Wednesday, July 08, 2015

No it's a not appropriate to load test on your citizens in production - particularly when it's a critical service

The last week has seen a range of major issues for the Australian Government's new MyTax service.

As reported across both traditional and social media, people using MyTax to file their tax returns have experienced shut-outs, had the process freeze when they were almost complete and had it fail to autofill their pre-saved details.

MyTax is an online version of the eTax software which had been the primary way for people to digitally complete their tax returns for the last fifteen years. eTax improved year on year and had enormous take-up. In all respects it was a major success for the ATO.

This is the first year the Australian Tax Office has deployed the MyTax system and integrated it with MyGov. While the intention was, and is, good - to give Australians a single way to validate themselves with multiple government agencies - the implementation in this case hasn't withstood the real world.

This isn't a unique experience and it isn't limited to government. We've seen it with certain banking services, with retailers (particularly on a certain contrived Australian online shopping day each year), with A-grade games (such as SimCity) and with a range of other online services such as Apple maps.

In fact this issue is relatively rare, in comparison to the private sector, in government, with the last major issue of this type internationally being with in the US, and the last I recall in Australia being with the MySchools site launch.

This type of issue will happen from time to time. Unforeseen bugs or network issues, denial of service attacks or other environmental issues can bring down even the most robust service, particularly at launch.

In every one of these cases there's a backlash from customers - and in every one of these cases the organisation responsible is judged based on how they manage and recover from the disaster.

In the MyTax case, while the ATO were probably aware of the risks, and may even have learnt some lessons from several of the issues highlighted above, it appears they're still struggling to manage and recover from the situation.

When asked about the siituation the CIO of the ATO, Jane King, wrote, as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, that "Capacity planning and testing was completed as part of the rolling out of the new digital design, however due to the complexity of our environment, production is always the real test."

I read this as her saying that while they did conduct testing, they were actually relying on real citizens, at real tax time, to fully evaluate how the MyTax system would perform.

Just as the UTS professor John Leaney, quoted in the SMH article above, says - this type of statement just isn't good enough.

"We're not in the 1950s; we're not even in 1990s, we've learnt a lot and from what we've learnt we apply the techniques for proper capacity modelling," Leaney said. "There should have been much better testing; it's not something you should learn the hard way on a major government system."

The ATO needs to do better at risk planning around situations like this. It needs to test capability properly and not hide behind the 'too many users' defense.

Government agencies need to carefully watch and learn from this experience - and learn the right lessons.

The first lesson is to conduct appropriate capacity testing. Look at the ABS's implementation of eCensus and the level of testing and resilience it put in place the first time eCensus was used in 2006. The ABS gave a great presentation on the topic, which I attended, which highlighted the risk mitigation steps they'd taken - from capacity testing through to multiple redundant systems and real-time monitoring with developers on standby and fallback manual systems in place.

The second lesson is to not release major systems at a time when they are going to come under a huge load. Release a new tax system in February or March, or after tax time in October, giving time to shakeout the production system and address issues before it hits peak load.

The third lesson is to avoid releasing major systems. Instead release smaller, but useful, services and progressively integrate them into a major new service, testing each carefully as they go. This is how Facebook totally replaced its back-end without any disruption to people's use of the service - modularly upgrading aspects of the service until it was completely done.

The final lesson is to plan your recovery before your system fails. Design a failover plan for what happens if the system doesn't work for people, a manual solution if required. The ATO should direct anyone with issues to a hotline where they can complete their tax return over the phone, or via screen sharing, so no-one is left waiting for days or in a position of financial distress due to not receiving a tax return fast.

I feel for the ATO (particularly their ICT team) and don't blame them for the issues they're having with MyTax, however I do hold the agency responsible for how the ATO recovers from this disaster.

They need to stop defending their implementation of MyTax and focus on ways to meet citizen needs - even outside the MyTax system - to ensure that the 'tax returns get through'.

Otherwise this issue could turn into another Apple maps-style disaster, or even worse, as there's no 'competitor' to the ATO that citizens can turn to to complete their tax returns. At least, not yet...

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Tuesday, July 07, 2015

It's not been quiet on Australia's Government 2.0 front

While I've been very tardy at posting this year, due to busyness, significant life and work changes and a general lassitude brought on from blogging for so many years, the Government 2.0 scene in Australia has continued to progress.

While some of the faces and names have changed, and the public sector talks more about innovation, 'digital government' and 'digital transformation' than about Government 2.0, the overall direction remains the same - increasing use of modern digital tools and techniques to improve the operation and outcomes of government.

In the last six months we've seen a number of major initiatives take shape.

At a federal level the big news is the Digital Transition Office (DTO), modeled on the UK Government Digital Service (GDS) and the US Digital Service (USDS), was formed early this year with seconded staff and officially launched on 1 July with a budget of $254.7 million over four years. The DTO knuckled down to work even before it had a CEO or budget, and some of its activities and thinking is being shared on the DTO blog - with much more to come.

Recently the new CEO of the DTO was announced (replacing seconded SES officers), with the government choosing an overseas candidate who had developed a similar approach before - Paul Shetler, formerly Director of the GDS.

While it's sad there's little in the way of Australian talent ready at this level, it's good the government has taken the step of appointing someone with the experience and nous to take on this difficult public sector role.

Also in Canberra, the Australian Public Service recently launched Public Sector Innovation Month, an event that has grown from strength to strength over the last few years. While I was interstate for the launch (on 6 July), I'm involved with a number of the scheduled events, and will try to provide some insights into the mood and activities throughout July.

DFAT also recently ran a wildly successful internal idea-sourcing process. Over 40% of DFAT staff participated, with 392 ideas and 16,000 votes submitted. A number of the ideas are being progressed, with a lucky few funded and recognised at a whole-of-DFAT event. I'm hopeful other agencies will take note of this approach and it's well designed process (facilitated by Collabforge) and consider ways to unlock the ideas and experience of their (highly experienced) staff.

Nationally this month saw the return of GovHack, with 31 sites and around 2,000 registered participants across Australia and New Zealand. With 276 completed projects across 400 teams, this has been the biggest and best organised GovHack (according to the anecdotal reports I've received) so far.

I spend GovHack in the Melbourne site, managing and mentoring teams for the Victorian Government's challenge, Taking government services digital. This was the first time GovHack had offered a challenge to hack government without the need to mash-up open data and was an exciting pilot for involving the public in digital service design.

Given that Melbourne, as the largest venue for GovHack in 2015, had more hackers and projects than all of GovHack in 2012, the growth of this event has been staggering, yet well managed.

The last few months have also seen the initiation of Service Victoria, an agency established within Victoria's Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC), to take on the redevelopment of high volume and high cost Victorian government services in a collaborative way with the agencies that 'own' those transactions, as well as the integration of into DPC to provide it with a more central outlook and greater cloud.

The WA government has taken firm steps towards an open data portal, building on some of the great work done by local agencies and volunteers, while the ACT has rationalised and centralised its focus on innovation to improve effectiveness and attempted to hire a Chief Digital Officer (albeit unsuccessfully).

NSW has continue to move slowly towards greater adoption of open data, while Queensland and South Australia are seeing a slight pause as they rethink their ICT strategies and political foci.

The Northern Territory and Tasmania still lag behind other states, though renewed attempts are underway in Hobart to reinvigorate a move towards greater use of digital across government.

Larger local governments, particularly Melbourne and Brisbane, are pushing forward with strong digital agendas, while outside of government the OKFN have moved past their establishment phase and is beginning to support real change, while Code for Australia,a newer group, is beginning to flex its wings and create partnerships with governments to embed innovative Fellows to push along digital initiatives.

Across the board there's still limited political direction and focus on the value digital can have for government, although both Turnbull at federal level and the latest Victorian Government have demonstrated clear commitment and advocacy on digital's power to improve outcomes.

The role of the community in encouraging, supporting, and occasionally chastising, governments to become more digital remains huge, and we're now beginning to see agencies recognise the need for digital leads, separate to existing executives. This is a huge opportunity for anyone who wants to work in a senior level in digital while achieving lasting social and economic good for the nation, states or local communities, and will continue to grow as more agencies identify their lack.

So overall, Australia is still very much in the early stages of the digital transformation of government, with pockets of maturity helping to bring lagging areas up to speed.

There's a long way to go before government is truly digitally enabled - inside and out - but most governments now have their feet firmly planted on the road and recognise the value that striding forward will bring.

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Monday, May 11, 2015

Select your strategic approach carefully in social engagement - Treasury faltering at Census-like approach

Imitation is often referred to as the sincerest form of flattery, however the attempt by the Treasury to mimic the success of Census Australia's lighthearted Twitter approach demonstrates how carefully agencies must consider their social strategies in light of public opinion.

Many will remember when the ABS launched its Census Twitter campaign with an engagement styled to help make census numbers relevant to the average Australian using humour and cleverly written tweets.

The @2011Census account (now @CensusAustralia) attracted enormous public and media attention across Australia and internationally, and there was a significant increase in Census completion rates (though a number of initiatives would have helped contribute to this).

The ABS even went so far as to 'Rickroll' its followers, a sign of a government agency so comfortable with its own communication and audience that it could engage them playfully and without fear.

It was a brilliant strategy (well done Michelle), breaking the mold for government social engagement.

Now The Treasury is attempting a similar strategy on Twitter, however is receiving a very different reaction and engagement from the public.

The Treasury is a relative newcomer to social engagement, having first tweeted in July 2012. Being one of the more formal and less public-facing government agencies it took longer for The Treasury to make a decision that a social presence was safe and needed to support its external engagement activities.

However when it leapt into social, it did so with both feet, using Twitter to announce and engage on tax reform consultations and highlight its very important activities, which rarely receive public attention. 

The agency did suffer some of the usual starting pains of new organisational social users, not using hashtags, avoiding engagement with other users and generally treating Twitter as a broadcast feed resembling a news ticker, however they've grown more interactive of late and look more comfortable on the platform.

This year The Treasury has taken an additional step - taking a leaf out of the ABS's book to engage more proactively around the organisation's most significant annual event, bringing down the Australian Government Budget.

Using factoids, like the Tweet below, the agency is seeking to engage Australians in a more human and interactive way.

Now this is a good thing, and speaks to the growing confidence of the agency on social channels. It's not easy for conservative organisations to 'let go' and allow themselves to engage in less formal and more human ways.

However the specific strategy The Treasury is using runs a large risk of backfiring on the agency.

The ABS could take a very interactive and light approach with the Census to make it relevant to Australians for the very reason that it wasn't especially relevant to many of them.

Few people had strong views about the Census process, either negative or positive. It only occurs once every five years, it has no discernable impact on people's lives the rest of the time and, while completing a census form was inconvenient for some people, it didn't really trigger a strong opposing reaction.

Essentially the ABS approach helped make the Census relevant to people, taking it from a position of irrelevance.

The Treasury is in a very different position with the Australian Government Budget.

The Budget is one of the most significant government activities each year. It is comprehensively covered by the media and is seen as a defining moment for governments, used by the public to judge their performance and their future.

Decisions in the budget affect every Australian, often in very personal and direct ways. Some see their lifestyles improve, others see them falter. It is extensively leaked and discussed ahead of its release, and the shockwaves it can send through the Australian economy can profoundly shape how the government and Australia are perceived globally and locally.

In the case of the current budget, much of the public still feel wounded from last year's budget, which saw a number of budget measures not passed and the government have to take steps back in a number of areas.

The government has taken steps to 'defuse' concerns over the current budget, and have done a good job of leaking key measures ahead of its release to assay some of the community's fears regarding its impact on their lives.

However it probably isn't the right environment to replicate the ABS census strategy - the differences in the public's starting views towards Census 2011 and Budget 2015 are enormous.

As such it looks to me as if The Treasury has perhaps become too ambitious in its approach to budget social engagement this year - a view that's being supported by the types of comments the agency is receiving on its account.

For example, The Treasury's latest tweet deals with the amount of M&Ms consumed by their Budget division staff in the weeks leading up to the budget (image below).

While the tweet, coming from the ABS Census account, would likely be well-received, coming from The Treasury it is interpreted in quite a different manner.

While it has decent retweets, the responding comments suggest that the agency doesn't (yet) have the same license to be as light and engaging as the ABS.

The tweet suggests to me the very public social mistake by Qantas a few weeks after it grounded its fleet. The #QantasLuxury campaign turned into an opportunity for the public to vent their anger.

The Treasury is risking a similar backlash to what could be seen as self-indulgent and commercial tweets, such as the one portrayed above. 

Talking about their staff's consumption of a brand of chocolate treats, or otherwise being light-hearted in engagement is not the best strategy at a time when the public is waiting in trepidation at the impact on their lives from the budget.

For the ABS a high engagement, high risk strategy had limited downside, for The Treasury there's far more potential risk and far less reward - although this tweet did get the gong as the most engaging government tweet in Australia for 10 May 2015 from Great Oz Gov Tweets (which I helped establish).

It's a bold strategy for The Treasury, and I hope it pays off, but in future the agency need to more carefully consider the environment they operate in and the profile of their subject matter, not simply their own desire to communicate and connect.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Use open data in your business or not-for-profit? Contribute to Australia's first formal Open Data study

Earlier this month the Department of Communication, in conjunction with New York University's GovLab team, launched the Open Data 500 research project as the first comprehensive study of Australian companies and non-profit organisations that use open government data to generate new business, develop new products and services, improve business operations or create social value.

The research initiative was launched by Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull at the Locate15 conference on 11 March.

The results of the study will be used to develop a publicly available report that will help businesses to identify ways to reduce the costs of accessing government data, including licencing, versioning and control costs.

GovLab was founded by Beth Simone Novak, who was formally the United States deputy chief technology officer for open government and led President Obama's Open Government initiative.

If your organisation uses open data, or you know an organisation that does, please participate in this study. The more information available on how and why open data is used, the more attention it will receive from Australia's governments.

More information about the study, and the survey for businesses and not-for-profits to complete are available at the website -

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Monday, March 23, 2015

Why not elect our political system as well as our politicians?

History has shown that over time it is inevitable that any human political system will be gamed by those who wish to gain from it.

Some is done with the public good at heart, to fix system and policy flaws, some is done based on ideological belief and some is done out of pure selfish motives – profit and power.

Whether it be politicians voting themselves pay rises and greater powers, advisors playing influence games on policy while pocketing lobbying fees, bureaucrats over-classifying material and splitting legislative hairs to protect their agencies and Ministers at public cost, corporations and their representative groups influencing policies and laws to their own advantage or foreign nations seeking to press their own national interests, there’s many groups with many reasons to subvert any political system.

The traditional approach to checking this subversion has been through institutional checks and balances and the existence of a constitution or similar foundation document which defines the spirit and the actual limits of governance. These controls work to some degree, allowing nations to thrive for decades without renewing their political systems.

However in certain cases this ends up with nations surviving on momentum alone – as institutions continue to serve their functions for years after their funding is cut below sustainable levels and politicians hold to the words, if not the spirit, of the governance intent of a nation’s ‘founding fathers’.

We see this today where governments allow important institutions and infrastructure to run down, continually being asked to do more for less; in the redefinition of human rights and freedoms, such as limiting them to citizens or even to just citizens with the financial capacity to afford them; the compromises politicians tell us are for our own good; and in failures by the corporations that run traditional media to hold a mirror to the conduct of other corporations and politicians in order to maintain their revenues and influence.

Of course under democracy we have the right to throw out our government and replace them with another – a cycle that has sped up globally over the last fifty years as people are more rapidly dissatisfied with how the stated goals of their elected representatives are translated into action.

However this electoral process increasingly resembles a simple rearrangement of the deckchairs, with politicians using science, psychology and marketing to identify where they should differentiate themselves or mirror the policies of other parties.

It has become increasingly hard to differentiate the different political brands as they have professionalised, replacing leaders with managers and true believers with corporatised career officials, whose goal is simply to take and hold power rather than to benefit and improve the lot of citizens.

This leads to even more gaming of the system – ‘preference whisperers’ advising minor parties how to structure preferences to maximise their chance of a seat, politicians who have realised that electoral promises are non-binding and can be discarded as soon as power is gained, an army of unelected partisan advisors who feed from the public purse but whose actions are not scrutinised as are career bureaucrats, and the casualisation of the public service, where cutting headcount is mandatory and agency heads and managers rename units or sack and reemploy bureaucrats as contractors and consultants to move them between funding and headcount buckets, regardless of the lost expertise or increased costs.

So perhaps we need to think outside the box of electoral democracy and think about the system itself.

What’s the best way to prevent people from gaming a system over time? Changing the rules.

We have mechanisms for doing this now – through courts and the constitution. However these mechanisms are under the oversight of elected politicians and are very difficult to change – particularly when the incumbents are happy with how things work, even if they don’t deliver the outcomes the public expects.

How about instead if we put our entire governance system up for election on a regular basis, perhaps every 12 or 20 years, allowing the public to vote on whether they felt the existing system still satisfied the needs of the nation, or whether it needed to be changed?

Perhaps Australians could vote to affirm or change the preferential system of electing representatives to a proportional or first past the post approach, change the period between elections from a variable three years to a fixed five year term, or limit the time that politicians can remain in office or as a Minister to a few terms.

Perhaps Australians could choose whether we ban all political parties, have an elected head of state, change the size or number of state governments or reallocate policy and service responsibilities between governance tiers.

Perhaps we could choose to have appointed, not elected, Ministers, or to have citizen panels, selected in similar ways to juries, provide formal and ongoing oversight to Ministers, or make decisions on key policy areas.

We could choose whether to have the entire electoral population vote on key decisions and programs – the budget, major national infrastructure, on whether to commit Australia to wars.

Of course there needs to be some structure behind this to allow it to work successfully – and there’s also the potential for this system of voting for our governance system to be itself gamed.

However given the increasing calls for change in our electoral system and governance model, not simply in the politicians who we may elect within it, it’s definitely worth considering more than electoral reform, but governance reform – with the public, the citizens and shareholders in the nation of Australia, being the people who choose how they are governed, not simply who governs them.

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