    • Industry (Lighthouse data integration and analysis, energy ratings data and app)

    • CrimTRAC and AUSTRAC (data collection, consolidation, analysis, sharing)

  • Other jurisdictions in Australia have done excellent work as well and you can see a list (hopefully up to date) of portals and policies on the Public Data Toolkit. I recommend the Productivity Commission engage with the various data teams for their experiences and expertise in this matter. There are outstanding efforts in all the State and Territory Governments involved as well as many Local Councils with instructive success stories, excellent approaches to policy, implementation and agency engagement/skills and private sector engagement projects.

Som current risks/issues

There are a number of issues and risks that exist in pursuing the current approach to data in the APS. Below are some considerations to take into account with any new policies or agendas to be developed.

  • There is significant duplication of infrastructure and investment from building bespoke analytics solutions rather than reusable data infrastructure that could support multiple analytics solutions. Agencies build multiple bespoke analytics projects without making the underpinning data available for other purposes resulting in duplicated efforts and under-utilised data across government.

  • Too much focus on pretty user interfaces without enough significant investment or focus on data delivery.

  • Discovery versus reuse – too many example of catalogues linking to dead data. Without the data, discovery is less than useful.

  • Limitations of tech in agencies by ICT Department – often the ICT Department in an agency is reticent to expand the standard operating environment beyond the status quo, creating an issue of limitation of tools and new technologies.

  • Copyright and legislation – particularly old interpretations of each and other excuses to not share.

  • Blockers to agencies publishing data (skills, resources, time, legislation, tech, competing priorities e.g. assumed to be only specialists that can do data).

  • Often activities in the public sector are designed to maintain the status quo (budgets, responsibilities, staff count) and there is very little motivation to do things more efficiently or effectively. We need to establish these motivations for any chance to be sustainable.

  • Public perceptions about the roles and responsibilities of government change over time and it is important to stay engaged when governments want to try something new that the public might be uncertain about. There has been a lot of media attention about how data is used by government with concerns aired about privacy. Australians are concerned about what Government plans to do with their data. Broadly the Government needs to understand and engage with the public about what data it holds and how it is used. There needs to be trust built to both improve the benefits from data and to ensure citizen privacy and rights are protected. Where government wants to use data in new ways, it needs to prosecute the case with the public and ensure there are appropriate limitations to use in place to avoid misuse of the data. Generally, where Australians can directly view the benefit of their data being used and where appropriate limitations are in place, they will probably react positively. For example, tax submission are easier now that their data auto-fills from their employers and health providers when completing Online Tax. People appreciate the concept of having to only update their details once with government.

Benefits

I agree with the benefits identified by the Productivity Commission discussion paper however I would add the following:

  • Publishing government data, if published well, enables a competitive marketplace of service and product delivery, the ability to better leverage public and academic analysis for government use and more broadly, taps into the natural motivation of the entire community to innovate, solve problems and improve life.

  • Establishing authoritative data – often government is the authoritative source of information it naturally collects as part of the function of government. When this data is not then publicly available (through anonymised APIs if necessary) then people will use whatever data they can get access to, reducing the authority of the data collected by Government

  • A data-drive approach to collecting, sharing and publishing data enables true iterative approaches to policy and services. Without data, any changes to policy are difficult to justify and impossible to track the impact, so data provides a means to support change and to identify what is working quickly. Such feedback loops enable iterative improvements to policies and programs that can respond to the changing financial and social environment the operate in.

  • Publishing information in a data driven way can dramatically streamline reporting, government processes and decision making, freeing up resources that can be used for more high value purposes.

Public Sector Data Principles

The Public Data Statement provides a good basis of principles for this agenda. Below are some principles I think are useful to highlight with a brief explanation of each.

Principles:

  • build for the future – legacy systems will always be harder to deal with so agencies need to draw a line in the sand and ensure new systems are designed with data principles, future reuse and this policy agenda in mind. Otherwise we will continue to build legacy systems into the future. Meanwhile, just because a legacy system doesn’t natively support APIs or improved access doesn’t mean you can’t affordably build middleware solutions to extract, transform, share and publish data in an automated way.

  • data first – wherever data is used to achieve an outcome, publish the data along with the outcome. This will improve public confidence in government outcomes and will also enable greater reuse of government data. For example, where graphs or analysis are published also publish the data. Where a mobile app is using data, publish the data API. Where a dashboard is set up, also provide access to the underpinning data.

  • use existing data, from the source where possible – this may involve engaging with or even paying for data from private sector or NGOs, negotiating with other jurisdictions or simply working with other government entities to gain access.

  • build reusable data infrastructure first – wherever data is part of a solution, the data should be accessible through APIs so that other outcomes and uses can be realised, even if the APIs are only used for internal access in the first instance.

  • data driven decision making to support iterative and responsive policy and implementations approaches – all decisions should be evidence based, all projects, policies and programs should have useful data indicators identified to measure and monitor the initiative and enable iterative changes backed by evidence.

  • consume your own data and APIs – agencies should consider how they can better use their own data assets and build access models for their own use that can be used publicly where possible. In consuming their own data and APIs, there is a better chance the data and APIs will be designed and maintained to support reliable reuse. This could raw or aggregate data APIs for analytics, dashboards, mobile apps, websites, publications, data visualisations or any other purpose.

  • developer empathy – if government agencies start to prioritise the needs of data users when publishing data, there is a far greater likelihood the data will be published in a way developers can use. For instance, no developer likes to use PDFs, so why would an agency publish data in a PDF (hint: there is no valid reason. PDF does not make your data more secure!).

  • standardise where beneficial but don’t allow the perfect to delay the good – often the focus on data jumps straight to standards and then multi year/decade standards initiatives are stood up which creates huge delays to accessing actual data. If data is machine readable, it can often be used and mapped to some degree which is useful, more useful than having access to nothing.

  • automate, automate, automate! – where human effort is required, tasks will always be inefficient and prone to error. Data collection, sharing and publishing should be automated where possible. For example, when data is regularly requested, agencies should automate the publishing of data and updates which both reduces the work for the agency and improves the quality for data users.

  • common platforms – where possible agencies should use existing common platforms to share and publish data. Where they need to develop new infrastructure, efforts should be made to identify where new platforms might be useful in a whole of government or multi agency context and built to be shared. This will support greater reuse of infrastructure as well as data.

  • a little less conversation a little more action – the public service needs to shift from talking about data to doing more in this space. Pilot projects, experimentation, collaboration between implementation teams and practitioners, and generally a greater focus on getting things done.

Recommendations for the Public Data agenda

Strategic

  1. Strong Recommendation: Develop a holistic vision and strategy for a data-driven APS. This could perhaps be part of a broader digital or ICT strategy, but there needs to be a clear goal that all government entities are aiming towards. Otherwise each agency will continue to do whatever they think makes sense just for them with no convergence in approach and no motivation to work together.

  2. Strong Recommendation: Develop and publish work program and roadmap with meaningful measures of progress and success regularly reported publicly on a public data agenda dashboard. NSW Government already have a public roadmap and dashboard to report progress on their open data agenda.

Whole of government data infrastructure

  1. Strong Recommendation: Grow the data.gov.au technical team to at least 5 people to grow the whole of government catalogue and cloud based data hosting infrastructure, to grow functionality in response to data publisher and data user requirements, to provide free technical support and training to agencies, and to regularly engage with data users to grow public confidence in government data. The data.gov.au experience demonstrated that even just a small motivated technical team could greatly assist agencies to start on their data publishing journey to move beyond policy hypothesising into practical implementation. This is not something that can be efficiently or effectively outsourced in my experience.

  • I note that in the latest report from PM&C, Data61 have been engaged to improve the infrastructure (which looks quite interesting) however, there still needs to be an internal technical capability to work collaboratively with Data61, to support agencies, to ensure what is delivered by contractors meets the technical needs of government, to understand and continually improve the technical needs and landscape of the APS, to contribute meaningfully to programs and initiatives by other agencies, and to ensure the policies and programs of the Public Data Branch are informed by technical realities.

  1. Recommendation: Establish/extend a data infrastructure governance/oversight group with representatives from all major data infrastructure provider agencies including the central public data team to improve alignment of agendas and approaches for a more holistic whole of government approach to all major data infrastructure projects. The group would assess new data functional requirements identified over time, would identify how to best collectively meet the changing data needs of the public sector and would ensure that major data projects apply appropriate principles and policies to enable a data driven public service. This work would also need to be aligned with the work of the Data Champions Network.

  2. Recommendation: Map out, publish and keep up to date the data infrastructure landscape to assist agencies in finding and using common platforms.

  3. Recommendation: Identify on an ongoing basis publisher needs and provide whole of government solutions where required to support data sharing and publishing (eg – data.gov.au, ABS infrastructure, NationalMap, analytics tools, github and code for automation, whole of gov arrangements for common tools where they provide cost benefits).

  4. Recommendation: Create a requirement for New Policy Proposals that any major data initiatives (particularly analytics projects) also make the data available via accessible APIs to support other uses or publishing of the data.

  5. Recommendation: Establish (or build upon existing efforts) an experimental data playground or series of playgrounds for agencies to freely experiment with data, develop skills, trial new tools and approaches to data management, sharing, publishing, analysis and reuse. There are already some sandbox environments available and these could be mapped and updated over time for agencies to easily find and engage with such initiatives.

Grow consumer confidence

  1. Strong Recommendation: Build automated data quality indicators into data.gov.au. Public quality indicators provide an easy way to identify quality data, thus reducing the time and effort required by data users to find something useful. This could also support a quality search interface, for instance data users could limit searches to “high quality government data” or choose granular options such as “select data updated this year”. See my earlier blog (from PM&C) draft of basic technical quality indicators which would be implemented quickly, giving data users a basic indication of how usable and useful data is in a consistent automated way. Additional quality indicators including domain specific quality indicators could be implemented in a second or subsequent iteration of the framework.

  2. Strong Recommendation: Establish regular public communications and engagement to improve relations with data users, improve perception of agenda and progress and identify areas of data provision to prioritise. Monthly blogging of progress, public access to the agenda roadmap and reporting on progress would all be useful. Silence is generally assumed to mean stagnation, so it is imperative for this agenda to have a strong public profile, which in part relies upon people increasingly using government data.

  3. Strong Recommendation: Establish a reasonable funding pool for agencies to apply for when establishing new data infrastructure, when trying to make existing legacy systems more data friendly, and for responding to public data requests in a timely fashion. Agencies should also be able to apply for specialist resource sharing from the central and other agencies for such projects. This will create the capacity to respond to public needs faster and develop skills across the APS.

  4. Strong Recommendation: The Australian Government undertake an intensive study to understand the concerns Australians hold relating to the use of their data and develop a new social pact with the public regarding the use and limitations of data.

  5. Recommendation: establish a 1-2 year project to support Finance in implementing the data driven recommendations from the Murray Inquiry with 2-3 dedicated technical resources working with relevant agency teams. This will result in regulatory streamlining, improved reporting and analysis across the APS, reduced cost and effort in the regular reporting requirements of government entities and greater reuse of the data generated by government reporting.

  6. Recommendation: Establish short program to focus on publishing and reporting progress on some useful high value datasets, applying the Public Data Policy Statement requirements for data publishing. The list of high value datasets could be drawn from the Data Barometer, the Murray Inquiry, existing requests from data.gov.au, and work from PM&C. The effort of determining the MOST high value data to publish has potentially got in the way of actual publishing, so it would be better to use existing analysis and prioritise some data sets but more importantly to establish data by default approach across govt for the kinds of serendipitous use of data for truly innovation outcomes.

  7. Recommendation: Citizen driven privacy – give citizens the option to share data for benefits and simplified services, and a way to access data about themselves.

Grow publisher capacity and motivation

  1. Strong Recommendation: Document the benefits for agencies to share data and create better guidance for agencies. There has been a lot of work since the reboot of data.gov.au to educate agencies on the value of publishing data. The value of specialised data sharing and analytics projects is often evident driving those kinds of projects, but traditionally there hasn’t been a lot of natural motivations for agencies to publish data, which had the unfortunate result of low levels of data publishing. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that agencies have saved time and money by publishing data publicly, which have in turn driven greater engagement and improvements in data publishing by agencies. If these examples were better documented (now that there are more resources) and if agencies were given more support in developing holistic public data strategies, we would likely see more data published by agencies.

  2. Strong Recommendation: Implement an Agency League Table to show agency performance on publishing or otherwise making government data publicly available. I believe such a league table needs to be carefully designed to include measures that will drive better behaviours in this space. I have previously mapped out a draft league table which ranks agency performance by quantity (number of data resources, weighted by type), quality (see previous note on quality metrics), efficiency (the time and/or money saved in publishing data) and value (a weighted measure of usage and reuse case studies) and would be happy to work with others in re-designing the best approach if useful.

  3. Recommendation: Establish regular internal hackfests with tools for agencies to experiment with new approaches to data collection, sharing, publishing and analysis – build on ATO lab, cloud tools, ATO research week, etc.

  4. Recommendation: Require data reporting component for New Policy Proposals and new tech projects wherein meaningful data and metrics are identified that will provide intelligence on the progress of the initiative throughout the entire process, not just at the end of the project.

  5. Recommendation: Add data principles and API driven and automated data provision to the digital service standard and APSC training.

  6. Recommendation: Require public APIs for all government data, appropriately aggregated where required, leveraging common infrastructure where possible.

  7. Recommendation: Establish a “policy difference engine” – a policy dashboard that tracks the top 10 or 20 policy objectives for the government of the day which includes meaningful metrics for each policy objective over time. This will enable the discovery of trends, the identification of whether policies are meeting their objectives, and supports an evidence based iterative approach to the policies because the difference made by any tweaks to the policy agenda will be evident.

  8. Recommendation: all publicly funded research data to be published publicly, and discoverable on central research data hub with free hosting available for research institutions. There has been a lot of work by ANDS and various research institutions to improve discovery of research data, but a large proportion is still only available behind a paywall or with an education logon. A central repository would reduce the barrier for research organisations to publicly publish their data.

  9. Recommendation: Require that major ICT and data initiatives consider cloud environments for the provision, hosting or analysis of data.

  10. Recommendation: Identify and then extend or provide commonly required spatial web services to support agencies in spatially enabling data. Currently individual agencies have to run their own spatial services but it would be much more efficient to have common spatial web services that all agencies could leverage.

Build data drive culture across APS

  1. Strong Recommendation: Embed data approaches are considered in all major government investments. For example, if data sensors were built into major infrastructure projects it would create more intelligence about how the infrastructure is used over time. If all major investments included data reporting then perhaps it would be easier to keep projects on time and budget.

  2. Recommendation: Establish a whole of government data skills program, not just for specialist skills, but to embed in the entire APS and understanding of data-driven approaches for the public service. This would ideally include mandatory data training for management (in the same way OH&S and procurement are mandatory training). At C is a draft approach that could be taken.

  3. Recommendation: Requirement that all government contracts have create new data make that data available to the contracting gov entity under Creative Commons By Attribution only licence so that government funded data is able to published publicly according to government policy. I have seen cases of contracts leaving ownership with companies and then the data not being reusable by government.

  4. Recommendation: Real data driven indicators required for all new policies, signed off by data champions group, with data for KPIs publicly available on data.gov.au for public access and to feed policy dashboards. Gov entities must identify existing data to feed KPIs where possible from gov, private sector, community and only propose new data collection where new data is clearly required.

  • Note: it was good to see a new requirement to include evidence based on data analytics for new policy proposals and to consult with the Data Champions about how data can support new proposals in the recently launched implementation report on the Public Data Management Report. However, I believe it needs to go further and require data driven indicators be identified up front and reported against throughout as per the recommendation above. Evidence to support a proposal does not necessarily provide the ongoing evidence to ensure implementation of the proposal is successful or has the intended effect, especially in a rapidly changing environment.

  1. Recommendation: Establish relationships with private sector to identify aggregate data points already used in private sector that could be leveraged by public sector rather. This would be more efficient and accurate then new data collection.

  2. Recommendation: Establish or extend a cross agency senior management data champions group with specific responsibilities to oversee the data agenda, sign off on data indicators for NPPs as realistic, provide advice to Government and Finance on data infrastructure proposals across the APS.

  3. Recommendation: Investigate the possibilities for improving or building data sharing environments for better sharing data between agencies.

  4. Recommendation: Take a distributed and federated approach to linking unit record data. Secure API access to sensitive data would avoid creating a honey pot.

  5. Recommendation: Establish data awards as part of annual ICT Awards to include: most innovative analytics, most useful data infrastructure, best data publisher, best data driven policy.

  6. Recommendation: Extend the whole of government service analytics capability started at the DTO and provide access to all agencies to tap into a whole of government view of how users interact with government services and websites. This function and intelligence, if developed as per the original vision, would provide critical evidence of user needs as well as the impact of changes and useful automated service performance metrics.

  7. Recommendation: Support data driven publishing including an XML platform for annual reports and budgets, a requirement for data underpinning all graphs and datavis in gov publications to be published on data.gov.au.

  8. Recommendation: develop a whole of government approach to unit record aggregation of sensitive data to get consistency of approach and aggregation.

Implementation recommendations

  1. Move the Public Data Branch to an implementation agency – Currently the Public Data Branch sits in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Considering this Department is a policy entity, the questions arises as to whether it is the right place in the longer term for an agenda which requires a strong implementation capability and focus. Public data infrastructure needs to be run like other whole of government infrastructure and would be better served as part of a broader online services delivery team. Possible options would include one of the shared services hubs, a data specialist agency with a whole of government mandate, or the office of the CTO (Finance) which runs a number of other whole of government services.

Downloadable copy

My personal OGPau submission

I have been fascinated and passionate about good government since I started exploring the role of government in society about 15 years ago. I decided to go work in both the political and public service arenas specifically to get a better understanding of how government and democracy works in Australia and it had been an incredible journey learning a lot, with a lot of good mentors and experiences along the way.

When I learned about the Open Government Partnership I was extremely excited about the opportunity it presented to have genuine public collaboration on the future of open government in Australia, and to collaborate with other governments on important initiatives like transparency, democracy and citizen rights. Once the government gave the go ahead, I felt privileged to be part of kicking the process off, and secure in my confidence in the team left to run the consultation as I left to be on maternity leave (returning to work in 2017). Amelia, Toby and the whole team are doing a great job, as are the various groups and individuals contributing to the consultation. I think it can be very tempting to be cynical about such things but it us so important we take the steering wheel offered, to drive this where we want to go. Otherwise it is a wasted opportunity.

So now, as a citizen who cares about this topic, and completely independently of my work, I’d like to contribute some additional ideas to the Australian OGP consultation and I encourage you all to contribute ideas too. There have already been a lot of great ideas I support, so these are just a few I think deserve a little extra attention. I’ve laid out some problems and then some actions for each problem. I’ve also got a 9 week old baby so this has been a bit tricky to write in between baby duties 🙂 I’m keen to explore these and other ideas in more detail throughout the process but these are just the high level ideas to start.

Problem 1: democratic engagement. I think it is hard for a lot of citizens to engage in the range of activities of our democracy. Voting is usually considered the extent to which the average person considers participating but there are so many ways to be involved in the decisions and actions of governments, which affect us in our every day lives! These actions are about making the business of government easier for the people served  to get involved in.

Action (theme: public participation): Establish a single place to discover all consultations, publications, policies – it is currently difficult for people to contribute meaningfully to government because it is hard to find what is going on, what has already been decided, what the priorities of the government of the day are, and what research has been conducted to date.

Action: (theme: public participation): Establish a participatory budget approach. Each year there should be a way for the public to give ideas and feedback to the budget process, to help identify community priorities and potential savings.

Action: (theme: public participation): Establish a regular Community Estimates session. Senate Estimates is a way for the Senate to hold the government and departments to account however, often the politics of the individuals involved dominates the approach. What if we implemented an opportunity for the public to do the same? There would need to be a rigorous way to collect and prioritise questions from the public that was fair and representative, but it could be an excellent way to provide greater accountability which is not (or should not be) politicised.

Problem 2: analogue government. Because so much of the reporting, information, decisions and outcomes of government are published (or not published) in an analogue format (not digital or machine readable), it is very hard to discover and analyse, and thus very hard to monitor. If government was more digitally accessible, more mashable, then it would be easier to monitor the work of government.

Action: (theme: open data) XML feeds for all parliamentary data including Hansard, comlaw, annual reports, pbs’, MP expenses and declaration of interests in data form with notifications of changes. This would make this important democratic content more accessible, easier to analyse and easier to monitor.

Action: (theme: open data) Publishing of all the federal budget information in data format on budget night, including the tables throughout the budget papers, the data from the Portfolio Budget Statements (PBSs) and anything else of relevance. This would make analysing the budget easier. There have been some efforts in this space but it has not been fully implemented.

Action: (Freedom of Information): Adoption of rightoknow platform for whole of gov with central FOI register and publications, and a central FOI team to work across all departments consistently for responding to requests. Currently doing an FOI request can be tricky to figure out (unless you can find community initiatives like righttoknow which has automated the process externally) and the approach to FOI requests varies quite dramatically across departments. A single official way to submit requests, track them, and see reports published, as well as a single mechanism to respond to requests would be better for the citizen experience and far more efficient for government.

Action: (theme: government integrity): Retrospective open calendars of all Parliamentarians business calendars. Constituents deserve to know how their representatives are using their time and, in particular, who they are meeting with. This helps improve transparency around potential influencers of public policy, and helps encourage Parliamentarians to consider how they spend their time in office.

Problem 3: limits for reporting transparency. A lot of the rules about reporting of expenditure in Australia are better than most other countries in the world however, we can do better. We could lower the thresholds for reporting expenditure for instance, and others have covered expanding the reporting around political donations so I’ll stick to what I know and consider useful from direct experience.

Action: (theme: fiscal transparency): Regular publishing of government expenditure records down to $1000. Currently federal government contracts over $10k are reported in Australia through the AusTender website and ondata.gov.au however, there are a lot of expenses below $10k that arguably would be useful to know. In the UK they introduced expenditure reporting per department monthly at https://data.gov.uk/data/openspending-report/index

Action: (theme: fiscal transparency): A public register of all gov funded major projects (all types) along with status, project manager and regular reporting. This would make it easier to track major projects and to intervene when they are not delivering.

Action: (theme: fiscal transparency): Update of PBS and Annual Report templates for comparative budget and program information with common key performance indicators and reporting for programs and departmental functions. Right now agencies do their reporting in PDF documents that provide no easy way to compare outcomes, programs, expenditure, etc. If common XML templates were used for common reports, comparative assessment would be easier and information about government as a whole much more available for assessment.

Problem 4: stovepipe and siloed government impedes citizen centric service delivery. Right now each agency is motivated to deliver their specific mandate with a limited (and ever restricted) budget and so we end up with systems (human, technology, etc) for service delivery that are siloed from other systems and departments. If departments took a more modular approach, it would be more possible to mash up government data, content and services for dramatically improved service delivery across government, and indeed across different jurisdictions.

Action: (theme: public service delivery): Mandated open Application Programmable Interfaces (APIs) for all citizen and business facing services delivered or commissioned by government, to comply to appropriately defined standards and security. This would enable different data, content and services to be mashed up by agencies for better service delivery, but also enables an ecosystem of service delivery beyond government.

Action: (theme: government integrity): a consistent reporting approach and public access to details of outsourced contract work with greater consistency of confidentiality rules in procurement. A lot of work is outsourced by government to third parties. This can be a good way to deliver some things (and there are many arguments as to how much outsourcing is too much) however, it introduces a serious transparency issue when the information about contracted work is unable to be monitored, with the excuse of “commercial in confidence”. All contracts should have minimum reporting requirements and should make publicly available the details of what exactly is contracted, with the exception of contracts with national security where such disclosure creates a significant risk. This would also help in creating a motivation for contractors to deliver on their contractual obligations. Finally, if procurement officers across government had enhanced training to correctly apply the existing confidentiality test from the Commonwealth Procurement Rules, it would be reasonably to expect that there would be less information hidden behind commercial in confidence.

I also wholeheartedly support the recommendations of the Independent Parliamentary Entitlements System Report (https://www.dpmc.gov.au/taskforces/review-parliamentary-entitlements), in particular:

  • Recommendation 24: publish all key documents online;
  • Recommendation 25: more frequent reporting (of work expenses of parliamentarians and their staff) on data.gov.au as a dataset;
  • Recommendation 26: improved travel reporting by Parliamentarians.

I hope this feedback is useful and I look forward to participating in the rest of the consultation. I’m adding the ideas to the ogpau wiki and look forward to feedback and discussion. Just to be crystal clear, these are my own thoughts, based on my own passion and experience, and is not in any way representative of my employer or the government. I have nothing to do with the running of the consultation now and expect my ideas to hold no more weight than the ideas of any other contributor.

Good luck everyone, let’s do this 🙂

Finding the natural motivation for change

Update: I added a section on how competition can be motivating 🙂

I’ve had a lot of people and ideas in my life that have been useful to me so I wanted to share a theory I have applied in my work that might be useful to others. The concept of finding the ‘natural motivation’ of players involved is a key component when I’m planning any type of systemic change. This isn’t a particularly unique or new idea, but I am constantly surprised how rarely I see it adopted in practice, and how often things fail by not taking it into consideration. It is critical if you want to take a new idea from the domain of evangelists and into ‘business as usual’ because if you can’t embed something into the normal way people act and think, then whatever you are trying to do will be done reluctantly and at best, tacked on to normal processes as an afterthought.

In recent years I’ve been doing a lot of work to try to change systems, thinking and culture around open government, technology in government and open data, with some success. This is in part because I purposefully take an approach that tries to identify and tap into the natural motivation of all players involved. This means understanding how what I’m trying to do could benefit the very people who need to change their behaviours, and helping them want to do something new of their own volition. Why does this matter? If I asked you to spend an extra couple of hours a week at work, for no extra pay, doing something you don’t understand that seems completely unrelated to your job or life, you’d tell me to sod off. And understandably so! And yet we expect people and behaviours to simply comply if we change the rules. If I talked to you about how a new way of doing something would save you time, get a better outcome, save money or made life better in any way, you would be more interested. Then it simply becomes a matter of whether the effort is worth the benefit.

Die hard policy wonks will argue that you can always punish non compliance or create incentives if you are serious enough about the change you want to make. I would argue that you can force certain behaviour changes through punishment or reward, but if people aren’t naturally motivated to make the behaviour change themselves then the change will be both unsustainable and minimally implemented.

I’m going to use open data in government as my example of this in practice. Now I can hear a lot of people saying “well public servants should do open data by default because it is good for the community!” but remember the question above. In the first instance, if I’m asking someone to publish data without understanding why, they will see it as just extra work for no benefit – merely a compliance activity that gets in the way of their real work. People ask the understandable question of why would anyone want to divert resources and money into open data when it could be used to do something ‘real’ like build a road, deliver a better service, pay a salary, etc? Every day public servants are being asked to do more with less, so open data appears at first glance like a low priority. If the community and economy were to benefit from open data, then we had to figure out how to create a systemic change in government to publish open data naturally, or it would never scale or be sustainable.

When I took over data.gov.au, there was a reasonable number of datasets published but they weren’t being updated and nothing new was being added. It was a good first attempt, but open data had not really been normalised in agencies, so data publishing was sparodic. I quickly realised if open data was just seen as a policy and compliance issue, then this would never really change and we would hit a scaling issue of how much we could do ourselves. Through research, experimenting and experience, we did find that open data can help agencies be more effective, more efficient and more able to support an ecosystem of information and service delivery rather than all the pressure being on agencies to do everything. This was a relief because if there was no benefit to the public service itself, then realistically open data would always be prioritised lower than other activities, regardless of the political or policy whims of the few.

So we started working with agencies on the basis that although open data was the policy position that agencies were expected to adopt, there were real benefits to agencies if they adopted an open data approach. We would start an agency on the open data journey by helping them identify datasets that save them time and money, looking at resource intensive requests for data they regularly get and how to automate the publishing of that data. This then frees up resources of which a proportion can often be justified to start a small open data team. Whatever the agency motivations, there is always an opportunity for open data to support that goal if integrated properly. We focused on automation, building open data into existing processes (rather than creating a new process), supporting and promoting public reuse of data (GovHack was particularly helpful for this), identifying community priority datasets, raising public confidence in using government open data and removing barriers for publishing data. We knew centralised publishing would never scale, so we focused our efforts on a distributed publishing model where the central data.gov.au team provided technical support and a free platform for publishing data, but agencies did their own publishing with our help. Again this meant we had to help agencies understand how useful open data was to them so they could justify putting resources towards their own data publishing capacity. We knew agencies would need to report on their own success and progress with open data, so we also ensured they could access their own data utilisation analytics, which is also publicly available for a little extra motivation.

We collected examples from agecnies on the benefits to help inform and encourage other agencies, and found the key agency benefits of open data were broadly:

  1. Efficiency – proactively publishing data that is commonly asked for in an automated way frees up resources.
  2. Innovation – once data is published, so long as it is published well and kept up to date, other people and organisations will use the data to create new information, analysis and services. This innovation can be adopted by the agency, but it also takes the pressure off the agency to deliver all things to all people, by enabling others to scratch their own itch.
  3. Improved services – by publishing data in a programmatically accessible way, agencies found cheaper and more modular service delivery was possible through reusable data sources. Open data is often the first step for agencies on the path to more modular and API driven way of doing things (which the private sector embraced a decade ago). I believe if we could get government data, content and services API enabled by default, we would see dramatically cheaper and better services across all governments, with the opportunity for a public ecosystem of cross jurisdictional service and information delivery to emerge.

To extend the natural motivation consideration further, we realised that unless data was published in a way that people in the community could actually find and use, then all the publishing in the world would not help. We had to ensure the way data was publishing supported the natural motivation of people who want to use data, and this would in turn create a feedback loop to encourage greater publishing of data. We adopted a “civic hacker empathy” approach (with credit to Chris Gough for the concept) so that we always put ourselves in the shoes of those wanting to use data to prioritise how to publish it, and to inform and support agencies to publish data in a way that could be easily consumed. This meant agencies starting on the open data journey were not only encouraged to adopt good technical practices from day 1, but were clearly educated on the fact they wouldn’t yield the benefits from open data without publishing data well.

I should also mention that motivation doesn’t need to always come from within the individual person or the organisation. Sometimes motivation can come from a little healthy competition! I have had people in agencies utterly uninterested in open data that I’ve decided to not push (why spend effort on a closed door when there are partially open or open doors available!) who have become interested when other agencies have had some success. Don’t underestimate the power of public successes! Be as loud as you can about successes you have as this will build interest and demand, and help bring more people on your journey.

So to wrap up, I’ve been amazed how many people I meet, particularly in the federal government, who think they can change behaviour by simply having a policy, or law, or a financial incentive. The fact is, people will generally only do something because they want to, and this applies as much in the work place as anywhere else. If you try to force people to do something that they don’t want to, they will find myriad ways to avoid it or do the bare minimum they have to, which will never yield the best results. Every single barrier to open data we came across woud magically disappear if the agency and people involved were naturally morivated to do open data.

If you want to make real change, I encourage you to take an empathetic approach, think about all the players in the system, and how to ensure they are naturally motivated to change. I always tell the data.gov.au team that we always need to ensure the path of technical integrity is the path of least resistance, because this ensures an approach which is good for both the data publishers and data consumers. It goes without saying that a change is easiest to encourage when it has integrity and provides genuine benefits. In the case of open data, we simply needed to help others come on the journey for the idea to flourish. I’m proud to say the data.gov.au team have managed to dramatically increase the amount of open data available in Australia as well as support a rapidly growing capacity and appetite for open data throughout the public service. Huge kudos to the team! With the data.gov.au team now moved to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and merged with the spatial data branch from the Department of Communications, we have a stronger than ever central team to continue the journey.

Note: I should say I’m currently on maternity leave till the end of 2016, hence the time to publish some of these ideas. They are my own thoughts and not representative of any one else. I hope they are useful 🙂

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.

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 🙂

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

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

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

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

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

Democracy and equality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great expectations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With great power…

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

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

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

Disrupting the status quo

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

References

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

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

Uzgalis, William, “John Locke”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2012/entries/locke/.

See additional useful references linked throughout essay.