Citizen-centric services: A necessary principle for achieving genuine open government

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011 @ 6:45PM

Below is a speech given by Senator Kate Lundy at the Citizen Centric Service Delivery 2011 conference on March 1st 2011.

Open Government can mean many things. It relates to accessible and transparent data, the extent government engages citizens in decision making and the accessibility of government itself.

With the increases in Internet access in Australia,  significant growth in online social networking and the growth of Web and Gov 2.0 applications, we are seeing governments everywhere innovating with new methods of service delivery.

In Australia, we have particular strength on which to build online services and open government, and that is the National Broadband Network. The NBN will close the digital divide in Australia and with this prospect in front of us, the impetus to invest and innovate with Gov 2.0 and citizen-centric services in a digital environment is heightened.

With this in mind, I believe there to be three pillars of Open Government. These are Citizen-Centric services, Democratising Data and Participatory Government

Pillar 1: Citizen-Centric Services

Imagine a government experience that adapts to you and your circumstances: clear, seamless, integrated services that are both compellingly easy to use, always up to date and with a look and feel suited to your taste and comfort zone.

Citizen-centric services are not obscured or cluttered by the multi-layered complexities of government structures designed in some cases a century ago, and certainly in a pre-digital era.

Citizen-centric services deliver a tailored service to the degree of personal detail and relevance determined by how much information the citizen is willing to provide. Concerns about privacy can be addressed and managed by this permission-based approach to personal service: the more information the citizen is willing to share, the more personalised the service delivery can be.

Today, although there are several government departments and agencies that have incredibly innovative and intuitive online interfaces to their services and information, the fact remains that citizens have to go searching and often have to interact with several spheres of government as well as different agencies before they find what they are looking for.

It is unreasonable for us to expect all citizens to understand the complexities and structures of government service delivery. While the structures of government ought to be transparent, they should not determine the navigation and access pathway for citizens seeking a service. This approach is inside out. Whilst the organisational challenge is significant, the technology definititely exists.

We should ask ourselves:

a) what are the whole of government (and across spheres of government) information management policies that allow this level of integration and introperability, and

b) how can agencies and departments work collaboratively to deliver these information and service needs in a way that is seamless and simple for citizens.

As a practical example, let’s imagine a young mum and dad with a young child and one on the way who have just moved to rural New South Wales. They might be looking for a local parents group, the local hospital, the local childcare options available to them, and they will need to register for paid parental leave. They want to know about the schools, the sports clubs and employment opportunities.

If they could go to a single website, put in their postcode, or ages, their family situation, or indeed any other information they feel comfortable to share, then receive all the information from all spheres of government that applies to them in that geographic location, then the service is far more personalised and meaningful without personal identity having been shared.

This  may sound unreachable, given the complexities of sharing data, of interfacing with different technologies, and the unfortunate silo mentality and processes which are embedded within a lot of government departments and agencies, but I put to you that it is our job in government to serve the needs of citizens as best we can, and when it comes to creating truly citizen-centric services, the technology already exists.

Like a bespoke suit or haute couture, online government services ought to fit the circumstances of each individual perfectly, every time.  I want to flag the importance of understand the role that location-based organisation has. I will come back to the central place that geospatial data has in improving citizen-centric services.

In Australia we have several important policies relating to citizen-centric services and some world-leading examples.

We have accepted the recommendations of the Gov2.0 Taskforce. I know Dr Gruen, who chaired this taskforce is speaking tomoorw so i will leave the detail to him.

The Report about the future of the Australian Public Service, (Ahead of the Game), provides recommendations about combining services and information from different agencies and levels of government for a single point of access, as well an ensuring we have a skilled public sector workforce able to deliver.

Another related policy is the government response to the Gershon Report which reviewed the use of ICT in government, called the ICT Reform Program. This reform program requires a renewed focus on innovation, energy efficiency through Green ICT, costs savings on business as usual ICT expenditure.

The ICT Reform Program was a sharp reminder of the critical role that ICT procurement policy and practice has in determining the public sector’s capacity to innovate. Just consider for a moment the inhibiting effect that long term contracts with pre-programmed refreshes for hardware and software has on doing things in a new and different way. We need a system of ICT procurement that is nimble, open to all competitors and based on open standards and interoperability.

Current legacy systems and the associated inhibiting effect narrowly defined contracts prescribing proprietary, licensed software  have on innovation is a disincentive. Innovation should be cheaper and more efficient, not requiring expensive variations to contracts. If it costs more to innovate becasue of the way in which we procure ICT, then the policy settings need to change.

One forward looking example of citizen centric services is a Federal Government initiative called Australia.gov.au. This is a website where citizens create a login where they can share as much or as little information as they wish, and they get a single sign-account on to multiple government agencies, depending on what you choose to link in. It is still in the early stages, but it’s a visionary project. Currently the agencies within Human Services are linked in, with more planned.

Another practical example of citizen-centric services is Centrelink’s online profile management system. People receiving benefits can manage their information, post status updates and other reporting information, and track their payments and progress. The transparency and interactivity for users of this system means better quality service delivery as well as the improved trust and cooperation of users.

Here are some more examples of innovation in Gov.2.0

1. The Economic Stimulus Plan website is where citizens can search by location all the government stimulus projects in their area along with the project status and other information. This has been an important part of communicating to the public the projects funded by the government in their local area.

2. MySchool is a Federal Government initiative to make available to parents information about schools in their area, including the ability to determine how the schools do against the national average and with comparative schools.

3. The Powehouse Museum’s Augmented Reality application Layar, where people can compare and contrast the new and old around Sydney by presenting the user with archived images of whatever building and street they are currently looking at from the museum’s extensive collection. It uses geo-location data to access the historic images and provides them to mobile devices.

This example highlights the relevance of geo-locational data. Mapping tools bring substance to the meaning of what is genuinely “local” from a citizens point of view.

From a service delivery perspective, geo-coding service location is essential. The visualisation of data, overlaid with mapping tools form the basis of many data mash-ups. I firmly believe that the combination of census, statistical and service location data and mapping tools will continue to rise in relevance for policy making, and importantly finessing or tailoring policy to suit specific communities’ needs.

Tailoring policy and programs to suit the particular demographic attributes of geographic communities will emerge as not only possible, but demanded by those communities. This is only possible with the granular analysis that new mash-ups of data already are  illustrating.

These mash-ups are facilitiated by the next pillar of open government, democratising data.

Pillar 2: Democratising Data

Democratising Data is about recognising that government data is a public resource.  It can facilitate both public and private innovation. Opening up government data is not just a matter of publishing a few pdfs. It is about ensuring that at the point of creation, government data is assumed to be destined for public release, unless there is a specific reason not to.

This means from creation:

  • data should have a permissible copyright license such as Creative Commons,
  • data should be stored in an open data format such that it is not locked into a specific product or technology,
  • data should be machine readable so that people can create applications that can use the data for new services or analysis,
  • there should be a strategy for whether and how to keep the data set up to date, and how updates should be published,
  • data should include useful metadata such as date of creation, author, any geospatial information, keywords, to ensure the data is able to be re-purposed on other ways such as by plotting the data on a map.

Taking these approaches is easier said than done. This represents a big change in attitude, culture and practice. It means a pro-disclosure approach where the default is to publish. It means that changes need to be made at the point of creation of a document, not as a secondary process where the human resources needed to comply make open government prohibitively expensive.

The Australian Government has put the democratisation of government data high on the agenda, with the first significant step being the passage of the Freedom of Information Amendment (Reform) Bill 2010 and the Information Commissioner Bill 2010 early last year.

This Act builds a strong foundation for more openness in government through a default position of pro-disclosure and bringing forward the archive release dates of the different types of official records by a substantial amount.

Both the Report about the future of the Australian Public Service report (Ahead of the Game) and the Gov 2.0 Taskforce Report have strong recommendations about opening up public sector information and data sets. They put forward practical ways that government can facilitate and encourage the use, reuse and mashups of government data sets.

Another Australian example in this space was the Mashup Australia initiative. This was a series of events supported by the Gov 2.0 Taskforce that saw individuals from all over the country come together for a few days to innovate with government data sets, creating new and at times fascinating applications, comparisons, visualisations and demonstrations of information.

For instance, one team combined data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, New South Wales Crime Data, Powerhouse Museum Collection, the State Records Office of New South Wales and the State Library of New South Wales to create an application called “Know where you live”. After entering your postcode or zipcode, you are presented with a rich collection of information, images, and comparative data about your suburb.

There is a showcase of Gov 2.0 projects in Australia, and I urge you to check it out.

Finally we are seeing more and more government data released under permissive copyright licences, and in useful formats for people to use and mashup up. Many government document and cultural assets have been released under a Creative Commons licence, and in fact only last year we released our first Creative Commons By Attribution licensed Federal Budget, which is a world first and something we are very proud of.

It is also worth mentioning that there are many community-led Gov 2.0 initiatives in Australia. For instance, OpenAustralia is a fantastic project that makes Federal Parliamentary knowledge highly accessible, subscribable, commentable and generally open to the public for scrutiny.

In many cases the non-government, not for profit sector innovates in advance of thepublic sector, initiating cretive tension to which the public sector responds. Here are some more examples:

  • Data.gov.au is the new home of publicly accessible government datasets in Australia, and is being rapidly ramped up as part of the Gov 2.0 agenda in Australia.
  • The Australian Parliamentary website will be completely relaunched first half of this year and it has already been put under a Creative Commons licence, which is a world first for such an institution, and a huge congratulations to Roxanne Missingham and all her team for making this happen.
  • ABC Open is an exciting new project to engage regional Australians in creating, sharing and collaborating with the ABC – our public broadcasting organisation – to help truly localise information for all Australians.
  • As well as the national Mashup Australia initiative driven by the Gov 2.0 Taskforce, we have several state governments creating their own open data and mashup competitions. Apps4nsw is a New South Wales state competition to encourage and rewards citizens to create apps with public sector data. AppMyState is a similar Victoria Government competition focused on mobile and web applications.
  • Trove is a project in Australia to search for cultural assets. It pulls together the work of many cultural institutions to digitise and make available online a wealth of cultural assets such as old newspapers, maps, photos and much more.
  • The National Archives of Australia have led the world in sustainable archival with the Xena project, where they developed a methodology and the software (which they Open Sourced) to preserve items, append appropriate metadata, and convert the items to an appropriate open standard to ensure future access to the knowledge.

There are also a rapidly growing number of community initiatives in this space where individuals have innovated with government data, including:

  • Open Australia– Aggregating and making more accessible our Parliamentary records.
  • Got Gastro – A community project mapping the New South Wales Food Authority’s name-and-shame lists
  • Australian politicians on Twitter – includes differentiation between fake and real Australian politician Twitter accounts.

Pillar 3: Participatory Democracy

Finally, the third pillar is Participatory Democracy. This pillar is about the proactive engagement with citizens such that their perspectives and experiences can inform and improve policy outcomes. Participatory government has always been there with consultation with citizens and stakeholders a strong feature of mature democracies.

This pillar is about engaging citizens collaboratively in the development, design and implementation of government policy.  The web and social networking has provided new ways do this and citizens are exploring the opportunities with enthusiasm.

Policies can be developed and designed with an improved capacity to adapt to changing circumstances. This is crowd-sourcing at it’s most constructive: applied, purposeful and outcome oriented. The challenge for us all, including government, is to channel this goodwill and energy into the public interest.

Once again the Gov 2.0 Taskforce Report has inspired the Report about the future of the Australian Public Service report (Ahead of the Game) with both reports making specific reference to the public sector being more engaging with citizens online.

Imagine how much we could achieve if our public servants were able to engage online within their official job descriptions. Citizens would engage in the environments they are comfortable with, be it Facebook, Twitter or the next big thing. To recognise and reward public servants engaging online will also inspire them.

Other recommendations included ensuring all publicly funded inquiries are more interactive with submissions posted online in a searchable format that can be commented on, recognising and rewarding Gov 2.0 public sector innovation, and creating the support mechanisms necessary for successful online engagement.

The Gov 2.0 Taskforce was notable for its consultation method being very public and participatory from the first day of their activities. The report itself was drafted, commented on, and published completely openly, under the leadership of Dr Nick Gruen.

The Gov 2.0 Taskforce was launched at an experimental public policy development initiative from my own office called Public Sphere.

In collaboration with my ICT policy advisor Pia Waugh, I wanted to give form and substance to how we could incorporate the best elements of online and offline consultation methods, to create a truly open, accessible, transparent and collaborative process for policy development and recommendations to government. Our last consultation experimented with multiple “remote nodes” simultaneously contributing, which again makes participation online and in person more scalable.

It must be said that the key to the success of the Public Spheres has been the incredible effort and enthusiasm from the volunteers who helped, and the community who contributed. By coordinating public policy consultations in collaboration with some of the people most passionate about the topics, we had an incredible swell of interest, support and participation. Community development is a vital part of any collaboration.

Using existing social networking tools in an applied way and open source community methods to make the Public Spheres work so well.

We have fully documented each Public Sphere (this links to the write-up of the Gov2.0 public sphere) we’ve run, from both an outcomes and methodology perspective and I’m proud to say that we’ve already seen several Australian universities pick up the process. The Australian Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy did a major broadband consultation late 2009 where we coordinated 5 remote node consultations that significantly contributed to the online consultation.

Below are some additional examples that you can read up on:

  • YourHealth.gov.au was a consultation by the Australia Federal Department of Health and Aging to invite individuals to contribute their thoughts and experiences of the Australian health system.
  • Future Melbourne was a comprehensive consultation where people were invited to participate in the design and strategy of the future shapre of their city. It was done by the Melbourne City Council and combined a wiki, discussion forums, video and other online tools.
  • Back in 2009, the National Human Rights Consultation was a great example of public consultation by the Australian Human Rights Commissions.

Conclusion

Australia is facing some big challenges. We have citizens here and around the world now more connected than ever. Using social networks and open govenment strategies to help government to access the ideas and inputs of citizens, the “wisdom of the crowd” will helo governments make better informed decisions and deliver better targetted programs.

We will only achieve true citizen-centric services if collaboration between agencies and departments is the reality.  I am firmly of the view that open data strategies are a necessary pre-requisite to achieving a seamless and simple online interaction for citizens with government.

It is going to take a lot of effort, but with much of the policy and legislative ground work already done, you are all able to take the next steps towards a more citizen-centric approach to service delivery, in collaboration with your peers throughout government.

Thank you.

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