What does open government mean for digital transformation?

By Pia Andrews

Monday November 4, 2019

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THE PIA REVIEW: PIA ANDREWS This is a Public Sector Pia Review — a series on better public sectors.

Openness is a critical tenet for democracy. It enables transparency, which enables accountability, which in turn drives better public outcomes and ideally a useful check and balance on power. But openness is also a critical tenet for modern public sectors if they are to be capable of responsiveness and resilience in the face of dramatic and rapid change, and to best ensure evidence-driven policy, programs, and service delivery. As part of this Public Sector Pia Review, I wanted to talk about open government as it applies to digital transformation of the public sector, beyond the usual (but important!) scope of transparency and freedom of information. 

I do recommend you also check out the Open Government Partnership (including Australia’s participation and the community around it), the great work of Open Australia over many years, and the Digital 9 (a collection of governments committed to open digital government), all three of which sit in the interesting intersection of open and digital government. I also encourage you to look closely at how Taiwan is dramatically raising the bar for open inclusive government in a digital world. There are also a lot of initiatives around the non-digital specific world of open government, including the Accountability Roundtable, Transparency International Australia, and many more. I also encourage you to read some of the great case studies that explore the intersection of digital and open government in this report on ‘Upgrading Democracy’ by the Centre for Policy Development from 2009.

This article provides some ideas about how open government can (and arguably should) apply to all digital government and transformation efforts in public sectors. Many thanks to the peer reviewers for this article, including Peter Timmins, an indefatigable force for Open Government in Australia.

Open digital government?

In exploring open and digital government, to me a lot of it comes down to two simple ideas: 

  1. write once, read many; and
  2. many eyes make all bugs shallow.

If you do something, you may as well do it to share. Then you naturally get more reuse, more value realised, more opportunity to improve, more eyes. Don’t just run an event, record it to publish. Don’t just write a manual, publish it for broader reuse. Don’t just develop a fix for something, contribute it back to the codebase. And with more eyes, you can harness more minds, more ideas, more creativity, more testing, and more hands. The work we do in public sectors affects many people, so there are many people naturally motivated to ensure the work is good. 

Below are some practical concepts that build upon this concept specifically for public sectors. 

Embrace change as inevitable and an opportunity

Firstly, it is important to understand that transformation of public sectors is both inevitable and necessary to be fit for purpose in the 21st century and beyond. Although many ‘digital’ efforts in the public sector are limited to just improving service delivery, true digital transformation presents the opportunity to reimage government and implement the digital public infrastructure and modern approaches we collectively need to be effective, responsive to community needs, trends and global context, and truly outcomes focused in a rapidly changing world. 

I often hear people say they are suffering from ‘change fatigue’ in public services, and I encourage all public servants to embrace change as the new normal, and to develop ways to be change optimistic. Of course, this would be greatly enabled by a culture across government that involved and empowered all levels to innovate, but regardless, change is upon us and it presents an opportunity to change for the better how we operate day to day.

Working in the open

Working in the open, when possible, helps build trust, confidence in your team, and collaboration. Building trust and buy-in to your work is especially important when you identify something that needs to be changed, such as a project pivot or change in approach. Openness is also key to scaling impact. It is how we can influence the system and inspire and enable people to individually engage with better outcomes and innovate across organisational and sector boundaries. Openness is also how we can ensure our work is evidence-based, better-informed and better-tested, through public peer review, and it is how we get greater coordination and convergence of effort across sectors, as it sends myriad lead indicators to vendors, researchers, and non-profit sectors. When you share what you are doing, you also attract natural allies who share your goals or problem space, and with whom you can forge strategic and mutually beneficial partnerships, where all parties are naturally motivated to collaborate.  

In short, openness is a great way to ensure both a better supply of as well as a better demand for what is demonstrably ‘good’.

Working in the open, to me, means two things:

  • Sharing the journey — sharing what you are doing as you progress, not just at the end or launch or something, is a great way to build interest, trust, and buy-in for an initiative, but also helps to identify relevant opportunities for projects that would benefit from collaboration. If you make public what you are doing, which should be the default case (as much of what public sectors do is not actually secret), the others who are dealing with the same challenge can find, share, or contribute to what you are doing, even across the same organisation or sector. Sharing the journey would ideally also include sharing progress, like measures of success over time, which also grows trust.
  • Sharing and contributing to artefacts — reusing and contributing to relevant efforts from others, opening up our research, code, data, reusable web services, lessons, and prototypes (tech and policy). This means we are not reinventing the wheel, and are enabling others to build on the back of our publicly funded efforts. It also means we can leverage peer review, external contributors, and cross jurisdictional efforts.

Effective, constructive, and collaborative public engagement greatly improves the opportunity to include the knowledge and experience of citizens in policy and projects. Public engagement strategies work best when they are underpinned by strong community development, a clear and collaboratively developed goal, a genuine interest in the inputs of others, and a process that is as low a barrier to entry to engage in as possible.

Basically, we are moving towards an era of participatory and co-designed governance, which is both inevitable and beneficial for better public outcomes. So, exploring ways to share and grow skills and to collaborate broadly is certainly a part of open digital government.

Open infrastructure — Government as a Platform

As we translate existing public sector operations into a digital world, and indeed as we invent new ways of working in a digital context, we have the opportunity to create digital public infrastructure and achieve the notion of government as a social and economic platform. Ideally, digital public infrastructure would enable great services and better administration, but it should also enable better digital access to justice: to the rules and decisions made with and about the people we serve. 

If we don’t build the foundations of digital government openly, then how can people trust it? If we don’t build immutable explainability into the decisions and actions of our public sectors, then how will people audit, appeal, or have appropriate oversight or governance? How can we ensure our services and the decisions made are accountable in how they are managed, monitored and run? Digital government provides new challenges but also new opportunities for openness, accountability and transparency, but only if we design from the ground up for open digital government on the back of trust infrastructure that is trustworthy.

Citizen centric services is about putting the genuine user experience first to create a dignified experience for citizens when they interact with government. Citizen centric services requires good data and metadata, including geospatially enabled information about government services, and the rules of eligibility and calculation relating to those services. Constant feedback loops that engage the input, ideas and experiences of citizens are extremely important to establish effective citizen centric services, and to ensure the iterative improvements over time to keep services relevant and responsive to the changing needs of the population. Reusable service components make it more possible to create more personalised and accessible services through myriad and emerging channels, and although this includes many services that are identified, there are also many services that can be provided anonymously. It is important to not force people to have to log in unless they really need to, as it can feel intimidating for people who have negative or scary interactions with the public sector, particularly vulnerable people. 

Open rules, open algorithms, and programmatic explainability are needed if you want to ensure traceability, accountability and appealability of decisions. For algorithmic transparency, it means we need to design explainability and decision capture into our systems, machines, and use of AI, otherwise we too easily get black box decision-making that is completely inappropriate for the public sector. Rules of all sorts are always eventually applied in software, which can reduce transparency of their application. Rules as code is the concept that the rules of government (particularly prescriptive ones), in legislation, regulation, operational policy, etc, are made available in an authoritative human and machine consumable form. Today, these rules are only authoritatively available as human (lawyer) language, and anyone applying the rules, including in departments, is interpreting and translating those rules into myriad software tools that then creates gaps in application and accountability. When drafting new legislation, we can use modern agile and digital methods to develop test driven rules which can result in Better Rules in the first place, that are drafted in human and machine-consumable form from scratch, allowing governments to host a rules API for anyone to use. I believe rules as code is core digital public infrastructure, and it has been shown to provide dramatic benefits for service delivery, compliance, better regulatory outcomes, and reduced cost across the entire economy. Most importantly to this article, this concept then provides greater access to justice and transparency of authority and the rules that define and shape the world in which we live.

Open data is an obvious example for open infrastructure. Open data is about taking the vast majority of government datasets and information that don’t have personal information or security issues, and putting them online in the most useful way possible. In a practical sense, for data to be most useful (both to the public but equally important for other parts of governments to be able to leverage the data), it needs to have permissive copyright (such as Creative Commons BY), be machine readable, time stamped, subscribable, available in an openly documented format (open standard), have useful metadata, and wherever possible have good geospatial information available. Ideally, your data needs to meet the needs of developers and machines as well as end users. Starting on an open data journey can be difficult, so below are four useful steps to take, each with its own challenges:

  1. Differentiate between sensitive and non-sensitive data! Not all data requires an in depth Privacy Impact Statement to just consider publishing. It is useful to have clarity about what is sensitive and what isn’t and to put proportionate governance in place that protects sensitive data whilst not dramatically inhibiting non-sensitive data sharing. For instance, it absolutely makes sense for any data that has personal information to have risks carefully considered with appropriate oversight and vetting. But the location of public parks doesn’t have any personal information and is really helpful information for people to have access to. 
  2. Just get non-sensitive data online! This stage is where an organisation just tries to get online whatever they can. It often means the licensing is not entirely clear or permissive, the data format is whatever the organisation uses (which may or may not be useful to others), the data may be slightly out of date and it often isn’t clear who the contact for the data set is making follow-up hard. This stage is, however, extremely important to encourage, as it is where every organisation must begin and build upon. It is also important because to achieve quality open data, major changes often need to be made to systems, workflows, technologies, and organisational culture. Access to imperfect data in the short term is far better than waiting for perfection.
  3. High quality data! This is the stage where issues around quality publishing of data have been teased out, and an organisation can start to publish quality data. It is hopefully the point at which the systems, culture, workflows and technologies used within the organisation all facilitates open data publishing, while also facilitating appropriate settings for secure data (such as sensitive privacy or security information). This stage takes a lot of work to achieve, but also means a far lower cost of publishing data, which helps among other things, keep the cost of FoI compliance down.
  4. Collaborative data! This final stage of open data is where an organisation can figure out ways to integrate and verify input from the public to data sets to improve them, to capture historical and cultural context and to keep information up to date. This is also a challenging step but where government departments and agencies can engage the public collaboratively, we will see better data sets and greater innovation.

It is worth also noting that when it comes to sensitive data, you shouldn’t share it unless you really need to. This article should help you determine when it might be more appropriate to share an insight, alert or when to simply verify a claim rather than sharing sensitive data for service delivery purposes.

Open Source and Open Government

Open Source has provided a natural fit for a lot of Open Government initiatives for many years, both in public sectors across the world and in myriad civil society initiatives. In public sectors, we get the benefits from widespread use of open standards, the ability to rapidly deploy and iterate, the large developer and support communities around mature Open Source projects (such as Drupal, WordPress, or the statistical tool R), and the competitive and sustainable nature of commercial support around mature Open Source projects. Open Source approaches also let departments extend and enhance functionality around business needs rather than shoehorn business requirements into off-the-shelf products, noting that this requires a mature sourcing approach that doesn’t assume everything we do in public sectors can be bought off the shelf (please see the Pia Review on procurement considerations for better outcomes). Most importantly, there is a strong cross over of values and practices between Open Government and Open Source which can really support great and sustainable public benefits and outcomes.

In January 2011, AGIMO released the Australian Government Open Source Software Policy, which had three principles:

  1. Principle 1: Australian government ICT procurement processes must actively and fairly consider all types of available software.
  2. Principle 2: Suppliers must consider all types of available software when dealing with Australian government agencies.
  3. Principle 3: Australian government agencies will actively participate in Open Source software communities and contribute back where appropriate.

The third principle, in particular, represented a fundamental shift in how government could engage with Open Source: by seeing itself as a potential contributor in the community. It was very exciting, but few departments to date in Australia have really realised the value of technical and technology collaboration in Australia, which isn’t unique to Open Source but is strongly embedded in most Open Source projects. Open Source has become a foundation for many other jurisdictions to innovate and transform, and is even one of the Digital 9 tenets, which is a group of countries committing to exemplary digital-transformation agendas. There are many Open Source code repositories now from public servants and departments across the world, so there are myriad opportunities to collaborate and stand on the shoulders of giants..

In July 2011, after six months consultation, AGIMO also released the Australian Government Open Source Software Guide V2, which was a useful document for departments and agencies to help them comply to the policy directive where they must consider Open Source in their procurement processes. 

Since then, the Digital Transformation Agency has included Open Source as part of the mandatory Digital Service Standard, fashioned after the same requirement in the UK Digital Service Standard

Just briefly, to return to the cross over of values. Many people in the broader Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) communities share some common cultural values with public servants that would probably surprise both groups. Those values centre around freedom for all, doing ‘good’ in the world, sharing (for progress and mutual benefit), the importance of doing (not just talking), and trying to solve tricky problems for society. Having walked in both works, I continue to be surprised by how much cultural overlap there is, and yet minimal interaction (beyond technologists) but there is a lot that public sectors can learn from Open Source that can help us achieve better public outcomes.

Final word

Transparency is, of course, critical for open government, and so it is critical that public servants always try to work and design systems with maximum transparency. Especially those of us working in digital government and transformation initiatives. If you end up with less accountability through digital technologies, then not only have you gone backwards from a public good sense, but you have wasted the great opportunities for openness that digital can bring to bear.

Achieving true open government is necessarily a constant and evolving challenge. Day to day you need to ensure it is a foundation for all public sector efforts. Although this is obvious for many, the digital government landscape is changing so fast that is can be easy to just do what needs to be done today. But if we don’t ensure every day that we have open digital government, then it will be too easy for openness to slide, and democracy to suffer.

Hopefully this article has provided some food for thought, but please consider how you can bring more openness into your work, programs, policies and services, because we shouldn’t have to ask for trust, we should operate in the most trustworthy way possible at all times.

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