Citizens depend on their governments to provide essential services and to make decisions with their best interests at heart.
It is realistic to expect that most, if not all, of these decisions should be data-driven; that is, there is auditable evidence of need and justification that the government’s response to it is proportionate.
Instances where decisions appear not to stack up against available knowledge and data can undermine trust and faith in the ability of governments to lead and execute.
Of course, governments are not the sole domain of good ideas. They do not have all the answers to challenges that citizens might face.
That is leading governments to invite citizens into the ideation process much earlier, rather than simply seeking their feedback on an idea that has already been partially developed.
The federal government has shown this kind of citizen engagement works through the annual GovHack competition.
Via GovHack, agencies are able to crowdsource a range of different answers and approaches to the kinds of policy and practical data-driven questions that might keep them up at night.
The questions this year ranged from unmasking “hidden data behind the labour market” and using data to make better conservation decisions for oceans, to extracting value from Australian finance data.
The Australian Taxation Office’s (ATO) deputy commissioner for enterprise culture, change and innovation Jane King said this year’s event “provided [the agency] with some great ideas”.
As she noted, the competition brought together a range of people to solve government problems – effectively “anyone who wanted to join” could.
Given all citizens have to interact with the ATO every year, those same citizens are also well-placed to suggest better ways of doing things, and those improvements then flow into the processes used at tax time.
“Making better use of our data allows for early engagement with our clients, helping them to get things right from the start. This in turn helps to build trust and confidence in the system,” King said.
“GovHack brings citizens face-to-face with policy makers to deliver first-hand perspectives of what the community needs from government and the data it holds,” the Australian Public Service Commission adds.
Beyond being just about dollars
In Australia, the economy-wide value of government data is estimated to be up to $25 billion per year, according to the government’s own Bureau of Communications Research.
That means there is tremendous economic benefit in asking people outside of government to find value from the data it generates.
However, beyond economic benefits, there are even greater societal factors at play that should impress upon government the case for citizen engagement through data.
Put simply, citizens want access to the data and the onus is on the government to give it to them in a useful – and neutral – format.
“When a citizen reads something in the newspaper, reads a tweet, has a chat with their neighbour, sees something on TV they do not like, if they are going to stay engaged with our democracy and have a voice in this society, they need to be able to reach out and have at their fingertips the government information,” National Archives of Australia director-general David Fricker said.
“They need to find the truth.”
“The information has to be obvious, discoverable, compatible with the way they want to use it and reliable so that they can have a voice in democracy, have an influence on government, have an opinion which has got equal weight with all of the other opinions in the discourses, debates, arguments and discussions that occur across Australian society.”
Smoothing the path
While the federal government shares a sizable amount of non-sensitive data through its open data.gov.au portal, it is arguable whether this goes far enough.
In some quarters, governments are now not only providing the source data but also tools to visualise it. Interactive visualisation enables citizens to ask questions more easily and properly understand the data by allowing them to explore how reported numbers are reached, and peel through the layers, asking questions of a deeper level. This will give them a better footing to engage in policy discussions and become ‘change agents’ in that process.
One example of this approach is the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), which uses Tableau to provide interactive data visualisations for alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs, health expenditure, obesity, palliative care and homelessness services. The agency has made over 1000 interactive visualisations public to date, providing a clear demonstration of how better access to data can help citizens engage on health and welfare issues.
Outside of federal government, the NSW government’s Sharing and Enabling Environmental Data (SEED) portal also provides a glimpse of how the combination of data and tools exponentially increases the level of citizen engagement that can be wrung out of government data.
One thing is clear. Agencies have come to realise that by asking for the public’s help, they can find new and interesting ways to solve problems they have struggled internally to solve before.
Hackathons, community consultation portasl and interactive visualisations are just some of the tools available to governments to seek out that citizen help and engagement.
At the end of the day, organisations really need to approach their strategy towards data with one of open to the sharing of ideas as this can ultimately to new approaches to policy, program improvements and better experiences for employees and the community at large.