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Sadly leaving the NSW Government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Choose Your Own Adventure gov20 Government society5 Tech

Lessons from Canada and France: FWD50 2018 and SIIViM

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

My contributions

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

Insights from Canada

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

I spoke to the Canadian School of Public Service:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Insights from France

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

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

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

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

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

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

Useful links:

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gov20 Government society5 Tech

Exploring change and how to scale it

Over the past decade I have been involved in several efforts trying to make governments better. A key challenge I repeatedly see is people trying to change things without an idea of what they are trying to change to, trying to fix individual problems (a deficit view) rather than recognising and fixing the systems that created the problems in the first place. So you end up getting a lot of symptomatic relief and iterative improvements of antiquated paradigms without necessarily getting transformation of the systems that generated the problems. A lot of the effort is put into applying traditional models of working which often result in the same old results, so we also need to consider new ways to work, not just what needs to be done.

With life getting faster and (arguably) exponentially more complicated, we need to take a whole of system view if we are to improve ‘the system’ for people. People sometimes balk when I say this thinking it too hard, too big or too embedded. But we made this, we can remake it, and if it isn’t working for us, we need to adapt like we always have.

I also see a lot of slogans used without the nuanced discussion they invite. Such (often ideological) assumptions can subtly play out without evidence, discussion or agreement on common purpose. For instance, whenever people say smaller or bigger government I try to ask what they think the role of government is, to have a discussion. Size is assumed to correlate to services, productivity, or waste depending on your view, but shouldn’t we talk about what the public service should do, and then the size is whatever is appropriate to do what is needed? People don’t talk about a bigger or smaller jacket or shoes, they get the right one for their needs and the size can change over time as the need changes. Indeed, perhaps the public service of the future could be a dramatically different workforce comprised of a smaller group of professional public servants complimented with and a large demographically representative group of part time citizens doing their self nominated and paid “civic duty year of service” as a form of participatory democracy, which would bring new skills and perspectives into governance, policy and programs.

We need urgently to think about the big picture, to collectively talk about the 50 or 100 year view for society, and only then can we confidently plan and transform the structures, roles, programs and approaches around us. This doesn’t mean we have to all agree to all things, but we do need to identify the common scaffolding upon which we can all build.

This blog posts challenges you to think systemically, critically and practically about five things:

    • What future do you want? Not what could be a bit better, or what the next few years might hold, or how that shiny new toy you have could solve the world’s problems (policy innovation, data, blockchain, genomics or any tool or method). What is the future you want to work towards, and what does good look like? Forget about your particular passion or area of interest for a moment. What does your better life look like for all people, not just people like you?
    • What do we need to get there? What concepts, cultural values, paradigm, assumptions should we take with us and what should we leave behind? What new tools do we need and how do we collectively design where we are going?
    • What is the role of gov, academia, other sectors and people in that future? If we could create a better collective understanding of our roles in society and some of the future ideals we are heading towards, then we would see a natural convergence of effort, goals and strategy across the community.
    • What will you do today? Seriously. Are you differentiating between symptomatic relief and causal factors? Are you perpetuating the status quo or challenging it? Are you being critically aware of your bias, of the system around you, of the people affected by your work? Are you reaching out to collaborate with others outside your team, outside your organisation and outside your comfort zone? Are you finding natural partners in what you are doing, and are you differentiating between activities worthy of collaboration versus activities only of value to you (the former being ripe for collaboration and the latter less so).
    • How do we scale change? I believe we need to consider how to best scale “innovation” and “transformation”. Scaling innovation is about scaling how we do things differently, such as the ability to take a more agile, experimental, evidence based, creative and collaborative approach to the design, delivery and continuous improvement of stuff, be it policy, legislation or services. Scaling transformation is about how we create systemic and structural change that naturally drives and motivates better societal outcomes. Each without the other is not sustainable or practical.

How to scale innovation and transformation?

I’ll focus the rest of this post on the question of scaling. I wrote this in the context of scaling innovation and transformation in government, but it applies to any large system. I also believe that empowering people is the greatest way to scale anything.

  • I’ll firstly say that openness is key to scaling everything. It is how we influence the system, how we inspire and enable people to individually engage with and take responsibility for better outcomes and innovate at a grassroots level. It is how we ensure our work is evidence based, better informed and better tested, through public peer review. Being open not only influences the entire public service, but the rest of the economy and society. It is how we build trust, improve collaboration, send indicators to vendors and influence academics. Working openly, open sourcing our research and code, being public about projects that would benefit from collaboration, and sharing most of what we do (because most of the work of the public service is not secretive by any stretch) is one of the greatest tools in try to scale our work, our influence and our impact. Openness is also the best way to ensure both a better supply chain as well as a better demand for things that are demonstrable better.

A quick side note to those who argue that transparency isn’t an answer because all people don’t have to tools to understand data/information/etc to hold others accountable, it doesn’t mean you don’t do transparency at all. There will always be groups or people naturally motivated to hold you to account, whether it is your competitors, clients, the media, citizens or even your own staff. Transparency is partly about accountability and partly about reinforcing a natural motivation to do the right thing.

Scaling innovation – some ideas:

  • The necessity of neutral, safe, well resourced and collaborative sandpits is critical for agencies to quickly test and experiment outside the limitations of their agencies (technical, structural, political, functional and procurement). Such places should be engaged with the sectors around them. Neutral spaces that take a systems view also start to normalise a systems view across agencies in their other work, which has huge ramifications for transformation as well as innovation.
  • Seeking and sharing – sharing knowledge, reusable systems/code, research, infrastructure and basically making it easier for people to build on the shoulders of each other rather than every single team starting from scratch every single time. We already have some communities of practice but we need to prioritise sharing things people can actually use and apply in their work. We also need to extend this approach across sectors to raise all boats. Imagine if there was a broad commons across all society to share and benefit from each others efforts. We’ve seen the success and benefits of Open Source Software, of Wikipedia, of the Data Commons project in New Zealand, and yet we keep building sector or organisational silos for things that could be public assets for public good.
  • Require user research in budget bids – this would require agencies to do user research before bidding for money, which would create an incentive to build things people actually need which would drive both a user centred approach to programs and would also drive innovation as necessary to shift from current practices 🙂 Treasury would require user research experts and a user research hub to contrast and compare over time.
  • Staff mobility – people should be supported to move around departments and business units to get different experiences and to share and learn. Not everyone will want to, but when people stay in the same job for 20 years, it can be harder to engage in new thinking. Exchange programs are good but again, if the outcomes and lessons are not broadly shared, then they are linear in impact (individuals) rather than scalable (beyond the individuals).
  • Support operational leadership – not everyone wants to be a leader, disruptor, maker, innovator or intrapreneur. We need to have a program to support such people in the context of operational leadership that isn’t reliant upon their managers putting them forward or approving. Even just recognising leadership as something that doesn’t happen exclusively in senior management would be a huge cultural shift. Many managers will naturally want to keep great people to themselves which can become stifling and eventually we lose them. When people can work on meaningful great stuff, they stay in the public service.
  • A public ‘Innovation Hub’ – if we had a simple public platform for people to register projects that they want to collaborate on, from any sector, we could stimulate and support innovation across the public sector (things for which collaboration could help would be surfaced, publicly visible, and inviting of others to engage in) so it would support and encourage innovation across government, but also provides a good pipeline for investment as well as a way to stimulate and support real collaboration across sectors, which is substantially lacking at the moment.
  • Emerging tech and big vision guidance – we need a team, I suggest cross agency and cross sector, of operational people who keep their fingers on the pulse of technology to create ongoing guidance for New Zealand on emerging technologies, trends and ideas that anyone can draw from. For government, this would help agencies engage constructively with new opportunities rather than no one ever having time or motivation until emerging technologies come crashing down as urgent change programs. This could be captured on a constantly updating toolkit with distributed authorship to keep it real.

Scaling transformation – some ideas:

  • Convergence of effort across sectors – right now in many countries every organisation and to a lesser degree, many sectors, are diverging on their purpose and efforts because there is no shared vision to converge on. We have myriad strategies, papers, guidance, but no overarching vision. If there were an overarching vision for New Zealand Aotearoa for instance, co-developed with all sectors and the community, one that looks at what sort of society we want into the future and what role different entities have in achieving that ends, then we would have the possibility of natural convergence on effort and strategy.
    • Obviously when you have a cohesive vision, then you can align all your organisational and other strategies to that vision, so our (government) guidance and practices would need to align over time. For the public sector the Digital Service Standard would be a critical thing to get right, as is how we implement the Higher Living Standards Framework, both of which would drive some significant transformation in culture, behaviours, incentives and approaches across government.
  • Funding “Digital Public Infrastructure” – technology is currently funded as projects with start and end dates, and almost all tech projects across government are bespoke to particular agency requirements or motivations, so we build loads of technologies but very little infrastructure that others can rely upon. If we took all the models we have for funding other forms of public infrastructure (roads, health, education) and saw some types of digital infrastructure as public infrastructure, perhaps they could be built and funded in ways that are more beneficial to the entire economy (and society).
  • Agile budgeting – we need to fund small experiments that inform business cases, rather than starting with big business cases. Ideally we need to not have multi 100 million dollar projects at all because technology projects simply don’t cost that anymore, and anyone saying otherwise is trying to sell you something 🙂 If we collectively took an agile budgeting process, it would create a systemic impact on motivations, on design and development, or implementation, on procurement, on myriad things. It would also put more responsibility on agencies for the outcomes of their work in short, sharp cycles, and would create the possibility of pivoting early to avoid throwing bad money after good (as it were). This is key, as no transformative project truly survives the current budgeting model.
  • Gov as a platform/API/enabler (closely related to DPI above) – obviously making all government data, content, business rules (inc but not just legislation) and transactional systems available as APIs for building upon across the economy is key. This is how we scale transformation across the public sector because agencies are naturally motivated to deliver what they need to cheaper, faster and better, so when there are genuinely useful reusable components, agencies will reuse them. Agencies are now more naturally motivated to take an API driven modular architecture which creates the bedrock for government as an API. Digital legislation (which is necessary for service delivery to be integrated across agency boundaries) would also create huge transformation in regulatory and compliance transformation, as well as for government automation and AI.
  • Exchange programs across sectors – to share knowledge but all done openly so as to not create perverse incentives or commercial capture. We need to also consider the fact that large companies can often afford to jump through hoops and provide spare capacity, but small to medium sized companies cannot, so we’d need a pool for funding exchange programs with experts in the large proportion of industry.
  • All of system service delivery evidence base – what you measure drives how you behave. Agencies are motivated to do only what they need to within their mandates and have very few all of system motivations. If we have an all of government anonymised evidence base of user research, service analytics and other service delivery indicators, it would create an accountability to all of system which would drive all of system behaviours. In New Zealand we already have the IDI (an awesome statistical evidence base) but what other evidence do we need? Shared user research, deidentified service analytics, reporting from major projects, etc. And how do we make that evidence more publicly transparent (where possible) and available beyond the walls of government to be used by other sectors?  More broadly, having an all of government evidence base beyond services would help ensure a greater evidence based approach to investment, strategic planning and behaviours.
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Choose Your Own Adventure gov20 Government society5 Tech

An optimistic future

This is my personal vision for an event called “Optimistic Futures” to explore what we could be aiming for and figure out the possible roles for government in future.

Technology is both an enabler and a disruptor in our lives. It has ushered in an age of surplus, with decentralised systems enabled by highly empowered global citizens, all creating increasing complexity. It is imperative that we transition into a more open, collaborative, resilient and digitally enabled society that can respond exponentially to exponential change whilst empowering all our people to thrive. We have the means now by which to overcome our greatest challenges including poverty, hunger, inequity and shifting job markets but we must be bold in collectively designing a better future, otherwise we may unintentionally reinvent past paradigms and inequities with shiny new things.

Technology is only as useful as it affects actual people, so my vision starts, perhaps surprisingly for some, with people. After all, if people suffer, the system suffers, so the well being of people is the first and foremost priority for any sustainable vision. But we also need to look at what all sectors and communities across society need and what part they can play:

  • People: I dream of a future where the uniqueness of local communities, cultures and individuals is amplified, where diversity is embraced as a strength, and where all people are empowered with the skills, capacity and confidence to thrive locally and internationally. A future where everyone shares in the benefits and opportunities of a modern, digital and surplus society/economy with resilience, and where everyone can meaningfully contribute to the future of work, local communities and the national/global good.
  • Public sectors: I dream of strong, independent, bold and highly accountable public sectors that lead, inform, collaborate, engage meaningfully and are effective enablers for society and the economy. A future where we invest as much time and effort on transformational digital public infrastructure and skills as we do on other public infrastructure like roads, health and traditional education, so that we can all build on top of government as a platform. Where everyone can have confidence in government as a stabilising force of integrity that provides a minimum quality of life upon which everyone can thrive.
  • The media: I dream of a highly effective fourth estate which is motivated systemically with resilient business models that incentivise behaviours to both serve the public and hold power to account, especially as “news” is also arguably becoming exponential. Actionable accountability that doesn’t rely on the linearity and personal incentives of individuals to respond will be critical with the changing pace of news and with more decisions being made by machines.
  • Private, academic and non-profit sectors: I dream of a future where all sectors can more freely innovate, share, adapt and succeed whilst contributing meaningfully to the public good and being accountable to the communities affected by decisions and actions. I also see a role for academic institutions in particular, given their systemic motivation for high veracity outcomes without being attached to one side, as playing a role in how national/government actions are measured, planned, tested and monitored over time.
  • Finally, I dream of a world where countries are not celebrated for being just “digital nations” but rather are engaged in a race to the top in using technology to improve the lives of all people and to establish truly collaborative democracies where people can meaningfully participate in the shaping the optimistic and inclusive futures.

Technology is a means, not an ends, so we need to use technology to both proactively invent the future we need (thank you Alan Kay) and to be resilient to change including emerging tech and trends.

Let me share a few specific optimistic predictions for 2070:

  • Automation will help us redesign our work expectations. We will have a 10-20 hour work week supported by machines, freeing up time for family, education, civic duties and innovation. People will have less pressure to simply survive and will have more capacity to thrive (this is a common theme, but something I see as critical).
  • 3D printing of synthetic foods and nanotechnology to deconstruct and reconstruct molecular materials will address hunger, access to medicine, clothes and goods, and community hubs (like libraries) will become even more important as distribution, education and social hubs, with drones and other aerial travel employed for those who can’t travel. Exoskeletons will replace scooters 🙂
  • With rocket travel normalised, and only an hour to get anywhere on the planet, nations will see competitive citizenships where countries focus on the best quality of life to attract and retain people, rather than largely just trying to attract and retain companies as we do today. We will also likely see the emergence of more powerful transnational communities that have nationhood status to represent the aspects of people’s lives that are not geopolitically bound.
  • The public service has highly professional, empathetic and accountable multi-disciplinary experts on responsive collaborative policy, digital legislation, societal modeling, identifying necessary public digital infrastructure for investment, and well controlled but openly available data, rules and transactional functions of government to enable dynamic and third party services across myriad channels, provided to people based on their needs but under their control. We will also have a large number of citizens working 1 or 2 days a week in paid civic duties on areas where they have passion, skills or experience to contribute.
  • The paralympics will become the main game, as it were, with no limits on human augmentation. We will do the 100m sprint with rockets, judo with cyborgs, rock climbing with tentacles. We have access to medical capabilities to address any form of disease or discomfort but we don’t use the technologies to just comply to a normative view of a human. People are free to choose their form and we culturally value diversity and experimentation as critical attributes of a modern adaptable community.

I’ve only been living in New Zealand a short time but I’ve been delighted and inspired by what I’ve learned from kiwi and Māori cultures, so I’d like to share a locally inspired analogy.

Technology is on one hand, just a waka (canoe), a vehicle for change. We all have a part to play in the journey and in deciding where we want to go. On the other hand, technology is also the winds, the storms, the thunder, and we have to continually work to understand and respond to emerging technologies and trends so we stay safely on course. It will take collaboration and working towards common goals if we are to chart a better future for all.

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Choose Your Own Adventure gov20 Government society5 Tech

Pivoting ‘the book’ from individuals to systems

In 2016 I started writing a book, “Choose Your Own Adventure“, which I wanted to be a call to action for individuals to consider their role in the broader system and how they individually can make choices to make things better. As I progressed the writing of that book I realised the futility of changing individual behaviours and perspectives without an eye to the systems and structures within which we live. It is relatively easy to focus on oneself, but “no man is an island” and quite simply, I don’t want to facilitate people turning themselves into more beautiful cogs in a dysfunctional machine so I’m pivoting the focus of the book (and reusing the relevant material) and am now planning to finish the book by mid 2018.

I have recently realised four paradoxes which have instilled in me a sense of urgency to reimagine the world as we know it. I believe we are at a fork in the road where we will either reinforce legacy systems based on outdated paradigms with shiny new things, or choose to forge a new path using the new tools and opportunities at our disposal, hopefully one that is genuinely better for everyone. To do the latter, we need to critically assess the systems and structures we built and actively choose what we want to keep, what we should discard, what sort of society we want in the future and what we need to get there.

I think it is too easily forgotten that we invented all this and can therefore reinvent it if we so choose. But to not make a choice is to choose the status quo.

This is not to say I think everything needs to change. Nothing is so simplistic or misleading as a zero sum argument. Rather, the intent of this book is to challenge you to think critically about the systems you work within, whether they enable or disable the things you think are important, and most importantly, to challenge you to imagine what sort of world you want to see. Not just for you, but for your family, community and the broader society. I challenge you all to make 2018 a year of formative creativity in reimagining the world we live in and how we get there.

The paradoxes in brief, are as follows:

  • That though power is more distributed than ever, most people are still struggling to survive.
    It has been apparent to me for some time that there is a growing substantial shift in power from traditional gatekeepers to ordinary people through the proliferation of rights based philosophies and widespread access to technology and information. But the systemic (and artificial) limitations on most people’s time and resources means most people simply cannot participate fully in improving their own lives let alone in contributing substantially to the community and world in which they live. If we consider the impact of business and organisational models built on scarcity, centricity and secrecy, we quickly see that normal people are locked out of a variety of resources, tools and knowledge with which they could better their lives. Why do we take publicly funded education, research and journalism and lock them behind paywalls and then blame people for not having the skills, knowledge or facts at their disposal? Why do we teach children to be compliant consumers rather than empowered makers? Why do we put the greatest cognitive load on our most vulnerable through social welfare systems that then beget reliance? Why do we not put value on personal confidence in the same way we value business confidence, when personal confidence indicates the capacity for individuals to contribute to their community? Why do we still assume value to equate quantity rather than quality, like the number of hours worked rather than what was done in those hours? If a substantial challenge of the 21st century is having enough time and cognitive load to spare, why don’t we have strategies to free up more time for more people, perhaps by working less hours for more return? Finally, what do we need to do systemically to empower more people to move beyond survival and into being able to thrive.
  • Substantial paradigm shifts have happened but are not being integrated into people’s thinking and processes.
    The realisation here is that even if people are motivated to understand something fundamentally new to their worldview, it doesn’t necessarily translate into how they behave. It is easier to improve something than change it. Easier to provide symptomatic relief than to cure the disease. Interestingly I often see people confuse iteration for transformation, or symptomatic relief with addressing causal factors, so perhaps there is also a need for critical and systems thinking as part of the general curriculum. This is important because symptomatic relief, whilst sometimes necessary to alleviate suffering, is an effort in chasing one’s tail and can often perpetrate the problem. For instance, where providing foreign aid without mitigating displacement of local farmer’s efforts can create national dependence on further aid. Efforts to address causal factors is necessary to truly address a problem. Even if addressing the causal problem is outside your influence, then you should at least ensure your symptomatic relief efforts are not built to propagate the problem. One of the other problems we face, particularly in government, is that the systems involved are largely products of centuries old thinking. If we consider some of the paradigm shifts of our times, we have moved from scarcity to surplus, centralised to distributed, from closed to openness, analog to digital and normative to formative. And yet, people still assume old paradigms in creating new policies, programs and business models. For example how many times have you heard someone talk about innovative public engagement (tapping into a distributed network of expertise) by consulting through a website (maintaining central decision making control using a centrally controlled tool)? Or “innovation” being measured (and rewarded) through patents or copyright, both scarcity based constructs developed centuries ago? “Open government” is often developed by small insular teams through habitually closed processes without any self awareness of the irony of the approach. And new policy and legislation is developed in analog formats without any substantial input from those tasked with implementation or consideration with how best to consume the operating rules of government in the systems of society. Consider also the number of times we see existing systems assumed to be correct by merit of existing, without any critical analysis. For instance, a compliance model that has no measurable impact. At what point and by what mechanisms can we weigh up the merits of the old and the new when we are continually building upon a precedent based system of decision making? If 3D printing helped provide a surplus economy by which we could help solve hunger and poverty, why wouldn’t that be weighed up against the benefits of traditional scarcity based business models?
  • That we are surrounded by new things every day and yet there is a serious lack of vision for the future
    One of the first things I try to do in any organisation is understand the vision, the strategy and what success should look like. In this way I can either figure out how to best contribute meaningfully to the overarching goal, and in some cases help grow or develop the vision and strategy to be a little more ambitious. I like to measure progress and understand the baseline from which I’m trying to improve but I also like to know what I’m aiming for. So, what could an optimistic future look like for society? For us? For you? How do you want to use the new means at our disposal to make life better for your community? Do we dare imagine a future where everyone has what they need to thrive, where we could unlock the creative and intellectual potential of our entire society, a 21st century Renaissance, rather than the vast proportion of our collective cognitive capacity going into just getting food on the table and the kids to school. Only once you can imagine where you want to be can we have a constructive discussion where we want to be collectively, and only then can we talk constructively the systems and structures we need to support such futures. Until then, we are all just tweaking the settings of a machine built by our ancestors. I have been surprised to find in government a lot of strategies without vision, a lot of KPIs without measures of success, and in many cases a disconnect between what a person is doing and the vision or goals of the organisation or program they are in. We talk “innovation” a lot, but often in the back of people’s minds they are often imagining a better website or app, which isn’t much of a transformation. We are surrounded by dystopic visions of the distant future, and yet most government vision statements only go so far as articulating something “better” that what we have now, with “strategies” often focused on shopping lists of disconnected tactics 3-5 years into the future. The New Zealand Department of Conservation provides an inspiring contrast with a 50 year vision they work towards, from which they develop their shorter term stretch goals and strategies on a rolling basis and have an ongoing measurable approach.
  • That government is an important part of a stable society and yet is being increasingly undermined, both intentionally and unintentionally.
    The realisation here has been in first realising how important government (and democracy) is in providing a safe, stable, accountable, predictable and prosperous society whilst simultaneously observing first hand the undermining and degradation of the role of government both intentionally and unintentionally, from the outside and inside. I have chosen to work in the private sector, non-profit community sector, political sector and now public sector, specifically because I wanted to understand the “system” in which I live and how it all fits together. I believe that “government” – both the political and public sectors – has a critical part to play in designing, leading and implementing a better future. The reason I believe this, is because government is one of the few mechanisms that is accountable to the people, in democratic countries at any rate. Perhaps not as much as we like and it has been slow to adapt to modern practices, tools and expectations, but governments are one of the most powerful and influential tools at our disposal and we can better use them as such. However, I posit that an internal, largely unintentional and ongoing degradation of the public sectors is underway in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and other “western democracies”, spurred initially by an ideological shift from ‘serving the public good’ to acting more like a business in the “New Public Management” policy shift of the 1980s. This was useful double speak for replacing public service values with business values and practices which ignores the fact that governments often do what is not naturally delivered by the marketplace and should not be only doing what is profitable. The political appointment of heads of departments has also resulted over time in replacing frank, fearless and evidence based leadership with politically palatable compromises throughout the senior executive layer of the public sector, which also drives necessarily secretive behaviour, else the contradictions be apparent to the ordinary person. I see the results of these internal forms of degradations almost every day. From workshops where people under budget constraints seriously consider outsourcing all government services to the private sector, to long suffering experts in the public sector unable to sway leadership with facts until expensive consultants are brought in to ask their opinion and sell the insights back to the department where it is finally taken seriously (because “industry” said it), through to serious issues where significant failures happen with blame outsourced along with the risk, design and implementation, with the details hidden behind “commercial in confidence” arrangements. The impact on the effectiveness of the public sector is obvious, but the human cost is also substantial, with public servants directly undermined, intimidated, ignored and a growing sense of hopelessness and disillusionment. There is also an intentional degradation of democracy by external (but occasionally internal) agents who benefit from the weakening and limiting of government. This is more overt in some countries than others. A tension between the regulator and those regulated is a perfectly natural thing however, as the public sector grows weaker the corporate interests gain the upper hand. I have seen many people in government take a vendor or lobbyist word as gold without critical analysis of the motivations or implications, largely again due to the word of a public servant being inherently assumed to be less important than that of anyone in the private sector (or indeed anyone in the Minister’s office). This imbalance needs to be addressed if the public sector is to play an effective role. Greater accountability and transparency can help but currently there is a lack of common agreement on the broader role of government in society, both the political and public sectors. So the entire institution and the stability it can provide is under threat of death by a billion papercuts. Efforts to evolve government and democracy have largely been limited to iterations on the status quo: better consultation, better voting, better access to information, better services. But a rethink is required and the internal systemic degradations need to be addressed.

If you think the world is perfectly fine as is, then you are probably quite lucky or privileged. Congratulations. It is easy to not see the cracks in the system when your life is going smoothly, but I invite you to consider the cracks that I have found herein, to test your assumptions daily and to leave your counter examples in the comments below.

For my part, I am optimistic about the future. I believe the proliferation of a human rights based ideology, participatory democracy and access to modern technologies all act to distribute power to the people, so we have the capacity more so than ever to collectively design and create a better future for us all.

Let’s build the machine we need to thrive both individually and collectively, and not just be beautiful cogs in a broken machine.

Further reading:

Categories
Choose Your Own Adventure education gov20 society5 Tech

Chapter 1.2: Many hands make light work, for a while

This is part of a book I am working on, hopefully due for completion by mid 2018. The original purpose of the book is to explore where we are at, where we are going, and how we can get there, in the broadest possible sense. Your comments, feedback and constructive criticism are welcome! The final text of the book will be freely available under a Creative Commons By Attribution license. A book version will be sent to nominated world leaders, to hopefully encourage the necessary questioning of the status quo and smarter decisions into the future. Additional elements like references, graphs, images and other materials will be available in the final digital and book versions and draft content will be published weekly. Please subscribe to the blog posts by the RSS category and/or join the mailing list for updates.

Back to the book overview or table of contents for the full picture. Please note the pivot from focusing just on individuals to focusing on the systems we live in and the paradoxes therein.

“Differentiation of labour and interdependence of society is reliant on consistent and predictable authorities to thrive” — Durkheim

Many hands makes light work is an old adage both familiar and comforting. One feels that if things get our of hand we can just throw more resources at the problem and it will suffice. However we have made it harder on ourselves in three distinct ways:

  • by not always recognising the importance of interdependence and the need to ensure the stability and prosperity of our community as a necessary precondition to the success of the individuals therein;
  • by increasingly making it harder for people to gain knowledge, skills and adaptability to ensure those “many hands” are able to respond to the work required and not trapped into social servitude; and
  • by often failing to recognise whether we need a linear or exponential response in whatever we are doing, feeling secure in the busy-ness of many hands.

Specialisation is when a person delves deep on a particular topic or skill. Over many millennia we have got to the point where we have developed extreme specialisation, supported through interdependence and stability, which gave us the ability to rapidly and increasingly evolve what we do and how we live. This resulted in increasingly complex social systems and structures bringing us to a point today where the pace of change has arguably outpaced our imagination. We see many people around the world clinging to traditions and romantic notions of the past whilst we hurtle at an accelerating pace into the future. Many hands have certainly made light work, but new challenges have emerged as a result and it is more critical than ever that we reimagine our world and develop our resilience and adaptability to change, because change is the only constant moving forward.

One human can survive on their own for a while. A tribe can divide up the labour quite effectively and survive over generations, creating time for culture and play. But when we established cities and states around 6000 years ago, we started a level of unprecedented division of labour and specialisation beyond mere survival. When the majority of your time, energy and resources go into simply surviving, you are largely subject to forces outside your control and unable to justify spending time on other things. But when survival is taken care of (broadly speaking) it creates time for specialisation and perfecting your craft, as well as for leisure, sport, art, philosophy and other key areas of development in society.

The era of cities itself was born on the back of an agricultural technology revolution that made food production far more efficient, creating surplus (which drove a need for record keeping and greater proliferation of written language) and prosperity, with a dramatic growth in specialisation of jobs. With greater specialisation came greater interdependence as it becomes in everyone’s best interests to play their part predictably. A simple example is a farmer needing her farming equipment to be reliable to make food, and the mechanic needs food production to be reliable for sustenance. Both rely on each other not just as customers, but to be successful and sustainable over time. Greater specialisation led to greater surplus as specialists continued to fine tune their crafts for ever greater outcomes. Over time, an increasing number of people were not simply living day to day, but were able to plan ahead and learn how to deal with major disruptions to their existence. Hunters and gatherers are completely subject to the conditions they live in, with an impact on mortality, leisure activities largely fashioned around survival, small community size and the need to move around. With surplus came spare time and the ability to take greater control over one’s existence and build a type of systemic resilience to change.

So interdependence gave us greater stability, as a natural result of enlightened self interest writ large where ones own success is clearly aligned with the success of the community where one lives. However, where interdependence in smaller communities breeds a kind of mutual understanding and appreciation, we have arguably lost this reciprocity and connectedness in larger cities today, ironically where interdependence is strongest. When you can’t understand intuitively the role that others play in your wellbeing, then you don’t naturally appreciate them, and disconnected self interest creates a cost to the community. When community cohesion starts to decline, eventually individuals also decline, except the small percentage who can either move communities or who benefit, intentionally or not, on the back of others misfortune.

When you have no visibility of food production beyond the supermarket then it becomes easier to just buy the cheapest milk, eggs or bread, even if the cheapest product is unsustainable or undermining more sustainably produced goods. When you have such a specialised job that you can’t connect what you do to any greater meaning, purpose or value, then it also becomes hard to feel valuable to society, or valued by others. We see this increasingly in highly specialised organisations like large companies, public sector agencies and cities, where the individual feels the dual pressure of being anything and nothing all at once.

Modern society has made it somewhat less intuitive to value others who contribute to your survival because survival is taken for granted for many, and competing in ones own specialisation has been extended to competing in everything without appreciation of the interdependence required for one to prosper. Competition is seen to be the opposite of cooperation, whereas a healthy sustainable society is both cooperative and competitive. One can cooperate on common goals and compete on divergent goals, thus making best use of time and resources where interests align. Cooperative models seem to continually emerge in spite of economic models that assume simplistic punishment and incentive based behaviours. We see various forms of “commons” where people pool their resources in anything from community gardens and ’share economies’ to software development and science, because cooperation is part of who we are and what makes us such a successful species.

Increasing specialisation also created greater surplus and wealth, generating increasingly divergent and insular social classes with different levels of power and people becoming less connected to each other and with wealth overwhelmingly going to the few. This pressure between the benefits and issues of highly structured societies and which groups benefit has ebbed and flowed throughout our history but, generally speaking, when the benefits to the majority outweigh the issues for that majority, then you have stability. With stability a lot can be overlooked, including at times gross abuses for a minority or the disempowered. However, if the balances tips too far the other way, then you get revolutions, secessions, political movements and myriad counter movements. Unfortunately many counter movements limit themselves to replacing people rather than the structures that created the issues however, several of these counter movements established some critical ideas that underpin modern society.

Before we explore the rise of individualism through independence and suffrage movements (chapter 1.3), it is worth briefly touching upon the fact that specialisation and interdependence, which are critical for modern societies, both rely upon the ability for people to share, to learn, and to ensure that the increasingly diverse skills are able to evolve as the society evolves. Many hands only make light work when they know what they are doing. Historically the leaps in technology, techniques and specialisation have been shared for others to build upon and continue to improve as we see in writings, trade, oral traditions and rituals throughout history. Gatekeepers naturally emerged to control access to or interpretations of knowledge through priests, academics, the ruling class or business class. Where gatekeepers grew too oppressive, communities would subdivide to rebalance the power differential, such a various Protestant groups, union movements and the more recent Open Source movements. In any case, access wasn’t just about power of gatekeepers. The costs of publishing and distribution grew as societies grew, creating a call from the business class for “intellectual property” controls as financial mechanisms to offset these costs. The argument ran that because of the huge costs of production, business people needed to be incentivised to publish and distribute knowledge, though arguably we have always done so as a matter of survival and growth.

With the Internet suddenly came the possibility for massively distributed and free access to knowledge, where the cost of publishing, distribution and even the capability development required to understand and apply such knowledge was suddenly negligible. We created a universal, free and instant way to share knowledge, creating the opportunity for a compounding effect on our historic capacity for cumulative learning. This is worth taking a moment to consider. The technology simultaneously created an opportunity for compounding our cumulative learning whilst rendered the reasons for IP protections negligible (lowered costs of production and distribution) and yet we have seen a dramatic increase in knowledge protectionism. Isn’t it to our collective benefit to have a well educated community that can continue our trajectory of diversification and specialisation for the benefit of everyone? Anyone can get access to myriad forms of consumer entertainment but our most valuable knowledge assets are fiercely protected against general and free access, dampening our ability to learn and evolve. The increasing gap between the haves and have nots is surely symptomatic of the broader increasing gap between the empowered and disempowered, the makers and the consumers, those with knowledge and those without. Consumers are shaped by the tools and goods they have access to, and limited by their wealth and status. But makers can create the tools and goods they need, and can redefine wealth and status with a more active and able hand in shaping their own lives.

As a result of our specialisation, our interdependence and our cooperative/competitive systems, we have created greater complexity in society over time, usually accompanied with the ability to respond to greater complexity. The problem is that a lot of our solutions to change have been linear responses to an exponential problem space. the assumption that more hands will continue to make light work often ignores the need for sharing skills and knowledge, and certainly ignores where a genuinely transformative response is required. A small fire might be managed with buckets, but at some point of growth, adding more buckets becomes insufficient and new methods are required. Necessity breeds innovation and yet when did you last see real innovation that didn’t boil down to simply more or larger buckets? Iteration is rarely a form of transformation, so it is important to always clearly understand the type of problem you are dealing with and whether the planned response needs to be linear or exponential. If the former, more buckets is probably fine. If the latter, every bucket is just a distraction from developing the necessary response.

Next chapter I’ll examine how the independence movements created the philosophical pre-condition for democracy, the Internet and the dramatic paradigm shifts to follow.

Categories
Choose Your Own Adventure FOSS gov20 Government linux.conf.au society5 Tech

My Canadian adventure exploring FWD50

I recently went to Ottawa for the FWD50 conference run by Rebecca and Alistair Croll. It was my first time in Canada, and it combined a number of my favourite things. I was at an incredible conference with a visionary and enthusiastic crowd, made up of government (international, Federal, Provincial and Municipal), technologists, civil society, industry, academia, and the calibre of discussions and planning for greatness was inspiring.

There was a number of people I have known for years but never met in meatspace, and equally there were a lot of new faces doing amazing things. I got to spend time with the excellent people at the Treasury Board of Canadian Secretariat, including the Canadian Digital Service and the Office of the CIO, and by wonderful coincidence I got to see (briefly) the folk from the Open Government Partnership who happened to be in town. Finally I got to visit the gorgeous Canadian Parliament, see their extraordinary library, and wander past some Parliamentary activity which always helps me feel more connected to (and therefore empowered to contribute to) democracy in action.

Thank you to Alistair Croll who invited me to keynote this excellent event and who, with Rebecca Croll, managed to create a truly excellent event with a diverse range of ideas and voices exploring where we could or should go as a society in future. I hope it is a catalyst for great things to come in Canada and beyond.

For those in Canada who are interested in the work in New Zealand, I strongly encourage you to tune into the D5 event in February which will have some of our best initiatives on display, and to tune in to our new Minister for Broadband, Digital and Open Government (such an incredible combination in a single portfolio), Minister Clare Curran and you can tune in to our “Service Innovation” work at our blog or by subscribing to our mailing list. I also encourage you to read this inspiring “People’s Agenda” by a civil society organisation in NZ which codesigned a vision for the future type of society desired in New Zealand.

Highlights

  • One of the great delights of this trip was seeing a number of people in person for the first time who I know from the early “Gov 2.0” days (10 years ago!). It was particularly great to see Thom Kearney from Canada’s TBS and his team, Alex Howard (@digiphile) who is now a thought leader at the Sunlight Foundation, and Olivia Neal (@livneal) from the UK CTO office/GDS, Joe Powell from OGP, as well as a few friends from Linux and Open Source (Matt and Danielle amongst others).
  • The speech by Canadian Minister of the Treasury Board Secretariat (which is responsible for digital government) the Hon Scott Brison, was quite interesting and I had the chance to briefly chat to him and his advisor at the speakers drinks afterwards about the challenges of changing government.
  • Meeting with Canadian public servants from a variety of departments including the transport department, innovation and science, as well as the Treasury Board Secretariat and of course the newly formed Canadian Digital Service.
  • Meeting people from a range of sub-national governments including the excellent folk from Peel, Hillary Hartley from Ontario, and hearing about the quite inspiring work to transform organisational structures, digital and other services, adoption of micro service based infrastructure, the use of “labs” for experimentation.
  • It was fun meeting some CIO/CTOs from Canada, Estonia, UK and other jurisdictions, and sharing ideas about where to from here. I was particularly impressed with Alex Benay (Canadian CIO) who is doing great things, and with Siim Sikkut (Estonian CIO) who was taking the digitisation of Estonia into a new stage of being a broader enabler for Estonians and for the world. I shared with them some of my personal lessons learned around digital iteration vs transformation, including from the DTO in Australia (which has changed substantially, including a name change since I was there). Some notes of my lessons learned are at http://pipka.org/2017/04/03/iteration-or-transformation-in-government-paint-jobs-and-engines/.
  • My final highlight was how well my keynote and other talks were taken. People were really inspired to think big picture and I hope it was useful in driving some of those conversations about where we want to collectively go and how we can better collaborate across geopolitical lines.

Below are some photos from the trip, and some observations from specific events/meetings.

My FWD50 Keynote – the Tipping Point

I was invited to give a keynote at FWD50 about the tipping point we have gone through and how we, as a species, need to embrace the major paradigm shifts that have already happened, and decide what sort of future we want and work towards that. I also suggested some predictions about the future and examined the potential roles of governments (and public sectors specifically) in the 21st century. The slides are at https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1coe4Sl0vVA-gBHQsByrh2awZLa0Nsm6gYEqHn9ppezA/edit?usp=sharing and the full speech is on my personal blog at http://pipka.org/2017/11/08/fwd50-keynote-the-tipping-point.

I also gave a similar keynote speech at the NerHui conference in New Zealand the week after which was recorded for those who want to see or hear the content at https://2017.nethui.nz/friday-livestream

The Canadian Digital Service

Was only set up about a year ago and has a focus on building great services for users, with service design and user needs at the heart of their work. They have some excellent people with diverse skills and we spoke about what is needed to do “digital government” and what that even means, and the parallels and interdependencies between open government and digital government. They spoke about an early piece of work they did before getting set up to do a national consultation about the needs of Canadians (https://digital.canada.ca/beginning-the-conversation/) which had some interesting insights. They were very focused on open source, standards, building better ways to collaborate across government(s), and building useful things. They also spoke about their initial work around capability assessment and development across the public sector. I spoke about my experience in Australia and New Zealand, but also in working and talking to teams around the world. I gave an informal outline about the work of our Service Innovation and Service Integration team in DIA, which was helpful to get some feedback and peer review, and they were very supportive and positive. It was an excellent discussion, thank you all!

CivicTech meetup

I was invited to talk to the CivicTech group meetup in Ottawa (https://www.meetup.com/YOW_CT/events/243891738/) about the roles of government and citizens into the future. I gave a quick version of the keynote I gave at linux.conf.au 2017 (pipka.org/2017/02/18/choose-your-own-adventure-keynote/), which explores paradigm shifts and the roles of civic hackers and activists in helping forge the future whilst also considering what we should (and shouldn’t) take into the future with us. It included my amusing change.log of the history of humans and threw down the gauntlet for civic hackers to lead the way, be the light 🙂

CDS Halloween Mixer

The Canadian Digital Service does a “mixer” social event every 6 weeks, and this one landed on Halloween, which was also my first ever Halloween celebration  I had a traditional “beavertail” which was a flat cinnamon doughnut with lemon, amazing! Was fun to hang out but of course I had to retire early from jet lag.

Workshop with Alistair

The first day of FWD50 I helped Alistair Croll with a day long workshop exploring the future. We thought we’d have a small interactive group and ended up getting 300, so it was a great mind meld across different ideas, sectors, technologies, challenges and opportunities. I gave a talk on culture change in government, largely influenced by a talk a few years ago called “Collaborative innovation in the public service: Game of Thrones style” (http://pipka.org/2015/01/04/collaborative-innovation-in-the-public-service-game-of-thrones-style/). People responded well and it created a lot of discussions about the cultural challenges and barriers in government.

Thanks

Finally, just a quick shout out and thanks to Alistair for inviting me to such an amazing conference, to Rebecca for getting me organised, to Danielle and Matthew for your companionship and support, to everyone for making me feel so welcome, and to the following folk who inspired, amazed and colluded with me  In chronological order of meeting: Sean Boots, Stéphane Tourangeau, Ryan Androsoff, Mike Williamson, Lena Trudeau, Alex Benay (Canadian Gov CIO), Thom Kearney and all the TBS folk, Siim Sikkut from Estonia, James Steward from UK, and all the other folk I met at FWD50, in between feeling so extremely unwell!

Thank you Canada, I had a magnificent time and am feeling inspired!

Categories
society5 Tech

Gather-ing some thoughts on societal challenges

On the weekend I went to the GatherNZ event in Auckland, an interesting unconference. I knew there were going to be some pretty awesome people hanging out which gave a chance for me to catch up with and introduce the family to some friends, hear some interesting ideas, and road test some ideas I’ve been having about where we are all heading in the future. I ran a session I called “Choose your own adventure, please” and it was packed! Below is a bit of a write up of what was discussed as there was a lot of interest in how to keep the conversation going. I confess, I didn’t expect so much interest as to be asked where the conversation could be continued, but this is a good start I think. I was particularly chuffed when a few attendee said the session blew their minds 🙂

I’m going to be blogging a fair bit over the coming months on this topic in any case as it relates to a book I’m in the process of researching and writing, but more on that next week!

Choose your own adventure, please

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 prioritise, 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. I challenge everyone to consider how they think and to actively choose their own adventure, rather than just doing what was done before.

How has the world changed? Well many point to the changes in technology and science, and the impact these have had on our quality of life. I think the more interesting changes are in how power and perspectives has changed, which created the environment for scientific and technological progress in the first instance, but also created the ability for many many more individuals to shape the world around them. We have seen traditional paradigms of scarcity, centralisation and closed systems be outflanked and outdated by modern shifts to surplus, distribution and open systems. When you were born a peasant and died one, what power did you have to affect your destiny? Nowadays individuals are more powerful than ever in our collective history, with the traditionally centralised powers of publishing, property, communications, monitoring and even enforcement now distributed internationally to anyone with access to a computer and the internet, which is over a third of the world’s population and growing. I blogged about this idea more here. Of course, these shifts are proving challenging for traditional institutions and structures to keep up, but individuals are simply routing around these dinosaurs, putting such organisations in the uncomfortable position of either adapting or rendering themselves irrelevant.

Choices, choices, choices

We discussed a number of specific premises or frameworks that underpinned the development of much of the world we know today, but are now out of touch with the changing world we live in. It was a fascinating discussion, so thank you to everyone who came and contributed and although I think we only scratched the surface, I think it gave a lot of people food for thought 🙂

  • Open vs closed – open systems (open knowledge, data, government, source, science) are outperforming closed ones in almost everything from science, technology, business models, security models, government and political systems, human knowledge and social models. Open systems enable rapid feedback loops that support greater iteration and improvements in response to the world, and open systems create a natural motivation for the players involved to perform well and gain the benefits of a broader knowledge, experience and feedback base. Open systems also support a competitive collaborative environment, where organisations can collaborate on the common, but compete on their specialisation. We discussed how security by obscurity was getting better understood as a largely false premise and yet, there are still so many projects, decisions, policies or other initiatives where closed is the assumed position, in contrast to the general trend towards openness across the board.
  • Central to distributed – many people and organisations still act like kings in castles, protecting their stuff from the masses and only collaborating with walls and moats in place to keep out the riff raff. The problem is that everything is becoming more distributed, and the smartest people will never all be in the one castle, so if you want the best outcomes, be it for a policy, product, scientific discovery, service or anything else, you need to consider what is out there and how you can be a part of a broader ecosystem. Building on the shoulders of giants and being a shoulder for others to build upon. Otherwise you will always be slower than those who know how to be a node in the network. Although deeply hierarchical systems still exist, individuals are learning how to route around the hierarchy (which is only an imaginary construct in any case). There will always be specialists and the need for central controls over certain things however, if whatever you do is done in isolation, it will only be effective in isolation. Everything and everyone is more and more interconnected so we need to behave more in this way to gain the benefits, and to ensure what we do is relevant to those we do it for. By tapping into the masses, we can also tap into much greater capacity and feedback loops to ensure how we iterate is responsive to the environment we operate in. Examples of the shift included media, democracy, citizen movements, ideology, security, citizen science, gov as an API, transnational movements and the likely impact of blockchain technologies on the financial sector.
  • Scarcity to surplus – the shift from scarcity to surplus is particularly interesting because so much of our laws, governance structures, business models, trade agreements and rules for living are based around antiquated ideas of scarcity and property. We now apply the idea of ownership to everything and I shared a story of a museum claiming ownership on human remains taken from Australia. How can you own that and then refuse to repatriate the remains to that community? Copyright was developed when the ability to copy something was costly and hard. Given digital property (including a lot of “IP”) is so easily replicated with low/zero cost, it has wrought havoc with how we think about IP and yet we have continued to duplicate this antiquated thinking in a time of increasing surplus. This is a problem because new technologies could genuinely create surplus in physical properties, especially with the developments in nano-technologies and 3D printing, but if we bind up these technologies to only replicate the status quo, we will never realise the potential to solve major problems of scarcity, like hunger or poverty.
  • Nationalism and tribalism – because of global communications, more people feel connected with their communities of interest, which can span geopolitical, language, disability and other traditional barriers to forming groups. This will also have an impact on loyalties because people will have an increasingly complex relationship with the world around them. Citizens can and will increasingly jurisdiction shop for a nation that supports their lifestyle and ideological choices, the same way that multinational corporates have jurisdiction shopped for low tax, low regulation environments for some time. On a more micro level, individuals engage in us vs them behaviours all the time, and it gets in the way of working together.
  • Human augmentation and (dis)ability – what it means to look and be human will start to change as more human augmentation starts to become mainstream. Not just cosmetic augmentations, but functional. The body hacking movement has been playing with human abilities and has discovered that the human brain can literally adapt to and start to interpret foreign neurological inputs, which opens up the path to nor just augmenting existing human abilities, but expanding and inventing new human abilities. If we consider the olympics have pretty much found the limit of natural human sporting achievement and have become arguably a bit boring, perhaps we could lift the limitations on the para-olympics and start to see rocket powered 100m sprints, or cyborg Judo competitions. As we start to explore what we can do with ourselves physically, neurologically and chemically, it will challenge a lot of views on what it means to be human. By why should we limit ourselves?
  • Outsourcing personal responsibility – with advances in technology, many have become lazy about how far their personal responsibility extends. We outsource small tasks, then larger ones, then strategy, then decision making, and we end up having no personal responsibility for major things in our world. Projects can fail, decisions become automated, ethics get buried in code, but individuals can keep their noses clean. We need to stop trying to avoid risk to the point where we don’t do anything and we need to ensure responsibility for human decisions are not automated beyond human responsibility.
  • Unconscious bias of privileged views, including digital colonialism – the need to be really aware of our assumptions and try to not simply reinvent the status quo or reinforce “structural white supremacy” as it was put by the contributor. Powerful words worth pondering! Explicit inclusion was put forward as something to prioritise.
  • Work – how we think about work! If we are moving into a more automated landscape, perhaps how we think about work will fundamentally change which would have enormous ramifications for the social and financial environment. Check out Tim Dunlop’s writing on this 🙂
  • Facts to sensationalism – the flow of information and communications are now so rapid that people, media and organisations are motivated to ever more sensationalism rather than considered opinions or facts. Definitely a shift worth considering!

Other feedback from the room included:

  • The importance of considering ethics, values and privilege in making decisions.
  • The ability to route around hierarchy, but the inevitable push back of established powers on the new world.
  • The idea that we go in cycles of power from centralised to distributed and back again. I confess, this idea is new to me and I’ll be pondering on it more.

Any feedback, thinking or ideas welcome in the comments below 🙂 It was a fun session.

Categories
gov20 Government society5 Tech

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.

Categories
gov20 Government society5 Tech

The new citizenship: digital citizenship

Recently I was invited to give a TEDx talk at a Canberra event for women speakers. It was a good opportunity to have some fun with some ideas I’ve been playing with for a while around the concept of being a citizen in the era of the Internet, and what that means for individuals and traditional power structures in society, including government. A snipped transcript below. Enjoy and comments welcome 🙂 I’ve put a few links that might be of interest throughout and the slides are in the video for reference.

Video is at http://www.youtube.com/embed/iqjM_HU0WSw

Digital Citizenship

I want to talk to you about digital citizenship and how, not only the geek will inherit the earth but, indeed, we already have. All the peoples just don’t know it yet.

Powerful individuals

We are in the most exciting of times. People are connected from birth and are engaged across the world. We are more powerful as individuals than ever before. We have, particularly in communities and societies like Australia, we have a population that has all of our basic needs taken care of. So we have got time to kill. And we’ve got resources. Time and resources gives a greater opportunity for introspection which has led over the last hundred years in particular, to enormous progress. To the establishment of the concept of individual rights and strange ideas like the concept that animals might actually have feelings and perhaps maybe shouldn’t be treated awfully or just as a food source.

We’ve had these huge, enormous revolutions and evolutions of thought and perspective for a long, long time but it’s been growing exponentially. It’s a combination of the growth in democracy, the rise of the concept of individual rights, and the concept of individuals being able to participate in the macro forces that shape their world.

But it’s also a combination of technology and the explosion in what an individual can achieve both as a individual but also en mass collaborating dynamically across the globe. It’s the fact that many of us are kind of fat, content and happy and now wanting to make a bit of a difference, which is quite exciting. So what we’ve got is a massive and unprecedented distribution of power.

Distributed power

We’ve got the distribution of publishing. The ability to publish whatever you want. Whether you do it through formal mechanisms or anonymously. You can distribute to a global audience with less barriers to entry than ever before. We have the distribution of the ability to communicate with whomever your please. The ability to monitor, which has traditionally been a top down thing for ensuring laws are followed and taxes are paid. But now people can monitor sideways, they can monitor up. They can monitor their governments. They can monitor companies. There is the distribution of enforcement. This gets a little tricky because if anyone can enforce than anyone can enforce any thing. And you start to get a little bit of active concerns there but it is an interesting time. Finally with the advent of 3D printing starting to get mainstream, we’re seeing the massive distribution of, of property.

And if you think about these five concepts – publishing, communications, monitoring, enforcement and property – these five power bases have traditionally been centralised. We usually look at the industrial revolution and the broadcast age as two majors periods in history but arguably they’re both actually part of the same era. Because both of them are about the centralised creation of stuff – whether it’s physical or information – by a small number of people that could afford to do so, and then distributed to the rest of the population.

The idea that anyone can create any of these things and distribute it to anyone else, or indeed for their own purposes is a whole new thing and very exciting. And what that means is that the relationship between people and governments and industry has changed quite fundamentally. Traditional institutions and bastions of any sort of power are struggling with this and are finding it rather scary but it is creating an imperative to change. It is also creating new questions about legitimacy and power relations between people, companies and governments.

Individuals however, are thriving in this environment. There’s always arguments about trolls and about whether the power’s being used trivially. The fact is the Internet isn’t all unicorns or all doom. It is something different, it is something exciting and it is something that is empowering people in a way that’s unprecedented and often unexpected.

The term singularity is one of those fluffy things that’s been touted around by futurists but it does have a fairly specific meaning which is kind of handy. The concept of the distance between things getting smaller. Whether that’s the distance between you and your publisher, you and your food, you and your network or you and your device. The concept of approaching the singularity is about reducing those distances between. Now, of course the internet has reduced the distance between people quite significantly and I put to you that we’re in a period of a “democratic singularity” because the distance between people and power has dramatically reduced.

People are in many ways now as powerful as a lot of the institutions which frame and shape their lives. So to paraphrase and slightly turn on it’s head the quote by William Gibson: the future is here and it is already widely distributed. So we’ve approached the democratic singularity and it’s starting to make democracy a lot more participatory, a lot more democratic.

Changing expectations

So, what does this mean in reality? What does this actually translate to for us as people, as a society, as a “global village”, to quote Marshall McLuhan. There’s quite massive changing expectations of individual. I see a lot of people focused on the shift in power from the West to the East. But I believe the more interesting shift is the shift in power from institutions to individuals.

That is the more fascinating shift not just because individuals have power but because it is changing our expectations as a society. And when you start to get a massive change of expectations across an entire community of people, that starts to change behaviors, change economics, change socials patterns, change social norms. 

What are those changing expectations? Well, the internet teaches us a lot of things. The foundation technical principles of the internet are effectively shaping the social characteristics of this new society. This distributed society or “Society 5” if you will.

Some of the expectations are the ability to access what you want. The ability to talk to whom you want. The ability to cross reference. When I was a kid and you did a essay on anything you had to go look at Encyclopedia Britannica. It was a single source of truth. The concept that you could get multiple perspectives, some of which might be skewed by the way, but still to concept of getting the context of those different perspectives and a little comparison was hard and alien for the average person. Now you can often talk to someone who is there right now let alone find myriad sources to help inform your view. You can get a point of comparison against traditionally official sources like a government source or media report. People online start to intuitively understand that the world’s actually a lot more gray than we are generally taught in school and such. Learning that the world is gray is great because you start to say, “you know what? You could be right and I could be right and that doesn’t make either perspective necessarily invalid, and that isn’t a terrible thing.” It doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive or a zero sum game, or a single view of history. We can both have a perspective and be mutually respectful in a lot of cases and actually have a more diverse and interesting world as a result.

Changing expectations are helping many people overcome barriers that traditionally stopped them from being socially successful: economically, reputationally, etc. People are more empowered to basically be a superhero which is kinda cool. Online communities can be one of the most exciting and powerful places to be because it starts to transcend limitations and make it possible for people to excel in a way that perhaps traditionally they weren’t able to. So, it’s very exciting. 

Individual power also brings a lot of responsibility. We’ve got all these power structures but at the end of the day there’s usually a techie implementing the big red button so the role of geeks in this world is very important. We are the ones who enable technology to be used for any agenda. Everything is basically based on technology, right? So everything is reliant upon technology. Well, this means we are exactly as free as the tools that we use. 

Technical freedom

If the tool that you’re using for social networking only allows you to talk to people in the same geographic area as you then you’re limited. If the email tool you’re using only allows you to send to someone who has another secure network then you’re only as free as that tool. Tech literacy becomes an enabler or an inhibitor, and it defines an individuals privacy. Because you might say to yourself, oh you know, I will never tell anyone where I am at a particular point in time cause I don’t want someone to rob my house while I’m out on holiday. But you’ll still put a photo up that you’re Argentina right now, because that’s fun, so now people know. Technical literacy for the masses is really important but largely, at this point, confined to the geeks. So hacker ethos ends up being a really important part of this.

For those that don’t know, hacker is not a rude word. It’s not a bad word. It’s the concept of having a creative and clever approach to technology and applying tech in cool and exciting ways. It helps people scratch an itch, test their skills, solve tricky problems collaboratively. Hacker ethos is a very important thing because you start to say freedom, including technical freedom is actually very, very important. It’s very high on the list. And with this ethos, technologists know that to implement and facilitate technologies that actually hobble our fellow citizens kind of screws them over.

Geeks will always be the most free in a digital society because we will always know how to route around the damage. Again, going back to the technical construct of the internet. But fundamentally we have a role to play to actually be leaders and pioneers in this society and to help lead the masses into a better future.

Danger!

There’s also a lot of other sorts of dangers. Tools don’t discriminate. The same tools that can lead a wonderful social revolution or empower individuals to tell their stories is the same technology that can be used by criminals or those with a nefarious agenda. This is an important reason to remember we shouldn’t lock down the internet because someone can use it for a bad reason in the same way we don’t ban cars just because someone used a vehicle to rob a bank. The idea of hobbling technology because it’s used in a bad way is a highly frustrating one.

Another danger is “privilege cringe”. In communities like Australia we’re sort of taught to say, well, you’ve got privilege because you’ve been brought up in a safe stable environment, you’ve got an education, you’ve got enough money, you’ve got a sense of being able to go out and conquer the world. But you’ve got to hide that because you should be embarrassed of your opportunities when so many others have so little. I suggest to you all that you in this room, and pretty much anyone that would probably come and watch a TED event or go to a TED talk or watch it online, is the sort of person who is probably reasonably privileged in a lot of ways and you can use your privilege to influence the world in a powerful and positive way.

You’ve got access to the internet which makes you part of the third of the world that has access. So use your privilege for the power of good! This is the point. We are more powerful than ever before so if you’re not using your power for the power of good, if you’re not actually contributing to making the world a better place, what are you doing?

Hipsters are a major danger. Billy Bragg made the perfect quote which is, cynicism is the perfect enemy of progress. There is nothing more frustrating than actually making progress and having people tear you down because you haven’t done it exactly so.

Another danger is misdirection. We have a lot of people in Australia who want to do good. That’s very exciting and really cool. But Australians tend to say, I’m going to go to another country and feed some poor people and that’ll make me feel good, that’ll be doing some good and that’ll be great. Me personally, that would really not be good for people because I don’t cook very well. Deciding how you can actually contribute to making the world a better place in a way is like finding a lever? You need to identify what you are good at, what real differences you can make when you apply your skills very specifically. Where do you push to get a major change rather than, rather than contributing to actually maintaining the status quo? How do you rewrite the rules? How do you actually help those people that need help all around the world, including here in Australia, in a way that actually helps them sustainably? Enthused misdirection is I guess where I’m getting at.

And of course, one of the most frustrating dangers is hyperbole. It is literally destroying us. Figuratively speaking 😉

So there’s a lot of dangers, there’s a lot of issues but there is a lot of opportunities and a lot of capacities to do awesome. How many people here have been to a TED talk of some sort before? So keep your hand up if, after that, you went out and did something world changing. OK. So now you’re gonna do that, yeah? Right. So next time we do this all of those hands will stay up.

Progress

I’ll make couple of last points. My terrible little diagram here maps the concept that if you look at the last 5,000 years. The quality of life for individuals in a many societies has been down here fairly low for a long time. In millennia past, kings come and go, people get killed, properties taken. All sorts of things happen and individuals were very much at the behest of the powers of the day but you just keep plowing your fields and try to be all right. But is has slowly improved over a long time time, and the collective epiphany of the individual starts to happen, the idea of having rights, the idea that things could be better and that the people could contribute to their own future and democracy starts to kick off. The many suffrage movements addressing gender, ethnicity and other biases with more and more individuals in societies starting to be granted more equal recognition and rights.

The last hundred years, boom! It has soared up here somewhere. And I’m not tall enough to actually make the point, right? This is so exciting! So where are we going to go next?

How do we contribute to the future if we’re not involved in shaping the future. If we aren’t involved, then other powerful individuals are going to shape it for us. And this, this is the thing I’ve really learned by working in government, but working in the Minister’s office, by working in the public service. I specifically went to work in for a politician – even though I’m very strongly apolitical – to work in the government and in the public service because I wanted to understand the executive, legislative, and administrative arms of the entity that shapes our lives so much. I feel like I have a fairly good understanding of that now and there’s a lot of people who influence your lives every day.

Tipping point

Have we really hit this tipping point? You know, is it, is it really any different today than it was yesterday? Well, we’ve had this exponential progress, we’ve got a third of the world online, we’ve got these super human powerful individuals in a large chunk of different societies around the world. I argue that we have hit and passed the tipping point but the realisation hasn’t hit everyone yet.

So, the question is for you to figure out your super power. How do you best contribute it to making the world a better place?

Powers and kryptonite

For me, going and working in a soup kitchen will not help anybody. I could possibly design a robot that creates super delicious and nutritional food to actually feed people. But me doing it myself would actually probably give them food poisoning and wouldn’t help anyone. You need to figure out your specific super powers so you can deploy them to some effect. Figure out how you can contribute to the world. Also figure out your kryptonite.

What biases do you have in place? What weaknesses do you have? What things will actually get in the way of you trying to do what you’re doing? I quite often see people apply critical analysis and critical thinking tools without any self-awareness and the problem is that we are super clever beings and we can rationalize anything we want if, emotionally, we like it or dislike it.

So try and have both self-awareness and critical analysis and now you’ve got a very powerful way to do some good. So I’m going to just finish with a quote.

JFDI

What better place than here? What better time than now? All hell can’t stop us now — RATM

The future is being determined whether you like it or not. But it’s not really being determined by the traditional players in a lot of ways. The power’s been distributed. It’s not just the politicians or the scholars or the researchers or corporates. It’s being invented right here, right now. You are contributing to that future either passively or actively. So you may as well get up and be active about it.

We’re heading towards this and we’ve possibly even hit the tipping point of a digital singularity and a democratic singularity. So, what are you going do about it? I invite you to share with me in the creating the future together.

Thank you very much.

You might also be interested in my blog post on Creating Open Government for a Digital Society and I think the old nugget of noblesse oblige applies here very well.