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.

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.

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>

My personal OGPau submission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck everyone, let’s do this 🙂

Embrace your inner geek: speech to launch QUT OSS community

This was a speech I gave in Brisbane to launch the QUT OSS group. It talks about FOSS, hacker culture, open government/data, and why we all need to embrace our inner geek 🙂

Welcome to the beginning of something magnificent. I have had the luck, privilege and honour to be involved in some pretty awesome things over the 15 or so years I’ve been in the tech sector, and I can honestly say it has been my involvement in the free and Open Source software community that has been one of the biggest contributors.

It has connected me to amazing and inspiring geeks and communities nationally and internationally, it has given me an appreciation of the fact that we are exactly as free as the tools we use and the skills we possess, it has given me a sense of great responsibility as part of the pioneer warrior class of our age, and it has given me the instincts and tools to do great things and route around issues that get in the way of awesomeness.

As such it is really excited to be part of launching this new student focused Open Source group at QUT, especially one with academic and industry backing so congratulations to QUT, Red Hat, Microsoft and Tech One.

It’s also worth mentioning that Open Source skills are in high demand, both nationally and internationally, and something like 2/3 of Open Source developers are doing so in some professional capacity.

So thanks in advance for having me, and I should say up front that I am here in a voluntary capacity and not to represent my employer or any other organisation.

Who am I? Many things: martial artist, musician, public servant, recently recovered ministerial adviser, but most of all, I am a proud and reasonably successful geek.

Geek Culture

So firstly, why does being a geek make me so proud? Because technology underpins everything we do in modern society. It underpins industry, progress, government, democracy, a more empowered, equitable and meritocratic society. Basically technology supports and enhances everything I care about, so being part of that sector means I can play some small part in making the world a better place.

It is the geeks of this world that create and forge the world we live in today. I like to go to non-geek events and tell people who usually take us completely for granted, “we made the Internet, you’re welcome”, just to try to embed a broader appreciation for tech literacy and creativity.

Geeks are the pioneers of the modern age. We are carving out the future one bit at a time, and leading the charge for mainstream culture. As such we have, I believe, a great responsibility to ensure our powers are used to improve life for all people, but that is another lecture entirely.

Geek culture is one of the driving forces of innovation and progress today, and it is organisations that embrace technology as an enabler and strategic benefit that are able to rapidly adapt to emerging opportunities and challenges.

FOSS culture is drawn very strongly from the hacker culture of the 60’s and 70’s. Unfortunately the term hacker has been stolen by the media and spooks to imply bad or illegal behaviours, which we would refer to as black hat hacking or cracking. But true hacker culture is all about being creative and clever with technology, building cool stuff, showing off one’s skills, scratching an itch.

Hacker culture led to free software culture in the 80’s and 90’s, also known as Open Source in business speak, which also led to a broader free culture movement in the 90’s and 00’s with Creative Commons, Wikipedia and other online cultural commons. And now we are seeing a strong emergence of open government and open science movements which is very exciting.

Open Source

A lot of people are aware of the enormity of Wikipedia. Even though Open Source well predates Wikipedia, it ends up being a good tool to articulate to the general population the importance of Open Source.

Wikipedia is a globally crowdsourced phenomenon than, love it or hate it, has made knowledge more accessible than every before. I personally believe that the greatest success of Wikipedia is in demonstrating that truth is perception, and the “truth” held in the pages of Wikipedia ends up, ideally anyway, being the most credible middle ground of perspectives available. The discussion pages of any page give a wonderful insight to any contradicting perspectives or controversies and it teaches us the importance of taking everything with a grain of salt.

Open Source is the software equivalent of Wikipedia. There are literally hundreds of thousands if not millions of Open Source software projects in the world, and you would used thousands of the most mature and useful ones every day, without even knowing it. Open Source operating systems like Linux or MINIX powers your cars, devices, phones, telephone exchanges and the majority of servers and super computers in the world. Open Source web tools like WordPress, Drupal or indeed WikiMedia (the software behind Wikipedia) power an enormous amount of websites you go to everyday. Even Google heavily uses Open Source software to build the worlds most reliable infrastructure. If Google.com doesn’t work, you generally check your own network reliability first.

Open Source is all about people working together to scratch a mutual itch, sharing in the development and maintenance of software that is developed in an open and collaborative way. You can build on the top of existing Open Source software platforms as a technical foundation for innovation, or employ Open Source development methodologies to better innovate internally. I’m still terrified by the number of organisations I see that don’t use base code revision systems and email around zip files!

Open Source means you can leverage expertise far beyond what you could ever hope to hire, and you build your business around services. The IT sector used to be all about services before the proprietary lowest common denominator approach to software emerged in the 80s.

But we have seen the IT sector largely swing heavily back to services, except in the case on niche software markets, and companies compete on quality of services and whole solution delivery rather than specific products. Services companies that leverage Open Source often find their cost of delivery lower, particularly in the age of “cloud” software as a service, where customers want to access software functionality as a utility based on usage.

Open Source can help improve quality and cost effectiveness of technology solutions as it creates greater competition at the services level.

The Open Source movement has given us an enormous collective repository of stable, useful, innovative, responsive and secure software solutions. I must emphasise secure because many eyes reviewing code means a better chance of identifying and fixing issues. Security through obscurity is a myth and it always frustrates me when people buy into the line that Open Source is somehow less secure than proprietary solutions because you can see the code.

If you want to know about government use of Open Source, check out the Open Source policy on the Department of Finance and Deregulation website. It’s a pretty good policy not only because it encourages procurement processes to consider Open Source equally, but because it encourages government agencies to contribute to and get involved in the Open Source community.

Open Government

It has been fascinating to see a lot of Open Source geeks taking their instincts and skills with them into other avenues. And to see non-technical and non-Open Source people converging on the same basic principles of openness and collaboration for mutual gain from completely different avenues.

For me, the most exciting recent evolution of hacker ethos is the Open Government movement.

Open Government has always been associated with parliamentary and bureacratic transparency bureaucratic, such as Freedom of Information and Hansard.

I currently work primarily on the nexus where open government meets technology. Where we start to look at what government means in a digital age where citizens are more empowered than ever before, where globalisation challenges sovereignty, where the need to adapt and evolve in the public service is vital to provide iterative, personalised and timely responses to new challenges and opportunities both locally and globally.

There are three key pillars of what we like to call “Government 2.0”. A stupid term I know, but bear with me:

  1. Participatory governance – this is about engaging the broader public in the decision making processes of government to both leverage the skills, expertise and knowledge of the population for better policy outcomes, and to give citizens a way to engage directly with decisions and programs that affect their every day lives. Many people think about democratic engagement as political engagement, but I content that the public service has a big role to play in engaging citizens directly in co-developing the future together.
  2. Citizen centricity – this is about designing government services with the citizen at the centre of the design. Imagine if you will, and I know many in the room are somewhat technical, imagine government as an API, where you can easily aggregate information and services thematically or in a deeply personalised way for citizens, regardless of the structure or machinery of government changes. Imagine being able to change your address in one location, and have one place to ask questions or get the services you need. This is the vision of my.gov.au and indeed there are several initiatives that delivery on this vision including the Canberra Connect service in the ACT, which is worth looking at. In the ACT you can go into any Canberra Connect location for all your Territory/Local government needs, and they then interface with all the systems of that government behind the scenes in a way that is seamless to a citizen. It is vital that governments and agencies start to realise that citizens don’t care about the structures of government, and neither should they have to. It is up to us all to start thinking about how we do government in a whole of government way to best serve the public.
  3. Open and transparent government – this translates as both parliamentary transparency, but also opening up government data and APIs. Open data also opens up opportunities for greater analysis, policy development, mobile service delivery, public transaprency and trust, economic development through new services and products being developed in the private sector, and much more.

Open Data

Open data is very much my personal focus at the moment. I’m now in charge of data.gov.au, which we are in the process of migrating to an excellent Open Source data repository called CKAN which will be up soon. There is currently a beta up for people to play with.

I also am the head cat herder for a volunteer run project called GovHack which ran only just a week ago, where we had 1000 participants from 8 cities, including here in Brisbane, all working with government data to build 130 new hacks including mashups, data visualisations, mobile and other applications, interactive websites and more. GovHack shows clearly the benefits to society when you open up government data for public use, particularly if it is available in a machine readable way and is available under a very permissive copyright such as Creative Commons.

I would highly recommend you check out my blog posts about open data around the world from when I went to a conference in Helsinki last year and got to meet luminaries in this space including Hans Rosling, Dr Tim Hubbard and Rufus Pollock. I also did some work with the New Zealand Government looking at NZ open data practice and policy which might be useful, where we were also able to identify some major imperatives for changing how governments work.

The exciting thing is how keen government agencies in Federal, State, Territory and Local governments are to open up their data! To engage meaningfully with citizens. And to evolve their service delivery to be more personalised and effective for everyone. We are truly living in a very exciting time for technologists, democracy and the broader society.

Though to be fair, governments don’t really have much choice. Citizens are more empowered than ever before and governments have to adapt, delivery responsive, iterative and personalised services and policy, or risk losing relevance. We have seen the massive distribution now of every traditional bastion of power, from publishing, communications, monitoring, enforcement, and even property is about to dramatically shift, with the leaps in 3D printing and nano technologies. Ultimately governments are under a lot of pressure to adapt the way we do things, and it is a wonderful thing.

The Federal Australian Government already has in place several policies that directly support opening up government data:

Australia has also recently signed up to the Open Government Partnership, an international consortia of over 65 governments which will be a very exciting step for open data and other aspects of open government.

At the State and Territory level, there is also a lot of movement around open data. Queensland and the ACT launched your new open data platform late last year with some good success. NSW and South Australia have launched new platforms in the last few weeks with hundreds of new data sets. Western Australia and Victoria have been publishing some great data for some time and everyone is looking at how they can do so better!

Many local governments have been very active in trying to open up data, and a huge shout out to the Gold Coast City Council here in Queensland who have been working very hard and doing great things in this space!

It is worth noting that the NSW government currently have a big open data policy consultation happening which closes on the 17th June and is well worth looking into and contributing to.

Embracing geekiness

One of my biggest bug bears is when people say “I’m sorry the software can’t do that”. It is the learned helplessness of the tech illiterate that is our biggest challenge for innovating and being globally competitive, and as countries like Australia are overwhelming well off, with the vast majority of our citizens living high quality lives, it is this learned helplessness that is becoming the difference between the haves and have nots. The empowered and the disempowered.

Teaching everyone to embrace their inner geek isn’t just about improving productivity, efficiency, innovation and competitiveness, it is about empowering our people to be safer, smarter, more collaborative and more empowered citizens in a digital world.

If everyone learnt and experienced even the tiniest amount of programming, we would all have embedded that wonderful instinct that says “the software can do whatever we can imagine”.

Open Source communities and ethos gives us a clear vision as to how we can overcome every traditional barrier to collaboration to make awesome stuff in a sustainable way. It teaches us that enlightened self interest in the age of the Internet translates directly to open and mutually beneficial collaboration.

We can all stand on the shoulders of giants that have come before, and become the giants that support the next generation of pioneers. We can all contribute to making this world just a bit more awesome.

So get out there, embrace your inner geek and join the open movement. Be it Open Source, open government or open knowledge, and whatever your particular skills, you can help shape the future for us all.

Thank you for coming today, thank you to Jim for inviting me to be a part of this launch, and good luck to you all in your endeavours with this new project. I look forward to working with you to create the future of our society, together.

My NZ Open Data and Digital Government Adventure

On a recent trip to New Zealand I spent three action packed days working with Keitha Booth and Alison Stringer looking at open data. These two have an incredible amount of knowledge and experience to share, and it was an absolute pleasure to work with them, albeit briefly. They arranged meetings with about 3000* individuals from across different parts of the NZ government to talk about everything from open data, ICT policy, the role of government in a digital era, iterative policy, public engagement and the components that make up a feasible strategy for all of the above.

It’s important to note, I did this trip in a personal capacity only, and was sure to be clear I was not representing the Australian government in any official sense. I saw it as a bit of a public servant cultural exchange, which I think is probably a good idea even between agencies let alone governments 😉

I got to hear about some of the key NZ Government data projects, including data.govt.nz, data.linz.govt.nz, the statistical data service, some additional geospatial and linked data work, some NZ government planning and efforts around innovation and finding more efficient ways to do tech, and much more. I also found myself in various conversations with extremely clever people about science and government communications, public engagement, rockets, circus and more.

It was awesome, inspiring, informative and exhausting. But this blog post aims to capture the key ideas from the visit. I’d love your feedback on the ideas/frameworks below, and I’ll extrapolate on some of these ideas in followup posts.

I’m also looking forward to working more collaboratively with my colleagues in New Zealand, as well as from across all three spheres of government in Australia. I’d like to set up a way for government people in the open data and open government space across Australia/New Zealand to freely share information and technologies (in code), identify opportunities to collaborate, share their policies and planning for feedback and ideas, and generally work together for more awesome outcomes all round. Any suggestions for how best to do this? 🙂 GovDex? A new thing? Will continue public discussions on the Gov 2.0 mailing list, but I think it’ll be also useful to connect govvies privately whilst encouraging individuals and agencies to promote their work publicly.

This blog post is a collaboration with the wonderful Alison Stringer, in a personal capacity only. Enjoy!

* 3000 may be a wee stretch 🙂

Table of Contents

Open Data

  • Strategic/Policy Building Blocks
  • Technical Building Blocks
  • References

Digital and Open Government

  • Some imperatives for changing how we do government
  • Policy/strategic components

Open data

Strategic/policy building blocks

Below are some basic building blocks we have found to be needed for an open data strategy to be sustainable and effective in gaining value for both the government and the broader community including industry, academia and civil society. It is based on the experiences in NZ, Aus and discussions with open data colleagues around the world. Would love your feedback, and I’ll expand this out to a broader post in the coming weeks.

  • Policy– open as the default, specifically encouraging and supporting a proactive and automated disclosure of government information in an appropriate, secure and sustainable way. Ideally, each policy should be managed as an iterative and live document that responds to changing trends, opportunities and challenges:
    • Copyright and licensing – providing clear guidance that government information can be legally used. Using simple, permissive and known/trusted licences is important to avoid confusion.
    • Procurement – procurement policy creates a useful and efficient lever to establish proactive “business as usual” disclosure of information assets, by requiring new systems to support such functionality and publishing in open data formats from the start. This also means the security and privacy of data can be built into the system.
    • Proactive publishing – a policy of proactive disclosure helps avoid the inefficiencies of retrospective data publishing. It is important to also review existing assets and require an implementation plan from all parts of government on how they will open up their information assets, and then measure, monitor and report on the progress.
  • Legislation – ensuring any legislative blockers to publishing data are sorted, for instance, in some jurisdictions civil servants are personally liable if someone takes umbrage to the publication of something. Indeed there may be some issues here that are perceptions as opposed to reality. A review of any relevant legislation and plan to fix any blockers to publishing information assets is recommended.
  • Leadership/permission – this is vital, especially in early days whilst open data is still being integrated as business as usual. It should be as senior as possible.
  • Resourcing – it is very hard to find new money in governments in the current fiscal environment. However, we do have people. Resourcing the technical aspects of an open data project would only need a couple of people and a little infrastructure that can both host and point to data and data services. The UK open data platform runs on less than £460K per year, including the costs of three staff). But there needs to be a policy of distributed publishing. In the UK there are ~760 registered publishers of data throughout government. It would be useful to have at least one data publisher (probably to work part of their job only and alongside the current senior agency data champion role) who spends a day or two a week just seeking out and publishing data for their department, and identifying opportunities to automate data publishing with the data.govt.nz team.
  • Value realisation – including:
    • Improved policy development across government through better and early access to data and tools to use data
    • Knowledge transfer across government, especially given so many senior public servants are retiring in the coming years
    • Improved communication of complex issues to the public, better public engagement and exploration of data – especially with data visualisation tools
    • Monitoring, reporting, measuring clear outcomes (productivity savings, commercialisation, new business or products/projects, innovation in government, improved efficiency in Freedom of Information responses, efficiencies in not replicating data or reports, effectiveness and metrics around projects, programs and portfolios)
    • Application of data in developing citizen centric services and information
    • Supporting and facilitating commercialisation opportunities
  • Agency collaboration – the importance of agency collaboration can not be overstated. Especially on sharing/using/reusing data, on sharing knowledge and skills, on public engagement and communications. Also on working together where projects or policy areas might be mutually beneficial and on public engagement such that there is a consistent and effective dialogue with citizens. This shouldn’t be a bottlenecked approach, but rather a distributed network of individuals at different levels and in different functions.
  • Technology – need to have the right bits in place, or the best policy/vision won’t go anywhere 🙂 See below for an extrapolation on the technical building blocks.
  • Public engagement – a public communications and engagement strategy is vital to build and support a community of interest and innovation around government data.

Technical building blocks

Below are some potential technical building blocks for supporting a whole of government(s) approach to information management, proactive publishing and collaboration. Let me know what you think I’m missing 🙂

Please note, I am not in any way suggesting this should be a functional scope for a single tool. On the contrary, I would suggest for each functional requirement the best of breed tool be found and that there be a modular approach such that you can replace components as they are upgraded or as better alternatives arise. There is no reason why a clever frontend tool couldn’t talk to a number of backend services.

  • Copyright and licensing management – if an appropriately permissive copyright licence is applied to data/content at the point of creation, and stored in the metadata, it saves on the cost of administration down the track. The Australian Government default license has been determined as Creative Commons BY, so agencies and departments should use that, regardless of whether the data/content is ever publishing publicly. The New Zealand government recommends CC-BY as the default for data and information published for re-use.
  • An effective data publishing platform(s) (see Craig Thomler’s useful postabout different generations of open data platforms) that supports the publishing, indexing and federation of data sources/services including:
    • Geospatial data – one of the pivotal data sets required for achieving citizen centric services, and in bringing the various other datasets together for analysis and policy development.
    • Real time data – eg, buses, weather, sensor networks
    • Statistical data – eg census and surveys, where raw access to data is only possible through an API that gives a minimum number of results so as to make individual identification difficult
    • Tabular data – such as spreadsheets or databases of records in structured format
  • Identity management – for publishers at the very least.
  • Linked data and metadata system(s) – particularly where such data can be automatically inferred or drawn from other systems.
  • Change control – the ability to push or take updates to datasets, or multiple files in a dataset, including iterative updates from public or private sources in a verifiable way.
  • Automation tools for publishing and updating datasets including where possible, from their source, proactive system-to-system publishing.
  • Data analysis and visualisation tools – both to make it easier to communicate data, but also to help people (in government and the public) analyse and interact with any number of published datasets more effectively. This is far more efficient for government than each department trying to source their own data visualisation and analysis tools.
  • Reporting tools – that clearly demonstrate status, progress, trends and value of open data and open government on an ongoing basis. Ideally this would also feed into a governance process to iteratively improve the relevant policies on an ongoing basis.

Some open data references

Digital and Open Government

Although I was primarily in New Zealand to discuss open data, I ended up entering into a number of discussions about the broader aspects of digital and open government, which is entirely appropriate and a natural evolution. I was reminded of the three pillars of open government that we often discuss in Australia which roughly translate to:

  • Transparency
  • Participation
  • Citizen centricity

There is a good speech by my old boss, Minister Kate Lundy, which explains these in some detail.

I got into a couple of discussions which went into the concept of public engagement at length. I highly recommend those people check out the Public Sphere consultation methodology that I developed with Minister Kate Lundy which is purposefully modular so that you can adapt it to any community and how they best communicate, digitally or otherwise. It also is focused on getting evidence based, peer reviewed, contextually analysed and useful actual outcomes. It got an international award from the World eDemocracy Forum, which was great to see. Particularly check out how we applied computer forensics tools to help figure out if a consultation is being gamed by any individual or group.

When I consider digital government, I find myself standing back in the first instance to consider the general role of government in a digital society. I think this is an important starting point as our understanding is broadly out of date. New Zealand has definitions in the State Sector Act 1988, but they aren’t necessarily very relevant to 2013, let alone an open and transparent digital government.

Some imperatives for changing how we do government

Below are some of the interesting imperatives I have identified as key drivers for changing how we do government:

  • Changing public expectations – public expectations have fundamentally changed, not just with technology and everyone being connected to each other via ubiquitous mobile computing, but our basic assumptions and instincts are changing, such as the innate assumption of routing around damage, where damage might be technical or social. I’ve gone into my observations in some depth in a blog post called Online Culture – Part 1: Unicorns and Doom (2011).
  • Tipping point of digital engagement with government – in 2009 Australia had more citizens engaging with government  online than through any other means. This digital tipping point creates a strong business case to move to digitally delivered services, as a digital approach enables more citizens to self serve online and frees up expensive human resources for our more vulnerable, complex or disengaged members of the community.
  • Fiscal constraints over a number of years have largely led to IT Departments having done more for less for years, with limited investment in doing things differently, and effectively a legacy technology millstone. New investment is needed but no one has money for it, and IT Departments have in many cases, resorted to being focused on maintenance rather than project work (an upgrade of a system that maintains the status quo is still maintenance in my books). Systems have reached a difficult point where the fat has been trimmed and trimmed, but the demands have grown. In order to scale government services to growing needs in a way that enables more citizens to self service, new approaches are necessary, and the capability to aggregate services and information (through open APIs and open data) as well as user-centric design underpins this capability.
  • Disconnect between business and IT – there has been for some time a growing problem of business units disengaging with IT. As cheap cloud services have started to appear, many parts of government (esp Comms and HR) have more recently started to just avoid IT altogether and do their own thing. On one hand this enables some more innovative approaches, but it also leads directly to a problem in whole of government consistency, reliability, standards and generally a distribution of services which is the exact opposite of a citizen centric approach. It’s important that we figure out how to get IT re-engaged in the business, policy and strategic development of government such that these approaches are more informed and implementable, and such that governments use, develop, fund and prioritise technology in alignment with a broader vision.
  • Highly connected and mobile community and workforce – the opportunities (and risks) are immense, and it is important that governments take an informed and sustainable approach to this space. For instance, in developing public facing mobile services, a mobile optimised web services approach is more inclusive, cost efficient and sustainable than native applications development, but by making secure system APIs and open data available, the government can also facilitate public and private competition and innovation in services delivery.
  • New opportunities for high speed Internet are obviously a big deal in Australia and New Zealand at the moment with the new infrastructure being rolled out (FTTP in both countries), and setting up to better support and engaging with citizens digitally now, before mainstream adoption, is rather important and urgent.
  • Impact of politics and media on policy – the public service is generally to have an evidence-based approach to policy, and where this approach is developed in a transparent and iterative way, in collaboration with the broader society, it means government can engage directly with citizens rather than through the prism of politics or the media, each which have their own motivations and imperatives.
  • Prioritisation of ICT spending – it is difficult to ensure the government investment and prioritisation of ICT projects aligns with the strategic goals of the organisation and government, especially where the goals are not clearly articulated.
  • Communications and value realisation – with anyone able to publish pretty much anything, it is incumbent on governments to be a part of the public narrative as custodians of a lot of information and research. By doing this in a transparent and apolitical way, the public service can be a value and trusted source.
  • The expensive overhead of replication of effort across governments – consolidating where possible is vital to improve efficiencies, but also to put in place the mechanisms to support whole of government approaches.
  • Skills – a high technical literacy directly supports the capacity to innovate across government and across the society in every sector. As such this should be prioritised in our education systems, way above and well beyond “office productivity” tools.

Policy/strategic components

  • Strategic approach to information policy – many people looking at information policy tend to look deeply at one or a small number of areas, but it is only in looking at all of the information created by government, and how we can share, link, re-use, and analyse that we will gain the significant policy, service delivery and social/economic benefits and opportunities. When one considers geospatial, tabular, real time and statistical (census and survey) data, and then the application of metadata and linked data, it gets rather complicated. But we need to be able to interface effectively with these different data types.
  • Facilitating public and private innovation – taking a “government as a platform” approach, including open data and open APIs, such that industry and civil society can innovate on top of government systems and information assets, creating new value and services to the community.
  • Sector and R&D investment – it is vital that government ensured that the investment in digital industries, internal innovation and indeed R&D more broadly, aligns with the strategic vision. This means understanding how to measure and monitor digital innovation more effectively and not through the lens of traditional approaches that may not be relevant, such as the number of patents and other IP metrics. The New Zealand and Australian business and research community need to make the most of their governments’ leadership in Open Government. The Open Government Partnership network might provide a way to build upon and export this expertise.
  • Exports – by creating local capacity in the arena of improved and citizen-centric services delivery, Australia and New Zealand set themselves up nicely for exporting services and products to Asia Pacific, particularly given the rapid uptake of countries in the region to join the Open Government Partnership which requires signatories to develop plans around topics such as open data, citizen centricity and parliamentary transparency, all of which we are quite skilled in.
  • Distributed skunkworks for government – developing the communities/spaces/tools across government to encourage and leverage the skills and enthusiasm of clever geeks both internally (internal hackdays, communities of practice) and externally (eg – GovHack). No one can afford new resources, but allocating a small amount of time from the existing workforce who are motivated to do great things is a cost efficient and empowering way to create a distributed skunkworks. And as people speak to each other about common problems and common solutions we should see less duplication of these solutions and improved efficiency across agencies.
  • Iterative policy – rethinking how policy is developed, implemented, measured and governed to take a more iterative and agile approach that a) leverages the skills and expertise of the broader community for more evidence based and peer reviewed policy outcomes and b) is capable of responding effectively and in a timely manner to new challenges and opportunities as they arise. It would also be useful to build better internal intelligence systems for an improved understanding of the status of projects, and improved strategic planning for success.
  • An Information Commissioner for New Zealand – an option for a policy lead on information management to work closely with departments to have a consolidated, consistent, effective and overall strategic approach to the management, sharing and benefits realisation of government information. This would also build the profile of Open Government in New Zealand and hopefully be the permanent solution to current resourcing challenges. The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, and similar roles at State level, include the function of Information Commissioner, Privacy Commissioner and Free of Information Commissioner, and these combined give a holistic approach to government information policy that ideally balances open information and privacy. In New Zealand it could be a role that builds on recent information policies, such as NZGOAL which is designed, amongst other things, to replace bespoke content licences. Bespoke licences create an unnecessary liability issue for departments.
  • Citizen centricity – the increasing importance of consolidating government service and information delivery, putting citizens (and business) at the centre of the design. This is achieved through open mechanisms (eg, APIs) to interface with government systems and information such that they can be managed in a distributed and secure way, but aggregated in a thematic way.
  • Shared infrastructure and services – the shared services being taken up by some parts of the New Zealand Government is very encouraging to see, particularly when such an approach has been very successful in the ACT and SA state governments in Australia, and with several shared infrastructure and services projects at a national level in Australia including the AGIMO network and online services, and the NECTAR examples (free cloud stack tools for researchers). Shared services create the capacity for a consistent and consolidated approach, as well as enable the foundations of citizen centric design in a practical sense.

Some additional reading and thoughts

Digital literacy and ICT skills – should be embedded into curriculum and encouraged across the board. I did a paper on this as a contribution to the National Australian Curriculum consultation in 2010 with Senator Kate Lundy which identified three areas of ICT competency: 1) Productivity skills, 2) Online engagement skills, & 3) Automation skills as key skills for all citizens. It’s also worth looking at the NSW Digital Citizenship courseware. It’s worth noting that public libraries are a low cost and effective way to deliver digital services, information and skills to the broader community and minimise the issue of the digital divide.

Media data – often when talking about open data, media is completely forgotten. Video, audio, arts, etc. The GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives and museums) are all over this and should be part of the conversation about how to manage this kind of content across whole of government.

Just a few additional links for those interested, somewhat related to some of the things I discussed this last week.

OKFestival 2012: Open Data, Open Gov & Open Science in Helsinki

A couple of weeks ago I went to Helsinki, Finland to attend OKFestival 2012. It was a suggestion from someone two months ago that planted the seed to go, and I felt it would be really useful. So I saved my pennies and booked the tickets. It was an incredible trip with some incredible learnings.

Check out my “storify” stories which collate my experiences from the two days from my live Tweeting.

Rosling Hubbard Pollock & WaughHanging out with Hans Rosling, Rufus Pollock and Dr Tim Hubbard 🙂

Basically I’ve been working on open government and open data policy and projects for a while now and I realised I had a good opportunity to connect with practitioners and policy makers around the world. I really wanted to pick the brains of these people and also share what is happening locally to share, and to get some context on how we are going in a global context.

OKFestival name badgeI found many surprising things, not least of all that we are actually comparatively quite well in Australia when you look around the world. Obviously we have a lot to learn and do but we are lucky in many respects, such as we have a relatively open democracy already. For instance, Hansard for Federal and State parliamentary reporting is far from perfect but many countries have abysmal parliamentary openness and transparency. It was quite a shock to realise how little the accountability some jurisdictions operate under. More on that later.

It was also very interesting to hear from over 20 countries on their open data initiatives, to attend technical sessions on publishing data, to hear about the European Commission investment in open data (substantial!), and to talk to people from over 15 countries involved in “apps contests” and other hackfests. There was a lot of interest in our GovHack model so there might be some grounds for collaboration there too.

Statue in Helsinki with birdsI should also note that upon careful consideration, I thought it might be useful to bootstrap an OKFN Au local chapter in order to pull together all the open knowledge communities across Australia. Some network mechanism is needed as we have growing communities that are completely disconnected from one another. We could all benefit from some cross-disciplinary community development that includes cross promotion, discussions, aggregated events and news, tools for collaboration, support mechanisms (financial, insurance, legal, etc) and perhaps some events that bring us all together for mutual benefit.

So, this is my mother-of-all-posts report from the week. I will be blogging on some of the thoughts that have coalesced as a result later, but check out some of my highlights from the week below along with some really useful links. I’m also going to be working with the open government community people at OKFN to do an expanded open data census that looks at specific details of open data initiatives around the world to identify some good practice, policy commonalities and general information for people trying to do open data in government.

Open Government

The Open Government Partnership

Hanging out with Richard Akerman from Canada (@scilib)
Hanging out with Richard Akerman from Canada (@scilib)

The Open Government Partnership was a key theme for the conference, with over 55 countries now signed up in its first year. Signing up is not only a statement of commitment to this area, but countries have a series of targets on openness and transparency to meet. Apparently OGP has been slower to take off in Asia and Oceania, with only a few countries in this region getting involved to date.

Australia is unfortunately not yet signed up, and I hope that is rectified soon so Australia can more legitimately take our place in this space as something of an emerging leader. I had a lot of people interested in what Australia is doing at the conference from jurisdictions all around the world, and yet whenever we got to OGP discussions, there was not official Australian voice or commitment, which was disappointing. I hope this can be rectified soon, especially as the OGP commitments are already in line with so many existing policies in Australia.

Check out the infographic on the first year of progress of the OGP, and the draft strategic plan which is currently open for public comment.

There were several sessions on the OGP talking about standards, implementation challenges, and many representatives from supporting organisations like the World Bank who are investing in open government initiatives around the world.

Declaration of Parliamentary Openness

Afternoon tea with @anked & @kate_Braybrooke
Afternoon tea with @anked & @kat_Braybrooke

The Declaration of Parliamentary Openness was launched quite recently as an outcome of a global meeting of parliamentary monitoring organisations (PMOs). It is quite an interesting document and again, possibly something Australia should consider signing up to.

NSW Member of Parliament the Hon. Penny Sharpe did a great speech on the Declaration of Parliamentary Openness for International Day of Democracy (September 15th) which happened to be whilst I was in Helsinki. Several people there were very excited about the speech and I was quite honoured to be cited in it 🙂 Nice work Penny!

Check out some of the work from open parliaments around the world.

Open Data around the world

Gorgeous model in the basement of the uni
Gorgeous model in the basement of the uni

I managed to have a long sit down with the technical lead on data.gov.uk which was fantastic! It was great to get an idea of the model they use for publishing, the development work they have done, what resources they have an more.

My notes on the data.gov.uk discussion, with permission from their technical lead:

  • Human resources for data.gov.uk – 3  full time resources only
  • Uses CKAN – very happy with it, especially as they can easily develop additional functionality they need
  • Every department and local authority has at least one data champion that does data publishing as part of their normal job, ~765 publishers
  • Total cost of data.gov.uk only about 460k pound per year. 40k pound hosting and staff = most of the rest
  • Primarily focused on publishing data in the best way possible. Not focused on datavis, but considering looking at drupal front end with ckan backend
  • Departments are entirely responsibility for publishing their data. The full time staff look after the platform, do development where necessary (have created several plugins specific to their needs and open sourced them), provide technical support to publishers, but onus is on publishers
  • data.gov.uk folk have built functionality to handle the structure of government, creating lists of “Publishers” which are individual agencies (etc), users have a list of what Publishers they have access to publish to. You can have hierarchies of Publishers to reflect interrelationships between Publishers
  • An account API which could be the corporate API. Only publishers get API keys
  • No token required for apps
  • Antonio gave us a demonstration of uploading datasets, uploading had an option to choose whether a dataset is part of a time set
  • All datasets are appended, content is not changed at all, “if you get into data changing you are dead”
  • 5 star rating is helping improve quality of data publishing
  • With a multiple data file time series, the API interrogates the entire set
  • Contact details are available by dataset
  • data.gov.uk do thematic theming, they have over 8000 tags in the system atm, and they created 6 themes: health, environment, education, finance (other things apart from spending), society, defence, transportation, spending data (where they spend money), government
  • Automatic updates for some files via JSON but largely manual. Publishers felt more comfortable with manual publishing than aautomation for perceived control
  • Tend to point to WMS servers for spatial data rather than host directly
  • UK folk suggest a geoserver to host geospatial data and use open data platform to point to data rather than host it directly. A metadata harvester gets data from spatial sets and points to data. Needed to comply with the INSPIRE directive
  • They don’t apply 5 star to mapped data (or other purely linked information) as it doesn’t exactly map to downloadable data star rating
  • You can search on geospatial datasets by postcode or by drawing an area
  • Found that within a minute and 15 seconds (the record) a user could go from not having used the site before to publishing data, very low transition from newbie to publisher which was important
  • All statistics are automated which is due to being within the one dept and they are motivated to automated
  • INSPIRE (Infrastructure for Spatial Information in the European Community) Directive was a major driver, as was “digital by default”
  • They generate monthly reports that counts the openness (stars) of data, the amount per Publisher, publishers with broken links, datasets with broken links. Helps publishers keep their data up to date
  • data.gov.uk is building a dashboard to report by the hierarchy of government
  • Public Roles and Salaries linked data tool – http://data.gov.uk/organogram/cabinet-office
  • Blog post about plugins data.gov.uk have built, all freely available on github – http://data.gov.uk/blog/the-code-behind-datagovuk
  • Indemnification from the Crown so public servants not at personal legal risk
  • Started with the knowledge management people, then expanded. Basically all parts of the public service were told that this is what they must do, so they did it
  • data.gov.uk is hosted by the government, Ubuntu servers
  • data.gov.uk – metadata, almost a petabyte of data now
  • US is running three open data platforms, including Socrata, CKAN and another bespoke one
  • No inferred metadata – up to data publishers to provide metadata
  • Real time data – can deal with real time, new functionality being also built
  • The value of cloud service to scale with API requirements

For some technical details and the code behind data.gov.uk, check out http://data.gov.uk/blog/the-code-behind-datagovuk

Thanks Toni for your time!

Below are my live tweets on the open data country updates – each person had about 5 minutes to wrap up their country. I’ve put them in alphabetical order and the results were a fascinating snapshot. I wish I’d had more time to talk to each and every contributor:

  • Argentina – created Ministry of Modernisation inc Buenos Aires Data, 3 hackathons, datavis, app comp, digital city event coming
  • Australia – @piawaugh giving Australia report http://twitpic.com/avwd85
  • Australia – What’s going on in#opendata in #australia ? Psi needs to be cc by default. http://instagr.am/p/Ptj4FUodS9/ by Lucy Chambers
  • Australia – Not OGP members, national picture mixed, neat local efforts #okfest http://pic.twitter.com/l9u1JK1l by Tariq Khokar
  • Belgium – some progress, inconsistent across region. Estonia: need to transform data that is published to use as hard atm.
  • Brasil – have also done information asset catalogue to help facilitate future opendata.
  • Brasil – new law created to get important datasets published, also have proactive publishing of source code. Cost seen as blocker
  • Canada – over 12k datasets this year. Next gen platform deployed next year. Toronto building a city that thinks like the web 🙂
  • Canada – lots of municipal level work, national level is participant in OGP with three pillars of opendata openinfo & opendialogue
  • Chile – regulation around #opendata created but not implemented yet.
  • Czech – working on apps&services based on opendata, OKFN local chapter, data catalogue & opendata.cz, 1st gov data blog. No money
  • France – France presentation a reminder that open standards can actually be a blocker to first steps in opening data. #okfest
  • France – talk from NosDeputes.fr, lots of cities putting data up, national now commit to open licence, formats an issue/blocker
  • Germany case study of getting gov to open up some data, but really just getting stated.
  • Ireland – new real time passenger info API coming this year, need national portal, still low priority for many but relatively cheap
  • Ireland – 8-9 public bodies in Dublin regional opendata portal. Interested in biz models, datavis, 40% participants entrepreneurs
  • Israel – black whole of legislation, printing protocols were hid in boxes. Volunteers went in to scan and digitise. Now gov opened
  • Italy – National data portal, people need gov to open data, 3000 datasets liberati 🙂 increase in data quality. Mostly in north
  • Kenya – had one year birthday for Kenya opendata portal, focus on open standards, lots happening. No FOI leg yet, community devel
  • Netherlands – parliamentary data opened, 1st budget open data tmrw, issues: budget cuts hard, slow grow, gov benefit realisation
  • Netherlands – launched open data portal, gov stopped charging for geospatial data, $4m spent to free up satellite images…
  • Nigeria – update data hard to get, oil companies & gov corruption high, have digitised & visualised budget -> public engagement
  • Open Corporates – has info on 44,470,772 companies in the world. Open database of the corporate world. Interesting. Launched API
  • Slovakia – bad news is a lot of new laws but the working group works are slow and projects at risk.
  • Slovakia – launched open data portal, has preliminary support, worried about new gov not supporting but did, slow but building up
  • South Africa – not so much, Kenya is ahead of us Gov have removed new order mining rights info from website & water quality data
  • South Africa – info commissioner an important part to getting more transparency
  • South Africa – 1st hackathon in Aug 2012, secrecy bill attempting to shut down access to data, civil society active, OGP work too
  • Spain – lot of open data portals (~20), diverse, some good, some not. National portal is good but not much data. Big community tho
  • UK – 8661 datasets on new site, good stats, worked with openspending ppl to do reporting & better tools. Increase in public trust
  • Uruguay – Fascinating, gov working on data but dropping ball on other opengov #okfest
  • US – several initiatives out of date and not detailed enough
  • US – lots of stuff proposed, data laws, most of the work is overshadowed by Presidential election, OGP commitments being worked on.

Open Data Census – expand to capture information about individual initiatives?

OKFN have done a great job trying to get a useful comparative analysis of open data in countries around the world. I suggested it might be worthwhile to consider individual initiatives to get some understanding of exactly what is being done around the world, find commonalities and get some ideas around good practice in this space, especially as it is such a new area for so many people.

I put up some draft questions for the next Open Data Census and it’d be great to get feedback.

Outstanding talks I heard

There were many, many, outstanding talks at OKFestival. I’ll just briefly wrap up a few outstanding ones that I really enjoyed 🙂

Dr. Nagy-Rothengass from the European Commission

European Commission presentationDr Nagy-Rothengass gave a fascinating talk about the European Commission commitment to Open Data. They have committed substantial funding for this, around 100 million Euro and their core rationale for supporting open data are as follows:EU slide on case for open data

  1. Untapped business and economic opportunities: data is the new gold; possible direct and indirect gains of 140b Euro across the EU27
  2. Better Governance and citizen empowerment: open data increases transparency, citizen participation and administrative efficiency and accountability.
  3. Addressing societal challenges: data can enhance sustainability of health care systems, essential for tackling environmental challenges.
  4. Accelerating scientific progress: e-science essential for meeting the challenges of the 21st century in scientific discovery and learning.

Hans Rosling

Hans Rosling was a brilliant keynote.

My favourite quotes from the talk:

  • If you want to communicate with people you need to learn from tabloids. They are good at connecting with people.
  • The problem is not that people don’t know anything about the world, the problem is they have a completely incorrect view. evidence & statistics show world population growing to about 10b after which it normalises.
  • The western world has a toxic combination of arrogance and ignorance. Also gender equality doesn’t just happen. It requires work.
  • D3 d3js.org as a great tool for #datavis
  • We can’t rely on the leaders to deal with the money. We need to get involved and see for ourselves.
  • Life has never been so good as today. That the world is bad today doesn’t mean it hasn’t become enormously better.
  • We need to seriously invest in renewable energies & isn’t about polar bears. We are up against something much bigger.
  • You have to demand access to the data. Countries should report & need to release big data so we can do better.
  • OECD *sell* their data! We need to have it liberated so we can understand and learn.
  • Don’t talk about what you should do, just mock up and prototype.

He went a little through his normal developing countries vs developed countries spiel which clearly demonstrates the world is a lot closer statistically than many people believe. He spoke about world population growth and showed that it is one of very few things that statisticians have been consistently correct about (with only a 6ish% deviation from projections over 50 years), and yet there is still a lot of fear and misinformation about population growth. He said based on projections and the massive slowdown of population growth, that the world population would peak at around 10 billion and then that number would largely be sustained, unless there was an enormous disaster.

He showed the importance of not dividing the world up into “developing” and “developed” and that people’s understanding of the world is typically quite out of date, based on figures and perspectives taught in school but not updated throughout adult life. This leads to a community making decisions based on outdated information which leads to bad decisions. It was humbling to see actual statistics and realise that we don’t really have embedded societal mechanisms to update what is taught at school, and how this creates a perception of other countries and cultures that may fall completely out of date within just a few years.

Personally I believe strongly that it is through global collaboration that we can leapfrog issues and many of the attendees from what are traditionally call “developing” nations had great stories to tell of citizen empowerment and leapfrogging “developed” countries.

Hans core messages so far as I understood them included the importance of open data to make good decisions, the importance of recognisiing that our understanding of the world is usually out of date, and the importance of the active engagement of civil society in international and national matters to balance out the imbalance of power.

This last point he demonstrated very effectively by showing a picture of world leaders at the Summit on Financial Markets and the World Economy, with some information about which countries were loaning/giving money to others. It was fascinating. Aid money being given from one country to a “developing” country, which was in turn was loaning $30b to the US (when George Bush was in), who was in turn supporting them to get a seat on a UN council. It goes round and round.

Hans made a strong point that people should demand the data and transparency so they can make more informed decisions as a community and not just leave things up to world leaders.

Click through on the following thumbnails to see larger versions.

Hans Rosling slideHans Rosling slideHans Rosling slideHans Rosling slideHans Rosling slideHans Rosling slideHans Rosling slideHans Rosling slide

Rufus Pollock

Rufus is the Director and co-founder of OKFN, and quite an impressive figure. He is passionate about open data and is credited by Sir Tim Berners-Lee as being behind the “Raw Data Now” agenda. Rufus gave a great opening keynote where he spoke about the importance of open data combined with analysis and action. He said we have now started to see more and more data being opened up but if we don’t combine this with good analysis and then action in response to the analysis, then we will not see the benefits of open data.

His speech was largely a spoken version of his blog post called Managing Expectations II: Open Data, Technology and Government 2.0 – What Should We, And Should We Not Expect so I recommend you check it out 🙂

Diagram from Rufus Pollock on a theory of change
Diagram from Rufus Pollock on a theory of change

My contributions to OKFestival

Just a couple of notes for people I met there on my contributions.

I hosted a panel on open government, I contributed to several forums and I spoke on the closing panel with Philip Thigo (Program Associate at SODNET & Co-Founder of INFONET, Nairobi, Kenya) & Antti Poikola (OKF Finland Incubating Chapter, Helsinki) which gave me a good opportunity to further discuss the role of the public service in open government. This was received really well and I have a load of public service colleagues now from all around the world in this space.

On a panel about open data and culture at OKFest 2012 with Philip Thigo, Program Associate at SODNET & Co-Founder of INFONET, Nairobi, Kenya & Antti Poikola, OKF Finland Incubating Chapter, Helsinki. Photo from http://www.flickr.com/photos/tuija/8008433837/
On a panel about open data and culture at OKFest 2012 with Philip Thigo, Program Associate at SODNET & Co-Founder of INFONET, Nairobi, Kenya & Antti Poikola, OKF Finland Incubating Chapter, Helsinki. Photo from http://www.flickr.com/photos/tuija/8008433837/

I spoke a little bit about public engagement on public policy and mentioned the Public Sphere methodology that I developed with Senator Kate Lundy. The most recent consultation was one on Digital Culture which was a major contribution to the impending National Cultural Policy. A lot of people asked about analysis, so I spoke a little about the importance for both data analysis and “network” analysis of a consultation to ensure the outcomes have the appropriate context. See the Analysing the community of a public sphere blog post on Senator Lundy’s site.

I also mentioned my Distributed Democracy idea which a few people liked 🙂

Other links of possible interest:

GovHack and App4Country discussion

I was involved in a wonderful discussion with people from over 17 countries who do “apps” competitions and hackfests. It was great to hear about their initiatives and to share the lessons learnt from GovHack. Many of them expressed a lot of interest in our model which is a little broader than the “Apps4Country” model which has been quite popular in Europe. Most of them had the same problems with sustainability, longevity of outcomes from the hackfests, getting the government actively engaged. It was fascinating.

There are some good notes from the global hackfest/apps events collated here and there is a global mailing list (not very active atm) at http://lists.okfn.org/mailman/listinfo/appsforx.

The notes I made for my presentation about GovHack:

  • Narrative, design *and* hacks
  • Not focused on apps, but rather hacks (apps, mashups & datavis) – often applications emerge but “apps development” creates confusion with mobile vs web vs devel vs datavis
  • GovHack was part of a trilogy of events – GovCamp to set the narrative and vision, GovUX/Jam to apply design thinking to service delivery challenges in the public service, GovHack for open hacking and to make some service delivey design outcomes real
  • Open Government, Science & Digital Humanities – to add Data Journalism
    – Amazing how much of an impact it made, has really fired the imagination of the public and sector.
  • Enormous enthusiasm from the gov involved, 7 departments and agencies from federal and state governments were deeply engaged.
  • People flew from all over Australia to the two locations that we were simultaneously running the hackfest to participate.
  • Mentors from data owners and technologists to support teams along with sessions.
  • Made the documentation and presentation of the hack part of the judging criteria, which compelled teams to nicely capture content about their hacks which meant a good archive of the event.

Motivations:

  • Bring community together
  • Demonstrate value of open data
  • Raise the bar for the narrative in Aus, focus efforts on constructive efforts
  • Open the data, give depts buy in, connect their tech with community and leaders with success
  • Create new ways to do service delivery that can be integrated into gov, fundamentally disrupt gov expectations around “innovation”
  • Volunteer run which gave it extra credibility, buy in, and public engagement
  • A lot of bad expectations of “apps competitions” because of events that have done it badly, in Aus and internationally
  • Open Sourced hacks for people/companies/students/gov to build upon

Lessons learnt:

  • Hackers are motivated so long as you create some importance, and engage in conversation to manage tone and deal constructively with trolls
  • Prize money is helpful, but need to be careful to ensure good community, tone, “spirit of govhack” award
  • Scaling to go national – hackfest for two days, 3 days to vote, awards ceremony, followup 6 months later.
  • More funding would be useful
  • Ensure non tech elements encouraged, some great non “app” outcomes, eg the jewellery hack
  • Engage with the startup and VC sector, open sourcing outcomes means govhack can be yearly incubator for spin offs as well as input to gov. Startups love it as it is the best form of publicity
  • Non geeky hacks are the most reportable – History in ACTION
  • Technologists have a lot to contribute to policy, and there is a lot of work now to bring these groups together. Data visualisation and other uses of data can massively contribute to policy development and better policy outcomes.
  • Ongoing community engagement could be achieved through launching OKFN Au chapter to bring together communities across the gov, data journalists, hacker/geek communities and academia/research.

Interesting thoughts from “apps” conversation:

  • Need to strongly socialise – Finland
  • Apps for Europe, Spain, lessons from @aabella: 1) Civil society not politicians. Pollies have a role but it needs to be civil society driven. 2) Need to target general population not just tech community, get broader community involved.

Some additional links collected from the week of interest

Some random Open Science links sent:

Thanks

For the first time I tried couch surfing on this trip and stayed with a lovely Helsinki resident called Tarmo. A huge thanks to Tarmo for having me for the week, it was great to meet and I have to say, the couchsurfing culture is really friendly and lovely 🙂

Also, a huge thanks to Rufus for encouraging me to come, to Daniel Dietrich for his dedication to the open government space, and all the lovely people I met. I look forward to next year 🙂

OSDC 2011 Talk – Open Government, what is it really?

Below are my notes from the talk I gave at OSDC (Open Source Developers Conference) 2011 on open government, where I tried to go into some of the practicalities of open government implementation and projects. I had a great response from the packed room, so thanks everyone for attending (and for encouraging me to blog <hide>) 🙂

The changing relationship between citizens and government

Most citizens have a very limited relationship to government. We tend to see government as an amorphous body that removes our garbage, provides our hospital and local school, and makes us pay taxes. Politicians tend to get a pretty bad rap, and are assumed to be simultaneously stupid and extremely strategic.

But “government” in Australia is a large and complex entity run by a democratic Parliament, this makes it a tool of the people, an entity accountable to its citizens.

The proliferation of and now mainstream usage of the Internet, brings citizens closer to governments than ever. It also makes governments more accountable and transparent (whether intentionally or not). So the government is now more a tool of the citizen, and as such we need, as citizens, to engage with governments.

As citizens we are more empowered than ever. We can research, make public comment, self-organise into clusters of interest and advocacy, cross check facts, hold people to their word, develop new ways to do things and much more. The line has blurred between governments and citizens. Indeed, we are starting to even properly accept the idea that people who work in government are, themselves, citizens.

Citizens have much to contribute to government policy, implementation and vision, and governments are just starting to understand and engage with that opportunity.

Gov 2.0 is about using the new technologies at our disposal, primarily the Internet, to co-design the next era of democracy in collaboration with citizens. It is about a more transparent, accountable, engaged, participatory and responsive government approach to serving the needs of citizens.

Open Government and Gov 2.0 are often used interchangeably, but “open government” has been used for many years, usually to relate to things like Freedom of Information laws and transparency in legislative processes, whereas Gov 2.0 is more specifically looking at how we can use modern technologies and communications to make government more open, engaged with, relevant to and ultimately co-created with citizens.

“There’s a clear vision from the top, not only in the US and the UK, but in many other countries, that now is the time for government to reinvent itself, to take the old idea of government “for the people, by the people, and of the people” to a new level.” — Tim O’Reilly

In Australia we have a strong, highly skilled and completely awesome Gov 2.0 community. These are people who work in, for or with government to implement Gov 2.0. This community has people who are into software/web development, user experience, accessibility, open data, mobile development, public engagement and much more.

It is a community driven by the ideals of open government, and a really inspiring and exciting community to be involved in. I highly recommend to any of you interested in following or getting involved in Gov 2.0 to check out the following:

  • The Gov 2.0 Google Group mailing list – https://groups.google.com/group/gov20canberra?hl=en
  • GovCamp’s – a great opportunity for Gov 2.0 practitioners to get together, share knowledge and find ways to collaborate. They are starting to run all around Australia after I ran the first one in October. The next one is this weekend in Sydney (BarCampNSW)
  • Follow the #gov2au hashtag on Twitter, and some notable Twitter users in this space are @CraigThomler, @trib, @chieftech, @davidjeade, @gov2qld, @sherro58 & @lisa_cornish from AGIMO, @FCTweedie & @OAICgov from OAIC, and many more including me @piawaugh :). I’ve got a far more complete Gov 2.0 list on Twitter that I’m continually adding to that may be useful at http://twitter.com/#!/list/piawaugh/gov-2-0
  • There is a Gov 2.0 Ning group and OzLoop Ning. Craig Thomler also runs a good blog worth subscribing to. Craig and Kate Carruthers put together a website on Gov 2.0 and the Centre for Policy Development did a great collection of essays by people in the community on Gov 2.0 in 2009 which is available online.

What is Gov 2.0

Most elements of what we call Gov 2.0 can be boiled down to three concepts:

  1. Open Data
  2. Citizen Centric Services
  3. Public Engagement

Open Data

Open data is about taking the vast majority of government datasets and information which doesn’t have privacy or security issues, and putting it all online in the most useful way possible. In a practical sense, for data to be most useful (both to the public but equally important for other parts of governments to be able to leverage the data), it needs to have permissive copyright (such as Creative Commons BY), be machine readable, time stamped, subscribable, available in an openly documented format (open standard), have useful metadata and wherever possible have good geospatial information available.

This last point about geospatial information is vital for making data interactive and personalised to a citizen’s needs, as it helps aggregate and map information relevant to where a citizen is.

Achieving open data is a difficult process. There are three key steps to take, each with its own challenges:

  1. Just get it online! This stage is where an organisation just tries to get online whatever they can. It often means the licensing is not entirely clear or permissive, the data format is whatever the organisation uses (which may or may not be useful to others), the data may be slightly out of date and it often isn’t clear who the contact for the data set is making followup hard. This stage is however, extremely important to encourage as it is where every organisation must begin and build upon. It is also important because to achieve quality open data, major changes often need to be made to systems, workflows, technologies and organisational culture. Access to imperfect data in the short term is far better than waiting for perfection.
  2. High quality data! This is the stage where issues around quality publishing of data have been teased out, and an organisation can start to publish quality data. It is hopefully the point at which the systems, culture, workflows and technologies used within the organisation all facilitates open data publishing, whilst also facilitating appropriate settings for secure data (such as sensitive privacy or security information). This stage takes a lot of work to achieve, but also means a far lower cost of publishing data, which helps amongst other things, keep the cost of FoI compliance down.
  3. Collaborative data! This final stage of open data is where an organisation can figure out ways to integrate and verify input from the public to data sets to improve them, to capture historical and cultural context and to keep information up to date. This is also a challenging step but where government departments and agencies can engage the public collaboratively, we will see better data sets and greater innovation.

There are examples of each of these stages, but it is important to remember that they are stages, not static. Some good examples of open data initiatives in Australia include:

It is also important to consider the broad ramifications of open data. One can think of many positive case studies for open data. Examples of transparency or innovation or a strong public record. But there can be unforeseen negative consequences. For example, I heard of a case where the mapping of the ocean above Australia was made public, and within a very short period of time a particular species of fish was driven almost to extinction by fishers who used the data to plan their fishing season.

This is not a reason to not pursue open data, but rather a reminder to always consider things critically and thoughtfully.

Data visualisation

Nowadays I can’t overemphasise the importance of data visualisation. As a technical person I was quite cynical in the value of data visualisation. It seemed a waste of time when you can just read the data. But using data visualisation tools effectively can create two core benefits:

  • Informed public narrative – most people are really busy. Busy with their jobs, their personal lives, their hobbies. So expecting them to take time to really understand complex issues is not only unrealistic, it is unreasonable. Presenting information visually is a great way to lower the barrier to understanding and then engaging in an informed public debate. People will understand in seconds the information from a well constructed visualisation, but to glean the same information from papers and spreadsheets takes a lot longer.
  • Policy development & load testing – interactive data visualisation tools such as SpatialKey, Tableau or one of the many great FOSS tools available create a new way to engage with and glean new knowledge from data. By being able to pull together many different data sets into a single space, one can then explore, test and experiment with policy ideas to determine the effectiveness of a policy to meet its goals.

Citizen Centric Services

Citizen centric services is about putting the user experience first to create a personalised and unique experience for citizens. It is better for citizens as it makes their experience better and more seamless, and it is better for government who can more effectively serve the needs of citizens. Citizen centric services requires good data and metadata, especially good geospatial data as location information is an extremely effective way to personalise government services, information and projects for citizens.

Constant feedback loops that engage the input and ideas from citizens are extremely important to establish effective citizen centric services, and to ensure the iterative improvements over time to keep services relevant and responsive to the changing needs of the population.

Some examples of citizen centric services include:

Public engagement

Effective, constructive and collaborative public engagement greatly improves the capacity of government to build the knowledge and experience of citizens into policy and projects. Public engagement strategies work best when they are underpinned by strong community development, a clear and collaboratively developed goal, a genuine interest in the inputs of others, and a process that is as low a barrier to entry to engage in as possible.

Basically we are moving towards an era of democratic and governmental co-design.

There are some great examples of public engagement out there, including our Public Sphere consultations, the Queensland Police use of Facebook throughout the natural disasters a year ago (which showed how social media is great for timely updates, but also for managing misinformation quickly and crowdsourcing to help most effectively deploy resources in disaster management), the Census 2011 social media strategy, the growing number of public consultations on government policy and strategy such as from the Gov 2.0 Taskforce and much more. The need for public engagement has also been pushed in several recent policy agendas. The GovHack events last year were also great as they showed how effective engagement with the general public can result in highly innovative and rapidly developed new applications and knowledge when open data is made available and when usage of that data is encouraged.

FOSS and government

FOSS has provided a natural fit for a lot of Open Government initiatives, due to the widespread use of open standards, the ability to rapidly deploy, the large developer and support communities around mature FOSS projects such as Drupal and WordPress, the competitive and thus reliably sustainable nature of commercial support around mature FOSS projects, and, most relevantly, the cross over of values and practices between Open Government and FOSS.

In January 2011 AGIMO released the Australian Government Open Source Software Policy which has three principles:

  1. Principle 1: Australian Government ICT procurement processes must actively and fairly consider all types of available software.
  2. Principle 2: Suppliers must consider all types of available software when dealing with Australian Government agencies.
  3. Principle 3: Australian Government agencies will actively participate in open source software communities and contribute back where appropriate.

The third principle in particular represents a fundamental shift in how government sees and engages with FOSS, technology and the community. It is very exciting! It clearly demonstrates the value of collaboration so prevalent in the Open Government agenda.

In July 2011, after six months consultation, AGIMO also released the Australian Government Open Source Software Guide V2, a really useful document for departments and agencies to help them comply to the policy directive where they must consider Open Source in their procurement processes.

Both the Open Source Policy and the Guide are available along with other information at http://www.finance.gov.au/e-government/infrastructure/open-source-software.html

Open Government policies

The Open Government or Gov 2.0 agenda is nicely encapsulated in the two major policy documents, Ahead of the Game and the Gov 2.0 Taskforce Report. These two reports form the blueprint of Gov 2.0 for the Australian public service.

It is also worth looking at the Office of the Information Commissioner paper Principles of Open Public Sector Information and other resources at http://www.oaic.gov.au/, the Attorney General’s Principles of IP (which explicitly encourages Creative Commons), and the various useful web policies provided by AGIMO including the Gov 2.0 Primer.

Conclusion

Open Government and Gov 2.0 both represent an ideal.

They represent a goal for us to be continually aiming for but they are not achieved with a single switch of policy. Achieving true open government is necessarily a constant and evolving challenge, and given I am here speaking at an Open Source Developer’s conference, we all understand the difference between an ideal, and striving for the ideal whilst operating within reality.

Government won’t get it exactly right all the time every time, but we are in an extremely exciting time for open culture, and with a government position in Australia that firmly supports openness through policy, in legislation and in implementation of projects, we need to continue to encourage and support progress.

When you are sitting on top of a hill, watching people walk up towards you it’s more constructive to lend them a hand than to kick them down when they are only half way up 🙂 No matter how tempting it may seem 😉

Thank you.