Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Roy/Blue Chilli policy hack is a great concept poorly executed

Next weekend Wyatt Roy, the Assistant Minister for Innovation and Blue Chilli, a Sydney-based start-up incubator , host a Policy Hack designed to 'disrupt the public service' by using start-up approaches to rapidly design and iterate new policy for the Australian nation.

I understand the excitement of Roy and part of the new government at the concept of holding a policy hack, of overturning the status quo in Canberra and making a real difference in governance.

It's a noble concept, and one that would attract those with a start-up mindset - including myself - the notion that a nation is more like a start-up than not, and that rapid and iterative policy development can lead to better outcomes for our society
Indeed I am a big support of the policy hack approach, where every assumption is tested and every system is reviewed for efficiency, workability and their outcomes and consequences. It actually isn't that far removed from existing policy development processes, albeit performed far quicker and with a more diverse range of talents involved in the mix.

However in this instance I am concerned about the specific approach being taken by Roy and Blue Chilli.

My views are reflected by a recent article by Stilgherrian, Wyatt Roy's Policy hack is already becoming a joke, and by the views of people I have spoken to more widely about this specific policy hack attempt.

Don't get me wrong, policy hacks work. International experience has demonstrated that concentrated bursts of attention involving diverse expertise on specific policy issues and initiatives delivers iterative improvements.

As a technique reflective of a start-up's validation and approach to market, there's plenty for policy makers to learn from.

However when approaches are unfocused, when they aim to 'disrupt the public service' creating an us versus them scenario, when they are not rooted in existing experience, knowledge and tested practice, they become unable to achieve the goals they set out to meet.

In this case the policy hack is framed as 'everything is on the table', as well it might be, but the hack fails to focus on a specific policy area for review and reform. The responses in the OurSay platform are therefore extremely diverse, with the only theme representing the specific audience attracted to respond - the startup community across Australia.

As a policy hack specifically on innovation policy the approach had enormous merit, but by widening the hack to any and every policy it provides a very shallow and narrow platform for any kind of real reform.

The risks in this poorly executed 'everything hack' is that the notion of policy hacks will end up rejected by those in power in Canberra. Just as the 2020 Summit hosted by Kevin Rudd disappeared with barely a trace and led to few valuable outcomes due to a lack of focus, poor inclusiveness and poor execution, Roy's Policy Hack repeats most of the same errors, albeit with a different (and often ignored) community, and in a smaller and less showy format.

If the breadth of policy topics canvassed at the Policy Hack is too broad, and the capacity to bring in existing expertise, testing and knowledge too narrow, this Policy Hack will deliver little in the way of outcomes - with perhaps one or two minor tweaks to existing policies that will be touted as a major success, only to disappear into Canberra beaurocracy and never be executed.

The real risk is not in this experiment but in the tone it sets for future initiatives in this space. It seems nothing has been learnt from the 2020 Forum, from the Public Sphere events, from the multitude of specific policy hacks undertaken overseas (ranging from the Police Wiki in New Zealand to the reframing of the Icelandic constitution), from the many experiments that have already failed or succeeded.

My concern is that a poor outcome will not stimulate more experimentation (even raking over old coals), but actually see the concept devalued and dropped, when all the evidence actually suggests that properly targeted and well-executed policy hacks, like well managed and structured start-ups, actually are far more likely to succeed than a random idea bringing together a bunch of strangers.

I am not able to be at the Policy Hack due to other commitments, and I don't feel stimulated by the format to submit serious policy reform ideas (of which I have many, having worked both within and outside of government - witnessing how they operate both from an insider and citizen perspective).

I hope that the guys at Blue Chilli can pull together something valuable, with outcomes that encourage further policy hacks and a more inclusive approach that reflects the broader community- however I don't expect it.

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Friday, October 02, 2015

What's the vision for the Australian Government?

It's expected these days for both corporations and government agencies to have vision and mission statements which encapsulate the change they wish to create through their existence and how they intend to create it.

Notable statements include  Microsoft's new mission, "to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more" and Amazon's vision "to be earth’s most customer centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online."

Some corporations ascribe to a longer vision, such as Apple, where Tim Cook outlined the following vision and mission for the company when speaking with investors,

"We believe that we are on the face of the earth to make great products and that's not changing. We are constantly focusing on innovating. We believe in the simple not the complex. We believe that we need to own and control the primary technologies behind the products that we make, and participate only in markets where we can make a significant contribution. We believe in saying no to thousands of projects, so that we can really focus on the few that are truly important and meaningful to us. We believe in deep collaboration and cross-pollination of our groups, which allow us to innovate in a way that others cannot. And frankly, we don't settle for anything less than excellence in every group in the company, and we have the self-honesty to admit when we're wrong and the courage to change. And I think regardless of who is in what job those values are so embedded in this company that Apple will do extremely well."

Government agencies can be equally concise and visionary in their statements. For example the Australian Department of Education's vision statement is "opportunity through learning" and the Digital Transition Office's website is structured around it's vision and mission "Work on stuff that matters. Simpler, clearer, faster, more humane public services."

Others are more self-focused albeit still visionary in nature, such as the Australian Department of Social Services "We aspire to be Australia’s pre-eminent social policy agency. Our mission is to improve the lifetime wellbeing of people and families in Australia." or the Australian Department of Finance and Deregulation's "Finance supports the government’s ongoing priorities through the Budget process and fosters leading practice through the public sector resource management, governance and accountability frameworks. Finance plays a lead role in advising the government on many of its strategic priorities, including advancing public sector reform through the Smaller Government Agenda and providing advice to the government on optimal arrangements for the management and ownership of public assets. We do this through our professional and considered approach to providing advice, developing policy, delivering services and engaging with our clients and stakeholders."

However the Australian Government as a whole doesn't really have a vision or a mission.

True there's the Australian Constitution, however this is all about the functions of the Commonwealth government and provides no statements on why the government exists or what it is there to achieve for citizens.

There's also codes of conduct for public servants, which outline how they are expected to behave and interact, both within the workplace and the community.

There's elected political parties, who bring ideologically-driven points of view and policies on how the Australian government is to carry out its functions, sometimes with a future vision of how they wish Australia to look.

None of these, however, clearly defines a vision and a mission as to why we have a government for Australia or what the government is there to achieve for Australian society and citizens.

Perhaps creating and striving towards such a vision might help with culture change in the public service and in reshaping public, political and media views of government - defining why it exists not simply what it does.

Such a vision could help align the public service around some of the big goals of today - remaining relevant and effective in how they meet the needs of citizens and support Australia's continued success.

It's only my idea, but perhaps a vision might shift the needle in the way public servants think about why and how they serve governments and the public, encouraging them towards a more citizen-centric inclusive focus, changing attitudes towards openness, civility and risk taking (all of which are in short supply in some agencies).

A simple vision statement would suffice - something like "The Australian government exists to ensure Australians can live in freedom, safety and security, able to meet their needs and attain their dreams in a equitable and fair society that leaves no-one behind".

I'll open the topic for discussion - does the Australian Government need a single vision and mission to define its purpose?

And if so, what should it say?

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Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Australian government has put digital government and open data in the centre

With the change in Prime Minister to Malcolm Turnbull there was always likely to be a shift in the prominence of digital and IT within government.

The new administrative arrangements released earlier this week demonstrated this clearly, with the Digital Transition Office moving from the Communications portfolio to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Gov 2.0 and open data functions moving from Finance also into the DPC.

This means little to the Australian public, who simply expect government to do its job well, but means a great deal within government itself. It is a very strong signal to Secretaries and their teams that digital transformation and open data are serious priorities for the current government and need appropriate attention, resourcing and support.

What's also interesting is how these changes and others going on both publicly and behind closed doors in Canberra are about shifting the structures and cultures in Canberra towards a more collaborative, consultative and engaging one.

While signature government policies on asylum seekers, climate change and other key areas haven't changed under Turnbull, or at least not yet (a matter of significant commentary on social media at the moment), I would argue that the structural changes that have been started are far more significant in terms of shifting how the Australian government functions in the long term.

Historically while policies have changed regularly, and often quickly, as governments are elected or react to circumstance and public views, the public service had been slower to adapt to 21st Century realities, held back by its legislative design and shape, its obligations and the cultures it has evolved over the decades.

To reboot how government operates, enable more innovative and relevant policy approaches and allow in widespread adoption of modern business practice it was always going to take more than changes in policy settings - an elected government had to be willing to reach deep into the gullet of the public sector and change its operations in a fundamental way.

Few governments have been prepared to do this in more than a cosmetic way, due to the challenges in changing such a large and complex beast which was actually performing well by global standards. However the system has been fraying at the edges for some time, with capability losses and rigid legacy approaches making it harder and harder for elected governments to implement their policy and  create real positive change for Australians.

I have witnessed situations where agencies were incapable of implementing certain government policies, necessitating either shifts of responsibility or the creation of new agencies, as well as situations where Ministers and public servants found their capability to be productive was restricted, rather than enabled, by legacy IT systems and regulation which has grown like weeds over decades.

If the Turnbull government is serious about its intention to systemically change how government functions in Canberra, reshaping the role of the public sector in policy design, service delivery and rapid accountability, then one of its most significant legacies may be to future-proof the Australian government for the next century.

The structural change underway is not about rewinding government's clockwork, but about replacing cogs with computer chips and agile digital programs.

It's not just about connecting public servants to the wider community, but about letting the community lead and drive policy agendas, with the public sector as a expert facilitation support.

If this works it changes everything about how government works in Australia, though perceptual changes will take longer to be obvious to citizens.

These changes will take time. There will be fumbles and missteps and significant resistance both from internal and external players who enjoy the benefits of the failing status quo. Some resistance will be overt, but most will be covert, and often couched in supportive words but with no supportive activity. Some will be deliberate and calculated, but much will be instinctive or based on old world paradigms by people who simply haven't grasped the realities of our changing world - particularly outside the Canberra bubble.

However if these changes do not occur, rebound with a subsequent government or are given lip service only due to being 'too hard', Australia will face a more frightening scenario. A scenario in which our governance structures fail to support Australians to be competitive in our changing world. Where we become a sunset economy of resources and agriculture and our most talented scientists and computer specialists leave for greater opportunities offshore, leaving Australians to buy our own successes at retail prices.

Events will tell us how serious Turnbull's government will be - and how successful. However if the current government doesn't succeed in this systemic change, the big question will be, who could?

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Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Now it gets interesting - Australia has its first digitally literate Prime Minister

Rudd & Gillard could work the Twitters.

Abbott understood the need to engage digitally, if not the tech, the value or the full impact (and mistakenly thought one of his Ministers had invented the Internet).

Even Howard got onboard the digital express with a few YouTube videos.

However Australia has never before in its history had a digitally literate Prime Minister of the likes of Malcolm Turnbull.

This could mean nothing, or it could mean enormous change if the Australian Government is told to lift its game on digital engagement and treat technology as an integral part of designing and implementing government business rather than as a service to be called on when needed.

Turnbull has already laid down a positioning statement in this area, stating in his inaugural media announcement as PM that "We need an open government, an open government that recognises that there is an enormous sum of wisdom both within our colleagues in this building and, of course, further afield."

We'll see quite quickly which is true by Turnbull's approach to several of the key planks of openness and digital transformation.

Key steps would include endorsing and progressing Australia's membership of the Open Government Partnership, something agreed to by the Gillard government but was placed on the perpetual back burner by Abbott as he focused on closing, rather than opening up, government.

I'd also expect to see a rethink of the government's position on the Office of the Information Commissioner - an agency the Abbott government failed to legislate to remove but has been killing by degrees by cutting funding and refusing to replace Commissioners.

Another sign of change would be an elevation of the role of the Digital Transformation Office, making more of its approaches mandatory and providing more teeth to the agency when dealing with big and slow moving Departments more interested in the status quo. 

This could include shifting  the DTO back to the Prime Minister's department, but with a direct reporting line to Turnbull that minimizes the obfuscation prevalent within that department at senior levels. 

Other areas that could use attention include the open data space, which is run on a shoestring by Finance and could greatly magnify its impact with additional resourcing and mandates, and, of course, the NBN - Turnbull's former responsibility as Communications Minister. 

A shift back to a FTTH approach, delivered more cost-effectively than the previous Labor model, would provide Australia with the infrastructure it needs for the 21st century and cement Turnbull as a visionary with Australia's long-term future at heart.

There's also many things that could be done at a micro-level within agencies to shift the reliance on corporate IT suppliers, 1990s systems and large, virtually undeliverable technology projects - many of which could be led by a revitalised AGIMO in association with the DTO.

Of course Turnbull may have other fish to fry, he has quite a lot to do to get the Liberals back to an electoral-ready position within 12 months, and if not re-elected much of the program above could find itself on the scrap heap of a new government that wants to do things differently.

However I am hopeful that we'll see some true digital leadership from Turnbull whilst he is Prime Minister and potentially some real shifts in how government is delivered in Australia, to the benefit of all Australians now and in the future.

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Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Innovation requires innovators, not silver bullet processes & superstar visionaries

I'm seeing something that disturbs me happening in the innovation space across government. Something that suggests that 'innovation' is becoming more of a buzzword than a real change in organisational culture.

On one front, as agencies 'buy into' the innovation mantra, they are developing processes for fostering innovation - systems designed to fast-track innovative ideas from the bottom and middle of their hierarchies to allow top-level scrutiny, prioritisation and allocation of resources.

While these processes mean well, and do help some innovations scale the senior attention ladder more rapidly, they also put a structure and framework around what is and isn't innovation, which can become unhealthy over time.

People who are good at figuring out systems, and the 'realities' limiting senior thinking will gain priority over those with less experience with managing hierarchies - potentially perpetuating the dislocation of some groups of innovators within government, those whose ideas are 'too radical', 'too politically impractical' or 'too difficult or expensive' based on the experience of senior public sector leaders.

Of course innovations that fit the mental models held by long-term leadership, that are 'incremental', 'politically uncontroversial' and 'win-win' (aka no powerful group will have their nose put out of joint) will be given pride of place and will be supported - perpetuating, rather than disrupting how these agencies operate.

Certainly these incremental innovations are valuable and can provide real value in service, cost and outcome terms - however they may also lock agencies into legacy modes of behaviour and thought.

Making a horse-drawn carriage better, faster and more cost-effectively is worth doing, and may reflect the career experience of senior officials - but will fail to deliver the right experience for citizens who want cars.

Innovation that is truly transformational often costs jobs and requires radical rethinking of approach, structure and culture. It's uncomfortable, unpleasant to many, and requires firm direction to embed.

This type of innovation is unlikely to be supported in agency innovation processes - senior officials rarely support initiatives that will see them lose their power base or job.

Processes also have a tendency to ossify. Government is comprised of processes on processes on processes - it's processes all the way down. Many of these processes don't deliver the outcomes the community wants, or are difficult for public servants to even complete, particularly in efficient and effective ways. How does proceduralising innovation help fix this situation and 'break the loop'?

The answer, of course, is that it doesn't. It simply normalises innovation into current public sector workplace models and encourages innovation that has immediate application to existing processes.

The approach essentially turns innovation into a process for improving the effectiveness of other government processes, often without questioning whether these processes need to exist at all.

Over time it is  likely that innovation processes in government will also ossify - that each year they will deliver less return than the year before as innovations that 'fit the right mould' decline, and innovations that are outside the mould increase.

This happens in a rapidly changing landscape - where our knowledge doubles twice in  a year and organisations are perpetually playing catch-up. We simply don't have the experience to develop processes that can adapt quickly enough to reflect environmental change - or the expertise to develop a process that allows us to adapt our processes as quickly as required.

On the other hand, government innovation is starting to become the province of 'visionaries' and 'champions' - people who are singled out as having the 'it' factor that helps pave the way for the plebeian public servants doing the actual innovating.

There's some familiar names in this group - as you'd expect. A number I know personally and have enormous respect for, based on their energy and ability to articulate their views.

Without disparaging this group, which at times I've also been included in, innovation isn't about 'lighthouse' personalities who stand out amidst the crowd, speak at conferences and are interviewed across the media.

Innovation is about the quiet person in the corner who figures out how to cut a step in a government process that saves 50,000 businesses each $500 per year, the geeky IT guy who prefers computers to people, who develops a backend system that improves their agency's security against foreign hackers three-fold or the introverted policy officer who analyses the data and devises a policy that balances political concerns while facilitating a new billion-dollar export industry for Australia.

Innovation is about everyone in government who has ever questioned why things are done in a particular way, and gone about improving them - officially or unofficially, via the designated innovation approach or not, irregardless of whether they ever get an award or speak to a crowd.

Everyone in government can innovate, and everyone should be given the permission, freedom, support and encouragement to do so, whenever they ask 'why?'

For me the real public service innovation champions and visionaries are the public servants we never hear from or see. The ones that work deep in the structures of agencies and innovate not because it's mandated or supported, but because they care about how government operates and impacts citizens, and can see how to improve it.

Succeed or fail these people wish to make their organisations better places to work and more effective deliverers of value to the community and take actions to achieve these goals.

Yes we need the visionaries and champions, to stand up and inspire, give permission or facilitate innovators.

Yes we need some processes and systems to collate, assess and prioritise resourcing for innovations so that they happen and are effective.

But what we need to celebrate are the innovators themselves - the people who think of a better way, and act to see it realised.

They are the true heros of innovation, not the folks on the stage or the systems that allow senior managers to feel comfortable in their own skins.

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