Friday, January 22, 2016

How much will Australians pay for the openness and transparency we expect from our governments?

In business if no-one will pay for a product it ceases being made, or never gets off the drawing board.

Government doesn't quite work the same - many government functions and services are designed as 'public goods' - things we all need, but that many 'customers' cannot or would not pay for.

This includes services such as national defense, law and order, welfare, health care and education.

Democracy is also a service and comes at a cost - as does openness and transparency in government.

It costs money to hold elections, to release documents and data, to provide independent watchdogs that address citizen complaints, monitor agency activities and investigate corruption.

In fact measures that reduce democracy or government transparency sometime receive public support from citizens. Often this is because the consequences are not fully considered or, in a few cases, some of these individuals actually benefit from less democracy or transparency.

Many dictatorships get their start from democratic states where citizens are unwilling to invest in their own freedom and democracy. Governments on this track may gradually reduce what is visible using an economic cost argument, and foster a 'political class' that values cost-effectiveness over public good.

We've seen some of this over the last few years in Australia, with the situation of the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner being a prime example. The (much reduced) Office is now being sustained on a 3-monthly basis grudgingly by the Attorney-General, who lacks the parliament's approval to close it  down.

However it's not simply governments who aim to provide transparency into governments. There's a range of non-government organisations working in this space as well, from Transparency International to the Sunlight Foundation and Open Australia.

All of these organisations rely on funds to operate - transparency isn't free - and in Europe and North America there's well-established donors and systems for funding these groups to effectively carry out their roles.

Australia lacks these donors and systems and, it appears, even our governments are not interested in funding these independent organisations.

One such organisation is OpenAus. Founded and run by Rosie Williams out of Sydney, the service has taken a range of government data on budgets and charities and uncovered key insights that have never before been visible to the Australian public.

Rosie's work has been featured in numerous media outlets and attracted positive attention from some of the highest officers in the Australia Public Service.

However there's little in the way of funding available for this type of work in Australia. As Rosie says in her latest blog post,

There is no eco-system providing financial support to transparency projects. Projects like mine tend to veer away from government funding (to remain independent politically) and do not reflect the priorities of the venture capital ideology. As such there is a funding challenge in grassroots transparency projects in Australia that can only be filled by the citizens.

Rosie has reached out to a range of potential funding sources, but come up largely dry. Her current work has been funded through the New Enterprise Incentive Scheme (NEIS), a nine-month business building program which is set at the payment level of the dole. This is hardly sufficient to fund an individual, let alone grow a business.

Rosie will shortly finish NEIS and, having attracted only $1,500 in donations for OpenAus, is likely to have to transition back into a normal programming role.

Even if she maintains OpenAus alongside a full-time job, it will be much diminished - as will Australian government transparency.

If you think this is deplorable for Australian democracy (as I do), then please complete Rosie's survey at: https://infoaus.net/openaus/survey.php

You may also wish to donate via the OpenAus site: https://openaus.net.au/contribute.php

Remember that if Australians are not willing to pay for the openness and transparency we expect from our governments, then we will get what we deserve - a much diminished democracy and more opaque state.

Certainly we should expect governments to use more of the funds they already collect from us to support transparency - 'reporting back' to their 'shareholders', citizens.

However for truly independent views on our government citizens need to directly contribute - via effort or funds - to organisations such as Rosie's.

Contribute now at: https://openaus.net.au/contribute.php

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Thursday, January 14, 2016

How should we restructure 'first responder' emergency services in a world where they're now the second responders?

It's fairly widely acknowledged throughout the emergency community that due to the rise in citizen use of technology, emergency services are now rarely the first on the scene of a disaster.

Most emergencies are first publicly highlighted on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or another social media platforms as people proximate to the situation take photos and share messages, often even before anyone bothers to call an emergency hotline.

Once information about an emergency is shared online it can attract individuals, to assist or gawk, and by the time a 'First Responder' reaches the scene, there may be teams working to rectify the situation, whether officially qualified or not.

For large emergency and disaster scenarios, online systems may also appear with surprising rapidity. Donation-taking sites, rehousing services, advice and support lines and even running video and text commentary can be in place within minutes of a significant disaster.

The effect of this is that emergency services are no longer the first responders to the majority of emergencies, and often arrive at a scene with less information about the situation than citizens have already collected and shared online.

Even where citizens are not the first onsite, they may still become a major channel for sharing information - correct or not - about the emergency, as was observed during the Boston Marathon bombing (refer to the trailer for a new documentary on this below).


So how should emergency services and governments respond to an environment when they are no longer the first responders?

While there's been some discussion of this across the emergency community, there's been precious few changes to the protocols or approaches of emergency services to take advantage of their new status in a positive way.

Other than discouraging citizens from getting involved (as they're not qualified and may take the wrong steps), and a few efforts to bring some citizen social media intelligence into emergency centres, there's been little done to provide new tools and systems for supporting voluntary emergency support activities by the general public.

Some of this, perhaps most of this, is related to slow change within these services. It's hard for lifelong emergency service specialists to acknowledge that their role is changing - some still struggle with some of the modern tools for managing emergencies, let along with groups of citizens pitching in to help.

Some is also undoubtably connected with the risks of having unskilled volunteers onsite at some of the worst disasters. Many people don't understand or appreciate the potential dangers they face, or the complications they can cause to emergency services should a well-intentioned effort to help become another person needing rescue and resources.

However this situation is not likely to go away. Citizens are now firmly established as the first people onscene in most emergencies, and it is impractical to expect that at least some of them won't try to help and illogical to expect that no-one will broadcast unfolding events via digital channels.

It is a good time for emergency services to consider how to direct all that volunteer energy in productive ways. What tasks can citizens do at the site of a situation that will help pave the way for the 'second responder' emergency services when they arrive?

These tasks are likely to change by emergency type, however it is possible to provide basic guidance via social channels and via apps as to what steps will help preserve lives and property rather than increase the danger and difficulty of given emergencies.

With the right approach and support tools, emergency services can enlist citizens as a support workforce, able to set a perimeter, collect location-specific data and even, where safe, help address and transport the injured to appropriate services, allowing emergency workers to concentrate on the more difficult wounds and tasks.

Tools such as a 'Tinder' app for medical professionals could help quickly locate appropriately qualified personnel nearby who can lend a hand, prior or after emergency services arrive. The same approach could be used for people with specific skills useful in emergencies - from former and off-duty firefighter to army reservists, specialists in communication or the use of specific tools.

There's likely a range of other approaches that can be used to help direct the energy of the general public into supporting emergency services in effective ways, and its time for emergency services to unbend, recognise that the environment has changed, and think outside the square as to how citizens can be more than dangerous nuisances at an emergency scene.

The real risk now is that emergency services cling to their past 'first responder' status and dismiss the skills and capabilities of the public. This will only increase the danger in future scenarios where well-meaning citizens, denied effective leadership and instruction by emergency professionals, take unnecessary risks when helping emergency victims and scale up the extent of these disasters.

Regardless of whether emergency services choose to recognise that they're no longer the first responders in most disasters, or keep their heads firmly in the sand, we're likely to continue to see citizens be the first responders, and once on-scene helping in the ways they think they can and should.

Whether these citizens are assets or liabilities in any specific emergency comes down to how the professional emergency services support and lead them, but they will come none-the-less.

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Monday, January 11, 2016

DataStart announces eight shortlisted open data startups

Late last week the shortlisted start-ups for the DataStart program were released - here's why it's significant and what happens next.

In November 2015 the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, in parternship with Pollenizer Ventures, announced Australia's first open data commercialisation competition, DataStart.

Designed as a pilot to test the approach, entrepreneurs, data scientists and open data enthusiasms were invited to apply for a program that would see up to 20 founders shortlisted, trained and one winner receive start-up coaching and potentially up to $200,000 in funding (via Right Click Capital) towards becoming a commercially viable company.



The program attracted mixed reviews. While some applauded the efforts to link open data competitions with actual commercially viable ongoing outcomes (which has been an ongoing criticism of data competitions in Australia), others saw it as a 'winner takes all' process with little value to the community.

My view was in-between - we need programs like this to be piloted, with the best becoming part of the startup and open data ecosystem. However we also need governments to fund their open data programs such that datasets are released at a sufficient quality level and reliable frequency to be a commercialisable resource.

The DataStart program attracted over 200 entrants and late last Friday Pollenizer released the eight shortlisted start-ups, consisting of 20 founders.

These founders begin a five-day program this week in Sydney to test and work-up their start-ups to evaluate whether there's truly a commercial basis for the ideas.

Following this, based on the competition guidelines, a single start-up will be selected to go into a 9-month incubation process at Pollenizer in Sydney, with the potential to also secure $200,000 in funding from Right Click Capital on commercial terms (aka in return for equity or other consideration).

It's great to see the level of interest in this program, and the next step begin.

What would be really good to see is a higher level of transparency around the start-ups and founders, featured interviews, examples of what data they are using and how.

This is the challenge in public-partner arrangements, where often the partners have a different set of values and expectations, as well as different obligations under law and policy.

I'm hopeful that efforts are underway to align these expectations and values and ensure that these startups become role models and examples of how open data can be used commercially, rather than get hidden away under commercial-in-confidence arrangements.

Of course their IP needs protection, but there's a lot that could be promoted without breaching commercial confidentially.

Who are these founders and start-ups, why are they using open data, what problems are they solving?

Hopefully we'll learn more than their names and vague details of their project area over coming weeks and months.



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Friday, January 08, 2016

Contribute now to Australia's Open Government Partnership National Action Plan

Now that Australians are heading out of holiday mode, it's a good time for a reminder about the Australian Government's process to become a member of the global Open Government Partnership (OGP), through developing our first OGP National Action Plan.

If you've not heard of the Open Government Partnership, in a nutshell it's an international group of governments and civil society organisations committed to progressing open and transparent governance in the 69 participating nations through a cooperative and supportive process.

Each nation makes a commitment to improve their national government's openness and transparency through a statement by their government, supported this through a two-yearly National Action Plan (NAP) with priority activities relevant to the nation's development stage. These NAPs must be developed cooperatively between government and civil society through an active consultation process.

Nations are assessed annually on their NAP progress through an independent process, with their achievements and shortfalls highlighted internationally.

Australia was invited to become a founding member of the OGP back in 2011, however deferred this decision until 2013, and then delayed it further after a change in government.

The current Prime Minister re-committed to the process late in 2015 and restarted the process to become an OGP member.

I ran a series of Information Sessions across Australia's east coast about this process, funded by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and the presentation used through these sessions is below.



Currently Australia is consulting on the commitments that should be prioritised in our first National Action Plan, with Australians invited to provide ideas through the wiki (ogpau.wikispaces.com) or via email to ogp@pmc.gov.au

So if you'd like to see improvements in how open and transparent federal government is in Australia, please contribute via the channels above.

This stage of the consultation is open until the end of February, so don't wait too long!


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Monday, January 04, 2016

Improvement in governance is the goal, innovation and transformation are simply techniques to help it along

Over the last year in Australian government there's been increasing rhetoric around transformation (primarily digital) and innovation.

This has come both from the political level, particularly since Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister, and from the administrative level, as the Secretary's Board and an increasing number of senior public servants have internalised these terms within their approach to gain funding and support for their activities.

I'm a big support of innovation within government. Where government seeks to improve internal efficiency and external effectiveness, innovation - as a technique for exploring, testing and trialing new approaches - is a key strategy for achieving improvement.

In my view digital transformation is part of this innovation track, with a particular focus on using digital technologies, and the strategies and tactics they enable, to help improve governance and operations across the public sector.

As such both innovation and digital transformation are important techniques that should form part of the 'toolkit' of every public sector employee.

However, in all this rush to secure innovation rushing and transform service delivery via digital tools, public servants and politicians alike must ensure they focus on the goals they are seeking to achieve, not simply the (shiny new) tools they are using to achieve them.

The goal - as it has been for hundreds of years - is to improve the operations of government and ensure that, within the budgets available, governments deliver the best possible experience and, particularly, outcomes, for their 'owners' - citizens.

Innovation is not the goal, it is a method used to achieve the goal, whatever that might be.

Similarly digital transformation is a technique for shifting services between delivery or processing channels in order to deliver more convenient and effective outcomes for the service recipient, potentially with the secondary goal of a more cost-effective, reduced-error service delivery approach for the provider.

Within all the rhetoric abut innovation and digital transformation we've heard from governments, and with the large amount I expect we'll continue to hear this year, keep in mind the end goal - improving government efficiency and effectiveness.

Innovation and transformations do not, by themselves, improve government. They are simply techniques and can be implemented both well and badly, depending on the people, culture and environment they are employed within.

Indeed in certain cases innovation can make things worse - harder, slower, less reliable - or have unforeseen consequences that end up costing government more, and reducing its effectiveness overall.

So look for the outcomes of innovation and digital transformation.

Does an agency's innovation approach reduce costs, reduce error rates, increase satisfaction or improve outcomes for the services and systems to which it is applied?

Last year we heard the talk about innovation and digital transformation. This year we'll start seeing the first outcomes from some of the most highly funded agencies and offices tasked with these techniques.

This year, 2016, will be the test of whether government agencies in Australia are effectively implementing innovation, shifting their culture and administrative biases to facilitate successful innovation and resulting in real improvements in citizen welfare and government operations.

I hope we hear the successes shouted from the rooftops.

Silence can only mean that this has been a failed experiment, with senior public servants using innovation as a way to buffer declining budgets rather than make measureable improvements in how Australian government operations.

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