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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 I believe we are at a fork in the road where we will either reinforce legacy systems based on outdated paradigms with shiny new things, or choose to forge a new path using the new tools and opportunities at our disposal, hopefully one that is genuinely better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:

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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.

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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!

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Choose Your Own Adventure gov20 Government Tech

FWD50 Keynote: The Tipping Point

I was invited to an incredible and inaugural conference in Canada called FWD50 which was looking at the next 50 days, months and years for society. It had a digital government flavour to it but had participants and content from various international, national and sub-national governments, civil society, academia, industry and advocacy groups. The diversity of voices in the room was good and the organisers committed to greater diversity next year. I gave my keynote as an independent expert and my goal was to get people thinking bigger than websites and mobile apps, to dream about the sort of future we want as a society (as a species!) and work towards that. As part of my talk I also explored what the big paradigm shifts have happened (note the past tense) and potential roles for government (particularly the public sector) in a hyper connected, distributed network of powerful individuals. My slides are available here (simple though they are). It wasn’t recorded but I did an audio recording and transcribed. I was unwell and had lost my voice so this is probably better anyway 🙂

The tipping point and where do we go from here

I’ve been thinking a lot over many years about change and the difference between iteration and transformation, about systems, about what is going on in the big picture, because what I’m seeing around the world is a lot of people iterating away from pain but not actually iterating towards a future. Looking for ways to solve the current problem but not rethinking or reframing in the current context. I want to talk to you about the tipping point.

We invented all of this. This is worth taking a moment to think. We invented every system, every government, every means of production, we organised ourselves into structures and companies, all the things we know, we invented. By understanding we invented we can embrace the notice we aren’t stuck with it. A lot of people start from the normative perspective that it is how it is and how do we improve it slightly but we don’t have to be constrained to assumption because *we* invented it. We can take a formative approach.

The reason this is important is because the world has fundamentally changed. The world has started from a lot of assumptions. This (slide) is a map of the world as it was known at the time, and it was known for a long time to be flat. And at some point it became known that the world was not flat and people had to change their perspective. If we don’t challenge those assumptions that underpin our systems, we run the significant risk of recreating the past with shiny new things. If we take whatever the shiny thing is today, like blockchain or social media 10 years ago, and take that shiny thing to do what we have always done, then how are we progressing? We are just “lifting and shifting” as they like to say, which as a technologist is almost the worst thing I can hear.

Actually understanding the assumptions that underpin what we do, understanding the goal that we have and what we are trying to achieve, and actually having to make sure that we intentionally choose to move forward with the assumptions that we want to take into the future is important because a lot of the biases and assumptions that underpin the systems that we have today were forged centuries or even millennia ago. A long time before the significant paradigm shifts we have seen.

So I’m going to talk a little bit about how things have changed. It’s not that the tipping point is happening. The tipping point has already happened. We have seen paradigm shifts with legacy systems of power and control. Individuals are more individually powerful than ever in the history of our species. If you think way back in hunter and gatherer times, everyone was individually pretty powerful then, but it didn’t scale. When we moved to cities we actually started to highly specialise and become interdependent and individually less powerful because we made these systems of control that were necessary to manage the surplus of resource, necessary to manage information. But what’s happened now through the independence movements creating a culture of everyone being individually powerful through individual worthy of rights, and then more recently with the internet becoming a distributor, enabler and catalyst of that, we are now seeing power massively distributed.

Think about it. Any individual around the world that can get online, admittedly that’s only two thirds of us but it’s growing every day, and everyone has the power to publish, to create, to share, to collaborate, to collude, to monitor. It’s not just the state monitoring the people but the people monitoring the state and people monitoring other people. There is the power to enforce your own perspective. And it doesn’t actually matter whether you think it’s a good or bad thing, it is the reality. It’s the shift. And if we don’t learn to embrace, understand and participate in it,particularly in government, then we actually make ourselves less relevant. Because one of the main things about this distribution of power, that the internet has taught us fundamentally as part of our culture that we have all started to adopt, is that you can route around damage. The internet was set up to be able to route around damage where damage was physical or technical. We started to internalise that socially and if you, in government, are seen to be damage, then people route around you. This is why we have to learn to work as a node in a network, not just a king in a castle, because kings don’t last anymore.

So which way is forward. The priority now needs to be deciding what sort of future do we want. Not what sort of past do we want to escape. The 21st century sees many communities emerging. They are hyper connected, transnational, multicultural, heavily interdependent, heavily specialised, rapidly changing and disconnected from their geopolitical roots. Some people see that as a reason to move away from having geopolitically formed states. Personally I believe there will always be a role for a geographic state because I need a way to scale a quality of life for my family along with my fellow citizens and neighbours. But what does that mean in an international sense. Are my rights as a human being being realised in a transnational sense. There are some really interesting questions about the needs of users beyond the individual services that we deliver, particularly when you look in a transnational way.

So a lot of these assumptions have become like a rusty anchor that kept us in place in high tide, but are drawing us to a dangerous reef as to water lowers. We need to figure out how to float on the water without rusty anchors to adapt to the tides of change.

There are a lot of pressures that are driving these changes of course. We are all feeling those pressures, those of us that are working in government. There’s the pressure of changing expectations, of history, from politics and the power shift. The pressure of the role of government in the 21st century. Pressure is a wonderful thing as it can be a catalyst of change, so we shouldn’t shy away from pressure, but recognising that we’re under pressure is important.

So let’s explore some of those power shifts and then what role could government play moving forward.

Paradigm #1: central to distributed.

This is about that shift in power, the independence movements and the internet. It is something people talk about but don’t necessarily apply to their work. Governments will talk about wanting to take a more distributed approach but followup with setting up “my” website expecting everyone to join or do something. How about everyone come to “my” office or create “my” own lab. Distributed, when you start to really internalise what that means, if different. I was lucky as I forged a lot of my assumptions and habits of working when I was involved in the Open Source community, and the Open Source community has a lot of lessons for rest of society because it is on the bleeding edge of a lot of these paradigm shifts. So working in a distributed way is to assume that you are not at the centre, to assume that you’re not needed. To assume that if you make yourself useful that people will rely on you, but also to assume that you rely on others and to build what you do in a way that strengthens the whole system. I like to talk about it as “Gov as a Platform”, sometimes that is confusing to people so let’s talk about it as “Gov as an enabler”. It’s not just government as a central command and controller anymore because the moment you create a choke point, people route around it. How do we become a government as an enabler of good things, and how can we use other mechanisms to create the controls in society. Rather than try to protect people from themselves, why not enable people to protect themselves. There are so many natural motivations in the community, in industry, in the broader sector that we serve, that we can tap into but traditionally we haven’t. Because traditionally we saw ourselves as the enforcer, as the one to many choke point. So working in a distributed way is not just about talking the talk, it’s about integrated it into the way we think.

Some other aspects of this include localised to globalised, keeping in mind that large multinational companies have become quite good at jurisdiction shopping for improvements of profits, which you can’t say is either a good or bad thing, it’s just a natural thing and how they’re naturally motivated. But citizens are increasingly starting to jurisdiction shop too. So I would suggest a role for government in the 21st century would be to create the best possible quality of life for people, because then you’ll attract the best from around the world.

The second part of central to distributed is simple to complex. I have this curve (on the slide) which shows green as complexity and red as government’s response to user needs. The green climbs exponentially whilst the red is pretty linear, with small increases or decreases over time, but not an exponential response by any means. Individual needs are no longer heavily localised. They are subject to local, national, transnational complexities with every extra complexity compounded, not linear. So the increasing complexities in people’s lives, and the obligations, taxation, services and entitlements, everything is going up. So there is a delta forming between what government can directly do, and what people need. So again I contend that the opportunity here particularly for the public sector is to actually be an enabler for all those service intermediaries – the for profit, non profit, civic tech – to help them help themselves, help them help their customers, by merit of making government a platform upon which they can build. We’ve had a habit and a history of creating public infrastructure, particularly in Australia, in New Zealand, in Canada, we’re been very good at building public infrastructure. Why have we not focused on digital infrastructure? Why do we see digital infrastructure as something that has to be cost recovered to be sustainable when we don’t have to do cost recovery for every thing public road. I think that looking at the cost benefits and value creation of digital public infrastructure needs to be looks at in the same way, and we need to start investing in digital public infrastructure.

Paradigm #2: analog to digital.

Or slow to very fast. I like to joke that we use lawyers as modems. If you think about regulation and policy, we write it, it is translated by a lawyer or drafter into regulation or policy, it is then translated by a lawyer or drafter or anyone into operational systems, business systems, helpdesk systems or other systems in society. Why wouldn’t we make our regulation as code? The intent of our regulation and our legislative regimes available to be directly consumed (by the systems) so that we can actually speed up, automate, improve consistency of application through the system, and have a feedback loop to understand whether policy changes are having the intended policy effect.

There are so many great things we can do when we start thinking about digital as something new, not just digitising an analog process. Innovation too long was interpreted as a digitisation of a process, basic process improvements. But real digitisation should a a transformation where you are changing the thing to better achieve the purpose or intent.

Paradigm #3: scarcity to surplus.

I think this is critical. We have a lot of assumptions in our systems that assume scarcity. Why do we still have so many of our systems assume scarcity when surplus is the opportunity. Between 3D printing and nanotech, we could be deconstructing and reconstructing new materials to print into goods and food and yet a large inhibitor of 3D printing progress is copyright. So the question I have for you is do we care more about an 18h century business model or do we care about solving the problems of our society. We need to make these choices. If we have moved to an era of surplus but we are getting increasing inequality, perhaps the systems of distribution are problematic? Perhaps in assuming scarcity we are protecting scarcity for the few at the cost of the many.

Paradigm #4: normative to formative

“Please comply”. For the last hundred years in particular we have perfected the art of broadcasting images of normal into our houses, particularly with radio and television. We have the concept of set a standard or rule and if you don’t follow we’ll punish you, so a lot of culture is about compliance in society. Compliance is important for stability, but blind compliance can create millstones. A formative paradigm is about not saying how it is but in exploring where you want to go. In the public service we are particularly good at compliance culture but I suggest that if we got more people thinking formatively, not just change for changes sake, but bringing people together on their genuinely shared purpose of serving the public, then we might be able to take a more formative approach to doing the work we do for the betterment of society rather than ticking the box because it is the process we have to follow. Formative takes us away from being consumers and towards being makers. As an example, the most basic form of normative human behaviour is in how we see and conform to being human. You are either normal, or you are not, based on some externally projected vision of normal. But the internet has shown us that no one is normal. So embracing that it is through our difference we are more powerful and able to adapt is an important part of our story and culture moving forward. If we are confident to be formative, we can always trying to create a better world whilst applying a critical eye to compliance so we don’t comply for compliance sake.

Exploring optimistic futures

Now on the back of these paradigm shifts, I’d like to briefly about the future. I spoke about the opportunity through surplus with 3D printing and nanotech to address poverty and hunger. What about the opportunities of rockets for domestic travel? It takes half an hour to get into space, an hour to traverse the world and half an hour down which means domestic retail transport by rocket is being developed right now which means I could go from New Zealand to Canada to work for the day and be home for tea. That shift is going to be enormous in so many ways and it could drive real changes in how we see work and internationalism. How many people remember Total Recall? The right hand picture is a self driving car from a movie in the 90s and is becoming normal now. Interesting fact, some of the car designs will tint the windows when they go through intersections because the passengers are deeply uncomfortable with the speed and closeness of self driving cars which can miss each other very narrowly compared to human driving. Obviously there are opportunities around AI, bots and automation but I think where it gets interesting when we think about opportunities of the future of work. We are still working on industrial assumptions that the number of hours that we have is a scarcity paradigm and I have to sell the number of hours that I work, 40, 50, 60 hours. Why wouldn’t we work 20 hours a week at a higher rate to meet our basic needs? Why wouldn’t we have 1 or 2 days a week where we could contribute to our civic duties, or art, or education. Perhaps we could jump start an inclusive renaissance, and I don’t mean cat pictures. People can’t thrive if they’re struggling to survive and yet we keep putting pressure on people just to survive. Again, we are from countries with quite strong safety nets but even those safety nets put huge pressure, paperwork and bureaucracy on our most vulnerable just to meet their basic needs. Often the process of getting access to the services and entitlements is so hard and traumatic that they can’t, so how do we close that gap so all our citizens can move from survival to thriving.

The last picture is a bit cheeky. A science fiction author William Gibson wrote Johnny Pneumonic and has a character in that book called Jones, a cyborg dolphin to sniff our underwater mines in warfare. Very dark, but the interesting concept there is in how Jones was received after the war: “he was more than a dolphin, but from another dolphin’s point of view he might have seemed like something less.” What does it mean to be human? If I lose a leg, right now it is assumed I need to replace that leg to be somehow “whole”. What if I want 4 legs. The human brain is able to adapt to new input. I knew a woman who got a small sphere filled with mercury and a free floating magnet in her finger, and the magnet spins according to frequency and she found over a short period of time she was able to detect changes in frequency. Why is that cool and interesting? Because the brain can adapt to foreign, non evolved input. I think that is mind blowing. We have the opportunity to augment our selves not to just conform to normal or be slightly better, faster humans. But we can actually change what it means to be human altogether. I think this will be one of the next big social challenges for society but because we are naturally so attracted to “shiny”, I think that discomfort will pass within a couple of generations. One prediction is that the normal Olympics has become boring and that we will move into a transhuman olympics where we take the leash off and explore the 100m sprint with rockets, or judo with cyborgs. Where the interest goes, the sponsorship goes, and more professional athletes compete. And what’s going to happen if your child says they want to be a professional transhuman olympian and that they will add wings or remove their legs for their professional career, to add them (or not) later? That’s a bit scary for many but at the same time, it’s very interesting. And it’s ok to be uncomfortable, it’s ok to look at change, be uncomfortable and ask yourself “why am I uncomfortable?” rather than just pushing back on discomfort. It’s critical more than ever, particularly in the public service that we get away from this dualistic good or bad, in or out, yours or mine and start embracing the grey.

The role of government?

So what’s the role of government in all this, in the future. Again these are just some thoughts, a conversation starter.

I think one of our roles is to ensure that individuals have the ability to thrive. Now I acknowledge I’m very privileged to have come from a social libertarian country that believe this, where people broadly believe they want their taxes to go to the betterment of society and not all countries have that assumption. But if we accept the idea that people can’t thrive if they can’t survive, then our baseline quality of life if you assume an individual starts from nothing with no privilege, benefits or family, provided by the state, needs to be good enough for the person to be able to thrive. Otherwise we get a basic structural problem. Part of that is becoming master buildings again, and to go to the Rawl’s example from Alistair before, we need empathy in what we do in government. The amount of times we build systems without empathy and they go terribly wrong because we didn’t think about what it would be like to be on the other side of that service, policy or idea. User centred design is just a systematisation of empathy, which is fantastic, but bringing empathy into everything we do is very important.

Leadership is a very important role for government. I think part of our role is to represent the best interests of society. I very strongly feel that we have a natural role to serve the public in the public sector, as distinct from the political sector (though citizens see us as the same thing). The role of a strong, independent public sector is more important than ever in a post facts “fake news” world because it is one of the only actors on the stage that is naturally motivated, naturally systemically motivated, to serve the best interests of the public. That’s why open government is so important and that’s why digital and open government initiatives align directly.

Because open with digital doesn’t scale, and digital without open doesn’t last.

Stability, predictability and balance. It is certainly a role of government to create confidence in our communities, confidence creates thriving. It is one thing to address Maslov’s pyramid of needs but if you don’t feel confident, if you don’t feel safe, then you still end up behaving in strange and unpredictable ways. So this is part of what is needed for communities to thrive. This relates to regulation and there is a theory that regulation is bad because it is hard. I would suggest that regulation is important for the stability and predictability in society but we have to change the way we deliver it. Regulation as code gets the balance right because you can have the settings and levers in the economy but also the ability for it to be automated, consumable, consistent, monitored and innovative. I imagine a future where I have a personal AI which I can trust because of quantum cryptography and because it is tethered in purpose to my best interests. I don’t have to rely on whether my interests happen to align with the purpose of a department, company or non-profit to get the services I need because my personal bot can figure out what I need and give me the options for me to make decisions about my life. It could deal with the Government AI to figure out the rules, my taxation, obligations, services and entitlements. Where is the website in all that? I ask this because the web was a 1990s paradigm, and we need more people to realise and plan around the idea that the future of service delivery is in building the backend of what we do – the business rules, transactions, data, content, models – in a modular consumable so we can shift channels or modes of delivery whether it is a person, digital service or AI to AI interaction.

Another role of government is in driving the skills we need for the 21st century. Coding is critical not because everyone needs to code (maybe they will) but more than that coding teaches you an assumption, an instinct, that technology is something that can be used by you, not something you are intrinsically bound to. Minecraft is the saviour of a generation because all those kids are growing up believing they can shape the world around them, not have to be shaped by the world around them. This harks back to the normative/formative shift. But we also need to teach critical thinking, teach self awareness, bias awareness, maker skills, community awareness. It has been delightful to move to New Zealand where they have a culture that has an assumed community awareness.

We need of course to have a strong focus on participatory democracy, where government isn’t just doing something to you but we are all building the future we need together. This is how we create a multi-processor world rather than a single processor government. This is how we scale and develop a better society but we need to move beyond “consultation” and into actual co-design with governments working collaboratively across the sectors and with civil society to shape the world.

I’ll finish on this note, government as an enabler, a platform upon which society can build. We need to build a way of working that assumes we are a node in the network, that assumes we have to work collaboratively, that assumes that people are naturally motivated to make good decisions for their life and how can government enable and support people.

So embrace the tipping point, don’t just react. What future do you want, what society do you want to move towards? I guess I’ve got to a point in my life where I see everything as a system and if I can’t connect the dots between what I’m doing and the purpose then I try to not do that thing. The first public service job I had I got in and automated a large proportion of the work within a couple of weeks and then asked for data.gov.au, and they gave it to me because I was motivated to make it better.

So I challenge you to be thinking about this every day, to consider your own assumptions and biases, to consider whether you are being normative or formative, to evaluate whether you are being iterative or transformative, to evaluate whether you are moving away from something or towards something. And to always keep in mind where you want to be, how you are contributing to a better society and to actively leave behind those legacy ideas that simply don’t serve us anymore.

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gov20 Government Tech

RegTech – a primer for the uninitiated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some useful references for the more curious:

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gov20 Government Tech

Iteration or Transformation in government: paint jobs and engines

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

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

Background

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

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

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

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

Gov as an API

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The three key advantages to taking this approach are:

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

Meaningful and mutually beneficial collaboration

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other early DTO lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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gov20 Government Tech

Personal submission to the Productivity Commission Review on Public Sector Data

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

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

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

The Importance of Vision

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

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

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

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

  • evidence based and iterative policy making and implementation;

  • transparent, accountable and responsible Government;

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

  • a more efficient, effective and responsive public service.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Current Landscape

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    • ABS (multi agency arrangement, ABS.Stat)

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

    • Immigration (analytics and data publishing)

    • Social Services (benefits of data publishing)

    • Treasury (Budget work)

    • ANDS (catalogue work and upskilling in research sector)

    • NDI (super computer functionality for science)

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

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

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

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

Som current risks/issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Benefits

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

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

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

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

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

Public Sector Data Principles

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

Principles:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommendations for the Public Data agenda

Strategic

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

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

Whole of government data infrastructure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grow consumer confidence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grow publisher capacity and motivation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Build data drive culture across APS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Implementation recommendations

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

Downloadable copy

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 Tech

Government as an API: how to change the system

A couple of months ago I gave a short speech about Gov as an API at an AIIA event. Basically I believe that unless we make government data, content and transaction services API enabled and mashable, then we are simply improving upon the status quo. 1000 services designed to be much better are still 1000 services that could be integrated for users, automated at the backend, or otherwise transformed into part of a system rather than the unique siloed systems that we have today. I think the future is mashable government, and the private sector has already gone down this path so governments need to catch up!

When I rewatched it I felt it captured my thoughts around this topic really well, so below is the video and the transcript. Enjoy! Comments welcome.

The first thing is I want to talk about gov as an API. This is kind of like data.gov.au on steroids, but this goes way above and beyond data and gets into something far more profound. But just a step back, the to the concept of Government as a platform. Around the world a lot of Governments have adopted the idea of Government as a platform: let’s use common platforms, let’s use common standards, let’s try and be more efficient and effective. It’s generally been interpreted as creating platforms within Government that are common. But I think that we can do a lot better.

So Government as an API is about making Government one big conceptual API. Making the stuff that Government does discoverable programmatically, making the stuff that it does consumable programmatically, making Government the platform or a platform on which industry and citizens and indeed other Governments can actually innovate and value add. So there are many examples of this which I’ll get to but the concept here is getting towards the idea of mashable Government. Now I’m not here representing my employers or my current job or any of that kind of stuff. I’m just here speaking as a geek in Government doing some cool stuff. And obviously you’ve had the Digital Transformation Office mentioned today. There’s stuff coming about that but I’m working in there at the moment doing some cool stuff that I’m looking forward to telling you all about. So keep an eye out.

But I want you to consider the concept of mashable Government. So Australia is a country where we have a fairly egalitarian democratic view of the world. So in our minds and this is important to note, in our minds there is a role for Government. Now there’s obviously some differences around the edges about how big or small or how much I should do or shouldn’t do or whatever but the concept is that, that we’re not going to have Government going anywhere. Government will continue to deliver things, Government has a role of delivering things. The idea of mashable Government is making what the Government does more accessible, more mashable. As a citizen when you want to find something out you don’t care which jurisdiction it is, you don’t care which agency it is, you don’t care in some cases you know you don’t care who you’re talking to, you don’t care what number you have to call, you just want to get what you need. Part of the problem of course is what are all the services of Government? There is no single place right now. What are all of the, you know what’s all the content, you know with over a thousand websites or more but with lots and lots of websites just in the Federal Government and thousands more across the state and territories, where’s the right place to go? And you know sometimes people talk about you know what if we had improved SEO? Or what if we had improved themes or templates and such. If everyone has improved SEO you still have the same exact problem today, don’t you? You do a google search and then you still have lots of things to choose from and which one’s authoritative? Which one’s the most useful? Which one’s the most available?

The concept of Government as an API is making content, services, API’s, data, you know the stuff that Government produces either directly or indirectly more available to collate in a way that is user centric. That actually puts the user at the centre of the design but then also puts the understanding that other people, businesses or Governments will be able to provide value on top of what we do. So I want to imagine that all of that is available and that everything was API enabled. I want you to imagine third party re-use new applications, I mean we see small examples of that today. So to give you a couple of examples of where Governments already experimenting with this idea. Data.gov.au obviously my little baby is one little example of this, it’s a microcosm. But whilst ever data, open data was just a list of things, a catalogue of stuff it was never going to be that high value.

So what we did when we re-launched data.gov.au a couple of years ago was we said what makes data valuable to people? Well programmatic access. Discovery is useful but if you can’t get access to it, it’s almost just annoying to be able to find it but not be able to access it. So how do we make it most useful? How do we make it most reusable, most high value in capacity shall we say? In potentia? So it was about programmatic access. It was about good meta data, it was about making it so it’s a value to citizens and industry but also to Government itself. If a Government agency needs to build a service, a citizen service to do something, rather than building an API to an internal system that’s privately available only to their application which would cost them money you know they could put the data in data.gov.au. Whether it’s spatial or tabular and soon to be relational, you know different data types have different data provision needs so being able to centralise that function reduces the cost of providing it, making it easy for agencies to get the most out of their data, reduce the cost of delivering what they need to deliver on top of the data also creates an opportunity for external innovation. And I know that there’s already been loads of applications and analysis and uses of data that’s on data.gov.au and it’s only increasing everyday. Because we took open data from being a retrospective, freedom of information, compliance issue, which was never going to be sexy, right? We moved it towards how you can do things better. This is how we can enable innovation. This is how agencies can find each other’s data better and re-use it and not have to keep continually repeat the wheel. So we built a business proposition for data.gov.au that started to make it successful. So that’s been cool.

There’s been experimentation of gov as an API in the ATO. With the SBR API. With the ABN lookup or ABN lookup API. There’s so many businesses out there. I’m sure there’s a bunch in the room. When you build an application where someone puts in a business name into a app or into an application or a transaction or whatever. You can use the ABN lookup API to validate the business name. So you know it’s a really simple validation service, it means that you don’t have, as unfortunately we have right now in the whole of Government contracts data set 279 different spellings for the Department of Defence. You can start to actually get that, use what Government already has as validation services, as something to build upon. You know I really look forward to having whole of Government up to date spatial data that’s really available so people can build value on top of it. That’ll be very exciting. You know at some point I hope that happens but. Industry, experimented this with energy ratings data set. It’s a very quick example, they had to build an app as you know Ministers love to see. But they built a very, very useful app to actually compare when you’re in the store. You know your fridges and all the rest of it to see what’s best for you. But what they found, by putting the data on data.gov.au they saved money immediately and there’s a brilliant video if you go looking for this that the Department of Industry put together with Martin Hoffman that you should have a look at, which is very good. But what they found is by having the data out there, all the companies, all the retail companies that have to by law put the energy rating of every electrical device they sell on their brochures traditionally they did it by goggling, right? What’s the energy rating of this, whatever other retail companies using we’ll use that.

Completely out of date and unauthorised and not true, inaccurate. So by having the data set publically available kept up to date on a daily basis, suddenly they were able to massively reduce the cost of compliance for a piece of regulatory you know, so it actually reduced red tape. And then other application started being developed that were very useful and you know Government doesn’t have all the answers and no one pretends that. People love to pretend also that Government also has no answers. I think there’s a healthy balance in between. We’ve got a whole bunch of cool, innovators in Government doing cool stuff but we have to work in partnership and part of that includes using our stuff to enable cool innovation out there.

ABS obviously does a lot of work with API’s and that’s been wonderful to see. But also the National Health Services Directory. I don’t know who, how many people here know that? But you know it’s a directory of thousands, tens of thousands, of health services across Australia. All API enabled. Brilliant sort of work. So API enabled computing and systems and modular program design, agile program design is you know pretty typical for all of you. Because you’re in industry and you’re kind of used to that and you’re used to getting up to date with the latest thing that’ll make you competitive.

Moving Government towards that kind of approach will take a little longer but you know, but it has started. But if you take an API enabled approach to your systems design it is relatively easy to progress to taking an API approach to exposing that publically.

So, I think I only had ten minutes so imagine if all the public Government information services were carefully, were usefully right, usefully discoverable. Not just through using a google search, which appropriate metadata were and even consumable in some cases, you know what if you could actually consume some of those transaction systems or information or services and be able to then re-use it somewhere else. Because when someone is you know about to I don’t know, have a baby, they google for it first right and then they go to probably a baby, they don’t think to come to government in the first instance. So we need to make it easier for Government to go to them. When they go to baby.com, why wouldn’t baby.com be able to present to them the information that they need from Government as well. This is where we’re starting to sort of think when we start following the rabbit warren of gov as an API.

So, start thinking about what you would use. If all of these things were discoverable or if even some of them were discoverable and consumable, how would you use it? How would you innovate? How would you better serve your customers by leveraging Government as an API? So Government has and always will play a part. This is about making Government just another platform to help enable our wonderful egalitarian and democratic society. Thank you very much.

Postnote: adopting APIs as a strategy, not just a technical side effect is key here. Adopting modular architecture so that agencies can adopt the best of breed components for a system today, tomorrow and into the future, without lock in. I think just cobbling APIs on top of existing systems would miss the greater opportunity of taking a modular architecture design approach which creates more flexible, adaptable, affordable and resilient systems than the traditional single stack solution.

Categories
Aus Community gov20 Government Tech

Returning to data and Gov 2.0 from the DTO

I have been working at the newly created Digital Transformation Office in the Federal Government since January this year helping to set it up, create a vision, get some good people in and build some stuff. I was working in and then running a small, highly skilled and awesome team focused on how to dramatically improve information (websites) and transaction services across government. This included a bunch of cool ideas around whole of government service analytics, building a discovery layer (read APIs) for all government data, content and services, working with agencies to improve content and SEO, working on reporting mechanisms for the DTO, and looking at ways to usefully reduce the huge number of websites currently run by the Federal public service amongst other things. You can see some of our team blog posts about this work.

It has been an awesome trip and we built some great stuff, but now I need to return to my work on data, gov 2.0 and supporting the Australian Government CTO John Sheridan in looking at whole of government technology, procurement and common platforms. I can also work more closely with Sharyn Clarkson and the Online Services Branch on the range of whole of government platforms and solutions they run today, particularly the highly popular GovCMS. It has been a difficult choice but basically it came down to where my skills and efforts are best placed at this point in time. Plus I miss working on open data!

I wanted to say a final public thank you to everyone I worked with at the DTO, past and present. It has been a genuine privilege to work in the diverse teams and leadership from across over 20 agencies in the one team! It gave me a lot of insight to the different cultures, capabilities and assumptions in different departments, and I think we all challenged each other and created a bigger and better vision for the effort. I have learned much and enjoyed the collaborative nature of the broader DTO team.

I believe the DTO has two major opportunities ahead: as a a force of awesome and a catalyst for change. As a force of awesome, the DTO can show how delivery and service design can be done with modern tools and methods, can provide a safe sandpit for experimentation, can set the baseline for the whole APS through the digital service standard, and can support genuine culture change across the APS through training, guidance and provision of expertise/advisers in agencies. As a catalyst for change, the DTO can support the many, many people across the APS who want transformation, who want to do things better, and who can be further empowered, armed and supported to do just that through the work of the DTO. Building stronger relationships across the public services of Australia will be critical to this broader cultural change and evolution to modern technologies and methodologies.

I continue to support the efforts of the DTO and the broader digital transformation agenda and I wish Paul Shetler and the whole team good luck with an ambitious and inspiring vision for the future. If we could all make an approach that was data/evidence driven, user centric, mashable/modular, collaborative and cross government(s) the norm, we would overcome the natural silos of government, we would establish the truly collaborative public service we all crave and we would be better able to support the community. I have long believed that the path of technical integrity is the most important guiding principle of everything I do, and I will continue to contribute to the broader discussions about “digital transformation” in government.

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