Making GovHack (and open government) more impactful


With the kind of evaluation that the public sector applies to its own endeavours, the annual hackathon that creates new uses for government open datasets could become much more impactful.

I’ve finally attended the GovHack weekend. As a dad, weekends used to be for taking kids to birthday parties and soccer games. But my boys have grown up, giving me the chance to see how GovHack compares to the Open Source communities I’ve been involved with for decades. I wanted to see what each can learn from the other and signed up as a coach.

GovHack is an annual event where volunteers band together for 48 hours to write applications with Open Government data. Participants compete for prizes for the most innovative and useful applications. It has grown every year since it started in 2009, attracting thousands of volunteers, running in 36 locations across Australia and New Zealand, and attracted numerous sponsors and an excessive list of open government datasets. Credit must go to the organisers for creating such a sustainable winning formula. But lets ask some tough questions and hopefully help GovHack become more impactful in future?

What is the point of GovHack?

What is the point of GovHack? It wasn’t obvious from looking at the main website, but I found an answer buried in the GovHack 2016 Year in Review:

In his opening address, Craig Laundy, the Assistant Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science highlighted that open data was one of the keys to the Australian Government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda. He read a letter from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull which paid the following tribute to Govhack:

“Data without ingenuity is like a lamp without power – only when the two are connected do opportunities to innovate become clear. This is why GovHack is so important.”

Recommendation 1: We should be clear about the purpose and value of GovHack. We should prominently promote messages like “GovHack aims to contribute to the government’s Innovation Agenda by encouraging and facilitating ingenuity with government’s open data.”

Is GovHack enabling Innovation?

So how successful has GovHack been at enabling innovation? It’s hard to say really. The 2016 Year in Review provides plenty of details about numbers of participants, datasets used, awards, VIP presenters, red carpet events, but there is barely a mention of how successful GovHack has been at enabling innovation. The best I could find was a passing mention of an “IP Nova App” which started in GovHack 2015. I’ve since been told about a couple of others. But the point is that we are measuring how busy everyone is, and how much buzz is being created, but completely failing to report the impact on innovation.

Recommendation 2: Let’s measure and report on the realised innovation resulting from GovHack. Let’s then assess results and work out ways to improve GovHack’s impact on innovation.

Maturing ideas is hard work

Why is it hard to find reports of GovHack ideas progressing into sustained initiatives? I can’t say for sure, but suspect very few GovHack ideas actually grow into something. The simple truth is that good software takes substantial effort to design, write, test, deploy and maintain. While a 48 hour GovHack is useful for brainstorming ideas, it stills requires significant follow up if it is to mature into something useful. And here we notice the difference between Open Source Code Sprints and GovHack. On completion of Code Sprints, there are established and experienced communities committed to adopting and advancing worthy ideas. Who in the GovHack community is offering to help take good ideas through to maturity? I don’t see such support mentioned in GovHack web pages.

Recommendation 3: GovHack sponsors’ should aim to realise true value by helping to mature innovative ideas into reality.

The majority of people I saw in the Sydney GovHack appeared to be University students or recent graduates. For these young people, GovHack provides a great practical learning experience, some mentoring, and an opportunity to network. However I couldn’t help feeling there was an level of exploitation of these young volunteers. Government agencies are gaining significant value from volunteers testing their datasets, something that would cost orders of magnitude more if implemented internally. Morally, I feel these agencies should give more than a free meal and a chance to share in a prize. A good symbiotic relationship would hopefully consider providing more value for our young community.

Recommendation 4: Sponsors should consider formally setting up cadetships or project development opportunities as awards.

Sydney GovHack 2017

How good is the data?

Integrating data into innovative web or mobile applications typically should follow standard design patterns, with data published through a web service, then processed, integrated, and presented in innovative ways. Ideally government agencies should make data really easy to use, setting up data web services and providing clear documentation and examples. Instead teams were spending much of their GovHack time setting up the infrastructure to publish this data rather than spending their time being innovative.

It is worth being reminded of one of The Australian Digital Transformation Agency Design Principles:

Principle 4. Do the hard work to make it simple.

Making something look simple is easy. Making something simple to use is much harder – especially when the underlying systems are complex – but that’s what we should be doing. Don’t take “It’s always been that way” for an answer. It’s usually more and harder work to make things simple, but it’s the right thing to do.

Recommendation 5: Government should define a best practices guide for publishing data services, and then follow this guide.

How does government know if they are doing a good job? Ruthless survival of the fittest principles apply to Open Source and market economies. People don’t buy substandard products. Only the best Open Source projects attract communities. Again, refer to the DTA design principles:

Principle 5. Iterate. Then iterate again.

The best way to build good services is to start small and iterate wildly. Release minimum viable products early and test them with actual users; move from Alpha to Beta to Live adding features, deleting things that don’t work and making refinements based on feedback. Iteration reduces risk: it makes big failures unlikely and turns small failures into lessons. If a prototype isn’t working, don’t be afraid to scrap it and start again.

Recommendation 6: Agencies should measure the usability and usefulness of their datasets, assess and adjust accordingly. GovHack provides an opportunity to measure these metrics.

How good are we are implementing Open Government?

And so I come to my most pointed point, which was recorded as a video for my GovHack contribution:


Australia has embraced great policies around Open Government. These describe how openness and collaboration enable innovation. However, the practical implementation of these open principles have proven elusively difficult, with reported success stories coming from a few charismatic champions rather than being systemic across all government.

Why is that? Well, it’s complicated. There is a wealth of established wisdom, spread across the domains of Open Source Software, Open Standards, Open Data, Open Government, and more. However, we still lack clear and definitive guides which draws all this wisdom together into practical playbooks which can be easily applied by government agencies. Instead, current government practices and guidelines regularly hinder collaboration. Let’s fix that.

Recommendation 7: Let’s build an Open Government Playbook.

Let’s document the subtle magic which makes open and collaborative communities work.

This Playbook should cover technology, processes, governance, leadership, business paradigms, and ethics. It should be written in simple language, designed to support decision makers, architects, implementers and citizens to understand open principles.

Could GovHack be more impactful?

Acknowledging that GovHack runs impressively efficiently and has attracted a huge ground swell of interest and momentum, could we make it more impactful? I think we can. We should remind ourselves of the Open Government and GovHack goal of promoting innovation. We should measure innovation enabled and adjust accordingly. Adjustments will likely include aligning more closely with Open Source development practices.

Cameron Shorter is a Geospatial Programs Manager and Open Source developer.

  • Nicholas Gruen

    Great post Cameron.

    • Steve Jenkin

      Nick (or Dr Nick?),
      I was surprised that an economist / researcher of your high standing would look at & compliment a humble “Open Source” post.

      Then I checked your Discus profile…
      You’ve been doing “open data” for a very long time.
      Anything of & about “Gov Hack” is right in your wheelhouse :)

      Kaggle is amazing. These are real tools & real datasets – backed with training/courses – right there for the general public.
      https://www.kaggle.com

      Thanks for taking the time to monitor the field and personally encourage people.

  • Steve Jenkin

    Cameron’s “playbook’ idea is exceeding good. I wish it well.

    I could only find on-line “AGOSP” (Australian Government Online Service Point), not Jack’s AGOSSP acronym.
    [Jack says That would be the “Australian Government Open Source Software Policy”, available at:
    https://www.finance.gov.au/sites/default/files/australian-government-open-source-software-policy-2013.pdf

    A partial answer to Cameron’s video comments on implementing “Open Govt” principles:

    – there is no direct or measurable reward or benefit to IT workers or managers, so why would they waste time & effort on it?

    – Government agencies are almost universally isolated, iconoclastic silos with limited migration and no contact with other IT Depts and often with other internal IT groups. The frontline troops never get to see things ‘done better’ or experience the benefits of collaboration.

    The DTA’s (Digital Transformation Agency) “Principles” are great, they cannot be faulted, but by themselves are just more words.

    IMHO, they lack the organisational motivators and processes to create real, lasting change.

    A Cultural Change required is to add “Open Source” to the “Nobody ever got fired for buying ….” (IBM, Oracle, Microsoft, ….)

    You’ll know the DTA has done its job when its normal practice for frontline staff to first ask “what’s the Open Source product most used for this?”

    I’ve yet to see an IT Dept where the staff aren’t frantically busy and don’t feel constantly overloaded.

    There’s ‘no time’ to fix things or address “out of scope issues” – they are mostly too busy fighting brushfires to find & fix the flamethrower creating them.

    Bringing up topics like “Professionalism”, “Quality” and “Improvement” with workers is only met with groans – they’ve had repeated bad experiences with “Management by Fad” and aren’t interested in anything that gets in the way or slows them in meeting the latest deadline.

    “Quality” is often confused with “massive bureaucratic processes” and used to beat-up on people or to shift blame. (“you signed off on this, you’re at fault not me”)

    A wider view:

    For 10-15 years, I was “parachuted in” to these environments and developed a personal process described in “Digging Out” (Turning around challenged Technical Projects/Environments) if anyone is interested.

    If you think these problems are limited to Government, or any level of Government, you’re wrong.

    This is right across the Industry.

    I found the worst dysfunction in the private sector, both large and small.

    Increasingly we’re seeing businesses fail, including large Enterprises, because of their I.T.

    Either directly like “OneTel” where the billing system lost call-records leading to massive unbilled ‘receivables’ & collapse,

    or like TNT, which eviscerated its I.T. Dept and destroyed the operational efficiency & capacity of its core business units, spiralling down to collapse.

    The worst example I saw of I.T. Systems problems was a not-for-profit of 40-50 people. The next step for them was complete failure and they were close: there was a 2 day outage (no work by anyone in the org) because a single drive failed on a critical system, which was also out of support, that wasn’t noticed or replaced in over six months. There no in-house expertise in that O/S nor any rebuild/recover documentation, nor a useful bare-metal recovery image.

    regards
    steve jenkin

    • Cameron Shorter

      Hi Steve,

      Yes, the Australian Government Open Source [1] policy makes powerful statements around using Open Source, and the Australian Digital Services Standard includes: “8. Make source code open” [2]. And yet, government has a poor record at adopting Open Source. As you point out, open collaborative practices have an up front cost to achieve a long term, cross-community benefit. Regularly, the techies who understand this don’t have the power to change things, and the leaders who have the power to change things don’t understand or trust the techies. The aim of building an Open Government Playbook is to help bridge this divide.

      Warm regards, Cameron Shorter

      [1] https://www.finance.gov.au/sites/default/files/australian-government-open-source-software-policy-2013.pdf

      [2] https://www.dta.gov.au/standard/8-make-source-code-open/

  • Jack Burton

    Nicely put Cameron, you raise some good points. Your first four recommendations in particular should make a substantial difference to GovHack itself (#1 to quantity of participants, the next three to quality of outcomes), if implemented.

  • Jack Burton

    I’m in two minds about your R5 (and the text leading up to it) through — personally I see benefit, rather than detriment, in diversity of APIs (including protocols & standards for data access), as healthy competition tends to foster innovation (and whilst the goal here is clearly to encourage innovation in the use of open data, why not foster innovation in how it’s published too?) … but I agree with you 100% on the importance of having clear documentation for them.

    • Cameron Shorter

      Hi Jack,

      Re: “Recommendation 5: Government should define a best practices guide for publishing data services, and then follow this guide.” I agree I’ve over-simplified this statement. 80% of innovative ideas involving maps on the web or phones can be easily implemented using best practice Open Geospatial Web Services Standards (and associated Open Source Software). With preliminary effort from Government agencies, we can make this use case easy for implementer. For the remaining 20% of innovative ideas, there should always be the space to challenge the rules.

  • Jack Burton

    Whilst more general in scope, your R6 & R7 seem well worth pursuing too.

    I’m particularly interested in your R7 (and again the text leading up to it). There is some commonality between your reasons for calling for a playbook (in relation to open government initiatives specifically) and some of the comments that Carl Holden & I made in our public submission [1] to PM&C in January (in relation to software in government generally).

    Clearly it’s high time to replace the ageing (and rather toothless) Australian Government Open Source Software Policy — and I don’t see any reason why its replacement could not speak to community based initiatives like GovHack, along the lines you suggest here, in addition to embodying procurement policy & process reforms such as some of those that Carl & I suggested.

    [1] Available at https://safecoms.com.au/publications.html

  • This is spot on, and applies equally to regular hackathons. Aside from the fun and learning experienced at the actual event, there is often no tangible legacy, and the steps outlined here would go a long way towards addressing that.

  • Ole Nielsen

    Good article and I like the playbook idea. Since you already referred to the DTA I would include references to Design Principle 10 as well: Make things open: it makes things better. Also item 8 in the https://www.dta.gov.au/standard/ specifically supports the case for Open Source.

    • Cameron Shorter

      Yes Ole,

      Re “10. Make things open: it makes things better” [1]. This is partly true. Sustainable value is realised when the open product is USED, and an a community of users builds around the product. So we should extend the DTA Design Principles to describe the value of collaboration, and how to assess the return-on-investment from building a collaborative community.

      [1] https://www.dta.gov.au/standard/design-principles/#make-things-open-it-makes-things-better

  • Thanks for this, Cameron – some great points :)

    The GovHack NZ team has already been working on all of these for some years now, although I’d say that our aim is a little wider than simply “promoting innovation” :)

    And while I like the idea of the playbook, I think much more than that is needed – transforming large organisations completely is never going to be that easy. One needs strong buy-in at all levels, a willingness to take chances – while not succumbing to the often-nonsensical and, in govt, very dangerous Silicon Valley mantra of “move fast and break things” – and share information, resourcing (ie $$), etc.

    For example, NZ has an open data toolkit, and there are numerous open data playbooks, and people are still working globally to improve open data comfort, practise and knowledge in government. The same goes for open government playbooks :)

    https://codeforaotearoa.github.io/

    I think it’s well worth not falling for the “not made here” fallacy, and looking all over to see what works, what doesn’t, and adapting as necessary.

    [Disclaimer: I’m one of the national leads for GovHack NZ]

    • Cameron Shorter

      Hi Aimee,

      Great points, would love to see them expanded. You are spot on re “not reinventing the wheel”. Any Open Government Playbook should go by the mantra of “Use, Extend, Developer – in that order”. We should be making it easy to find the best practices, and promoting these best practices into official documents which can be easily found, referenced and applied.

      Thanks for you comments, it is great to see a GovHack national lead chiming in on this debate.

  • stevebennett

    Good comments. I’ve been in this space for quite a while, three times as a participant, and this year as government open data manager.

    Rec 1: agreed, the purpose is confused. GovHack seems to work ok for promoting open data, and motivating agencies to release data (see http://public.tableau.com/views/Opencouncildatagrowth/Councilopendatajourneys), and for building local developer communities. I just don’t think the purpose is to directly create new projects/products (“innovation”), and it’s somewhat disingenuous for anyone to sell it that way.

    Rec 2: the design of GovHack (let developers build whatever they want for 2 days, then judge them on the video they produce) is IMHO destined to produce neither interesting concepts (which would require facilitated ideation, deep engagement with problem owners) nor solid outputs (which would require incentives for high quality deliverables, specific goals, etc). Instead, it produces shakey implementations of shallow concepts, which usually aren’t usable or even testable. To achieve any kind of direct impact in this area would require a significant redesign of the event.

    Rec 3/4: agreed, internships, incubators and other forms of collaboration would make an enormous difference. Code for Australia could be a valuable partner here. Not sure I agree about “exploitation”, sometimes it feels the opposite: huge amounts of prize money available for modest effort. (Speaking as someone who picked up close to $5k in a weekend once.)

    Rec 5/6: There is plenty of work being done in this space already, and the recommendations from the Productivity Commission’s report will only further strengthen it.