Friday, February 27, 2015

It's a good time to rethink the approach to Australia's Census

The first censuses reportedly took place around 5,000 years ago in Egypt, and the approach is mentioned in Exodus, one of the books of the Bible, commissioned by God in order to levy a per capita tax to upkeep the Israelite Tabernacle.

The ancient Greeks, Chinese and Indians all conducted censuses before 1 AD, and censuses were vital for the Romans to levy the taxes that maintained their empire.

More recently, the Domesday book was commissioned by William the Conquerer, also known as William I of England, to properly tax the land he had conquered from the Saxons.

Independently the Inca Empire in South America, who had no written language, conducted censuses in the 15th century using base-ten notation knots in llama hair string.

In modern times over a hundred nations have conducted censuses on a regular or semi-regular basis, with nations like the US and UK conducting them every year and Australia every five.

A census collector from Egypt in 3000BC would probably have found it easy to comprehend the censuses Australia conducted in the 1990s.

While there's more questions today, the method of collecting census information had changed very little until recently.

Up until the introduction of electronic censuses this century, nations sent thousands of census collectors out and distributed millions of census forms for completion.  The collected data was then returned to central points for collation and analysis.

Now the ABS has prepared a paper to government suggesting that they may have better techniques for estimating population statistics rather than conducting an expensive national Census every five years.

This suggestion has caused media controversy, a public backlash and even a campaign to 'save our census'. Australians feel a sense of ownership over the Census, particularly after the fantastic work done by the ABS last census to engage people via social media and interactive tools.

However I think it's a good and appropriate conversation to have right now. We've advanced enormously technologically and scientifically in the last ten years, not to mention the last 5,000.

In fact, if you really think about it, conducting the census in a way that would be familiar to the Romans or William the Conquerer really doesn't make sense for the 21st Century.

With the data collection techniques available now, and the expertise we have in data analytics and prediction, surely we can find more cost-effective and less invasive ways of taking stock of our population than having every household fill in a form on one night.

So while I appreciate the concerns people have about change, and the nostalgia for our census-takers, I applaud the ABS and government for at least considering new approaches to the census.

If we truly want to digitally transform our government and society, we need to challenge practices that have become the norm.

This means not simply updating them (such as making a paper form electronic), but completely rethinking them beginning with our goals, applying the most appropriate approaches to data collection and analysis, and rethinking how we share and use the data for the benefit of society.

This needs to be done with an eye to improving outcomes, avoiding outcomes such as in Canada where it was about money, not quality. It also needs to be done with an effective change management campaign, involving the public in the debate.

Ignoring these two areas risks a messy and difficult process of reconsidering the Census, likely with poor outcomes both for the current government and for Australia.

However a well-thought-out public engagement campaign, combined with clearly superior techniques of collecting and analysing data could be a win for both.


I look forward to the day when children learn about the census in their history books, a system that was great for 5,000 years but was superseded by more effective techniques as humans advanced.

And I look forward to seeing more sacred cows in government and business challenged wisely and effectively with appropriate public engagement.

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Friday, February 20, 2015

Don't expect the new normal to be normal


Around the world governments are struggling to understand and adopt social media and other digital tools into their business operations. 

In Australia many agencies are quite advanced in adopting social and Gov 2.0 tools - with digital firmly integrated into communication programs and, to a lesser extent, into program delivery and policy development.

In fact in some places I'm seeing a degree of complacency, the type that has senior public sector leaders saying "we have Facebook and Twitter and are using them successfully without any major issues or incidents".

This is a good thing. It's great to see agencies using digital channels well to engage with the community and each other.

However it is important to keep in mind that the world hasn't simply gone digital and stopped turning.

Technology continues to evolve at an incredible pace. 

Thirty years ago most of us used desktop computers with text interfaces. Twenty years ago the internet only had a few hundred web domains. Ten years ago there was no Twitter and both Facebook and Youtube were novel, with MySpace the dominant social network. Five years ago tablet computing devices were not in widespread use and mobile computing was still emerging as a thing.

While agencies may have developed the systems and expertise to navigate today's digital world, this map won't necessarily equip them for the digital world in five, ten or twenty years.

This means agencies need to continue to evolve and innovate, experimenting with new technologies and retesting their assumptions about older digital tools and approaches.

The new normal is evolutionary, not static, with technology increasingly reshaping societies into forms that were not predicted or prepared for.

Technology has already shifted the balance of power between large organisations and individuals, revolutionised manufacturing and medicine, made universal surveillance possible and given every person their own television, radio and newspaper channels.

What comes next - with 3D printing, nano-technology, robotics, self-drive vehicles, personal digital augmentations and more - will continue to challenge governments and societies to redefine what is appropriate and legal.

So keep up the good work using Facebook and Twitter to distribute your messages and to engage your audiences in open conversations. 

But keep an eye on the horizon for what may be ahead.

 

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Thursday, February 19, 2015

WA government launches open data consultation

The Western Australian Department of Premier and Cabinet has launched a consultation regarding their proposed whole of government Open Data policy - citing the relative underutilisation of data and the prospect of unlocking opportunities for greater insights and services.

It's good to see WA take this step. While they've had data available openly, primarily through WA LandGate, there was no clear overall policy or direction taken by the government and relative immaturity in how agency data was published for reuse.

The consultation is designed to create a policy which supports a standard approach to open data across WA government and both educate and encourage agencies to understand the value of data and how to release it effectively and appropriately for reuse.

To read and comment on the consultation, visit www.dpc.wa.gov.au/Consultation/Pages/WAWholeofGovernmentOpenDataPolicy-Draft.aspx


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Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Intrapreneurship and the art of digital transformation - improving how government operates

It's been a tough week to resume blogging about digital government, egovernance and Gov 2.0, with the attention of the media, public, public service and politicians fixed on politics rather than the operations of government.

However the nature of government, and of humans in general, is that politics is always a key element in getting stuff done (or undone as the case may be).

When it comes to improving how government operates and serves the public, in my view the goal or outcome of Gov 2.0 (whatever buzzword is used to describe the topic), the political element must always be considered part of the fabric of the process.

Little gets done without the authorisation and example of management, or at least a blind eye from those at the top allowing gray space in laws and policies for changes to creep through.

The discussion and debate over whether (and how much) innovation can occur in government, whether agencies can transform themselves to meet citizen expectations while reducing costs - as typified by the concept of Digital Transformation - thus must consider the political elements as well as the practical.

Do the political masters of the public service support Digital Transformation and what does 'support' mean in practice? Do the appointed heads and senior executives of government agencies embrace and champion the change, despite potential disruptions to their orderly structures and ongoing policy challenges? Do the middle management understand completely the vision and goals of the process, and can it be aligned with their practical day to day struggles to allocate the right people and resources to meet the goals of their agencies? And are the officers who undertake many of the roles requires to keep the machinery of government operating mentally and physically prepared to change their habits in pursuit of change?

Aligning these factors is a challenge at an agency level, at a whole-of-government level it becomes even more so, but it is a challenge that public servants face after every election, Ministerial shuffle or machinery of government change.

Indeed often the challenge is that there's simply too much and too frequent change in government for officers to become familiarised with the last set of changes before being thrown into new ones, with the leadership - political and operational - finding it hard to bed down new systems before being confronted with new ones,

This blend of stability, structure and chaos into which the announcement of the creation of a Digital Transformation Office has been made, at a time when the nation is discussing questions of national leadership and the public sector is still bedding down the machinery of government changes of 12 months ago, and the Ministerial changes of last month may thus seem a very challenging environment in which to achieve success.

Having come from an entrepreneurial environment, and having successfully intrapreneured in government, participating in and running teams of technologists and business professionals, my view is that the current moment in government is possibly the best time and opportunity for groups seeking to create change that we've seen in a few years.

Innovation flourishes when the status quo is uncertain and malleable, not within environments where structure and objectives are clear cut and certain.

When organisations are clear on their objectives, have optimum structures to achieve them and have leadership focused on the task at hand, innovation is kept to the margins, providing incremental improvements to maintain the status quo.

But when the status is not quo, when change is the norm and the goals are less clear, innovation can be bolder and  more revolutionary. It becomes possible to consider radical options, to allow a greater risk of failure in the pursuit of larger outcomes and success.

For digital transformation to succeed it must be possible to link together disparate systems and thinking from across government, to smash through existing silos and processes when considering new designs for policy creation and delivery and rebuild the mechanisms that underpin the operations of government not just in new forms, but in new ways.

There's no better time to attempt this then when existing silos are fragile and the pressure of falling budgets, personnel and loss of expertise is mounting.

The challenge will be to gain the advocacy and mindshare required to drive through the transformation agenda alongside the competing priorities that agencies now face.

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Sunday, February 01, 2015

Back on the blog

I've had a two month break from blogging over summer due to a range of other things going on in my life.

I'll be getting back into the habit of blogging over the next few weeks to catch up on all the awesome - and not so awesome - things happening in the Gov 2.0 / egovernance sphere in Australia and internationally.

With the Prime Minister and Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull recently having announced the creation of a Digital Transformation office, albeit an unfunded one, and the Prime Minister even more recently characterising social media as 'electronic graffiti' (a matter already taken up by The Conversation and other media, including on social media itself), there's already plenty of interesting topics to discuss in the public sector digital sector.

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