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gov20 Government Tech

Reflections on public sector transformation and COVID

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

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

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

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

Faux transformation

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

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

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

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

So what does good transformation look like?

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

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

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

COVID-19

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

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

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

Last word

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

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Choose Your Own Adventure Government Tech

A quick reflection on digital for posterity

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

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

Some observations

Moving from deficit to aspirational planning

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

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

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

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

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

Repeatability and scale

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

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

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

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

Digital foundations

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

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

The Pia Review

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

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

The Pia Review – 20 years in 20 slides

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

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

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

My digital references and links from 2019

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

General reading

Life Journeys as a Strategy

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

Policy transformation

Data in Government

Designing better futures to transform towards

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

Rules as Code

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

Better Rules and RaC examples

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Choose Your Own Adventure gov20 Government Personal Tech

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Digital excellence in Ballarat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Aus Community Geek Girls gov20 Government society5 Tech Uncategorized

Sadly leaving the NSW Government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Aus Community gov20 Government Tech

Digital government: it all starts with open

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

<Conference introductory remarks>

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

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

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

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

<closing conference remarks>

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Choose Your Own Adventure gov20 Government society5 Tech

Lessons from Canada and France: FWD50 2018 and SIIViM

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

My contributions

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

Insights from Canada

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

I spoke to the Canadian School of Public Service:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Insights from France

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

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

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

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

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

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

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: