Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The uneasy relationship between Freedom of Information and open data

 Freedom of Information (FOI) has always been a tricky area for governments, a delicate balance between accountability and exposure, with successive parliaments around the world tweaking their national and state FOI laws in attempts to prevent disclosures damaging to various governments of the day, while also meeting public and media demands for transparency.

We've seen the federal government in Australia retreat from some of the Freedom of Information (FOI) framework established under former governments, including the effective abolition of the Australian Information Commissioner by budget cuts, when legislation to end the office failed to pass the Senate.

With the three appointed Commissioners in the Office now having followed most of the rest of their staff into new rules, we have a temporary Australian Information Commissioner, for three months, as the government sorts out how to finally end the Office and transfer the function to a more formal, costly and time consuming review process.

This is far from the only tweak in recent times, with Australian FOI legislation also modified in 2013 under a former government to exclude parliamentary service agencies from FOI. This was termed fixing a loophole, that unfortunately allowed the public to request information such as a former speaker's expenses in detail.

Similarly in the UK it appears there's a retreat on FOI occurring, with the UK government calling an enquiry into FOI to look at whether they have the balance right.

What's interesting is that the UK is using its open data presence as part of the justification for the enquiry.

Open data and FOI are not always the same thing. Open data focuses on quantifiable datasets, generally numberical, that represents a current or past state for a given government service, or from data collected by government on a nation's social, economic or environment state.

While open data can expose issues in government, it is often used to identify opportunities and gaps that can be explored and improved on - leading to better services and outcomes.

FOI, on the other hand, is often far less about data and far more about correspondence, decisions and who made them. While open data may expose bad decisions, FOI exposes who made those bad decisions and, sometimes, the basis on which they were made.

That's why data is generally easier for government to release openly than documents. Exposing a bad decision can become a basis for better decision-making, while exposing a bad decision-maker can breach the public sector's responsibility to protect the government of the day, and their own senior staff.

I've previously spoken about the risk of governments using open data as a 'cover' for tightening FOI requirements, and in the UK case above, my concern appears to be being realised.

I've not yet seen this explicitly in Australia, however with the poor scrutiny of government in the media and our weak civic sector, it's likely to occur at some stage.

Don't get me wrong, I think it's fantastic to see the level of open data increasingly being released at federal, state and local levels across Australia. The snowball is rolling and we're beginning to see some of the value that open data enables - both within governments themselves and in association with the communities they serve.

However effective open data release should not become the primary way in which governments engage with Freedom of Information, nor a rationale for broadening exclusions to FOI.

As for FOI, we really need to rethink it at a fundamental level, politically, at public sector levels and in the community.

Currently (and from my experience within government), often those outside government are seen as 'the enemy', seeking to point the finger at people within government and 'bring them down'.

The reality is that government exists as part of society and must remain functionally effective and valuable. FOI can support this process, helping to identify issues and misconduct in order to improve trust in government and it's effectiveness in meeting community needs.

However this can only occur if those within government - and those without - treat FOI in this manner, as an accountability and transparency tool, not as a threat to their integrity.

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Monday, July 27, 2015

Have Australian governments & councils considered the impact of disruptive tech like driverless cars?

Last week it was announced that the first driverless car trials would begin in Australia in Adelaide. Supported by the South Australian government and the Australian Road Research Board (ARRB), the two-day trial involves Volvo's XC90, Bosch's driverfree technology and Telstra's network.

I'm a big fan of self-drive cars and have followed Google's US self driving car trials, as well as the European work by Volvo and other car makers for a number of years.

Besides the prospects of better traffic management, fewer accidents and less road deaths with consistent, tireless, undistractable computers controlling cars, self-drive cars offer the promise of more productive and leisure time for humans currently spending hours each week behind the wheel of their cars.

In a self-driving car future there's less need for private cars and massive car parks, more predictable road maintenance and potentially better population health outcomes as people don't face the stress of tail-gaters, road rage and other deplorable on-road driver behaviours.

However behind the glow of potential benefits that has governments and companies working towards a human-free driving future, there's some significant and highly disruptive impacts on industries and governments that the public sector and politicians need to consider.

Firstly, as self-drive cars take over there will no longer be any need for taxis or other paid drivers. Uber and similar companies are building logistics systems for moving humans that would allow people to simply summon a self-drive vehicle when they need it, and have it drive them to their destination.

Uber is already creating significant disruption in the taxi industry by providing an easy-to-use alternative to legacy taxi systems, with violent protests in France and governments in the US, Australia and other countries fining Uber drivers or prohibiting the service to protect the taxi industry and their existing taxi plate revenues.

Step forward a few years to when self-drive cars are widespread and taxis will simply not be able to compete for most travel needs, with paid drivers (if still allowed on the road) being a high-end service used by those who wish to show-off their wealth.

Similarly bus and truck drivers - particularly for long hauls - will find their jobs vanishing as computers, who need no sleep, replace them, making logistics systems more efficient and controllable.

Emergency services may also experience some shift in focus and reduction in staff, with paramedics focused on patients, not driving ambulances, firefighters able to plan and police able to work on cases as their cars transport them to where they are needed.

Severely disabled people will benefit, with the ability to summon a vehicle to take them to where they need to go, rather than waiting on human carers - which may also reduce the number of nurses required.

These industry dislocations will affect the number and type of jobs in an economy, necessitating rethinking of a government's priorities and approach. It may also have significant impacts on state public transit services as buses no longer require expensive drivers, potentially allowing more transport options on the road.

However there's even more profound consequences for governments who fund their activities partially through revenues raised from drivers and their mistakes.

Self-drive cars will not speed, drive dangerously or part illegally (without human intervention), meaning that speeding fines will disappear, along with parking inspectors and the fines they collect.

Drivers' license fees will vanish, together with many private car registration fees as more households shift to rely on Uber-style logistics services, which simply have a vehicle come to your door when you need it. Government parking fees may also fall dramatically, with cars redirected to low and no-cost parking locations outside city centres when not required.

With self-drive cars it's also likely that electricity will take more of a role in replacing petrol, meaning governments will raise less in fuel excise, reducing their ability to fund road maintenance and improvements.

Fortunately, with more consistent and predictable behaviour by self-drive cars, and the ability to divert vehicles to spread traffic load it's likely that road costs will diminish somewhat - however whether this offsets the reduction in revenue from car licenses and fuel is yet to be explored.

Self-drive cars are coming - they make sense to individuals, corporations and governments in many ways. Now we need some serious thinking by governments on how to manage the disruption that will be caused and how lost revenue will be replaced.

This isn't the only disruptive technology facing governments, but it is one of the biggest, with the potential for creating economy and society-wide change.

We need to begin consider the impacts of the change now, before it occurs, in order to manage it in the least impactful way for both governments and communities.

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Friday, July 24, 2015

Redefining innovation within the public service

The Canberra GovCamp dialogue was held on Wednesday, one of a series of events across Australia, both part of Public Sector Innovation Month and a lead-in to a full GovCamp in November.

Attendees included both current and former public servants, academics and private sector interested parties - all interested in discussing how to foster and focus public sector innovation towards material improvements and outcomes.

The half-day event had an interesting panel discussion on what is (and isn't) innovation, and the factors that support or hinder it's use as a tool to improve governance and service delivery outcomes, with a number of interesting points raised.

It also featured a Conversation Cafe mapping the room's views on what triggers public sector innovation and what type of innovation occurs, as well as views on the value of public sector innovation - which will be mapped together with the results from the other GovCamp Dialogues across Australia and should prove interesting reading. I tweeted the Canberra responses on Wednesday as below.

Following this, the GovCamp Dialogue gave participants a taste of how full GovCamps tend to operate, holding three participant-driven sessions where those attending could nominate topics and discuss each for twenty minutes in various groups.

This was a useful introduction to those new to GovCamps, and participants took to it with gusto.

For someone who's been around this scene for awhile, the event was a good opportunity to refresh my views on public sector innovation, and the biggest idea of the day for me was outlined by Mick Chisnall, formerly the Director of the ACT government's Government Information Office.

Mick suggested that government needed to treat innovation more as experimentation than as a project.

While I'd not thought of it specifically in this way, I believe he's on the money.

Projects in government have clearly defined scopes, resources, timeframes and steps in order to achieved the desired outcomes and don't generally support failure within the fabric of the process.

Innovation, on the other hand, is a process involving exploration and experimentation. While it can involve a defined scope and desired outcomes, often the path to success is littered with learning experiences - what might be otherwise termed 'failures'.

Innovation often involves a large component of rapid and iterative testing of assumptions and exploration of different avenues, with the data collected from each attempt helping to inform and focus the path towards the desired outcomes.

As Thomas Edison said to American Magazine in 1921:
"After we had conducted thousands of experiments on a certain project without solving the problem, one of my associates, after we had conducted the crowning experiment and it had proved a failure, expressed discouragement and disgust over our having failed to find out anything. I cheerily assured him that we had learned something. For we had learned for a certainty that the thing couldn't be done that way, and that we would have to try some other way."
This innovation process is hard to foster within today's project methodologies. Prince II, PMBoK and others of their ilk all exist to systemise projects to minimise the risk of failure and efficiently manage resources towards the delivery of a clearly defined objective.

Few support an iterative failure-led approach to success where many avenues must be explored to identify those that may be productive.

Indeed, a formal review of innovation within the APS in 2013 found that senior managers were very reluctant to discuss their failures at all, To quote from the blog post linked,
Innovations can fail and information on why this has occurred is highly important. However, there was reluctance amongst respondents to provide information on unsuccessful innovations, with around 80% survey participants stating that they “did not have a least successful innovation”.

So how do we marry innovation processes with project methodologies?

My thought is that we provide some tolerance for both the known and unknown unknowns, supporting feasibility studies and Agile-based methodologies within a project framework. We should also follow more start-up thinking around 'minimum viable product', continuous A/B testing and improvement and break larger projects into smaller goals, achievable in a few months.

We also need to foster a rethink of the concept of failure in the public service. A failure is a situation where something didn't work AND we learnt nothing at all. Even learning that a given approach doesn't work is valuable information that can support further effort towards a solution.

So long as a 'failure' allows us to redefine the scope to exclude certain paths, and data is collected and shared to understand why an approach or solution didn't work, it is not a failure.

This may require some reshaping of Project Offices and management of the expectations of public sector decision-makers, Ministers and citizens, but it would be well-worth it to support a more innovative public sector.

In an age of wicked problems we need to foster creative thinking.

This can only happen if we ensure that innovation is treated appropriately as experimental and exploratory work, rather than shoehorned into existing project management processes with little tolerance for 'failure'.

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Thursday, July 23, 2015

How important is geographic location for a digitalised public sector workforce?

Canberra is full of large buildings full of public servants, all working together on a daily basis to serve the needs of government and the community.

While some can work remotely, from their home or on the road, there's still significant barriers to teleworking in the public service.

Whether it's the need to install a secure connection in a person's home, check the OH&S layout of their kitchens or simply a reluctance on the part of managers to allow staff to work outside their sight.

While companies like Cisco have had a hotdesking approach for many years, with staff able to go into any office, sit at any desk and start working with full access to their digital files and phone, only a few government agencies have recently made it possible to hotdesk within their own environment.

There's no clear pathway for any Australian Public Servant to sit at any desk in any government office and work effectively without complex and time-consuming IT steps (if it's possible at all).

There's a large and growing productivity cost to this kind of IT inflexibility.

From the huge ICT costs  in moving workers and changing system access that's involved when governments rip agencies apart and put them back together in different configurations during Machinery of Government changes, to the lost opportunities to employ the best person for a job because they don't live - and won't move - to a specific geographic region, governments are increasingly being shoehorned into a lose-lose situation where their technical environments damage their ability to deliver outcomes.

I've had significant experience in teleworking. In the late-90s, while living in Sydney, I was also lead designer on a commercial game developed by a team in Adelaide, that I met in person a total of once.

When working for a start-up at the turn of the century, nominally in an office in Sydney, I also regularly travelled and worked from the UK, Singapore and the US.

Into the 2000s I wrote books and articles for a range of publications from my home, my local playground (having young kids), or pretty much any location where I had access to technology and close proximity to an internet connection.

After moving to Canberra I cofounded an oil exploration company with someone who soon moved to Sydney. We established a board with Directors based across Australia and in Asia, and employed a team in Texas to explore an oil field in the US, with almost all of the company's business conducted online.

However when I look at roles in government today (particularly some of the interesting digital roles that have popped up in recent times), they still require an individual to be physically situated near a specific office. Some even offer to help pay people to relocate their entire lives to be closer to these jobs. There's a little more leeway for senior executives, who might get assisted accommodation and travel to allow them to work a city away from where they live.

Sure there's still many people normalised into working in the same office with the same people every day. However there's a growing number who've learnt the art of working anywhere, building and managing remote teams and achieving bodacious goals.

Certainly there's roles that require a physical presence - face-to-face customer service (when not delivered digitally over screens), inspectors and jobs that involve moving physical goods from place to place (until robots and remotely controlled drones take over).

However I'm hard pressed to think of many other roles in government that actually require staff to be physically present in the same office all the time. Policy development, program development and delivery, grant management, communications, IT, HR, Finance, phone and online customer service, briefing Ministers and stakeholder engagement - all these roles could be delivered effectively remotely with appropriate technology, security and mindsets.

In some of these roles there may be some need to physically meet one's colleagues, customers and stakeholders for some of the time, but none require workers to all live in one geographic location, to work in one office, often in one big room like battery hens.

There's also many roles where mobility is a distinct advantage - anyone working on a whole-of-government taskforce, or who regularly meets stakeholders, moves between offices for meetings, or has a distributed team. These people would gain enormously from being able to work wherever they happen to be.

So how important is geographic location for a digitalised public sector workforce?

Objectively it's no longer important at all.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

How does government manage the consequences of an imbalance in speed of transparency & speed of accountability?

One of the emerging challenges for governments in the online age is managing the discrepancy between the speed of transparency and the speed of accountability.

With digitalisation and the internet, the speed at which government information is made public is becoming faster, with it being easier to collect, aggregate and publish information and data in near or even real-time.

We see this particularly in public transit data, where many cities around the world now publish real-time data on the location and load of their buses, trains and trams, and in the health industry where a number of states have begun offering near real-time data on the congestion in emergency waiting rooms.

We're also seeing similar near real-time reporting on river levels, dams, traffic congestion and closures, and estimated real-time reports on everything from population to national debt levels.

This trend is expanding, with the Sense-T network in Tasmania pioneering an economy-wide sensor network and data resource. Similarly the Department of Finance in Canberra is working on a system to provide real-time budget information on government expenditure down to every $500 for internal management and public transparency purposes.

This trend is a leap forward in government transparency, providing citizens, bureaucrats and politicians with far greater visibility on how our governance systems are performing and far more capability to identify trends or patterns quickly.

We're seeing a similar transparency event at the moment, with the expenses scandal enfolding the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Bronwyn Bishop, related to her use of a helicopter and several charter flights to attend political fund-raising events.

What this event has also highlighted is that while Australia's governance systems are increasing the speed of transparency, our capability to apply that information to accountable decision-making isn't consistently accelerating at the same rate.

In other words, while we increasingly can obtain the information needed for rapid decision-making, the entrenched processes and methods for decision-making in government are lagging far behind.

We see this in the failure rate of IT projects, which can drag on for years after it's clear they will fail, when laws fail to work as they should and it takes months or years to amend them, when the public has judged a politician's actions, but parliament can take no formal action for months due to being out of session.

Of course many sound reasons can and are given by bureaucrats and politicians as to why decisions need to take lots of time.

Decision-makers from the pre-internet world will say that they need to ensure they have all the necessary data, have digested it, reflected on it, considered alternatives and consequences, consulted widely and only then are able to tweak or change a decision.

This is a fair position with many defensible qualities - it reflects the world in which these people grew up, when decision-making could be undertaken leisurely while the world waited.

However both management theory and the behaviour of our communities have changed.

Start-ups grow and become huge companies based on their ability to make decisions rapidly. They are continuously experimenting and testing new approaches to 'tweak' their businesses for greater success. This is underpinned by streams of real-time data which show the consequences of each experimental change, allowing the organisations to adjust their approach in very short time-frames, minimising their potential losses from sub-optimal decisions.

The community equally reacts very quickly to evidence of poor decisions and bad outcomes, with the internet, particularly social media, fueling this trend.

While this doesn't mean the community is consistently in the right on these matters, it does require decision-makers to respond and address concerns far more rapidly than they've had to in the past - 'holding the line' or 'depriving an issue of oxygen' are no longer effective strategies for delaying decision-making into the leisurely timeframes that older decision-makers grew up with.

This issue in the disparate speed of transparency (data release) and accountability (clear and unequivocal response) is growing as more organisations release more data and more of the public is collecting, collating and releasing data from their interactions with organisations.

The imbalance is fast becoming a critical challenge for governments to manage and could lead to some very ugly consequences if politicians and agencies don't rethink their roles and update their approaches.

Of course governments could attempt to sit back and 'tough it out', trying to hold their line against the increasing speed of transparency and accountability. In my view this would result in the worst possible result in the long-term, with increasingly frustrated citizens resorting to more and more active means to have government take accountability for their decisions in the timeframes that citizens regard as appropriate.

My hope is that government can reinvent itself, drawing on both internal and external capabilities and expertise to find a path that matches fast transparency with appropriately fast accountability.

I'd like to see governments challenge themselves to test all of their historic assumptions and approaches - reconsidering how they develop policy, how they consult, how they legislate and how they engage and inform the community, in order to address a world where 'outsiders' (non-public servants) are identifying issues and worrying trends at an accelerated rate.

Perhaps we need a radical new ways to develop and enforce laws, that provide scope for experimentation within legislation for agencies to reinterpret the letter of a law in order to fulfill it's desired outcomes and spirit.

Perhaps we need continuous online consulting processes, supported by traditional face-to-face and phone/mail surveys, which allow government to monitor and understand sentiment throughout policy development and implementation and allow a 'board' of citizens to oversee and adjust programs to maximise their effectiveness over time.

Perhaps we need mechanisms for citizens to put forward policies and legislation for parliament to consider, tools that allow citizens to recall politicians for re-election or a citizen-led approach to determining what entitlements are legitimate for politicians and what they should be paid, with penalties and appropriate recourse for citizens to sack representatives who fail to uphold the values the community expects at a far greater speed than the current election cycle.

There's sure to be many other ideas and mechanisms which may help deliver a stable and sustainable democratic state in the digital age of high-speed transparency and accountability - we just need governments to start experimenting - with citizens, not on them - to discover which work best.

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