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Reflections on public sector transformation and COVID

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

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

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

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

Faux transformation

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

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

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

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

So what does good transformation look like?

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

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

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

COVID-19

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

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

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

Last word

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

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Sadly leaving the NSW Government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Digital government: it all starts with open

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

<Conference introductory remarks>

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

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

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

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

<closing conference remarks>

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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.

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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 🙂

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Vivek Kundra and some lessons learnt about tech in gov

Last night I heard Vivek Kundra speak about innovation, technology and Gov 2.0 at a dinner hosted by AIIA and Salesforce. It was a fascinating talk in that it exceeded my expectations significantly.

I had reasonable expectations that his experience as CIO of the US Federal Government and his insights to the US open government agenda would be interesting, but he also talked about the “epic war between the status quo and progress”, the inertia in government, the major shift in power from gov to the people, how tech in enabling a new form of democracy, the need to hire great people (and get rid of those not on board) and how issues like SOPA demonstrate that the people can overturn traditional power broker agendas through grassroots efforts.

He also spoke about the need to reform gov IT procurement practices to demand good services from the sector, to put them on notice and to engage smaller innovative players in the market. It was fascinating to see someone who was so senior in government take that strong a stance, but it makes sense. Government is the number one purchaser of tech, so how it engages the market has a profound impact. And as a huge customer, government should be able to demand the best possible service. At the same time, without great people internally who are empowered and incentivised, it’s hard to drive progress.

When asked how to actually drive tech innovation in government, policy, procurement and workforce reforms were very important, but fundamentally workforce. Vivek said that there needs to be rigour in hiring practices, a culture of getting the best people into the public service, a culture that rejects blockers and gets rid of those who don’t get on board with progress.

Some comments from Vivek that I thought useful and thought provoking (as captured by live tweeting on #gov2au from the evening):

  • The danger is to not move, to play safe. It’s vital to move and be thoughtful but bold to use the opportunity.
  • Often Gov collaboration is stalled by an us vs them attitude. This needs to be overcome.
  • It is now easier to innovate and compete due to new tech, and those that innovate dominate, as they fill the space.
  • Indian gov drove aggressive FOI changes, results of the transformation was short term pushback and issues, but longer term transparency and improvement of gov.
  • NBN is an enormous and exciting opportunity for Australia and for open government and Australia can play a leadership role.

I have to say, it was very interesting and stimulating. It kicked off some great discussions in the group too.

I have seen a few people respond to the Vivek coverage quite negatively. There is, of course, a lot of hype and fluff out there around Gov 2.0 and “cloud”, but it doesn’t mean you don’t listen critically, research what people say and come to your own conclusions. I am constantly surprised by people who insist on loudly voicing blatant cynicism, pessimism and general negativity, seemingly oblivious to the fact that this establishes a narrative that undermines the (often) valid and good points they are trying to make, whilst making it harder for other people to get actually get things done.

I would like to put out there that the more leadership shown by everyone in the tech community, especially the Gov 2.0 community and the media, the better a chance we all have of achieving great things.

Be the change you want to see, and all that 🙂

I highly recommend people check out Vivek’s talk from the AIIA Summit on Cloud. It was a good example of thought leadership by a person who has actually got things done, a change agent who has made a difference. I’ve been told you should be able to watch it and all the summit talks online here tonight.

Thank you to Loretta form AIIA and Phil from Salesforce for agreeing to have Vivek speak to the Gov 2.0 community. A big thanks to Vivek too, it was great to meet you 🙂 People can follow Vivek on @vivekkundra on Twitter.

It is worth mentioning that neither the AIIA nor Salesforce asked for anything in return for doing a Gov 2.0 discussion with Vivek, Salesforce paid for the dinner after the talk, and in the interview below I spoke with Vivek off the cuff without any direction from AIIA or Salesforce.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QNMj4jd3q88[/youtube]

TRANSCRIPT

Pia: So I’m here with Vivek Kundra, he’s here in Australia touring around and talking to a lot of people and I just thought I’d take the opportunity to ask him a couple of questions for the Gov 2.0 community peeps out there, around Australia.

So, hi, welcome to Australia.

Vivek: Thanks for chatting with me, I appreciate it.

Pia: Yeah, that’s cool. Can you just give us a bit of an overview about your ideas on driving tech innovation in government. What you see to be the core things you need to do?

Vivek: Well obviously it always starts with the people and one of the most important things that needs to happen in government, around the world, is they need to be able to hire the right kind of people to drive innovation and be change agents. You can’t legislate and you can’t essentially mandate innovation itself so it starts with that.

Secondly I think you need need bold leadership. If you look at what President Obama did, he made technology a central part of how his administration was going to achieve some of the policy objectives that he had set out.

And the third, you need to be able to distrupt the status quo by making sure that you have a culture that celebrates failure. That doesn’t actually go out there and punish those that are at the bleeding edge.

Pia: And, I mean, if you’ve got that leadership  at the top level and you’ve got your, you’ll always have your enthusiastic geeks at the grassroots level, how do you drive that change in that rather large middle level?

Vivek: I should think it’s easier if you have a number of people on the front lines. The geeks kinda banding together trying to find a new way. But you’ve got to be able to make sure is that the middle management, unfortunately a lot of times you have people who are incentivised by the number of dollars that they manage and the number of years they’ve been in the job and that’s where from a political leadership perspective it’s very very important to make sure that you’re reaching out and embracing those that are on the front lines that understand the issues and understand the innovation that must be driven, and frankly reward those managers that are going to support, encourage and embrace that notion and that culture and those people.

At the same time the reality is, and we don’t talk about this often, we also have to be able to make the hard choices. If there are managers or people that are getting in the way, the Dr No’s, they are basically in deleriction of their duty. And what I mean by that is that’s not what the people of a country expect of their government. They’re basically putting their personal interests over the interests of the people.

Pia: OK, and finally ‘cos we don’t have a lot of time, what are your observations and thoughts about what is happening in Australia and some of the opportunities and challenges for Australia? Seeing you’re here and seeing what’s going on.

Vivek: Well I’m actually very excited. I think it’s amazing country with an entrepreneurial culture, to the number of meetings I’ve had and meeting people like you who are doing some amazing work in the public sector, whether it’s been public participation, fundamentally rethinking what a modern democracy looks like.

I’ve also seen some of the really really bold steps that are being taken to invest in strategic infrastructure. So the National Broadband Network is one example. You look at what’s happening as far as the government’s concerned. You’re seeing some of these technologies come into the goveernment.

But the fear I have is that you want to make sure you continue on that trajectory. It’s very easy for those people in the government who want to preserve the status quo to win out. And I think there is an epic battle going on between the past and the future. And it’s really really important that, from a policy perspective, that there are appropriate incentives for those who are architecting the future, to be the ones that are driving the country.

Pia: And do you think that epic battle presents a bit of a power shift from small groups of people to the broader community to engage…

Vivek: Well absolutely, it’s clear. We see it every day, whether it’s in Australia or anywhere else in the world. Therre is this shift in power from a few government officials behind closed doors to the masses, it’s real. And technologies that didn’t exist before exist today that have made this possible in terms of the very structures that are needed.

So the ability for anyone with a front row seat to their government with a mobile device. That’s amazing! We don’t think about it, we take it for granted, but now every citizen can be a co-creator. Every citizen can be a watchdog and hold their government accountable. Every citizen can actually go out there and be part of the digital public square and that is what I think is super exciting about the time we are living in.

Pia: Yep, sure. Well thank you very much.

Vivek: Thank you.

Pia: And I look forward to next time you come to Australia.

Categories
Government Tech

Cloud computing: finding the silver lining

Working in a political office means I am privy to the sorts of sales pitches that lobbyists, industry and community groups are constantly pushing on politicians. It can be weird, informative, amusing and at times plain scary, and I’m really valuing the critical thinking subject I took at University to help me better assess everything that comes my way 🙂

Anyway, seeing my passion and expertise is around technology, I do try to keep across what is happening as much as I can. Most of the big ICT companies are pushing the cloud computing pitch extremely hard, but I’ve found the moment you ask many of them questions about privacy, data portability, data export & archival, open standards, interoperability and issues of jurisdiction, just to name a few, they seem to baulk.

I think there are certainly a lot of opportunities in ‘the cloud’, but I think there is a lot of hype around this topic and I wanted to jot down a few thoughts that I think people should take into consideration when looking into cloud computing strategies. This is not a highly technical overview, but rather a bit of a mythbuster for those without a technical background to help in navigating the hype.

Sam Johnston pointed out to me earlier tonight a useful basic approach to ensuring you get an open cloud service which provides for the interoperability, portability and strategic control you want to maintain when moving to the cloud. If you have any good resources about cloud computing, please add it to the comments 🙂

I also strongly recommend you read the Open Cloud Manifesto which talks about this issue in greater depth, and touches upon other elements to consider when moving to the cloud.

Where is the cloud?

The term cloud computing came from the idea of services being delivered over the Internet, because the Internet has traditionally been represented  on network diagrams as, you guessed it, a cloud. Some people use the term as the new SOA (and for all those who had to deal with the onslaught of SOA hype, you may enjoy http://soafacts.com/) and cloud can mean pretty much anything, which is why it is important to clarify what your vendor is trying to sell you. After all, services running in the cloud are still running on servers somewhere, so moving stuff to the cloud is moving stuff to someone else’s infrastructure and hoping they do a better, cheaper job.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t use cloud computing, but you should be very careful to understand exactly what you are getting, and you should be strategic. Charles Stross fans will already be familiar with the idea of the separation of data and processing power, and the cloud can provide enormous processing power without you having to necessarily hand over the reins to your data or your technology strategy. Cloud computing is not an all or nothing option.

Personally I believe you should always choose the best of breed tool for the job, committing to open standards and interoperability, and then you can mash tech together for your exact best needs rather than shifting to and away from cumbersome large solutions that try to be everything, and end up doing nothing particularly well, but I’ll leave that for another blog post 🙂

Saving the environment?

Whilst there is certainly an argument to consolidating old and largely unused hardware to reduce your carbon footprint and electricity bills, moving things into the cloud does not magically reduce your carbon footprint to zero. As mentioned, there are still servers out there, so the environmental benefits can be calculated by how much better the vendor is at efficiently using their infrastructure, than you. Again, it is just worth investigating the detail to understand the actual environmental impact, if this is important to you. Remember, refrigeration is a big contributor to carbon emissions, so it isn’t just about the hardware 🙂

How much money can I save?

There are certainly some great opportunities to save money by using cloud computing for some of your systems. Often you can get online services that can be cheaper than the cost of maintaining and running your own systems. It might be worthwhile to consider the cost against that of shared services under your control though rather than looking straight to the “cloud”. For instance, in Australia there is a large amount of projects around government data centre consolidation, where some costs savings can be found but the data, software, infrastructure and strategy stays under their control.

It is also worth considering the exit cost of any new solutions. Can you get access to export your data at any time, is it safely archived somewhere you can access in the unlikely but possible case of your cloud provider folding, or a contract disagreement? Can you migrate your data/service from the cloud vendor to another vendor/solution relatively easily? These are all important considerations when faced with “the cloud will save you money”.

What about my data?

What format is your data stored in within the cloud? Physically where is the data and what are you legal obligations in relation to data? This is an important concern for government where you shouldn’t store particular data sets outside of your legal jurisdiction, and government departments and agencies often have quite stringent privacy and other obligations.

Can you get immediate access to the most recent data if the “cloud” dissipates (had to make a joke like this sometime, sorry)? Where is the data archived? If you can export your data, is it available in a format that other applications can use?

All these are important considerations, because if your data is being updated in the cloud, but is not truly retrievable, you have a real problem.

The silver lining

There are a lot of opportunities to be found in cloud computing and you will find many, many blogs and presentations espousing the benefits of cloud computing. I wanted to write a short blog post to help people consider some of the issues. If you choose to move some stuff into the cloud, you are choosing to hand over the keys to your most treasured possession, so you need to make sure you aren’t locking yourself out.

You aren’t powerless in this transaction. You need to know what you want, know your exit strategy, be sure that your cloud solution is open enough to be flexible and interoperable, be comfortable with how much control you are giving up, and be sure you retain enough control to meet your obligations.

If you are comfortable with all of this, you can engage confidently with cloud vendors and demand what you need rather than being content with what you are offered 🙂