Friday, April 22, 2016

Code for Victoria is looking for nine innovative, inspired, collaborative individuals with digital experience to help transform Victorian government

If you're a talented programmer, designer or user experience lead looking to create change and have an impact on society, it's worth checking out the opportunity currently on offer with Code for Victoria.

The Code for Victoria Innovation Challenge is a new initiative between Code for Australia and the Victorian Government, funded through the Victorian Public Sector Innovation Fund. It brings together talented technologists and government change-makers to work on things that matter across Victorian government.

Three problems or challenges that lend themselves to innovation and open collaboration will be selected from nominations by public servants and agencies across the Victorian public service, based on their complexity, urgency and alignment to government priorities.

Each challenge will have a team of three Code for Australia Fellows (programmer, designer and user experience lead) embedded with the relevant agency to innovate and explore potential solutions for six months.

Code for Australia is now looking for nine talented people to take on these paid Fellowship positions.

If you're looking for an opportunity to expand your ability to influence and impact society, to work 'outside the box' on things that matter and to accelerate your technology career by working on a larger scale and high visibility challenge - apply now for one of these Fellowship positions.

And if you're a Victorian public servant with a problem or challenge that could benefit from an innovative and collaborative approach - nominate your challenge now.

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Friday, April 15, 2016

Senior public servants need counselling, not coddling if they fear to provide frank and fearless advice under the public's gaze

This week several of Australia’s highest ranking public servants, including the Secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet and the head of the Australian Public Service Commission, publicly endorsed the position that Australia’s current Freedom of Information laws were restricting public servants from providing frank and fearless advice to government.

To put this in context, the initial comments from theSecretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet were made on the same day that the Department was hosting civic sector leaders to cocreate the development of actions for improving Australian government transparency.

As an attendee working on the Prime Minister’s Open Government Partnership commitment (read about the OGP day here), it was unsettling and disturbing to hear the Secretary effectively undermine the work of his own excellent team, as well as the Prime Minister’s personal initiative.

The argument from the Secretaries was that public servants are being cowed by public and media scrutiny of advice they provide, and therefore either delivered their advice on potential decisions to government via routes that could not be easily FOIed (such as verbally), or were failing to be as frank and fearless as they should be.

When I worked in the public service and various Freedom of Information Law changes were underway, I did hear other public servants talk about writing less down, to protect themselves, their agency and the government (generally in that order) from the eyes of the public.

Operationally the Secretaries may have a point, some current public servants may fear public disclosure of the advice and input they provide, whether due to fears of embarrassment should the advice be incomplete or poorly considered, or due to the wide, and sometimes extreme, scenarios explored when governments are considering decisions across a broad range of controversial topics.

However this is a poor argument - any fears of embarrassment, exposure or publicity that public servants have are a failure of public sector culture, not a failure of effective governance. There's no evidence that openness has restricted the ability of public servants to give frank and fearless advice - it's only a culture of fear and secrecy that appears to prompt self-censoring behaviours.

Equally claiming that requests from media for information under FOI are a nuisance makes me seriously question the commitment to good governance of any senior public servant making this claim.

In my view any senior public servant espousing that public servants need to be coddled and protected from scrutiny in order to provide the frank and fearless advice expected in their roles needs to be counselled, rather than supported in their cultural groupthink.

The public service works for Australia, serving citizens by way of parliament and has a contractual and moral obligation to provide the best advice it can to the government of the day.

There is no caveat in this obligation for ‘the best advice that doesn’t make a public servant feel embarrassed or uncomfortable’, nor is there a caveat for ‘being inconvenienced’.

Frank and fearless advice can, and should, be given in an open environment. 

The public service should, by default, make its advice public in order to both allow the public to understand the thinking behind why certain decisions are made, or not made, and to provide the scrutiny required to ensure that the public service’s advice to parliament is comprehensive and complete.

It is possible to place systems in place to reduce the FOI burden, something that departments appear to have repeatedly preferred not to do, in favour of making it as hard as possible to identify and request information in order to discourage citizens from daring to question their public sector ‘betters’. Taking an open by default approach, and redesigning systems appropriately, would likely significantly reduce the cost and time currently spent on keeping information unnecessarily hidden.

We live in a time when it is no longer possible for an organisation to hold all the wisdom needed in decision-making. Between limits to the expertise available within an organisation, the lack of time available to busy staff to research emerging innovation ideas, staff at any large organisation will find it hard to provide a comprehensive view of a situation or the available options without external assistance.

With less scrutiny of public sector advice there’s an even lower chance than now (with current restrictions on scrutiny) that the public service will be able to effectively advise government comprehensively, leading inevitably to worse policy outcome.

This is particularly the case when innovative solutions or on-the-ground insights are required.

Nor should frank and fearless advice be career limiting when made public, or for that matter when delivered privately. Shooting the messenger is a human trait and with limited public scrutiny it can be easier for politicians or senior public servants to punish public servants who, in being frank and fearless, step beyond what is considered within an agency or portfolio as ‘acceptable options’.

Concealing decision-making processes in the shadows can easily lead to good and well-evidenced options being buried by ideologues or those who feel these options may not support their public sector empire building.

Of course more openly providing frank and fearless advice can – and will – lead to greater public and media scrutiny. There will be more brickbats than bouquets and the public service will need resilient as it shifts its culture from a fear of embarrassment to embracing public debates that enrich government decision processes.

Given the comments by Secretaries and the leadership of the APSC, such a shift to a bias to open will require a reversal of their attitudes and the culture prevalent at that level.

This culture, a remnant of these individuals’ journeys through the public service over the last twenty to forty years, may have served Australia in the past, but has now become detrimental to an effective future for the Australian Public Service and for Australia as a nation.

It will do Australia no good to have the current crop of Secretaries appoint and promote public servants sharing their views. This will only perpetuate the cultural belief that frank and fearless advice can only be provided in the dark, hidden from the citizens on whose behalf it is being made.

So it appears that for Australia to make a clean break from the ‘protect and coddle public servants’ perspective, to embrace whole-of-society governance, where decisions are made in sunlight, significant guidance and culture change counselling is required for the leadership of Australia's public service.

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Thursday, April 14, 2016

Building an Open Government Partnership plan in Australia from the edges to the centre

On Monday this week I participated in the cocreation workshop for Australia's Open Government Partnership (OGP) National Action Plan (NAP) commitments.

For background on the Open Government Partnership (OGP), refer to, and for Australia's membership process refer to my blog post on the history ( and the government's site (

The workshop involved roughly 60 participants from civil society, government agencies and individuals interested and involved in the process and both available and able to self-fund a Canberra trip to be involved.

Many had previously submitted ideas for potential commitments that the Australian government could make to improve the transparency and accountability of our national governance in the OGP consultation period between December 2015 and March 2016.

The group had over 300 submissions to consider and refine to a much smaller number of potential commitments for the Australian government to consider and, hopefully, endorse in the first Australian Open Government Partnership National Action Plan - joining 68 other countries that have made, and implemented, hundreds of similar commitments over the last five years.

The day (which largely followed the agenda) opened with an introduction by Amelia Loye (@emotivate), who the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet had appointed this year to lead the stakeholder engagement process following the work I'd done to lead OGP information sessions last December.

Amelia laid out the challenge ahead - to take the hundreds of ideas for improving government openness, transparency and accountability (some detailed, others thought bubbles) and refine them down collectively into a set of solid and measurable commitments that Cabinet could endorse and the Australian public service implement over the next two years.

The Australian government's commitment to the process was reaffirmed by both the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet's David Williamson, Deputy Secretary of Innovation & Transformation and by the lead officer on the OGP National Action Plan, Toby Bellwood, who made it clear that this was not a once-off project, but the start of a journey.

After taking questions on topics from the continuity of key transparency agencies, such as the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (answer: can't comment), to the depth of commitment by Departmental Secretaries to the OGP process (answer: Secretaries Board has not yet been engaged), we got down to work boiling hundreds of submitted ideas into actions that the government could consider for inclusion in Australia's first National Action Plan.

With six active tables, and rough guidance on an approach, people self-selected by their topics of interest (Access to Information, Public Participation, Fiscal Transparency, Open Data, Fostering Innovation and Government Integrity) and got down to work.

Each table self-organised and employed a slightly different methodology to sorting through between 20-100 submitted ideas on their topic and categorising them into broader commitments.

On the Public Participation table we integrated world cafe and card sorting techniques through the morning to develop two broad commitments. People flowed between tables, with a few 'anchor people' remaining to pass on the consensus views.

By lunch a total of 18 commitment concepts had been developed across the six tables and a process of 'dotmocracy' saw the top commitments voted on by the entire room.

From here smaller groups worked on framing commitments using the National Action Plan template, resulting in 13 documented commitments, with another undocumented commitment around creating a (sorely needed) formal mechanism for engagement between the public service and civil societies.

Finishing up in the afternoon, I was largely happy at the progress made, though comments on the same day by the Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet about restricting Freedom of Information took a lot of the shine off the process.

Having a Deputy Secretary of the DPMC say the government was committed to openness and the Secretary say, on the same day, that public servants must be protected from scrutiny with FOI restrictions, doesn't evidence a deep senior public service commitment to support the Prime Minister's OGP commitment.

However the commitment of the OGP team in DPMC is clear.

The excellent and inclusive approach from Pia Waugh and her successor Toby Bellwood speaks volumes about how some public servants understand and support the need for governments to transform their culture to remain effective and relevant in a more accountable and transparent world.

I'll provide a more targeted post on the topic of senior bureaucrats wanting restrictions to FOI tomorrow.

Back on the OGP process, now that some commitments and supporting actions have been drafted, the government will be following a process of reviewing them through the Inter-Departmental Committee (IDC), then costing and putting them into a Cabinet approval process, potentially with other suggestions from government agencies.

This isn't quite the 'partnership' process that I had hoped for, and runs the risk of having agencies discard any commitments that they feel are uncomfortable (ie ambitious or confronting), either by directly burying them or by laying potential risks and costs onto these commitments to an extent that makes them seem unworkable.

Having seen public servants use this tactic on other matters, I will be very interested to see what makes it to Cabinet for review.

However this is only Australia's first OGP National Action Plan, and no matter how fantastic or flawed it is in meeting the OGP goals of ambitious targets that stretch agencies, it still shifts the conversation a little further in the right direction.

Future plans will build on this one, being collaborative in their design and ambitious in their execution, leaving me optimistic that Australia's Open Government Partnership process will deliver fruit for our democracy and support broader and deeper effective engagement between the public sector and the people of Australia.

For another perspective on the day, Cassie Findlay has published a great piece. I'm sure there will be a few other reflections in days to come.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Australian governments need to stop treating citizens as free consultants

Across April I'm spending a week participating in government-run sessions to contribute to the democratic life of our nation.

I'll spend two days with CSIRO, supporting their startup commercialisation programs, a day with the NSW Department of Transport supporting their deliberations on future transport needs and policies and a day with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet supporting the open government partnership process.

Plus there's associated travel and preparation time - including several return drives to Sydney from Canberra.

Every bureaucrat and politician involved in these sessions will be paid for their time and have their travel costs covered. 

Every consultant employed by the government to organise, manage, promote and report on these sessions will receive due compensation - paid at their going market rates.

However the participants who give up their time and intellectual property to provide input to government won't receive a cent in payment from the agencies for any of their time commitment. Not even to defray travel or accommodation costs.

Some of the participants might attend representing a university or corporate interests - so while the government won't pay for their time or travel, their employer will. In return their employers will expect some form of benefit in having them attend, whether it be through building or exhibiting expertise, influencing policy directions, senior connections or another form of  potential commercial benefit.

However for other participants, including myself, our involvement is a cost - a personal cost (spending time in another city, far from loved ones), and a professional cost (losing days of productive income time).

I've been prepared to sustain this kind of cost due to my passion for helping government take full advantage of digital ('digital transformation' as per this year's buzz phrase), improving citizen-government engagement to support and strengthen our democracy, and supporting Australian innovators to create the export industries and jobs that our country will need to remain successful throughout this century.

Indeed I've calculated that my personal investment in these goals has cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost income over the last ten years.

Now I've also had paid gigs helping government to improve in some of these areas - both as a bureaucrat and a consultant, which puts me in the position of seeing both sides of the equation.

However, make no mistake - for most Australian citizens participating in democracy can only be considered a hobby.

While the government 'professionals' (bureaucrats & consultants) get paid - the hobbyists (citizens) do not.

It's no wonder that most Australians do not respond to government consultations, attend government policy events or participate in significant democratic exercises.

It's no wonder that Australian governments find that the same organisations and individuals constantly respond to their requests for attendance at events and round-tables. Organisations with commercial interests and individuals with either commercial or close personal stakes in the outcomes.

Most people can't afford the time off work to provide their views and insights, even when they have expertise on a topic, leaving a deep well of Australian knowledge and ideas untapped.

Now some might claim that it would be inappropriate for government to pay citizens for taking an interest in democracy and contributing their time to inform or influence policy - after all, all that work is being done directly for the citizens' benefit.

However the majority of citizens now only contribute because of commercial benefit to their employer or themselves, or because they have the financial freedom (or willingness to sacrifice lifestyle) to get involved. Most Australians don't contribute at all beyond voting. So this view of citizens as 'free consultants' is quite outdated and doesn't reflect the realities of the real cost of participating in democracy.

When the Icelandic government ran a constitutional event, inviting 300 representatives from across the country to participate in the design of their new constitution, they paid the participants the equivalent of a parliamentarian's salary for the day - plus travel and accommodation costs.

In a country like Australian where people off the street are paid $80-100 to spend an hour or two looking at product concepts and give an opinion, it seems ludicrous that governments won't pay a cent to citizens who give up their time to provide insights and expertise on policy decisions that affect millions.

If we want the best policies for Australia, governments need to at minimum be prepared to pay for the best participants to attend - covering travel costs to bring in citizen experts and leaders from all over Australia, rather than limiting the pool to citizens within driving distance.

Preferable we need Australian governments to budget respectful day rates for Australians who are invited and choose to participate, or who apply and are selected to participate in consultation events of significance to policy and program development. 

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Thursday, March 24, 2016

DTO launches preview of vision - but is it the right vision for Australian needs?

The Australian government is again looking to reshape its entire digital presence, through creating a single site that will somehow negate the need for people to understand how government works in order to engage with it effectively.

Created by the Digital Transformation Office, you can visit the Alpha, and comment on it at

I know there's a lot of good people who really see the idea of a single online portal as being a solution to the problem of finding the right government information and services and I respect the work the DTO is doing to pursue this.

However, there's some key challenges in this approach that I feel keep getting overlooked.

Firstly, the primary problem with engaging citizens is not government websites, it's government cultures.

Government is split into hundreds of departments, agencies, statutory authorities and government-run corporations, Each has a separate purpose, separate objectives and many have different reporting lines to Ministers.

Each of these entities has developed its own culture, and in fact in the larger entities there can be  different cultures across business units, and each of these cultures and business units has its own experience and expertise in carrying out its business goals.

While government doesn't explicitly compete in the market, in most cases, it does compete internally for resources - staff, dollars and attention. This isn't simply between business entities, but also between business units within each entity.

If you liken government to a closed ecosystem, where every gasp of air, drop of water and morsel of food is fought over, where business units and agencies succeed or fail based on their capability to attract resources and outsmart their competition, you would not be far wrong.

Of course, within this ecosystem there's still collaboration and cooperation. in many cases two or more agencies can work together to attract more resources than one operating alone, then can have more controlled internal battles over who gets how much. Collaboration and cooperation is sometimes forced on agencies from above - through Ministerial decisions and legislation that creates both perfect marriages and odd couples that claw at each other but are unable to untangle themselves.

This culture is influenced by the government of the day, and can undergo rapid transformations when  governments change. While this used to occur on average every decade, a manageable timeframe, in the last ten years we've seen five switches of Prime Minister and many agencies have had a dozen or more different Ministers - which creates enormous disruption and, eventually, change fatigue.

The impact this has on the concept of a single portal for interacting with government is that there's a constant need for agencies to adjust  their brand presence and offer to citizens and businesses, as their cultures evolve and governments alter their purpose or resourcing.

Having a single portal does nothing to address the cultural challenges across government agencies and, until these are addressed in a holistic and sophisticated way (with support from both political and public sector leadership), the single portal is likely to become a victim of the cultures.

There will be agencies that refuse to be part of the single portal because it doesn't match their cultural approach, and agencies that work around it by either outsourcing websites to third-party providers or simply keeping creating websites that they can control to meet their individual objectives and mandated goals.

Another major issue is managing a single online presence when all the parts of government are changing so quickly.

Every time governments change, Ministers change, priorities change laws change and the environment changes, departments and agencies must also change how and what services they provide to the community.

You could  think of this in terms of road building (but for Australia's future), with the Public Service being the labour force building the roads and the Government (Prime Minister and Ministers) being the architects and visionaries deciding where the roads need to go.

We have a situation where the public service has diligently built the roads they've been directed to build. However with changes in governments, Minister and priorities they have had to change direction, ripping up past work and repurposing building materials for new approaches, so many times in the last ten years that Australia's transportation system now looks like the road systems illustrated to the right (both are examples from China). And it's continuing to get worse.

Given how rapidly government entities are changing, and how they each have different types of relationships with the public and business community, the idea of a one-size fits all website is appealing as a way to simplify and normalise government-citizen or government-business relationships.

Having a single button that citizens can press to ask for any government service would be fantastic for citizens, but it hasn't yet been realistic via any channel to-date.

Government hasn't  managed to establish a single phone line or shop front for government services due to the range, complexity and different requirements needed for different interactions.

Increased speed of change only makes this harder. A single portal can centralise the cost of change, but also amplify it - creating new bottlenecks when agencies are required to change directly, reframing and reshaping their service offerings and engagement with the public.

Magnify this by connecting federal with state and even local government services and the work required to provide a single portal becomes extremely complex and prone to expensive failures. Even if the DTo manages, somehow, to herd all the federal cats, bringing on state services (which are integral to many customer journeys) adds a new layer of challenges.

Both NSW and Victoria have publicly demonstrated their willingness to go their own way on digital transformation, and other states have done so in more subtle ways. Herding those cats both at a political and public sector level is a task the DTO is not resourced to do.

Next, I haven't seen a real demand for a single portal from citizens. In fact most people would prefer not to engage with government at all. Simplicity isn't the same as a single portal. It's a solution that may not match the problem.

Not every citizen wishes to go through the same process when engaging with government. One size fits all is as flawed for citizen needs and preferences as it is for government services themselves.

Many citizens deal with one agency specifically and have built a strong relationship with that organisation and the user experience it provides over many years.

Changing that experience by pulling it into a single portal may (and that's only a may) offer long-term benefits, but there's a national change program needed to inform and retrain users, and a great deal of short-term pain incurred both at an agency and political level - and that's excluding the personal pain that individuals may face if they find the new process harder than the old, simply due to the process having changed.

Of course we intellectually want governments to take on short-term pain for long-term social benefits, but at a personal level many individuals will resist any change. This can lead to significant political pressure and can, and has, made it difficult for governments to take a long-term view - even where governments, Prime Ministers and Ministers are in office for longer than a few years at a time.

Our current political environment suggests that our politicians are not prepared to look long-term in areas that affect election outcomes, even where our public service is. This in itself could kill the single portal concept, as politicians realise that disgruntled voters might not support them at the next election.

Finally, the technology underpinning the web doesn't self-select towards single central sites. Yes it does support huge directories, like Google, which allow navigation of billions of sites and it does support 'one thing' concepts - such as YouTube (videos), Facebook (social networking) and Amazon (buying stuff). It is not conducive to single sites that offer a huge diversity of services, as a government provides.

The underlying structure works better through allowing services to be accessed across many sites, connecting them using APIs rather than squishing them altogether as a single website at a single domain.

In my view it would be far preferable for the DTO to focus on building out a whole-of-government API strategy, supporting agencies to offer services, interactions and content through API-based approaches which can then be connected together or embedded in sites where they make sense.

On this basis it's easy to connect the bike shop scenario the DTO proposes - registering a business, getting a Tax File Number and GST registration. Each would be separate service processes, able to be offered in aggregate by accountants, lawyers and government agencies via their websites by simply combining a few APIs to create a larger service.

This broadens the scope, making it easy for state and local governments to add their services in as well (permits and registration), as could private companies - such as real estate agents (for premises), equipment providers (for bikes to sell), utilities (internet, power, water) and a range of related business services that the bike shop may need.

This scenario sees government moving away from a 'single portal' concept, to a 'many doors' approach, where the public and businesses don't need to go to any government website to access necessary government services or transactions.

APIs fit the model of the web - a single portal to rule them all does not.

So while I commend the attempt to build a single portal for government, I question whether the approach will deliver any real benefits, outside a few announceables for Ministers.

In a perfect world, a single portal for everything government related may be ideal, It's the perfect dream, a unicorn wished into existence.

Our world isn't perfect. It's messy, inaccurate and changing fast. Can a one-size-fits all approach keep up?

Governments that wish to evolve service delivery to match citizen needs need to look at ways of unlocking their services for innovation, letting other agencies, other governments and the private and not-for-profit sectors integrate their services into logical and iterative user experiences.

Unlocking innovation by unlocking government services through APIs offers a far more flexible future than locking agencies and services into a one-size fits all portal.

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