Friday, September 19, 2014

Designing the sharing state - an interview with Steve Schmid of the Open Technology Foundation

This is the fourth in a series of interviews I'm doing as part of Delib Australia's media partnership with CeBIT in support of GovInnovate. I'll also be livetweeting and blogging the conference on 25-27 November.

View other posts in this series.

With thousands of governments at local, state and national level around the world that need many of the same technological systems to govern effectively, why do governments often believe they must develop new enterprise systems and their related assets (ie guidelines, policies, methods and other shareable ICT assets) from scratch?

This question triggered the creation of one of Australia’s most interesting and innovative organisations, the Open Technology Foundation.

Founded in 2011 with the support of the South Australian government and Carnegie Mellon University Australia, the Open Technology Foundation (or OTF), has the mission to help facilitate technology sharing at all levels of government across Australia and New Zealand.

The OTF’s leader, Stephen Schmid, is passionate about the work his organisation is doing.

“All governments perform the same basic functions but historically we have built our own solutions to meet a need. This tide is changing."

He said, “a very cost effective method of provisioning services is to investigate and potentially reuse what other governments have done when faced with the same challenge – sharing rather than reinventing."

Steve isn’t a newcomer to this vision for government.

After working for Microsoft in Redmond, Worldcom in Colorado Springs and IBM, Steve’s last role in South Australian Government was as Director of the state government’s ICT division, which is responsible for whole-of-government voice and data systems.

“A single data network and voice network servicing all government departments provides significant efficiencies”, Steve says, “Other states could leverage this model as they explore opportunities for converged technologies.”

This work led Steve to the view there was a strong need for a sharing program to support connected governments, and through his role at the OTF he’s working to build a bridge for cooperation between jurisdictions.

The work has already had some significant successes.

“We work cooperatively to facilitate sharing between public administrations across Australia and New Zealand. The OTF is also working on a range of projects with Vietnam and implementing a global knowledge-sharing platform for interoperable technology solutions”

The road has, at times, been bumpy. Steve says that “one federal agency asked us ‘who gave you approval to represent Australia”.

He told me that he doesn’t see the OTF as representing Australia, “we represent our members, jurisdictions who wish to participate in a sharing program with other jurisdictions. We create our own mandate. And everything the OTF does is open to every jurisdiction, with a focus on tangible outcomes.”

Sharing technology resources isn’t simply a nice idea. Steve believes there are significant opportunities to reduce the cost of provisioning public services while improving service delivery, “we’re here for Australian & New Zealand governments to leverage the investments of other jurisdictions and reuse them – in software, materials and other services. We also help share our [AU & NZ] knowledge with other countries, especially in the Asia Pacific region.”

Steve is not the only one who believes these outcomes are worthwhile.

A number of key Australian agencies and governments are represented on the OTF’s governing council. This includes Defense, the Bureau of Meteorology, the New Zealand Government and Australian state governments such as NSW, Queensland and South Australia.

Steve says that there’s also some urgency about the work. Europe is moving ahead with interoperability solutions and technology sharing at a great rate, and the US is moving forward with NIEM, the National Information Exchange Model.

He says that “Australia is still at the starting line, and we can’t afford to be there much longer.”

Steve also discussed four projects the OTF is working on for delivery in the next twelve months.

“Our first project is about modern design for a sustainable government”.

Steve says the aim of this project was to provide a set of principles for developing portable government platforms, including associated guidelines and procurement clauses.

“There was an interoperability approach developed by Australian government back in 2006, but things have progressed since then.”

The OTF aims to deliver an outcome that allows platforms to be portable not only in Australia and New Zealand, but globally.

“European Commission have expressed interest in being involved and we will potentially also have the UN involved, linking into all major regional governments at a global level.”

If the project is successful it will make it far easier for agencies to add standard principles into their procurement clauses. For Australian technology companies this opens a door to global business, providing clarity on how they provide a specific service.

Steve says that they hope to turn the project over to a standards body at a future stage to ensure its sustainability and broader uptake.

The OTF’s second project is related to managing shared guidelines for internal ICT management and for managing vendors. He believes this project will assist both governments and vendors.

“Having vendors spend additional money to meet the separate requirements for each jurisdiction adds significantly to the cost of software to government and the development costs of vendors.”

Steve says that common shared guidelines for many of our technology needs that can be used as a baseline for our public administrations would remove this extra cost.

The project is being led by the NSW government with the initial goal of developing a set of guidelines for cloud that can be shared and reused across jurisdictions.

OTF involves all of its participating jurisdictions in the development process, and hopes to use it as a model for further shared guidelines.

The third project involves investigating whether the European Commission’s eProcurement platform can be reused by Australian governments.

“The EC’s platform was developed to be an end-to-end eProcurement platform for European countries and was released under an open source license. We’re evaluating modules of the platform with Australian state governments to test whether it meets their needs. So far we’ve found it just works, out of the box”

Steve says that the platform, Open e-PRIOR, has been developed to international standards that suite Australian governments and is a good example of how systems developed elsewhere in the world can be reused by local jurisdictions.

“We’ve found that most governments are willing to share most of their investment in ICT with other governments, beyond their secure systems. The primary barriers to sharing are the cultural ones and appropriate licensing.”

Finally, Steve says the OTF is working on building a platform for managing shared enterprise platforms.

“Our member governments feel there is no place for them currently to place their shared enterprise platforms for reuse by other governments.”

Steve says this isn’t simply a Forge for code sharing, but a robust system that incorporates management and support to provide the quality control and support necessary for large government system.

The development of this ITIL-based platform is being led by the Queensland government, with the support of other OTF members. If successful it could revolutionise how Australian governments share their shareable platforms.

Steve believes these projects are some of the foundation stones for building a technology-sharing environment for Australian and New Zealand governments, and go far beyond earlier government attempts at interoperability.

If successful Steve believes they will help herald in an age of more connected and responsive government, dramatically cutting the cost and need for agencies to develop their own new systems.

It’s a big goal but a worthy one.

“Gaining the required levels of participation to make this sharing cooperation a real success story is challenging, but with the continued support of our member governments and networks, we will all benefit in the long term.”

You’ll be able to hear more from Steve at GovInnovate on 25-27 November in Canberra.

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Thursday, September 18, 2014

What happened at the National Library's Digiculture event: Social Media and the Public Sector

On Tuesday 16 September I participated in the panel for the National Library's Digiculture event: Social Media and the Public Sector, along with Facebook's Mia Garlick and the Department of Finance's John Sheridan.

It was well attended and well-discussed on Twitter (under #digiculture), with the biggest laughs of the afternoon coming from the surprising (blooper) revelation that John's army career had lasted 22,000 years.
He certainly looks good for his age.

One attendee, Kenji Walker, used his sketching skills to create a visual record of the panel, which I've embedded below - thanks for this Kenji!

Finally The Mandarin published an article on the event, Social media in public sector: beat the journos, don’t say anything stupid 

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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Where is the use of digital by Australian governments headed? An interview with John Wells

This is the third in a series of interviews I'm doing as part of Delib Australia's media partnership with CeBIT in support of GovInnovate. I'll also be livetweeting and blogging the conference on 25-27 November.

View other posts in this series.

As one of the national organisers of Innovation GovCamp Australia, founder of GovCampus and producer of Gov 2.0 Radio, John Wells is one of Australia’s leading advocates for public sector innovation. John is also a co-director of Cofluence, the content partner of Hannover Fairs /CeBIT GovInnovate annual summit.

I spoke with John, who is chairing a stream at GovInnovate, to discover where he thinks Australian government is heading in the digital area.

John said that Australia was experiencing a period of rapid take-up and acceleration in open data. “In the last 12 months alone there’s been a seven-fold increase in the amount of data available in data.gov.au, and events such as GovHack are growing rapidly in size and participation by not only hackers, but also government data custodians.”

Internationally, John says, there are also changes afoot. “Across western countries the role of digital in government is subtly shifting towards a more evolved focus on public sector renewal, beyond the traditional approaches to reform.”

“We’ve seen an evolution from the connectivity of eGovernment to the public conversation of Gov 2.0 and now through to the collaborative and participative opportunities that open government presents.”

He believes the future of politics and public administration will be less about left vs right and more about open vs closed and that government organisations as well as citizens must be prepared to capitalise on these collaborative opportunities.

John said that GovInnovate 2014 will be a good opportunity to tease out this change and the impact it will have on the role of Australia’s public sector.

“Having both Mark Headd from Philadelphia and Dominic Campbell from London at the conference mean that the panel discussions will benefit from both a European and North American perspective.”

“It will give participants an opportunity to contrast national programs across the US with local government initiatives in Britain, discussing topical civic approaches from Code for America through to NESTA’s work in the UK.”

John also believes that there’s an opportunity to build on the public sector’s interest in innovation, building on the enthusiasm to adopt more strategic and sophisticated approaches.

“In a public sector context innovation can suffer from being undervalued or viewed in cliqued terms, such as ‘light bulb moments’. Digital has a large role to play in supporting this evolution, particularly in helping people to step beyond their comfort zones.”

John says that digital touches many aspects of an agency and has become a leading driver of innovation.

“As we learnt at the recent national GovCamp on innovation, digital touches on and impacts leadership, program design, engagement of communities and stakeholders, on collaboration across the silos of the public sector and between the public sector, business and civil society.”

Because of this, John feels it is increasingly important for public servants to step beyond what is safe and familiar, challenging themselves to test existing practice and experiment with new approaches to governance.

“What I hear from public sector leaders is that it is important for all of us to learn how to hear about and engage with topics and learning opportunities that are unfamiliar, that address areas outside their personal work scope and comfort zones, as we live in an era where increasingly solutions are found through interdisciplinary practices.”

He believes that GovInnovate will be an opportunity for participants to challenge themselves in this way. “Coming to the conference with a mindset of valuing diverse experiences will help ensure that participants take away something new that will refresh their perspective of what is possible.”

You’ll be able to hear more from John at GovInnovate on 25-27 November in Canberra.

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Monday, September 15, 2014

A view on the maiden tweets of Australia's federal politicians

A politician's maiden speech in parliament is usually constructed with great thought and care. It serves as a platform on which they plan to stand for the rest of their term, the issues they intend to prosecute and the topics on which they prefer to engage.

However can the same be said of their first tweets?

I've compiled all of the first tweets of our currently sitting federal politicians (the 79% with Twitter accounts) into both a timeline and a word cloud to provide a glimpse into how much thought they put into their first declaration on this highly public platform.

You may judge for yourself whether the first tweets of politicians provides an insight into their character, interests and key concerns - noting that only one current federal politician created their Twitter account before entering politics.

Data: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0Ap1exl80wB8OdFFaYk9NYkhPaXB6aU5yTDF0S21ocWc&usp=sharing

Wordle: www.wordle.net/show/wrdl/8140372/First_tweets_from_current_Australian_federal_politicians

Timeline: cdn.knightlab.com/libs/timeline/latest/embed/index.html?source=0Ap1exl80wB8OdFFaYk9NYkhPaXB6aU5yTDF0S21ocWc&font=Georgia-Helvetica&maptype=toner&lang=en&hash_bookmark=true&width=560&height=840

The most common words from the first tweets of current Australian Federal politicians

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Friday, September 12, 2014

New South Wales's iVote® system - an interview with Ian Brightwell

This is the second in a series of interviews I'm doing as part of Delib Australia's media partnership with CeBIT in support of GovInnovate. I'll also be livetweeting and blogging the conference on 25-27 November.

View other posts in this series.

If I had to pick someone to be in charge of developing an electronic voting system, I’d want them both to be highly skilled at technical project management and a passionate supporter of democracy.

Ian Brightwell fits both criteria in spades.

“My first voting experience was in 1974 when the Whitlam government was re-elected. Then in 1975, when this government was dismissed, I recall seeing people arguing in the street over politics, which I had not seen before and indeed not seen since.

“After the dismissal in 1975 and before the election, no-one I knew said they would vote liberal, and then we saw a liberal landslide. It was at that point I realised the virtues of our electoral system and value of the secret ballot, allowing people to express their view without undue influence from others.”

As the CIO of the NSW Electoral Commission, Ian Brightwell is responsible not only for all of the commission’s IT infrastructure, but also for Australia’s most exciting online electronic voting initiative, the iVote® system.

The iVote® system is an internet-based voting platform which has been custom-built to support the NSW government’s requirement for remote voting at parliamentary elections. Under current legislation only electors with vision or physical disabilities and remote or voters absent from NSW on election day are entitled to use the system.

In 2011, the first time the iVote® system was used, some 46,684 electors used it while over 200,000 people are expected to use the system in the next state election in 2015.

Ian says that despite the limited number of voters currently entitled to use the iVote® system, it has already demonstrated its value.

In 2011, he says, there was a much larger group of out-of-state voters than they had seen in previous elections, as people didn't have to go to specific locations to vote.

Ian says he can see the iVote® system being expanded to other groups of voters in the future, but at this stage he is comfortable with using the platform for those voters the Commission find difficult to service– where it is hard to get to them manually –it also allows more time for the system to be refined before it is scaled.

One group Ian identified as a potential future target audience were postal voters.

The head of Australia Post has said that first class mail may not be available within 5 – 10 years as a result of Australia Post reducing postal services in line with declining demand. On this basis it is possible that all Australian jurisdictions with postal voting will need a replacement approach for future elections.

He also sees absent voting at local government elections as an area the iVote® system can help. This is particularly a concern because NSW’s Local Government legislation doesn’t permit absent voting at a council elections (this problem will be exacerbated if the proposal by Sydney City Council to require businesses to vote is enacted). For NSW local government elections there’s around 300,000 more non voters fined than at state elections because absent voters are not able to vote.

Another area of interest has been for plebiscites and ‘mini-polls’. Ian demonstrated the system at Parliament House in Sydney, primarily to minor party representatives. They were excited about the potential for using a system like iVote® to include more direct democracy in our system through polling voters on what they thought on different topics.

Ian isn’t sure this is necessarily a good idea, “I’m not sure voters are always well placed to make decisions on complex individual topics, due to the depth of material to absorb and the range of options, but it is an interesting proposition which needs further exploration.”

He believes that “voters are far better at picking the people they want to represent them for parliamentary decision-making.”

Ian does however believe that the iVote® system could be valuable for referendums, which he says there’s a current reluctance to run due to the cost, “the marginal cost of electronic voting, once the system is established, is much lower than that of paper voting.”

One area that Ian doesn’t see the iVote® system moving into any time soon, is replacing the local voting booth.

He believes paper voting is a key method for retaining confidence and trust in the electoral system – particularly given the concerns that have been raised overseas with electronic voting systems in physical locations.

Ian also said that, “for the most part with our current arrangement, replacing attendance paper voting with electronic attendance voting would be quite costly, and there would have to be clear set of benefits to offset that cost.”

Ian believes there isn’t a strong push for Australia to move to electronic attendance voting as there’s sufficient trust in the existing electoral system.

However, he says “with manual systems voters have to trust electoral authorities to do their job and although there is some ability for voters to see this in polling places there can be no evidence votes are finally counted as cast because the final count happens weeks later in remote offices and electors cannot observer this process.

However, with an electronic system you can provide the elector with a little more transparency, though they will have to understand the more complex electronic process to fully appreciate the verification information they have been provided – it’s a different kind of trust.”

Speaking of trust, the iVote® system has been designed with modern security to ensure that the system is as secure and unshakable as possible. Ian says they have updated the security and will conduct penetration testing to mitigate the risk of hacking at the 2015 election.

Also, he says, as the system is in place only during election periods, there’s a very limited window for a hacker to break through security and alter the results.

While no electronic system is perfect, he’s confident that his team has done everything possible to ensure that NSW voters using the iVote® system can trust that their vote will be recorded and counted accurately.

Ian says that the international experience has been that electronic voting isn’t a universal preference if offered to all electors anyway, “a few countries have offered electronic voting to all citizens, and have found that it peaks out at 20-30% of voters, with others preferring physical polling places or other forms of voting.”

“In Australia voting is a community and social activity and taking away a polling place from a small community can create enormous controversy and concern in the community.”

Ian thinks that we should not take away from physical voting or the opportunity for civic social contact, but definitely should offer a diversity of ways to vote, with electronic voting part of the mix.

In particular Ian said that there are issues with areas, with large and growing populations, where in older areas the available polling places can get overrun and newer areas there are no available venues for polling places. He says there is a need to manage the pressure on the attendance voting system which is already feeling over loaded.

While the iVote® system may not be used now to replace physical voting, this still leaves a large number of voters it can service. Ian says that these days 20-30% of votes are not attendance votes (in district votes in a polling places or pre-poll).

an also says that, from the data we have on voting patterns by voting channel, all voting channels generally have a similar electoral outcome. That is electoral commissions see similar voting trends across attendance, postal, absent voting channels. Electronic voting in NSW in 2011 was no exception, it gave a similar electoral outcome to other channels, so in the future this pattern should hold for other jurisdictions that choose to use electronic voting. This is a useful way of determining if major electoral fraud has occurred in just one voting channel.

While the iVote® system has been designed for NSW state voting, Ian’s team kept in mind that it could be used for local government voting in the future. He says that NSW has far less turnout for local elections, “we send out up to 300,000 more penalty notices for local government voting than for state voting.”

Ian also says that other states and territories are watching his team’s work closely, “we’ve had lots of interest from other states, federally and overseas, and expect interest to translate to some action after the next election.”

Looking into the future, Ian said that he didn’t see huge change in voting approaches in the next five to ten years, but expects an ongoing shift from postal to electronic and increasing levels of absent voting driving electronic voting.

He also sees increasing levels of early voting being the first avenue for attendance electronic voting being used “it is already immensely popular and we see 50-100% increase in early voting election on election - but parties hate it as they have to get their party volunteers there for 2-3 weeks prior to election day and it is hard for them to manage their election message. The public love it as it frees them up on election day. The reality is the public will win this one in the long run.”

Australia already has a very high voter participation rate, so while in the US electronic voting may be seen as a way to raise voting participation, Ian says that’s not a consideration in Australia, “as we have such a high participation rate we have has bipartisan support for electronic voting.”

You’ll be able to hear more from Ian at GovInnovate on 25-27 November in Canberra.

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