Craig Thomler of Delib Australia on Gov 2.0, Open Gov & Social Media

Today, we have bring you a really interesting interview from the other side of the world but we feel it's just as relevant to our UK audience. Our Worldwide Government Marketing Manager, Michele Bedford-Thistle, interviews a leading light in innovation from the Australian public sector...

Having worked in the online industry since 1995, Craig Thomler is a veteran of the Australian start-up sphere and an experienced online communicator. After spending five years working in the public sector, Craig is now Managing Director of Delib Australia and he focuses on assisting public enterprises to effectively use the web to engage, collaborate, and unleash their data to add value and improve governance. Craig was awarded the Gov 2.0 Individual Innovator award by the Australian Gov 2.0 Taskforce in 2009 and voted one of the international Top 10 Changing the World of Internet and Politics in 2010. He regularly speaks at and organises events addressing the strategy and practice of Gov 2.0 and shares his personal thoughts through the eGovAU blog.

Michele Bedford Thistle: Could you take a moment first to introduce yourself and your role at Delib?

Craig Thomler: I got involved with the Internet industry back in 1995 here in Australia, and I've essentially been involved with it ever since. That's a particularly long time, in Australian terms, because back then, we only had five commercial ISPs in the country. I actually spent a bit of time working at one of them.

Starting around 2006, I spent about five years working for the federal government. That's when I started my blog and started getting very heavily involved in how governments could use technology, and that's where Gov 2.0 really started to gain a bit of presence in Australia. As far as I know, I was the first Australian public servant blogging about government.

In early 2012, I stepped out of government to take on the role of building Delib in Australia, focusing on providing online consultation solutions to support public sector organisations in engaging more effectively and efficiently.

Michele: How was your blogging received by others in the government?

Craig: It created a lot of hassle, I can assure you. There were a few policies and things that were written or amended because of what I had started. I was even investigated at one point for conflict of interest, because they were worried I was releasing government secrets through my blogs. I was totally cleared, though was never told who made the complaint.

It was an interesting and difficult time to be a blogger for the Australian government, even though I wasn't talking directly about my work. I was writing more generally about the sort of things that people were trying to come together and work together on, in an effort at helping all agencies work better.

That blog kept me very busy. I was invited to a lot of international conferences and to write for various other things as well. I had spent 10 years freelancing as a journalist and as an author, so writing is something I'm familiar with.

One of the things I've tried to do through my blog is to create a conversation across Australian government on Government 2.0, social media and e-government-related topics, and to enable much deeper conversations in a more public and inclusive forum, rather than having them be things that happen behind closed doors with senior-level people.

We had a real problem at the time in Australian government, where conversations were happening between individual agencies and potentially a couple of vendors or US-based people, and there wasn't broad discussion about how digital technologies could help governments do a better job.

I tried to open up a lot of that conversation and to bring it more into the eye of public servants broadly. My goal wasn't necessarily to reach the general public, because most people aren't actually terribly interested in how government goes about its business. They're just interested in the outcomes.

About four months ago, I decided to step out of government. I'd done quite a bit there, and it was time to get back to my roots in the private sector and try my hand at influencing from the outside rather than the inside.

There are a lot of people working away in the depths of the Australian government introducing tools and processes. I think a lot of seeds have been planted.

Michele: Talk a bit about how your involvement with Delib has grown out of that transition.

Craig: When I stepped out of my government role, I took on both an ownership and a management role for Delib. I'm looking after Australia, New Zealand, and Asia at the moment, and particularly doing a lot of work with countries like Singapore and New Zealand.

The whole purpose of Delib, which has been around for about nine years in the U.K., is to provide online engagement tools or apps, primarily for government, but also for other organizations that need to consult with the public. They're designed for very specific purposes.

They're not all social media-based; a lot of them are focused around using digital technologies to make governments more efficient at consulting and managing consultation processes, both within agencies and also with the public.

Those are some of the necessary components to help government take the next step in this space. Government has the right intentions, I think. It wants to adopt more of these tools, but it's still struggling to work out when to build or buy, where the sweet spots are, and how to get the best value for money without creating a lot of additional work, as social media often can do. My step back into the commercial world with Delib lets me continue working in the Gov 2.0 space.

I participated in both the recent GovHack and GovCamp in Canberra, and I'm going down to Tasmania next month to help a local team work toward a GovCamp later in the year. I'm trying from the outside to broaden the ability of public servants on the inside to engage and make best use of tools to help improve policy and service delivery processes.

Michele: You recently lamented the lack of a robust public discussion regarding Australia's democracy, government openness, transparency, and the role of Gov 2.0. What prompted you to publish that now?

Craig: Government does a lot of good things, but it needs prodding sometimes. Gov 2.0 was very high-profile in Australian government, particularly in 2009 and 2010 with the Gov 2.0 Taskforce, and a lot of good work was done in that timeframe.

Since then, the minister that was championing all of that has retired, and there's a severe lack of leadership now, at both the political level and the public-service level, in terms of pushing openness and transparency forward.

A lot of senior public servants involved in the space take their direction from the ministers. They're good people, but they work to their key performance indicators, and at this point in time, those don't always include helping open up government or taking it forward in a material way.

Michele: What are some of the issues behind that lack of enthusiasm?

Craig: There's very little push for proactive disclosure, which is something that was originally intended, under the Freedom of Information Act. While there are isolated cases of agencies trying to do this, there isn't a great deal of depth in this sort of effort at the moment.

This is a constant problem, I think, with the Australian Public Service, although I can't speak for others as much. They have a constant internal communication issue: their usual way of getting a new policy or initiative across is to send a quick memo to all the CIOs or the Secretaries, and then expect them to disseminate it within their agencies.

Unfortunately, it often doesn't get disseminated to the correct people, as I personally experienced while in government. This can lead to there being a lack of real understanding or commitment to actually embedding these new policies and new approaches deeply into agencies at a federal level.

We're seeing a lot more of that going on at the state level, however. The Victorian government went through a whole change-management process for Gov 2.0, led by the Department of Premier and Cabinet, and they've done a very good job.

Michele: The Management 2.0 Hackathon seems to have generated a lot of interest and a lot of ideas about better management. Startups have the advantage that they can build whatever culture they want from scratch, but governments must always evolve from where they are currently. What do you see as a path for government to realise some of the principles of Management 2.0?

Craig: I'm actually not sure I agree that government has to work within its existing frameworks. Government is always evolving, reforming itself, and changing the frameworks it operates under. For example, it changes its financial disclosure regulations almost annually.

Some of these changes amount simply to rearranging deck chairs and reassigning responsibility, but quite a bit of it includes the adoption of new work processes or changing the configuration of agencies to serve the changing needs of society, the changes in views and structures of government, and what ministers are looking for.

I've worked a couple of times in entrepreneurial-style teams within government agencies where we had to deliver a particular whole-government deliverable or process. We would put together a team that was based on skill sets. That meant the team didn't have just commerce people or finance people, for example. Instead, it was put together as a functional unit, which combined IT, communications, and other engagement skills.

We still had all the same government responsibilities, but we had much shorter approval cycles. There are lots of ways in which government regulation and government supervision allow you to do things quickly. A lot of people don't pick up on that, either because there isn't any real sense of urgency, or because the deliverables aren't always clear.

Michele: How do you embed that expertise and those new processes back into the broader structure?

Craig: That's where we often see governments struggling. Often, at the end of the process, they split the team back up again, send them back to their regular operational areas, hoping that some of those new processes and ways of thinking will embed themselves. In my view, that's the point where management needs to occur but often doesn't.

The characters of departments are very much influenced by senior leadership. I've seen enormous differences when secretaries or senior leaders change; sometimes it's like a new day dawning, and other times it's like dropping back 20 or 30 years into the past.

The character of the leaders in the public service has a large influence on whether or not those embedding processes and those change processes actually bear fruit. And I think that's where government pays insufficient attention.

Michele: How do you think that situation could be addressed?

Craig: To a large extent, the key is to embed a greater managerial culture in the public services. We need to establish fast tracks for people who have the ability to see things in novel ways and implement innovative solutions.

The lack of that type of culture has become deeply entrenched where those in power promote others who are similar to themselves. There is also too often a real lack of care and attention paid by politicians and ministers.

In Australia, we have the expression "magic pudding." No matter how many slices you remove from the magic pudding, it always stays full. Unfortunately, politicians sometimes treat the public service like a magic pudding. They assume that the agencies will just keep delivering, no matter how many resources or people they take away or how much they cut budgets. Many politicians haven't had significant management or business-leadership experience, and that's a factor as well.

That's where I see the challenges in the Management 2.0 space. A lot of it has to do with the configuration of senior levels, how the KPIs are set, how people are fostered through the process, and how knowledge is re-embedded within organizations.

Michele: You have mentioned in your blog that Australia has benefited significantly from social media. Can you talk about that in a little bit more detail?

Craig: It's hard to put into quantitative terms, but I would say that about 90 percent of the campaigns by various agencies within the Australian government now have some sort of social media component. In fact, many of those campaigns have begun using social media as the primary thrust. I know of one campaign that's focusing almost all of its money now on digital channels, because they've found that it's the most cost-effective route to attract and build their audience.

We're seeing a great deal of use of social media for intelligence behind our policy decision making and beginning to engage with the public and other stakeholders. Still, as I said, it's difficult to quantify, and it's not necessarily very visible to the outside world.

Michele: Can you give some examples of where social media has been particularly successful for the Australian government?

Craig: Australia has the largest tourism Facebook page in the world, with three million fans. It's used very actively, and it drives a lot of tourism to Australia. The Tourism Department also engages through blogs and forums inside China's firewalls. That traffic doesn't get seen externally, but it's an important driver in our effort to attract tourism from China.

Social media has also been very successful in getting higher response rates to the national census. That's not entirely due to the use of social media, but it has played a significant role.

For about four or five years, our tax office has run a group for small to medium businesses, testing policy concepts and their approaches to the market.

The National Library of Australia has been crowdsourcing the digitisation of our newspaper archive for about five or six years. The digitization is automated, and the general public can go in and make changes when they see mistakes. It has resulted in something like 30 million lines of newspapers being corrected, and there have been no issues throughout the process over the last six years or so.

A campaign over at the Department of Families and Communities has well over 60,000 Facebook fans, as well as a very large blogging component, and it just introduced Twitter. They've been very successful in engaging young people, stimulating discussion about what's appropriate and inappropriate in relationships.

They've done a very good job of fostering conversation without telling people what to do. As a neutral party, the department has put forward scenarios that foster discussions among thousands of people, over long periods of time.

Although our defense force has been slow to adopt social media, they have done some interesting things. For instance, they ran a Twitter campaign all the way through a mission on a particular ship a couple of years ago. They have also been holding live chats online with potential recruits, helping them get a better understanding of operations.

The Victorian Police had a police recruit tweet and post to Facebook through her whole recruitment and training process. Again, it provided young people an understanding of what the process of becoming a police officer is truly like.

Australia's governments are the second-largest government user of Yammer in the world, after the United States. That isn't seen externally, but it's being used to run change programs within agencies, and it's being used by the Department of Justice in Victoria to train their its staff on how to engage in social media.

There are a lot of these examples around the country, but many of them are hidden. I try to bring them to light so others can learn from them, but it is very hard to get that information out there.

Michele: Clearly, many people could learn and benefit from the experience of various agencies within the Australian government. What are the challenges in getting the word out about these examples?

Craig: One common issue is that departments don't necessarily want to talk too much about their successes, because some senior leaders might not approve of the use of social media in that way, and they might even shut the efforts down.

In other words, sometimes the people who are running these innovative programs have to conceal them from their own leadership, because it's the leadership who are most likely to close these things down, not the politicians. And it's not the necessities of budget, although sometimes that's given as the reason; the real issue is fear within the public service of adopting some of these tools.

We have a lot of issues with IT teams across government who are so busy and concerned with maintaining legacy systems that they don't have the resources to work on this type of innovation with the business areas.

They don't work as partners within agencies, they work as service providers, and that is a real problem. Business areas in government need partners right now, not service providers.

Michele: There was an interesting conversation on Quora recently around the question, "Does open government require a democracy?" You indicated that you felt it's not essential for a government to be democratic to be open. Can you talk a little about how you see various forms of government intersecting with open government initiatives around the world?

Craig: People generally associate democracy with openness, although democracy obviously comes in lots of different flavors, and there are various limitations in different places. Also, among authoritarian-style governments, one can differentiate the ones that can manage a leadership succession without violence, which I think is one of the primary goals of any political system. If a government can change leadership without violence, unrest, and so forth, that provides some stability, if not necessarily the freedoms that people expect.

One obvious modern example is China. From a Western point of view, China is very authoritarian and restrictive of the rights of its citizens. But if you actually get inside the firewall and look at how they operate, there's a lot of openness and transparency.

The Chinese government is mature enough to recognize that to keep control of such a large, diverse, and increasingly well-educated population, it must govern in a fair and equitable way, even if elections don't necessarily occur.

They've had a Freedom of Information Act for quite a number of years. It doesn't have the same breadth as in the U.S., U.K., or Australia, but it still enables a substantial ability on the part of citizens to request information to hold the government accountable.

Internally, there are also flourishing microblog networks. There's a level of anonymity there, and there is a level of dissent and discussion that's permitted, on topics that relate to corruption and other issues. The Chinese government prosecutes people caught being corrupt in senior positions, because minimising corruption is important to national stability and economic progress. More skeptically, of course, one could say that it helps keep people happy within their boxes.

Michele: How do you see open government forces playing out in countries that are not tremendously democratic and that also are not moving at the same rapid technological pace as China?

Craig: Singapore is an example; it's nominally a democracy and they have elections, but really, the government is made up of just one party. That form of democracy has been influenced by Western traditions, but it's not based on the same foundational assumptions.

Singapore has quite a robust open data website, which they are gradually building on. A lot of it is operational types of information, not necessarily getting into secret government information and that kind of thing. Still, it is very useful to citizens and that openness and transparency helps the country run more efficiently.

I believe, in fact, that the type of political system and the way a country selects its leadership is not a prime factor in determining whether open government initiatives have value and promise. The main consideration, I think, is how committed a country is to enabling its citizens to go about their business in a secure and safe way.

The political system plays second fiddle to whether or not the country is organising and structuring its processes in the right ways. Some democratic systems are in complete disarray around the world. Just because a parliament is elected somewhere like Papua New Guinea, that doesn't mean there are the institutions underneath it to ensure that people can live safely. You have the same issues in parts of Africa and many other places in the world.

The push toward openness and transparency, in my view, is a push toward improving the safety and security of people within states. It becomes the grounds for seeking more freedoms. Frankly there's a bit of an argument in Australia that we don't need more openness and transparency because we're already a democracy.

Michele: That's interesting to consider that a Western democracy might actually be less conducive to initiatives around openness and transparency. Conversely, an authoritarian state might see an open government initiative as contributing to stability so the power structure can help preserve itself.

Craig: People want involvement, and they want to be able to see what government is doing, so openness and transparency become part of that process. Actually, I believe that the most dangerous states aren't necessarily those where democracy hasn't been established, but rather the most secretive ones.

For example, Russia is technically a democracy, but it has significant issues built into the system that interfere with openness and transparency. And that actually makes it a much less safe and secure state than some others that have a less democratic system but more openness and transparency.

Michele: Are there any other things that are top of mind for you these days that you'd like to talk about while we have the chance?

Craig: Here in Australia, we're in the process of creating a single mapping platform for all levels of government, which will also be based on a fully open and open-source platform, so that different data sets from all agencies can be accumulated together and be looked at in various ways, across jurisdictional boundaries, and then reused by citizens.

That's been a few years in the making, and it's still in the process of gestation at the moment, but it's starting to come out the other end. I think that level of openness and transparency is very important, and a lot of nations still struggle across jurisdictional lines. Bushfires, floods, and tornadoes don't stop at the boundaries of a state, but getting cooperation between states is often tricky.

Emergency services people all want that information, and we're also seeing citizens doing a lot more self- organising around emergency situations. Recently during the Brisbane floods, a group of citizens organized a call center, a website, and a news service in a matter of about 24 hours to help people in the floods, and they did that without any government support or funding at all.

We've also seen people organize temporary housing websites to help out people who are displaced due to fires, floods, or other emergencies. So we're starting to see people helping themselves in these situations where government is not stepping in.

That's both a challenge and an opportunity for governments. If government has the processes and systems in place, it can draw on the intelligence and the capabilities of a much larger group than its paid employees.

But it requires a shift in thinking that is still very hard for government to make; they have to trust people who are outside the firewall.

Michele: That's a great place to finish. Thank you so much for spending time with us today.

Craig: Thank you.

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