I’m one of the co-founders and the managing director of Code for Australia, but before that I worked in urban planning.
Urban planning is one of the most important professions today, as we now know the importance of designing our cities efficiently and inclusively. But urban planning is one of the most costly industries. In Victoria alone, the state spent over $100 million on a project that never got built.
Even though this project was a total disaster, there wasn’t a crisis team of extremely high-caliber professionals working around the clock for months to get it back on track. It was left idle.
This project is only the tip of the iceberg. Some 94% of all government IT projects that cost more than $10 million fail — either delivered late, over budget or flat don’t work.
Most of the time they affect communities with a lot more at stake and a lot less of a voice than we have. In Victoria two years ago, the state rolled out a new system that required people to enroll in unemployment benefits online. Only problem was, it didn’t work which prevented many people from receiving benefits in November and December 2013.
That cost $23 million.
Trust in government
A lot has been written lately about how far trust in government has fallen in the past decade or so. We live in a world where we expect to be able to do anything — conduct any transaction — from the palms of our hands. When citizens’ expectations and government capacity are increasingly so far apart, particularly around these basic social needs, it’s no wonder that people are starting to give up on government.
So, this is the problem we’re trying to solve at Code for Australia. How do you bridge the gap between the public’s expectations and governments’ ability to deliver? How do we help government make use of a revolutionary new toolset that is increasingly critical to the practice of governing?
It is an overwhelming problem, and we are a small non-profit. But we are extremely hopeful and we do believe government can work. But we can’t fix it if we’re relying on someone else to fix it for us. The Digital Transformation Office team, unfortunately, aren’t superheroes. They can’t respond to every government tech crisis, nor is that the point at which we should be addressing what’s broken.
GovHack and School Finder
Last year three amazing women joined us through our fellowship program to work with the city of Melbourne, Geelong and Ballarat. They had never worked in government before. Their role was to prepare three local governments to participate at Australia’s biggest annual hackathon, GovHack. And also show that men are not the only people into tech.
This fellowship was only researching government problems. No prototyping, no testing or building, just research. Two reasons why we did this:
- We wanted to show the importance of research to government through an entrepreneurial focus; and
- Improve GovHack.
In less than six weeks, Rosie, Alysha and Ruth helped open up over 280 datasets from local government, engaged with the community and industry and helped build four projects that are now open and available to any local government in Australia.
Another person who worked with us was Peter Welte, a software engineer from Portland, Oregon. During his fellowship he built a School Finder — an app to locate schools and other school related facilities in New South Wales. It’s a one-stop shop for schools and parents to share information, without having to spend too much time on Google.
In both stories you see examples of the kinds of problems and projects we tackle at Code for Australia. One theme you see across all of these projects is the scale and spread of these tools — they get built in one place and then the open source code is retrofitted to fit the local context in multiple other cities. But it’s not just the code or the apps that are spreading. It’s a new sensibility about how government can work, and a feeling that there’s something productive citizens can do to fix the problem.
Because if we want to fix what’s broken, it’s on us. It’s what’s required to make democracy work again. I hope you’ll join us.
Alvaro Maz will speak on “reigniting civic responsibility through improved accessibility to government services” at the Data Analytics for Effective Decision-making conference this July. Book your place by May 20 to save $400.