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Chris Eccles: does open government make for good government?

There is a growing global consensus about the importance of open government and a lot is happening in its name.

So what do we mean by open government?

The definition offered by the World Justice Project is a good starting point. They suggest that ‘open government’ is:

“government that shares information, empowers people with tools to hold the government accountable, and fosters citizen participation in public policy deliberations”.

And, as a statement of why open government is generally said to be important, it is hard to better US President Barack Obama’s concision:

“Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government”.

There is no doubt that these ideas, and their associated practices, are widespread globally, albeit primarily in the developed world.

In terms of international leaders, we hear much about the Scandinavian nations (Sweden, Norway, Denmark), about New Zealand, about the UK.

And we hear about initiatives like the ‘D5’ network of countries aiming to strengthen the digital economy; in that network, along with the ‘usual suspects’ of New Zealand and the United Kingdom, you will find South Korea, Israel and Estonia.

There are also pockets of activity in Australia. I think, for example, of GovHack, which involves participants using ‘open data’ to solve public problems.

All in all, there is an increasing sense that citizens and society are changing in fundamental ways and we must change with them – and hence ‘open government’.

So why open government?

Many of us probably experience open government almost as an inevitable phenomenon resulting from social, political and especially technological forces.

Not only that, but we may be tempted to take it as a given that open government is a good thing, given the many opportunities self-evidently associated with it.

But before we leap straight to the ‘what’ or ‘how’ of open government, we need to first ask: ‘why open government at all?’

And to answer that question, I think we need to first explicitly consider what good government looks like today, in order to test the aims and elements of open government against that conception of good government.

What is good government?

For governments, this is a genuinely existential question. It goes to the heart of not just what government does, but what it is.

And, even more importantly, how the question is answered matters critically to citizens and communities.

In Victoria, we have been thinking hard about what ‘good government’ means today – in our contemporary environment.

And while I speak from a Victorian perspective, I know from personal experience that the challenges and the opportunities are, to a large degree, shared and not unique to Victoria, nor indeed to Australia.

The Victorian Special Minister of State, the Honourable Gavin Jennings, recently launched the Victorian Public Sector Reform Agenda, which encapsulates our thinking on what good government looks like.

It has clear values and purpose and creates value for the community, including through improved productivity. It builds public trust in government and promotes public interest for future generations.

The systems, processes and institutions of government are designed to reinforce the accountability and integrity of executive decisions and actions and the performance of government services.

Good government is able to further social and economic progress by using evidence to drive policy and implementation, with systems informed by the needs and perspectives of empowered service users, and ongoing adaptation.

Good government is built on a leading public sector, including employees who connect more deeply with citizens and collaborate more effectively with each other and partners, and business models and technology-enabled ways of working that enhance productivity and enable a more diverse workforce.

Increasingly, good government occurs through partnerships and networks, working with and through a range of partnerships across the public purpose sector. Importantly, this broader family of public purpose sector actors is inherent in the notion of good government. I will say more about this later.

The Special Minister of State identified six public sector reform directions that will underpin the government’s term:

  1. Greater accountability and transparency
  2. Integrated delivery and infrastructure
  3. Citizens and communities co-creating public value
  4. Institutions and governance designed for better performance and outcomes
  5. Maximum value derived from government’s resources
  6. Strengthened VPS capability.

Public purpose sector

Importantly, the directions for good government need to be understood in the context of government as only one part of the broader public purpose sector.

The ‘public purpose sector’ is a new term that we have used very deliberately to expand our thinking around government’s role.

The concept of a ‘public purpose sector’ embraces all actors engaged in the delivery of public value – whether they are not-for-profits, businesses, charities, associations, communities of interest or government departments.

The term acknowledges that all these actors have important roles to play in delivering genuine public benefit, and that it is in the public interest for all actors to be able to work together to create maximum public value.

And as I mentioned earlier, in our view, good government in today’s operating environment cannot exist without a highly effective public purpose sector.

Good government extends beyond the public sector

Now, creating value for the public in this context of multiple actors taking on differing and complementary roles is a substantial challenge that requires a high level of organisational maturity and capability.

Effective public purpose organisations must have a clarity of purpose, a culture of inquiry, and routines to innovate, deliver and maximise value.

In Victoria, we have identified what can be called, somewhat irreverently, ‘10 habits of highly effective public purpose organisations’.

Such organisations:

  1. Engage their community early and often, asking questions and listening deeply. They stay connected to experts, to the workforces they rely upon, and the communities they serve.
  2. Settle on a few priorities, are clear about why they matter, and pursue them relentlessly. (They aim high but pick the right projects.)
  3. Are clear about their purpose and what constitutes success. (As part of this, they establish guiding principles and frameworks, establish good governance, and define government’s role.)
  4. Are honest about their current performance, clear about the problems they are trying to solve, and curious about good ideas.
  5. Settle the broad approach to achieving their goals and plan effectively – informed by evidence of what works, ideological choices and a deep understanding of their delivery chain.
  6. Define the smallest step and get started, adopting intensive problem-solving approaches and adjusting as they go. (This includes taking action quickly, learning by doing, seeking quick wins, and not spending disproportionate time on a strategy.)
  7. Build coalitions motivated by a shared purpose to co-design and co-create better outcomes – within particular communities, for and with particular constituencies, and to benefit the state as a whole.
  8. Value and nurture their greatest assets – their people and partners. They build technical and adaptive capabilities – of people, systems and processes – across delivery chains. (And they address capability shortages by doing, or source the capabilities through collaboration.)
  9. Are rigorous about performance, accountable and open by default; they agree who is accountable for what and scrupulously measure and report the type and depth of their impact.
  10. Learn actively from experience and invest in sharing those learnings. (This includes prioritising receiving feedback and evaluating well.)

These are the kinds of organisations – traditionally governmental and other public purpose sector actors – that are needed for good government today.

The relationship between open government and good government

I now turn to the question of how open government stacks up against this conception of good government and an effective public purpose sector.

It is useful to think about the objectives of open government through the lens of the three principles underlying the 2009 US Open Government Initiative: “government should be transparent, government should be participatory, and government should be collaborative”.

These can be thought of as ‘dimensions of openness’.

First, transparency. This promotes accountability by providing information to public, and should be proactive, meaningful and informed by feedback from the public about what and how to release.

Second, participation. This enhances decision-making processes, outcomes and legitimacy – all of which are important.

Third, collaboration. This applies within and across government, across sectors and with citizens, with the aim of generating engagement and innovation while also creating a better working relationship between government and those who it serves.

Moving from the objectives of open government to its most obvious elements, it is a given that the underpinnings of open government include data and digital technology.

Data and technology are building blocks: providing new tools, instruments and platforms, to use the traditional language of policy design and service delivery.

And they are environmental features: shaping the services and networks within which government operates, public value is created, and citizens and communities live.

That is, data and digital technology are contextual factors or means to an end – not ends in themselves.

Turning now directly to the relationship between open government and good government.

The ‘open government’ principles of transparency, collaboration and participation underpin the good government agenda.

When we talk of “enabling people and communities of interest to contribute directly to the decisions that affect them, empowering service users to exercise more choice and control, and citizens and communities co-creating public value”, we are talking about participation and collaboration.

As we build the capacities of the public service to broaden the range of people we engage with, use the latest analytical techniques, and adopt an agile, iterative approach to implementation – we are moving towards a more collaborative approach to policy-making.

When we call out the need for greater accountability and transparency, and maximum value derived from government’s resources, we are speaking directly to the underpinnings of open government, where value is created through the rigour of authorising – indeed encouraging – our constituents to both challenge and develop government’s assets and contribution to the economic and social health of the state.

By sharing transaction data with our fellow public purpose sector providers, we allow our ecosystem as a whole to work more effectively and efficiently.

By publishing and sharing government datasets regardless of whether we ourselves can see value in them, we are allowing the market to determine value and optimise social and economic benefits.

By measuring and reporting on our performance as a government, we enable our constituents to hold us accountable for the management of the state.

In other words, the concepts and principles of open government are profound in terms of their implications and execution, and are fundamental to our conception of good government.

This also puts the role of data and technology in open government into the appropriate context. Data and technology address the ‘how’: they are critical for the implementation of good (and open) government, but they are not the rationale for either.

It is therefore important that the activities undertaken in pursuit of good and open government always focus on the outcomes and directions that they are pursuing and the range of actors involved in these activities.

Importantly, open government also has bounds. There is a need for any government to strike a balance between security, commercial protections, space for decision-making and extent of openness. How do we strike that balance? Once again, I look to the framework provided by a clear and contemporary conception of good government.

In many developed nations, governments are recognising that the traditional notion of protecting public interest has created a closed system of government – and that this leads to ‘stop start’ decision-making and erosion of trust.

By contrast, open government involves a focus on promoting the public interest and invites more openness, collaboration and participation. In turn, this engenders more understanding, trust and confidence, and decision-making that is adaptive and deeply informed by community and citizen expertise.

Part of the art of open government is being authentic, honest and consistent about when the aim is to communicate or explain government decisions, and when we are inviting citizens into deliberative processes.

Next directions and big questions

So, at least in principle, open systems of government can enable good government.

At this point, I will again highlight that ‘good government’ goes well beyond simply finding new and better ways for traditional governmental actors – departments, statutory authorities and the like – to do their work.

‘Good government’ envisages more open and networked systems of government involving the broader family of public purpose sector actors co-producing and co-creating value for citizens.

In this context, I suggest that the priorities for open government – for both traditional governmental actors and members of the wider public purpose sector – can be framed around two big questions:

  1. How can we improve the way that the public purpose sector uses and shares information and data?
  2. How can we embed open policy techniques in our policy processes and encourage greater participation in public decision-making?

I will take these in turn.

The first big question we are looking at is ‘How can we improve the way that the public purpose sector uses and shares information and data?’

This is crucial to enabling shared purpose and collaboration across the public purpose sector, enabling data to be better used to drive insights to improve services, policy-making and outcomes for Victorians. It has implications for both traditional public sector and broader public purpose sector actors.

There are several parts to this.

Releasing data

Governments have traditionally invested substantially in data collection as part of their ordinary monitoring and evaluation around programs and activities.

Important data is also captured by non-government actors conducting research and evaluations, delivering services, and conducting citizen engagement and advocacy activities.

But government and non-government actors can’t just throw open our data ‘as is’ and expect that to be enough. If we all accept that our data is valuable – that what we hold is of use to others – we also must accept that we have a responsibility to share it in good condition.

This begins with an understanding of what good data means: government and non-government actors need to have reusability and collaboration in mind, and be aware that the data we all collect has immense value for a number of actors and purposes. And when released, it should be comparable and provided in formats that support use.

The way in which our ‘open data’ is currently provided might suit developers, data scientists and researchers, but the provision of easy to use tools will expand this use to other actors including community groups and the wider citizenry to enable them to become involved in co-producing solutions.

And all those working towards a shared public purpose need to recognise data as a public asset, valuing the contribution it can make, through use and re-use, to policy-making, service delivery and, indeed, private enterprise.

Sharing information for greater transparency and collective effort

Governments share information for multiple purposes, including: to inform citizens about the rationale for government decisions and hold themselves to account; and to strengthen collaboration within and outside of government (sometimes, activity that does not even directly involve government).

Integrity and accountability are critical to achieving greater value for citizens and increasing community trust in Government.

Victoria’s transparency agenda extends beyond the more familiar suite of reforms in areas such as freedom of information.

The establishment of Infrastructure Victoria will provide more public visibility of long term planning and identify Victoria’s needs relating to State and nationally significant infrastructure on a long-term cycle. This is intended to enable more community involvement in priority-setting, but also create more certainty for potential investors.

Similarly, more reporting of ICT projects and expenditure will enable more scrutiny of government investments – but also provide more visibility of government priorities to Victoria’s ICT industry.

We also have the opportunity to be more strategic – and more opportunistic – about sharing information to align collective efforts and unleash value from actors that may not even associate themselves with public purpose.

Let me give just one, somewhat speculative, example of how shared information could be leveraged by government and non-government actors more strategically.

Currently each region of Victoria releases a strategic plan. What if these plans were designed to act more as a prospectus – to promote regional locations as an attractive place to work and live, and to attract investment, visitors and business start-ups?

A stronger focus on outcomes

A focus on outcomes is an important component of Victoria’s public sector reform agenda. This is about both data and information.

Outcomes are a powerful way to communicate with the public about what government seeks to achieve, and how it is performing. Outcome measurement provides evidence of the value produced in the community.

An outcomes focus offers a new approach to information – one that eliminates data silos and demands the development of cross-organisational intelligence to enable deeper insights. It helps to develop an understanding about what works best, in what contexts and why.

This helps to inform government investment decisions and the design of government regulation, services and information.

Clarity on a shared purpose can also help to catalyse and align the activities of non-government actors.

Ultimately, an outcomes-based management approach can help to drive performance improvement across the activities of all organisations in the business of delivering public value.

A stronger focus on outcomes has profound implications for the accountability and approaches to measuring and monitoring performance of all organisations – government and non-government – in receipt of government funding or subject to government regulation.

The second big question we are looking at is ‘How can we embed open policy techniques in our policy processes and encourage greater participation in public decision-making?’

Behavioural insights, user-centred design, open data, ethnography and prototyping. Between five and ten years ago these ideas were at the fringes of conversations about how government could develop in the future. Now, while not household terms, they are increasingly embedded in our policy processes.

Open policy making is about opening up the whole policy process to new ideas, techniques and voices. And while this is nice in principle, a stronger and more formalised role for non-government actors in policy processes will in practice require significant changes for both the public sector, other members of the public purpose sector, and citizens more generally – and it will require the public sector to move first to facilitate such a role.

Here are some directions that we will need to pursue.

Designing with citizens

Design and ‘design thinking’ are increasingly raised as a valuable approach to improving how public purpose actors delivers services for (and with) citizens.

Victoria’s Neighbourhood Justice Centre is one example of applying design techniques to resolve disputes by addressing the underlying causes of harmful behaviour and tackling social disadvantage.

Established in 2007, the Neighbourhood Justice Centre was designed bringing together a multi-jurisdictional court with a wide array of support services and community initiatives, with great effect in reducing crime, increasing community safety and creating savings through fewer cases in the system.

More recently, in partnership with a local Victorian software developer, the Centre has been developing a new platform to manage appointments and reduce waiting time for hearings.

Further, the platform is reusable across the other 177 Magistrates Courts statewide – so it has potential to substantially impact the performance, engagement and outcomes of Victoria’s whole court system. This project captures the best of co-design and co-production.

Designing for customer needs

Digital platforms are providing new opportunities to engage with customers to design better services. We are seeing this across a range of sectors in the economy in areas like banking and retail, where services are being tailored to meet customer needs based on sophisticated data analytics.

In Victoria we are currently developing the Service Victoria model. This is still in its very early stages and will look to draw on the Service NSW experience.

The aim is to develop a digital shopfront: a common online platform for transactions between government and citizens.

While its primary impetus is to make it easier for citizens to transact with government, another benefit is that transactions completed through such a platform would provide a much richer and more comparable source of data about service users’ preferences and needs than the current arrangements.

By contrast to our current highly manual and fragmented set of transaction platforms, a well-designed common online platform would allow enormous insight, in a highly efficient fashion, into basic things like the number of transactions started, the number that are completed, the time that is taken, and individual users’ preferences in transacting with government.

Ultimately, if successful, this will assist government and non-government actors to develop a far greater insight into how to provide services in ways that truly meet users’ needs.

Learning across networks

One set of opportunities that I suspect is seriously underutilised at present is associated with sharing learning, and building capacity, across networks – that is across the public purpose sector.

For example, I would be unsurprised if it turned out that, in many cases, non-government actors have either more, or at least different, expertise about how behavioural insights techniques can be applied to public policy and service delivery – in academic institutions or think tanks, for example.

And society would be richer if that expertise could be brought to bear to build the capacity of the public purpose sector as a whole.

The same points would apply to any number of other valuable but not yet widely used techniques, tools or approaches to generate public value.

My department is currently collaborating with the UK and NZ governments to produce guidance on a range of open policy techniques – to build familiarity and capability across the public sector. I would hope that the toolkit would have some practical value for public purpose organisations more generally.

I know IPAA Victoria, the Victorian Public Sector Commission and academic partnerships such as ANZSOG also have their eyes set on how their programs can foster cross-sector engagement, and build the sorts of capabilities necessary to work in a more open, networked style of government.

Today’s conference is clearly an important contribution to this endeavour.

Developing new solutions

Christian Bason, head of the Danish MindLab, talks about zooming back out, to look at service systems as a whole, in order to come up with new solutions.

Nowhere does this resonate more than health services.

Real change will require fundamental shifts in culture and behaviour, systems and processes. Reshaping the delivery of health services will require us to think about how we can create a more connected health system that has a strong focus on prevention and early intervention and takes a person-centred approach to service provision.

Health care in Canterbury, New Zealand provides a good case study. They designed a whole of health system that placed the patient at the centre of a number of connected services, with a focus on primary and community care, and keeping people out of hospitals.

David Meates, the Chief Executive of Canterbury and West Coast District Health Boards, in New Zealand, put it this way:

“I do believe you can…invest in the community in a way that delivers much better and much more integrated care. We need the whole system to be working for the whole system to work.”

Clear performance metrics will be important to enable us to measure the impact of changed ways of working, entailing greater linkage of administrative datasets to better understand performance, patient outcomes and evidence on health interventions. This work is underway, but more needs to be done.

Reform of this scale requires sustained leadership, a clear articulation of the value that can be achieved for citizens, a deep understanding of what needs to change and who needs to be involved to co-create the value sought.

Encouraging greater participation

Greater participation in public decision-making is about community and citizen engagement – but engagement is not an end in itself.

It involves actively engaging citizens to give them a voice in decisions that affect them, to build confidence, trust and understanding of government decision-making, and to generate better, more informed decisions.

Importantly, different approaches are relevant for different purposes. For example, crowd sourcing is a great tool for seeking new ideas, citizen juries to test priorities, and social media analysis to gauge public opinion.

Whatever the approach, however, engagement should be an ongoing conversation and practice across the community, not just through single purpose consultations with selected representative groups.

Technology can assist by providing a platform for such conversations – for example, via digital consultation platforms to reduce cost, ensure consistency in how we engage, and allow citizens to participate more frequently.

Excitingly, this is again an area where government can learn a great deal from others in the public purpose sector and, indeed, the private sector.

Moving towards true co-design

Ideas of collaboration, co-design and co-production are familiar to us all. They involve drawing in expertise, knowledge and perspectives from outside government to enrich policy processes in the way that I have been describing.

There is a spectrum of possible citizen involvement and engagement in policy formulation and decision-making.

One of the most interesting and potentially challenging parts of this is how we organise for the involvement of non-government actors and citizens in direct decision-making.

  • Can government adjust its mindset and ways of working, in order to find a way to overcome its risk aversion about such direct involvement?
  • Can those currently outside of government but within the public purpose sector reconcile their own particular or constituency interests (and the desire to advocate for those) with a broader goal to share expertise in seeking outcomes in the collective interest?
  • What are the collaborative governance mechanisms that enable direct engagement of stakeholders in collective decision-making processes that are formal, consensus-oriented and deliberative and that aim to make or implement public policy, or manage public programs or assets?
  • And where should we start in trialling these new ways of working toward a shared purpose and with shared accountability for products and goals?

I heard recently of a situation raising many of the issues I have been discussing.

It seems that a few years ago, in 2011-12, some possible issues with retail electricity were emerging. Before regulators or government policy-makers picked up on the problem, experts in some public purpose sector stakeholders (such as the Consumer Utilities Advocacy Centre and St Vincent de Paul) were identifying patterns in retailer behaviour that indicated issues with electricity pricing. These groups were ahead of the curve, and had they been engaged in a co-productive endeavour with government, could have worked with government to analyse data and feed into policy response.

This story highlights so many questions that must be confronted by governments and public purpose sector organisations, as we together grapple with the implications of open government and good government.

How do we ensure that data and information such as that about electricity retailer and consumer behaviour is available to be used and analysed, and then can be shared, across the whole of the public purpose sector?

How do we support the development of capabilities to capture and analyse such data and information across the public purpose sector?

How do we enable expertise such as that held by the Advocacy Centre and St Vincent’s to meaningfully inform policy and decision-making – not only when government chooses to consult with them, but when their expertise is most needed, such as here where they identified the problem themselves?

How are concerns addressed about actors’ capabilities and motivations to participate in decision-making processes based on collective interest rather than merely advocating for a narrower set of interests – especially when competing for government funding?

And how is accountability for delivering value and outcomes to be ensured in such a setting?

Going in another direction: greater personalisation, choice and competition in public services are a logical extension of open government philosophies and techniques. But should we actively encourage this – and if so, in what circumstances, and what are the implications for other public purpose sector actors such as advocacy centres and not for profit support providers?

The political context

Of course political appetite and sponsorship is important, as it is with any reform.

But open government ought to be non-partisan. Its objectives of transparency, participation and collaboration should be uncontentious, and its elements not associated with any particular political conviction. Ultimately, much like the components of a meaningful ‘good government’ program, open government is a matter of good public policy – not of politics or ideology.

I commenced by asking whether open government makes for good government. So, what is my answer?

In a nutshell, my answer is that open government is an important lens on the delivery of good government, and that it supports good government.

We have established some fundamental principles of good government, and so many of them align with those of open government: increased civic participation; integrated service interventions; transparency; and an improved economy strengthened by partnerships between industry, academia and government – if we do it right, the benefits will be greater than we can achieve alone.

And if we accept that good government necessarily involves the public purpose sector, then we need to be far more deliberate in understanding the implications of open government for that wider set of actors.

So for my part, guided by this understanding of the role that open government can play, I look forward to working with the public purpose sector in Victoria to pursue these questions as we strive to deliver good government for the public who we serve, and with whom we work in doing so.

This is an edited extract of a speech by Chris Eccles to the ANZSOG conference in Melbourne on Wednesday August 5, 2015.

Author Bio

Chris Eccles

Chris Eccles is currently secretary of the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet and head of the Victorian Public Service. He has held equivalent roles in the NSW and South Australian public services.