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 opengovpartnership.org, and for Australia's membership process refer to my blog post on the history (egovau.blogspot.com.au/2016/01/contribute-now-to-australias-open.html) and the government's site (ogpau.govspace.gov.au).

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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