Wednesday, October 26, 2016

On the value of open data

by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

I spent the first week of October not going to the International Open Data Conference in Madrid. We lucked out, hosting it in Ottawa last year - it's the annual meet-up, stock-take, and direction-setting for a potent concept in modern governance (that is, not a new concept, but modern from an implementation point of view). Namely, that governments should be releasing the research, data, and briefing documents that underpin public decisions. When we specifically refer to open data, it's about the datasets - rows and columns of values - that governments collect, create, and draw on, and releasing them in machine-readable formats.That is, a stack of paper doesn't work; people outside government get to work with, crunch, and analyze the data too.

Alex Howard, a stalwart of the open data scene who works with the Sunlight Foundation, laid out a fantastic overview of both the conference and the state of the open data "movement." I have one point of disagreement, though. Howard writes:

"the deadline for more evidence is getting close. Politicians will always question transparency, which puts a premium on demonstrating why it matters in terms that the public understands and can apply in their lives." 

I instead see two possible routes for the future of open data. One is the value route, where governments firmly decide that it’s worth the cost and effort (through research, case studies, surveys, and notoriously hard-to-pin-down usage data). The second route would be governments start to talk about it like Access to Information (ATI) laws or, in Canada, Official Languages. The framing here becomes about obligation, expectation, and legal duty - not a cost to be debated. We don't concern ourselves with the pros and cons of releasing things in both official languages; we do it because it's just what we do.

And yes, there's a cost to putting open data on that same plane of existence, and it involves re-tooling decades of information management systems to get there. In the meantime, however, we have the most expensive model: internal information architectures, open data registries, and Access to Information flows. We'll always have all three, but right now many documents will exist in each system, where the long-term for open data is minimizing the duplication and triplication. 

Right now the lifecycle for records includes internal use followed by eventual release, sometimes being requested via ATI in between. Once documents and data start going straight to the open-to-the-public storage solution, a couple things will happen:
  1. The costs will go down
  2. Analysts in other parts of that same government will be able to find and use that data and information sooner (including knowing that it exists in the first place)
  3. When people work in government want to work with those outside, they can simply link to the already-open data they're working with (this is one of the ways open data overlaps with open dialogue and citizen engagement)

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Many Challenges of Convening the Policy Innovation and Experimentation Ecosystem

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

To be fair, I'm not sure such a thing really exists. Sure there's a lot of chatter about all the interconnect moving pieces but I'm not sure its quite as tangible or coherent a thing as perhaps many of us make it out to be.

First, there's lots people inside the innovation bubble (the "us" I referred to above): dedicated hubs and labbers, reverse mentors to bodies like the Deputy Minister's Committee on Policy Innovation (DMCPI), folks working in central agencies on the experimentation file, folks in line departments working on advancing a particular innovative instrument or approach (e.g. social finance), or anyone else with 'innovation' (however defined) as a core responsibility. Generally speaking those inside the bubble speak their own language, enjoy the privilege of proximity to decision makers, and are well connected across the system to other folks inside the bubble. In many ways its not much different than any other functional area of expertise. What we are witnessing is simply the formation of a network of 'public sector innovators' as the vocation of 'public sector innovation' goes through some sort of piecemeal and un-managed professionalization. This is apparent when one looks at the inherent definitional challenges within the ecosystem. There's not a shared vision of what policy (and program?) innovation and experimentation is. So much of the conversation around these issues is either non-existent, conceptual, or conflictual. Moreover, experimentation -- while appearing in a mandate letter -- remains loosely defined and as a result could run the gamut from trying something new to running a randomized control trial. More importantly, the term itself is problematic, one wouldn't want to conduct a policy experiment on a vulnerable population and/or indigenous community for obvious reasons. The term is sticky because -- like I said -- its in a mandate letter and was likely included to encourage the development of evidence based policy but its problematic in some very important contexts (e.g. reconciliation with Canada's indigenous peoples). Personally, I parse it as 'policy and program innovation' (which includes regulation) and think it manifests in two ways: (1) how we design policies and/or programs and/or (2) how we deliver policy and programs. Innovation then is about improving our policy inputs and/or our policy outcomes. Whereas I see experimentation as gathering an evidence base that can be measured against a counterfactual to determine which of the two options generates greater public value. (Caveat: I don't see much room for policy innovation and/or experimentation to occur at the point of the decision to enact (or not) a particular policy. That nexus is largely the purview of elected officials, and short of electoral reform -- which is obviously highly politicized -- there's little public servants can be doing to innovate around the decision making nexus (See: To govern is to choose).)

Second, while the innovation bubble is incredibly important to those working inside or beside it, it remains largely unknown to those working outside it in the regulatory and/or programmatic spaces of government. Perhaps my evidence is anecdotal but my overwhelming experience has been that whenever I speak about what is going on inside the bubble with those outside it that its the "first they've heard of any of it" and that it is either "fascinating" or "completely irrelevant". The truth is likely that a more concerted effort needs to be made by both those inside and outside the bubble to meet somewhere in the middle and grow the linkages between the two. However both sides face tremendous pressure to deliver within their own spheres and if the incentives for more purposeful communication and collaboration aren't in place then we'd be foolish to expect them to do so of their own volition. We need more connectors. People's whose job it is to build bridges between the players, ensure alignment, new create opportunities, and scale existing ones. I doubt we will see the necessary investment in these types of people/roles because there's a lack of understanding of their value. This lack of understanding is embedded in the general consensus that these types of connections will form spontaneously in the network because of the proliferation of communications channels, the availability of information, the wisdom of the crowd to elevate that which needs elevating, and everything else taken for granted under the larger rubric of the ethos of the internet age. However, if there is something I've learned in my current position it is that there is still a very strong role for connection and curation in this environment. The proliferation of communications technologies has shifted the friction, but make no mistake, it surely still exists.

Third, there's a self-selection problem -- and not in the way you'd think. It's not so much about people falsely self-selecting into the 'innovators' category but rather that innovative folks are self-selecting out of it completely. Few people doing innovative work actually self-describe their work as such. They are simply trying to do better. They weren't given an innovation mandate or draw resouces from a centralized or dedicated innovation fund, they simply chose to use their resources differently within their own particular context. This means that they might not even know the value of what they are doing to the rest of the ecosystem. Or, they may be actively hiding, staying below the radar, because with greater attention comes greater scrutiny, and with greater scrutiny comes the loss of flexibility that allowed them to be innovative in the first place (See: Asymmetric Scrutiny, Superforecasting, and Public Policy). This was in fact one of the findings of an innovation survey conducted by DMCPI.

Fourth, like any ecosystem it is both collaborative and combative -- there are things that work well together, but there is also competition for scarce resources (e.g. money, talent, the attention of senior management, etc.) and there are (implicit and/or cultural) established food chains (e.g. Central Agencies > Line Departments, Strategic Policy > Program Policy, Ottawa > Regions, etc.). Often when we use the word ecosystem we invoke it in such a way that emphasizes the collaborative elements and de-emphasizes the competitive ones, but we all know that ecosystems are highly competitive environments. For example, there are currently 18 instruments/approaches covered off in the policy innovation portal my team stood up, the fact that these approaches are innovative brings them together under the portal's banner of 'policy innovation', however we can't expect them (or more importantly their champions) to always work in complimentary ways. Open data and pay-for-performance may be two innovative approaches but they may also not have all that much to do with one another at an operational level; this leaves little room for collaboration and creates room for competition over scarce resources. This is where the emerging literature in public administration on the rise of instrument constituencies is particularly compelling (See: On the Rise of Instrument Constituencies).

I don't want to belabour the point but did want to say that all of these interconnected factors -- and their obvious exceptions, caveats, counter-examples, and side-steps and twists -- make up but a handful of the many challenges we are facing as an organization whenever we try to convene the players, increase alignment, and identify opportunities for collaboration and scale. Finally, we need to carve out more time for coordination, thoughtful deliberation, and purposeful conversation within and around the ecosystem as a whole if we are to rely on it to deliver our organization into the 21st century.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Build it to outlast your senior management cadre

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

Yesterday I presented at the Community of Federal Regulators annual event. After my presentation I was asked how my team was able to stand up so many innovative projects.

My response was fairly straightforward: we have a strong Assistant Deputy Minister who believes in the work and protects our time and space.

And with one caveat: the most prominent threat to our work is the departure of that particular individual and so everything we build is built to outlast him. Our projects need to connect to the stickiest parts of the fabric of the enterprise, not the most endearing qualities of our leader because the former will almost always outlast the latter.

It's a simple lesson on innovation, scale, and permanence: regardless of what you are building, built it to outlast your senior management cadre.

Related and suggested reading: Scheming Virtuously: A Handbook for Public Servants)

Friday, October 7, 2016

GCPEDIA: Sill the most transformative technology at our fingertips

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

I've been an advocate for GCPEDIA since forever.

I was an early adopter of turned special advisor on the project as a whole.

When I first published Scheming Virtuously: A Handbook for Public Servants I stood up a wiki version and invited other public servants to contribute to it (See: False Assumptions About Working Openly, circa 2009). I later revisted the issue by taking on many of the common misconceptions associated with working in an open environment (See: Debunking the Myths of Working Openly, circa 2012)

I used it to create a(n official) National Inventory for Bridgeable Students (again 2009) which rose in quickly in popularity but never got picked up by the powers that be (See: Measuring the Value of Social Media in Government).

I've argued that GCPEDIA is a modern day David in a world full of Goliaths -- lightweight, low barrier to entry, open source, doesn't play by the established rules -- and that we ought to embrace it based on those strengths (See: GCPEDIA: A David Among Goliaths and Embrace GCPEDIA as a Technological David).

My recent re-entry into the public service has me working on a project that simply could not exist without GCPEDIA (See: Sharing my Actual Work... My Actual Work), so it doesn't come as a surprise that the technology -- old by most standards -- is still killing it in terms of untapped potential and value.

GCPEDIA is a lot of things -- a enterprise wide (Government of Canada) collaborative platform with low barriers to entry, a platform that cuts across silos, hierarchy, geography, group and level -- but it is also a fully functional web development platform at each and every one of our fingertips. With the right resources you can do this with GCPEDIA (well done Global Affairs Canada, well done).

In short, GCPEDIA is still the most transformative (and underused!) technology at our fingertips.

PS - if you've got some web development skills/resources that you want to bring to bear (pro-bono) on my team's project, drop me a line, we sure could use them.

Kent AitkenRSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

A while back Nick and I talked about bouncing back and forth with posts, adding to or critiquing ideas. We accidentally did exactly that over email for this one, so I’m hijacking his post and adding some thoughts.

The caveat that I’d add is that the GAC example is more so taking advantage of the server space than the GCpedia platform itself. They stripped away a lot of the infrastructure that makes GCpedia tick for most people.

That said, it’s a web dev platform available to a couple hundred thousand people for both creation and viewing. And Nick’s right that it’s potentially powerful, but I think the big question is the unique value of a behind-the-firewall platform, rather than the GCpedia we know and love, or the options available on the internet. (And there’s always the intranet, but that’s strictly governed rather than open and self-organized.)

And three possibilities - possibilities, not answers - come to mind.

  1. It could mean that we can likely integrate GCpedia content and work into other systems and workflows, including as a pipeline to the internet. Right now GCpedia is manual entry, manual retrieval
  2. It could mean that we can purposefully design interactions between public servants rather than work with what’s available (e.g., think back to the GC-wide discussions on Blueprint 2020; a self-organized, customizable intranet could open options for how campaigns like that work)
  3. It could mean that we have a limited testing ground for prototypes of future external platforms and websites

But for each of these, there's still some unique conditions that have to be met: 1) situations when public servants can do web dev, but don’t have access to dev servers; and 2) situations when the content and infrastructure should be limited to the GC only.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

A marker for digital government

by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

Over the last few weeks I've spent some time sketching out my starting point for a few concepts: what I thought digital governance and digital government mean. Still working on the former, but here's the latter. I'm laying this here as a marker, curious to return to it in a year's time to see what I got right and wrong - and I welcome thoughts in the meantime.

What is digital government?

  1. Government that understands fully, and exists fully in, the digital world
  2. Government that is connected to citizens and stakeholders through modern - and multiple - channels
  3. Government through which an informational layer extends through everything (like the Force) and helps both citizens and civil servants; through which information serves people, rather than people expending effort to serve informational needs

And, what it is not

  1. Government that is tech-savvy, digital, modern, or innovative as an end goal (those characteristics must always be connected to the public good)
  2. Government that is digital-only
  3. Government that merely uses IT better than it does today

Even if the above is uncontroversial, it's still aspirational.

And while it's easy to say that governments need to better understand the digital world, how an "informational layer" evolves for government will need attention. A topical example would be those countries that now pre-populate tax returns for citizens and simply ask for an okay via a secure login or even a text message. A couple years ago Accenture put out a report about going from "looking digital" to "being digital:" i.e., going from bolting-on digital services and presences to embedding digital means into how people do their work. It's the difference between tracking something in a spreadsheet (manual entry, manual retrieval, but digital) and the way Google recognizes tickets in your inbox and reminds you about events. It's a much higher level of both sophistication - and actual impact.

The other I'll note for now is that digital government shouldn't be digital-only. Digital by default? Yes. But the digital system has to break well. That is, the experience should still be as seamless as possible for people with outdated equipment, low bandwidth, no internet, or no interest in using the internet to interact with government.

But for now, the above is a marker to return to later, with a lot of work required to test and develop those premises in the meantime.

Monday, October 3, 2016


by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

Starting today, I’m on a year-long interchange from the Government of Canada. It's a research fellowship at Canada's Public Policy Forum to study governance in the digital era. I wanted to post a couple thoughts and invitations.
First, I’ve been fortunate and delighted to be able to work with an amazing group of people over the last few years. The open government scene involved a lot of interaction, communication, and collaboration with the civil society community and colleagues across the public service - on public engagement, the CODE series of hackathons, open data, and the general push for open government in Canada. This has been a distinct and resounding highlight of my career thus far, so thank you.
Second, I’m completely bummed out to be leaving the open gov team, even temporarily. The initiative is incredibly important to the way government functions, and we’re not running out of work anytime soon. I’m very hopeful and optimistic that the work for the next two years will make things better for many communities. And I can’t say enough about the awesome and talented team there, and I appreciate both how much they’ve done (a lot) and how they’re always pushing to do more.
Lastly, I have lofty goals for the year to come. I see the role as somewhat of a common resource for governments (and observers of governments) in Canada, and I’d be really open to people dropping me a line (or, for academics, finding me on GCcollab). I’ll be looking at both the opportunities that the digital era provides (like connecting with people and information) and its challenges (such as how we develop policy, regulation, and legislation around technologies and trends that emerge and evolve quickly). I’ll be posting about the research as I go, so there’ll be more specifics coming.