Towards a public service renaissance

In my post on The public service in a Wikileaks world I ended by suggesting that what was needed was not just the usual Australian Public Service notion of reform, but a renaissance. So what I will do over the next week is put together the building blocks of that idea. I intend doing so by adding to this post one key idea at a time. Give me brick bats and bouquets along the way.


I want to emphasise that the great work done by so many people - Innovation, APS Reform and Gov 2.0 - means that very little of what I will be saying will be new per se. The problem, as I see it, is that the speed of reform does not match the urgency and the entrenched practices and interests of some sections of the public service make progress hard. The code word for that used in report after report is 'public service culture'. An explain away.


So to Pillar Number 1 of a renaissance.


Establish a form of Wikileaks for public servants to anonymously disclose what is broken or needs improving in their department. That information and feedback should open to all public servants and citizens to view in a raw form. The focus should be on developing solutions.

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Comment by steve davies on April 2, 2011 at 2:04pm

Hi Folks


Have been hugely busy - on work emanating from the the OAIC funnily enough. Nothing wrong with robust discussion.


Anyway, I've been talking to a fair number of people about this renaissance idea and have been settling on an outline for a presentation I'm preparing. The main thing is to get the key ideas packaged.


Public service renaissance presentation outline


Comment by Darron Passlow on March 24, 2011 at 11:54pm


Are you aware of what your colleagues at AOIC have been doing to get public input into Information Access Policy under Gov2.0.


The feds ae leading the way. We need this leadership.

Comment by Cris McGrath on March 24, 2011 at 10:41am
Darron you misunderstand me and for that I apologise for being incoherent.

Gov2/Open Government is a great leap forward in communication. Many governments around the world have embraced the concepts and have produced quality work. In Australia the Victorian Goverment has produced useful products and much of their data has been reproduced into workable apps; so have numerous councils.

I should not tar ALL the public with the one brush and I did not intend to. We all work for the benefit of differing target audiences and stakeholders depending upon the department. In regard to being progressive, well, that depends upon many things mostly the internal-culture and drive to accept the risk percieved or real, the type of data that can be made available and resourcing implications.

To those Agencies who are leading the way fantastic. The rest of us will try and keep up.
Comment by Darron Passlow on March 24, 2011 at 8:51am


Yes I am passionate about this topic as I see it as being very important for future "good governance" (truth and honesty) in government.

I must say I am startled by your comments and your attitude towards public input to government decision making. You seem to think the public are "whinging" lemmings with no intelligent thoughts.

Your attitude to Gov2.0 and Open Government is a major concern (I hope to more than me). Your "jump into the fire without question" attitude is of concern.

Fortunately other areas of Australian government are not showing the same bias and have a much more progressive approach to Open Government.

Comment by Darron Passlow on March 24, 2011 at 8:36am


Here is another relevant comment (on GovLoop from Dustin Haisler of Manor Texas fame).


Comment by Cris McGrath on March 21, 2011 at 11:39am
Darron - you are obviously passionate.
Steve - you are as usual you

Transparency - As APS people, no matter what level, we know there are some things the public should not know or engage in until the rough bits are worked out. Some ideas and policy are just foolish to take before the public and therefore a lack of transparency is required. However, we could improve the 'My Account' type of information which permits people to track their requests (eg FOI, claim forms) or maintain their own personal content. And more open forums when Governments make policy statements to ascertain the community’s response instead of waiting for ‘shock jocks’ and journalist.

Participation - many APS do not have the time or online access enjoyed by those of us who do. This is for many reasons; mainly it is the security aspects of their work environment and not a lack of trust. John S is one of the few senior officers who spend any constructive time online. Most do not have time or the incentive. As I said in an earlier post ‘personal APATHY' is the primary reason and not a bureaucratic culture. Some agencies will never be fully committed within online forums etc and an acceptable argument can be made for that decision

Collaboration - The public as a whole do not, I believe, want to engage in positive dialogue. They want to know what's in it for ME. If they don't get it then they want to voice an opinion. Only those passionate about the topic, process or acknowledged experts in the field will be found within the conversations. Many Australians do not have, nor can they afford, decent internet access, or modern computers within the home as they try to meet general cost of living expenses; the NBN will, for some of these people, actually make it worse as we loose sight of them due to the increasing costs both financial and social ... There already exists a social divide.

All this activity does come at a cost: moderation, government recordkeeping requirements, making sure our 'audiences' have the ability to stay up-to-date in technology etc – yes that sounds bureaucratic, but realistic.

Finally, if my Secretary gives me a directive, even though I know it makes the issue non-transparent, non-participatory, and non-collaborative, I will adhere to that request both at work and at home, as I am meant to under the code of conduct.
Comment by Darron Passlow on March 20, 2011 at 11:41pm


I would ask you to look at yourself, look at your colleagues and look at your department and ask are we delivering the "best" outcomes for our constituents (community). You seem to accept that the current status quo is acceptable.

It is NOT!

We need to change and Gov2.0 gives us some clues;




Let's start with "Transparency" inside and out-bound. This is what Steve is referring to.

The bureaucratic approach cannot be sustained. The public is fed up and the sooner we change our practices (in government) the sooner we will be able to align with community requirements and get the job done to the satisfaction of all. If this requires the "dirty laundry" to be air, so be it!

Comment by steve davies on March 20, 2011 at 5:35pm

Hi John


Very thought provoking comments (Which is good as it makes me work hard). Given that the public service attaches a high premium to leaders let me start with that.


Sure there is an obvious need to work with leaders. However, more needs to be done with everyone else as well and at the same time. In my view there is way too much emphasis on shoe horning Gov 2.0 and the whole question of social media into what is at heart a very traditional bureaucratic approach. Surely there is a case for all public service leaders actively using social media to set an example to their staff and setting the tone for discussion?


It has been said so many times by others that the APS has a professional work force. So I can't see why it should be assumed that people would be mischievous if provided with an anonymous means to comment on what is broken or could be improved. Especially if the rules of engagement were clearly established.


Why anonymous? To address the potential problem of people being harassed for expressing a contrary view. There are many options here. For example, If not anonymous from the outset have people register to use such a facility, but give them option of hiding their identity. Conversation could be channeled by having a range of themes for people to post against.


That being said, if we had an open discussion of what conversations were 'in or out' in such a facility and leaders made it clear it was acceptable for staff to disclose information and express their views then a requirement for anonymity could be done away with. Indeed, such an approach would parallel and complement what is being done in relation to the new Freedom of information Act. And the usual provisions concerning information on individuals etc would obviously apply.


So far as journalists or other interested parties submitting an FOI request is concerned for what is posted. Yes they could of course. But why not have such a facility open for public viewing anyway? After all, what is being suggested is not a 'whinge fest' but an open place for the disclosure and discussion of what is broken and what could be done better. Then what FOI requests could there be? An obvious answer to journalists would be along the lines of 'get involved, become part of the solution'.


On the question of embarrassment. I think it is fair to say that nobody expects or believes it is a perfect world, but they do expect the public service to be forthright about dealing with that.







(Same story - my own opinions only)

Comment by steve davies on March 18, 2011 at 9:47am

Hi Stephen, Cris and John - I apologise for the length of my reply to your thoughtful comments.


You might like to check out my reply to Tanya and Darron as well as that has a bearing on some of the points you guys made.


I don't think there is anything particularly revolutionary in my suggestion that we need a form of Wikileaks. I specifically said a form of Wikileaks as Wikileaks per se is about exposing what one might call dark secrets. What I am suggesting is that there is a whole swathe of information that needs to move from the 'in-house' domain to the public domain. In short, such a facility should not be for the exposure of dark (or necessary) secrets.


Realistically moving to a more public domain is something that would need to happen step by step. Providing an anonymous means for public servants to expose and discuss what is broken or could be improved in a open way would, I suggest, be an important enabler - and there is a body of knowledge to support this.


To draw an analogy. Most public sector agencies conduct surveys of one form or another with their staff and with their people. Typically, these are anonymous . In my experience you can move from an anonymous position to a more open one where responses are not anonymous. Getting to this point takes time. Especially where the feedback gained via a survey may be contentious. Good management and engagement focused on safety and trust is paramount.


There is no reason to assume that the situation is different in relation to people being able to comment and discuss what is broken or needs improving within their agency in more public way. Start from a position of anonymity and work towards greater openness. We already know that public servants are comparatively quiet online so surely a default position of anonymity would help with that? Surely people should have the option of revealing who they are?


Sure this would all require vigilant and patient management. However, on the premise that Freedom of Information also requires freedom of dialogue don't we need to take a step like this to open up that dialogue in a more public way?


I don't see how taking this sort of step could be taken as a breach of the APS Code of Conduct. Sure there are risks. However, are they really that insurmountable given the technology at our disposal? And, as so many have said, isn't culture the big hurdle here?


The assumption I am making of course is that there is a lot of information, opinion and feedback that remains 'in-house' and that by revealing and exploring that together we could further improve the public service. That approach might be a little untidy along the way, but to take a leaf out of Tanya's book why not extend the hand of trust by ensuring the safety of those who provide and discuss information. We might just be surprised at the willingness of people to reciprocate that trust.







Comment by steve davies on March 18, 2011 at 8:08am

Hi Tanya and Darron


I don't see how a default position of public servants being able to anonymously comment on what is broken or could be improved in their agency would undermine trust. After all they could always say who they are.


From my conversations around the traps it seems that people are concerned about retribution if they do engage in such conversations. Surely we need to address that perception. I think the core question here is the degree of comfort agencies have around such conversations and, indeed, what is discussable in the first place.


I think it would be quite odd to end up in a position where citizens and the media can engage in such conversations, but public servants cannot (openly and in public). And wouldn't it be much better if public servants set the tone here so that citizens can see how public servants conduct themselves and contribute in a positive way? (That would be in tune with what Darron has said).


After much agonising I think there is an issue of organisational maturity here - and the usual players who emphasise the negative. I agree with you about the importance of trust, but think what that means in this context is trusting that one will not be 'done over' for exposing and discussing what are opportunities for improvement. (Wouldn't the public prefer that?).


Is it such a big leap to start from a position of anonymity and then let individuals choose to identify themselves? Is it such a big leap to move from discussing what is broken or needs improving 'in-house' to making those discussions public so that everyone can contribute in a positive way?


With changes to the Freedom of Information Act there is a lot of conversation round what is in and what is out. Personally I suspect we need to be having much the same conversation around freedom of dialogue.


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