How government can adapt to 'exponential times'

By Stephen Easton

May 9, 2018

David Bray

Real leadership is a delicate balance between meeting expectations and using innovation to go beyond them, says celebrity super-geek and former US government mandarin David Bray.

One distinguishing feature of Malcolm Turnbull’s public service review is its focus on adapting to the social and economic consequences of accelerating technological change.

Public sector management in these “exponential times” is a particular passion for David Bray, who has held several senior United States government roles and now makes his living as a kind of management futurist, dispensing wisdom on topics like technology, security and disaster resilience.

Speaking at a conference in Canberra recently, the celebrity super-geek urged public servants to get their heads around the staggering pace and scale of change in the fourth industrial revolution and become “positive change agents” who embrace the unrelenting upheaval.

Futurists like Bray strongly believe profound social and economic changes are occurring, driven by exponential growth in computer processing power, data storage and the number of connections between devices. He sees the growing portability, power and affordability of such devices around the world and rapid advances in intelligent software breaking down borders and empowering individuals to either contribute strongly to the public good, or sabotage it in very serious ways.

He has a list of impressive estimates he likes to rattle off to illustrate the point. There are now more than a billion web servers and about four zetabytes (4 billion terabytes) of computer data worldwide, he said. By 2013 there were about as many network devices as people on the planet — roughly 7 billion — and this doubled to around 14 billion in less than two years.

Bray expects this number will have grown to “anywhere between 75 and 300 billion” by 2022, he said in a recent speech at the Public Sector Innovation Show. “So that raises massive questions about privacy, civil liberties and how we’re going to address that as a public sector, and how we’re going to work in this era of interconnected things,” he added.

In 2022 Bray says the number of people online will have doubled to 7 billion, and there will be 96 zetabytes of information stored in computer memory. “Which, according to some, is actually more data than all eyes on the face of the planet see in a year, or twice all the conversations we’ve ever had as a species,” he adds. “Just to give you a sense of the change.”

In this world, he argues, efficiency is no longer the most important priority for government, but has been overtaken by the need for technological agility and cyber resilience.

Government needs to catch up

Bray sees government itself as “an increasingly quaint 20th century idea”, but many of his ideas about how it must change are already well known to the Australian public sector and will almost certainly come up in the review.

These included a list of familiar favourites, most of which APS leaders ostensibly already support — ideas like increasing collaboration with citizens, the private sector and other organisations; less risk aversion and more tolerance of failure; using agile development and quickly producing “minimum viable products” where possible.

Bray did not present agile product development as something new, however. It is nearing 20 years old, he pointed out, arguing it is clearly applicable in some areas of the public sector and its slow adoption represents years of missed opportunity.

“None of us knows what tomorrow will bring,” said Bray. “We live in an increasingly rapidly changing world — one might say an increasingly turbulent world — and so we in public service can’t say, ‘Wait, hold on until we have the final release of this product.’”

“We have to embrace doing minimum viable products but I recognise that’s challenging … and so we’re going to actually have to figure out, what are the things we can experiment on? What are the things that have to run on time, and what are the things where we can actually have a minimum viable product and see what we can do?

“And if you’re not thinking about that balanced portfolio, you should be.”

He believes real leadership is a delicate balance between meeting the standard expectations and going beyond them, by coming up with new ideas in response to changing circumstances. As well as the ability to rapidly turn out new digital tools and products, this vision typically includes experimentation and a tolerance for failure greater than is usually present in the public sector.

Even so, consumers generally accept that computer software is always a constant work in progress and if there’s a bug or a missing feature, they might have to wait for the next update. Government agencies — where appropriate — should be able to operate more like this, according to commentators like Bray, who has worked in key roles for the US Federal Communications Commission and as technology chief for bioterrorism preparedness over his diverse career.

This is also a point many others including the PM have made in the past (when he was Communications Minister, Turnbull spoke in favour of giving public servants more space to experiment at the launch of The Mandarin in 2014, for example). But in practice ministers seem more risk-averse than ever, in response to the 24-hour news cycle and social media.

To illustrate this point, Bray used the story of a young naval officer who was court-martialled, found guilty of “neglect” and reprimanded for running his ship aground in 1908, but allowed to continue with his career. The officer, Chester Nimitz, then went on to become a five-star admiral and play a crucial role in World War Two. Bray questioned what would happen if the same thing occurred now, 100 years later, in the era of Twitter and Facebook.

“His boss and his boss’s boss would probably have been called before Congress and they would have all been drummed out and we could have lost a future five-star admiral,” he said.

“Unfortunately with the 24/7 news cycle and the internet, while it does make us more transparent, it unfortunately makes everyone more ‘armchair quarterbacks’ and I often say, we the public deserve the government we get.

“We don’t allow for experimentation, and we don’t allow for people to learn from their mistakes. Don’t be surprised if we’re recruiting for risk-averse behaviour.”

Competitions and crowdsourcing

In this new era, it is imperative for government to build new relationships, which allow people and organisations to participate more in the process. In Bray’s view, the flipside to the increasing ability of hostile non-state actors to cheaply develop capabilities that were previously only available to nation-states is that technology also allows large organisations to harness digitally empowered individuals for the public good, but governments have been slow to take this up.

“So, what are some things we can do in this new era? First and foremost we need to recognise that the public is hungry to remix data,” the futurist advised. “Now, we talk about pushing out data to people, but do we talk about how we can actually do open data and allow people to send data back to us?”

One area where this is beginning to happen is in disaster preparedness, with crowdsourced analysis of open-source satellite images, for example.

“We may be — in terms of public service, if we are short-staffed — able to provide images and see if people can make sense of them and help that inform us,” he explained. “And at the FCC, when I was there, we actually crowdsourced this speed-test app to allow people, if they wanted, to voluntarily test their broadband speed and then share that data to help inform policymaking.”

Crowdsourcing is another example of an old concept that has been accelerated by the digital revolution. Running a competition has always been a good way to come up with a name, or even something more complex like the design of Canberra, but the growth and spread of powerful yet affordable digital technology has vastly increased the possibilities for what the crowd can do.

Take note of the growing “maker” movement, Bray advises, but also realise that governments cannot take public support for granted: “The public is hungry to get involved, if we can build trust.”

In a practical, technological sense, he suggests this can be accomplished by things like simple, fair terms and conditions that are short and readable, or open-source software that allows people to independently verify that “privacy by design” has been built in.

Turnbull first tried to face up to these kinds of challenges with the establishment of the Digital Transformation Agency, an attempt to emulate the United Kingdom’s approach, but his technology-focused APS review has a much wider remit and the opportunity, at least, to be a much more radical and influential force for public sector reform in an era of exponential change and, potentially, a fundamental reordering of the relationship between the individual and society.

Of course, there’s been a lot of public service reviews, reports and reform proposals over the years, often promoting transformation and adapability, so whatever agenda emerges from Turnbull’s addition might have to overcome a growing sense of change fatigue. It’s hard to see many public servants believing this will be the next big thing since the Coombs royal commission, as the Prime Minister boldly suggested.

On the other hand, perhaps mandarins need to stop worrying about the need to carefully manage change and avoid generating a feeling of weariness and cycnicism among staff. Instead, they could promote the idea that constant change is the new normal, as New South Wales Finance secretary Martin Hoffman suggested in a speech last year.

“We [in the public sector] allow too much of the dialogue of concern about change fatigue,” Hoffman said. “In 23 years in the private sector I never heard that phrase. Yet we debate it constantly in our organisations.”

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