Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Treat digital as a adjective, not a noun

Alun Probert (formerly of NSW government) has written a good piece on how sometime digital decisions are simply good business.

I think he's spot on about this, and about the danger of treating digital as a silver bullet.

Government is in the business of achieving great outcomes for society. Any government who fails to keep this central to their thinking is likely to find itself at the receiving end of significant pressure, ranging from social media complaints all the way up to violent revolution (depending on how far they've strayed).

Digital has a major role in achieving these great outcomes, however it isn't the only approach, nor always the best.

In my view digital should be considered a adjective, not a noun.

The goal is never to 'go digital' - that's just as ridiculous as suggesting that the goal is to 'go telephone' or 'go print'.

Digital, as an area, encompasses a range of tools and techniques that can help an organisation to achieve its goals more effectively or efficiently, but it should not replace those goals - government must be driven by social and citizen needs.

So where does this leave the notion of places like the 'Digital Transformation Office' - it certainly doesn't invalidate them. The goal is improving governance, improving citizen services, reducing costs, increasing compliance, improving outcomes. This is achieved through transforming what already exists, with a key toolkit being digital.

Provided the people leading and working in places like the Digital Transformation Office are clear on what their end goal is (which I believe they are), this can produce great outcomes for citizens, the country, politicians and government agencies themselves.

It's only when 'digital' becomes a noun - the goal, rather than part of the process - that the value is distorted and often lost.

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Thursday, August 27, 2015

The DTO is hiring - and not in the traditional complex and clumsy public service way

Australia's Digital Transition Office (DTO) has finally lifted the covers on the personnel it's seeking to hire to fulfil its ambitious transformation agenda.

However, unlike traditional APS hiring, the DTO's positions vacant use modern corporate job titles and each job description clearly and in detail explains what applicants will be expected to do in the role.

There's no mention of APS level and no need for applicants to write a selection criteria essay based on standard public service capabilities and values.

In fact the DTO job descriptions look like a good example of how good modern companies recruit.

Hopefully as a result of this approach the DTO will attract a range of highly skilled people from across the private sector, people who normally would not apply to a government job due to the difficulty in doing so.

So if you're interested in working in an area where there's the potential to make enormous change and where you can understand from the job description what the role will involve - check out the DTO's positions vacant at www.dto.gov.au

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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

It's not only government agencies who can survey their clients

There's an interest case emerging where an Australian Defense Force veteran has surveyed a large number of clients of the Department of Veterans' Affairs and identified a very different view of the department to that claimed in its own survey.

Before idespread internet and social media use, surveying a large number of agency clients or citizens on their views of an agency's performance was an expensive, difficult and time consuming undertaking.

I recall conducting surveys in the early 1990s before the World Wide Web, on behalf of large fast moving goods manufacturers, to establish customer views of their products. It was a slow, expensive and complex process that required significant casual manpower making thousands of phone calls to get a reasonable sample size of responses.

First it required contact details for each client - something that generally only the agency itself held centrally, and this wasn't shared for privacy reasons.

Beyond this, the process of designing and putting a survey into the field was an expensive undertaking, requiring specialised researcher and either a mass mailout (with a paper survey and reply paid envelope) or the employment of large numbers of casual phone researchers to physically call all the potential respondents to seek their feedback.

Finally, the analysis of surveys was a complex matter, with data needing to be accurately input into relatively primitive analysis tools. I recall using SPSS in one of its earliest incarnations. It was powerful but very finicky and operators had to essentially write raw, command line, database calls in order to segment research data in useful ways.

Today this process has entirely changed, making it far easier and cheaper to survey large number of people and rapidly analyze and report on their views.

As a result it isn't only large organisations who can now effectively qualify and survey significant numbers of people - individuals who mistrust organizational survey results can do so too, potentially challenging the results that organisations claim by identifying issues that organisations would prefer to keep on the lowdown.

We saw this kind of citizen action with the Vodafail survey and report back in 2012, where an individual who was upset with evasive corporate claims and a lack of service improvement, marshaled 50,000 reports of issues with the Vodafone national mobile phone network through his social media connections and providing a damning analysis of the situation to government authorities.

The actions saw Vodafone widely scrutinised by the public and authorities and the company was forced to change its behaviour (and leadership) to address the concerns, losing almost half a million customers while this took place.

Tellingly the company has survived, even thrived, as a result of changing its engagement approaches, but was referring publicly to its efforts to lay the issue to bed as recently as a few months ago, vowing at the end of March 2015 to 'reverse Vodafail' and become Australia's best mobile provider.

Back then I doubt many government agencies were worried that a similar event could occur to them - that an individual or unaligned group could, or would, conduct research on an agency's clients and publicly release an independent view that contradicted the agency's own research on its service standards and how the agency was perceived by those it served.

I did flag the potential issue in this blog back in June 2013, highlighting that we now live in an age where an individual can 'pierc the veil of silence' and expose an agency to criticism and scrutiny in ways it had never faced before.

Now this has happened for real, with an individual conducting a survey about the Department of Veterans' (DVA) conduct that provides a very uncomfortable view of military veterans' experiences with the department - a view that contradicts the extremely high satisfaction rates that the department itself claims in its research.

The individual, Angus Sim. a veteran of Iraq and East Timor, had had a rough personal experience with the DVA. So when the department released a glowing and entirely positive report on how clients felt when dealing with the DVA, and refused to release any negative comments at all about the department,  he felt that the DVA's own research was not providing a true view of how veterans really felt, and was potentially misleading both the public and the elected government.

So using the Web 2.0 tools at his disposal, Angus set up a survey for veterans using SurveyMonkey, and a Facebook group where vets could connect. He also created a Change.org petition to marshall support and filmed a short video for YouTube to communicate the issue he was attempting to address.

Angus hen marshaled support through his networks online, getting the survey featured on several websites, such as ADSO, and in a number of social media groups frequented by Aussie veterans.

He even reached out to the politician seen as most supportive of veteran affairs, and had Jacquie Lambie tweet a link.

As a result Angus has attracted over 900 responses to his survey thus far, and has already conducted preliminary analysis that suggests that there are many veterans who do not feel as positive about the DVA as the department's own research suggests.

The survey analysis is now starting to filter into the media - which means it is likely to attract even more participation from veterans.

Representative or not, this survey will impact on the trust placed in the DVA to report accurate sentiment to its political masters and the public. It could damage the ability of the DVA to carry out its job and dent or even end the careers of public servants, as the Vodafail report did for Vodafone management.

The DVA research that found 90% satisfaction levels and for which the DVA only published positive comments from respondents, cost over $170,000 to conduct.

Other than his time, Angus would not have spent a cent on his citizen-led research, using free online tools to build his network, collect responses and analyst the results.

Keep in mind that Angus did not take these steps because he wishes to damage or destroy the DVA. He took them because his experience cr did not match the DVA's published perspective on the experience of veterans. He wants the DVA to see and acknowledge its failings, to advocate to government for the resources to do right by Australian veterans and to deliver better outcomes for their clients.

More often than not when citizens come out in opposition to agencies they are simply seeking a fair go, not to ridicule or damage the reputations of agencies, governments and senior officials.

Agencies need to take this as constructive criticism, not as an attack on their existence. Ignoring, downplaying or rejecting criticism will only result in an escalation and actual damage to agencies, where as working constructively with individuals and groups fostering public accountability can result in improved outcome and satisfaction.

This is no longer a theoretical situation for government agencies, that an individual or small group could run 'counter research' where they perceive government research to be implausible or absent.

Every agency and council needs to be mindful that, at any time, their constituents, clients and stakeholders could organise and present a dissenting view which doesn't reflect the view the organisations itself wishes to project.

Public agencies are on notice - citizens are organised, watchful and they want to help, whether the agencies want their help or not.

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Saturday, August 22, 2015

Dinosaurs are rarely good fashion designers

Euan Semple has a great post over on LinkedIn about the challenges in giving the people responsible for maintaining the status quo in organisations and institutions the responsibility for generating and embedding radical change in the same institutions and organisations.

I see this too. The people best qualified to maintain stability in institutions are rarely the best people to institute and embed meaningless change - and likewise the people best at instituting change are often not the ones needed to run the reformed organisation after change is embedded.

That's why we see change CEOs established in corporations in various forms - and even there they often fail due to the many unintended and unpredictable consequences of a major change.

I am increasingly of the view that replication is the key to true change - a lesson that a billion years of evolution has taught us. The 'only one of its kind' approach allows no fallback if a particular evolutionary change process results, unintentionally, in a deadend, non-viable solution.

This is the reverse of how most organizations think, but as we see time and time again the markets with more competition are more successful, those that concentrate down to a few players tend to need more external regulation to continue to serve their customers adequately.

For government in particular this is a challenge - it is the ultimate in geographic monopoly, and places barriers on free movement that restrict the ability for citizens to shop around (the highest barriers at national levels).

While our societies may never support the notion of totally free choice in government (which is possible for all but the most geographically restricted services), we can move government to the backroom, an infrastructure platform rather than a service provider.

Then government services can be offered and bundled competitively with private sector services by a variety of providers, creating that competition for outcomes that a single government will never be as good at achieving.

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Monday, August 17, 2015

Digital Transition Office to make creating APIs mandatory for federal agencies

Last week the Digital Transition Office (DTO) released a draft of its API Design Guide for public review.

An API, or Application Programming Interface, is an approach that defines consistent methods of inputting and outputting data into a software system based on internet protocols. APIs are regularly used by Web 2.0 services as a standard way to connect to each other, share information and support seamless integrated functions (such as connecting your mailing list service with your survey tool).

The government already has a few APIs, generally around the edge of its services and functions - such as for the National Library's Trove service and the Pharmaceuticals Benefit Scheme.

However what is suggested in the DTO's post is that the DTO is looking to make it mandatory for government agencies to create APIs for all new services, and to consume their own APIs when delivering those services.

To people who know little about IT this might be a 'so what' moment. However if you think about the impact of this shift on how governments design services, who delivers them and how they are integrated with other services across agencies, this is a very big deal indeed.

AGIMO (Australian Government Information Management Office), as the former body established to guide federal technology use, always suffered from not having the ability to mandate certain techniques and approaches. It could cajole, suggest, recommend and advise agencies on good technology paths, and its position within Finance gave it a few teeth, however AGIMO never had the capability to mandate or enforce technology standards without the goodwill of every other major department's CIO.

So for the DTO to have a mandate in this area means it can design and enforce the practice, providing more standardisation across agencies and opening the door to knowledge and expertise sharing within government and certainty on how to engage agencies from outside.

One of the potential outcomes of making APIs mandatory is that 3rd parties outside of government will be able to deliver any new government service, mash together services from different agencies into new service approaches, or even combine government and private services into a single unified offering.

Anyone with a website and a little expertise could become a front-end for people seeking to access government services or information.

Equally, government agencies (whether local, state or federal) could connect federal services to their own, likewise potentially in a seamless way.

Theoretically there could be a single system across government for changing your address, or you could register a company, your ABN, for GST and for a state license for your business in the same transaction.

The DTO's draft design also says that agencies will have to consume their own APIs ('eat their own dogfood') when delivering their services.

This means agencies will have to build robust and effective APIs to support their service requirements, rather than build them as an afterthought (a very good thing) and it support the development of usable interfaces that aren't limited by a particular IT back-end approach.

Of course all of this relies on how well the mandate is executed - which leaves Paul Shetler's team with some challenges.

First they have to build recognition within government, as a mandate, agency CIOs can no longer go their own way, they need to work together with the DTO to establish appropriate standards that suit agency deliverables and services.

Secondly they will have to address any skills gaps. Few agencies have experience developing APIs - particularly where there's complex services that require them, or there's need for secure APIs.

Finally they'll have to keep all the cats herded. Ministers have a tendency to ask for things at short notice - such as new services or changes to existing ones. When agencies face these requests they often are limited in time, money and the skills to achieve them. Developing APIs will hardly be on the top of their priority list, they will be hardpressed just to get a service in place in time to meet the Minister's announcement deadline.

However despite all these challenges, the cause is a great one and could do more to transform how government IT operates than many more public steps.

If the DTO can pull this off, have agencies fall in line and have APIs start rolling off government IT 'production lines', it will have single-handedly justified its own existence and transformed how government works, even if it doesn't achieve anything else in the next few years.

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