This site was developed to support the Government 2.0 Taskforce, which operated from June to December 2009. The Government responded to the Government 2.0 Taskforce's report on 3 May 2010. As such, comments are now closed but you are encouraged to continue the conversation at

The Theory of SPIN: Serial Professional Innovation Negation

2009 August 4
by Nicholas Gruen

It’s a truism that the public sector is risk averse and that that’s one of the things holding up the adoption of Web 2.0 approaches – and indeed quite a few Web 1.0 approaches.
I don’t think this is inaccurate, but it’s also too general a statement to be of much use, especially since I haven’t seen too many politicians or bureaucrats wanting to throw the switch to taking on lots of risk.

It’s true in my opinion that the public sector can be too risk averse for our good, but there are very strong political incentives which mean that it won’t be easy throwing the switch to greater risk taking. The political incentives are such that projects that don’t work out are highly visible and lingeringly painful for politicians, while successes are quickly taken for granted.

I think it’s more useful to be as forensic as we can about the kind of form that risk aversion takes. Here’s a theory – I’ll call it my theory of Serial Professional Innovation Negation or SPIN. Here’s how it works.

When you get something done in the public service – or in any large organisation – the work is done in stages and different professions have their input. For this example, let’s say there are lawyers, and IT guys and communications people involved in the establishment of some new initiative.

One of the important things each of these professions do is to control risk. They control risk in a complex environment which (the uncomfortable truth is) nobody understands particularly well. Nevertheless the relevant professionals are immersed in and generally understand the system better than most (or are taken to understand better than most). Because the systems are not fully understood, things go wrong in them, and professions spend a lot of their time trying to prevent them going wrong.  They also gain a kind of force in and of themselves.  Thus lawyers provide templates for agreements, IT guys platforms for IT and so on.

So they develop procedures, ways of doing things that have been done before and which seem not to go wrong. A lawyer repeats a phrase in a test case in a contract he’s drafting, puts a copyright declaration on the Budget Papers which one would have thought the Government would want to see spread as far and as wide as possible.

Then people come along and say “why don’t we do something different”, or “why do we have that clause that says that the contractor can’t get any work done overseas?  Since this government is supposed to be reducing red tape, can’t we take it out?” At this stage a virtually impossibly heavy burden of proof can descend on even slight novelty. The professional might be a bit miffed that their usual approach isn’t being followed. They might be irritated. What’s wrong with the way we normally do this? But the other thing that’s looming large is something like this “I can’t tell you exactly what might go wrong, I might not even be quite sure exactly why we do it the way we do.  But even if it looks silly, there’s a chance that it’s not.  I guess it went in there for some reason.  And when we do it the normal way things don’t usually go wrong” and it’s my job to try to stop things going wrong.

The other thing about this is that it’s often extremely difficult for outsiders to gainsay the professionals. If one gets pages of legal analysis as to why something really shouldn’t be released in creative commons that will be enough for a lot of people just to do what the professionals recommend. And if they don’t, will the Secretary of the Department who is a busy person really want to delve into all the detail to satisfy themself that all of the four pages of contrary advice and warning can be dismissed?

I have personally experienced the way in which this works so that the smallest, seemingly most commonsensical change can be resisted. Then one might be pleased that some progress is made, but alas, that’s with the professionals in one agency.  Say it’s a line department.  Then professionals from some coordinating agency will come along and veto progress. I’ve heard similar stories from several Taskforce members.

And this happens not just in layers – as in this case there were layers of people from the same profession in different departments – but also in layers of different professionals. The Cutler Reportrecommended (Recommendation 7.8) that

Australian governments should adopt international standards of open publishing as far as possible. Material released for public information by Australian governments should be released under a creative commons licence.

Beacuse of that recommendation we spent considerable time seeking the blessing of officials of the Australian Government to release our report under such a licence. After considerable perseverence we persuaded one group of officials that this would be a sensible course only to have lawyers (I believe) from another agency object later on.  With further perseverence after the report was published the report was ultimately released under a creative commons licence, together with a disclaimer that this was not a decision of the Australian Government but rather the accession to a request from our Chairman.

All this when all we thought we were trying to do was release a report and get out of the way of anyone who wanted to copy it and propagate it further.

When hearing this story, one Taskforce member said it was just like IT professionals. They don’t like to deviate from what they know either. And I can appreciate why. IT systems in my experience from my own personal computing are always a wing and a prayer from something nasty happening – will it be a crash, a corruption, a virus or some other security threat?

So though I’m not an IT coder, I can well imagine that if I were, I’d be pretty unenthusiastic about doing things in new ways, because who knows what could go wrong? And if I was a communications advisor, I could think of all the PR hazards produced by some new practice – like staff taking to official blogs to explain what they were doing and why and opening themselves up to challenge, debate and ridicule from anyone who cared to post a comment.

So there’s my theory of Serial Professional Innovation Negation or SPIN. Every profession is risk averse in its own often different way, and it’s risk averse in ways that it’s difficult for outsiders to really gainsay. And if one layer of one profession doesn’t stop you doing something new, then another layer of the same profession might. And if it doesn’t then a quite different profession might.

All of which takes me back to the quote from the first post I put up on this blog.

Working with front-line professionals in local government over the last couple of months, I’ve been coming to see that:

  • The big challenges are not about technology – they are about the content and the process of mobilisation and communication.
  • When it comes to technology we’ve not got one big challenge we’ve got 100s of small challenges – and we’ve got no systematic way of dealing with them.

When all these small challenges stack up – the chance of staff members or teams in local or national government organisations and agencies being able to effectively engage with online-enabled policy making shrinks and shrinks.

Care to help me out? Is my analysis wrong and if so how? If it’s right how do we counter SPIN?

41 Responses
  1. 2009 August 5

    Hi Nick,

    I reckon you’re spot on.

    Your approach speaks to more than simply Gov 2.0, covering why innovation of many types can be hard to progress in some institutions.

    In certain cases institutions can believe it is safer to retain old systems and approaches (even if they don’t work well) than to ‘risk’ potential issues brought on introducing by new systems and approaches – the ‘better the devil you know’ philosophy.

    This is exacerbated when the ‘new’ is less well understood than the ‘old’ and isn’t normalised into senior decision-maker behaviours, or where the legal and governance guidelines are less clear, when successful precedents are rare or non-existent, where people are already flat out coping with existing workloads and if there isn’t a strong and urgent directive from the top.

    Some innovators can be worn down by the ’system’ and either relocate to more congenial surroundings (potentially leaving the public sector entirely) or become normalised into their environment and cease being agents for change. Either of these outcome reinforces the change and risk-adverse culture within these institutions.

    Even where innovators are successful in bringing about meaningful change, consider whether they receive a commensurate reward for their efforts. Without appropriate rewards some successful innovators will move on to new challenges, often leaving the changes they caused to occur to revert to older patterns in the absence of innovative leadership.

    I’ve also observed that risk management in the public sector sometimes focuses simply on assessing risks and do not always pay as much attention to assessing the corresponding benefits and weighing risk versus reward.



  2. 2009 August 5

    Nicholas, I may be wrong, but it sounds like you’ve been banging your head against a few walls as the Taskforce moves along.

    The “we do it this way because it’s the way we’ve always done it and it’s low risk” is a factor that I’ve encountered very frequently in my time as a public servant and subsequently as an outsider working with the public sector. I don’t think it’s isolated there (it exists in business, education and the health sector, for example), but everywhere you find it, it stifles innovation and prevents even minor risk taking that might otherwise have the potential to reap many rewards.

    Indeed, I think that the prevalence of this attitude has been a key factor in me moving on from more than one agency, and ultimately away from the APS (as Craig identifies, above).

    The other thing that I’ve seen, also identified by Craig, is that risk management is too often seen as a merely a process whereby the negative aspects of risk are identified and prevented from occurring (a good thing), but the positive, innovative risk is not identified as opportunity and no steps forward are taken.

    It seems that it often takes an explicit directive from on high – Ministerial or Secretarial level – for staff to be prepared to take on positive risk. I understand that. People are averse to doing things that may be perceived as costly or ill-considered and a directive mitigates against that.

    If just one thing the Taskforce manages is to introduce a willingness to address small, positive risk and realise innovation from it, you’ll have done us all a great service.

  3. 2009 August 5
    Kevin Cox permalink

    There is a solution to SPIN and that is to make it work for you. Remember what people are doing. They are building systems based on previous systems which have been based on “practice” that has built up over years. For systems stability this is good but it does stop innovation in its tracks because the burden of proof is on the innovator and the innovator cannot prove it until it is implemented.

    So here are some suggestions

    Make it easier for innovators to prove things by them being able to appeal to principles and not to rules and regulations.

    Do innovations slowly and do them so they grow and evolve and not be big bang “reforms”.

    So look for principles.

    Here are some.

    All personal information held about an individual should by default be available to the person in an electronic form.

    All government information is to have a common use license by default unless the holders of the data can prove otherwise.

    All data stored should contain the “reputation” of the persons who are allowed to store it, the person storing it and should specify the reputation of who can view it.

    Any new system or any revamped system should follow these rules when they are constructed or remodelled.

    Wherever possible the rules and regulations surrounding the system be embodied in the system rather than in the legislation or regulations. That is, systems should aspire to have rules and regulations part of the system and if a person uses the system they can be assured they are following all the rules.

    In other words Government 2.0 does not need to specify what to do but rather a set of principles that enable SPIN to work for open government.

  4. 2009 August 5
    Kevin Cox permalink

    I will provide an example later of what I am talking about by giving some “improvements” to this blog and the principles that could govern its operation that I think would improve interaction and make for better communication and interaction.

    • 2009 August 6

      Uservoice would be good, that way we could second comments from other contributors. But hey, open comments is a great start.

      • 2009 August 6

        Besides UserVoice, you could look at Australia2.

        It uses a similar voting mechanism but the (free open source) platform it is built on, Nationbuilder, has been customised towards use for government-style decision making.

        Australia2 is currently being used to allow people to comment on the priorities coming out of Public Sphere 2: Government 2.0 Policy and Practice.

        Ideascale is also a good platform and has been used in the US for their Open Government consultation, amongst many other things.

  5. 2009 August 5
    Mal permalink

    I agree with Kevin in that there is a solution in proving there is stability in the innovation designed to replace an old system. This might mean running two systems in parallel. If the professionals responsible for the old system find the new more reliable, they will make the transition themselves.

  6. 2009 August 5
    Neil Henderson permalink

    May I suggest that we have now almost reached the core of what Web 2.0 is about – which is that the current culture unfortunately prevents government adapting many of its capabilities?
    We all know that changing culture is the hardest change of all. So, how about we avoid attempting to change what is enormous & difficult/impossible – and instead focus on:
    1) Form a cluster team which pulls together all the frustrated people that Stephen Collins mentioned
    2) Identify a service that politicians want delivered, and deliver them
    I think this project (assuming web 2.0 is a project) will have avoid the current paradigm if it is to be successful. I would be very suprised if it could change the paradigm – so don’t try to change it – avoid it.
    Don’t know if many of you have heard the leader of Service Canada & what they did (Maryantoinette Flumian) – they got the poloticians to support what they were doing because they knew that the Secretaries would block the changes.
    So, Service Australia is the initiative to start here – Web 2.0 is the tool we use to deliver them (the services.

  7. 2009 August 5
    ben rogers permalink


    I agree – the inertia around changing the way things are done is incredible – and not just in the public service. Common practice tends to attract kind of voodoo status – with people going to incredible lengths to preserve the status quo – because thats what they know and thats what keeps them safe.

    But I think that there are enough of us embedded in the public service now who want to see things change, who are ready to take on the challenge of Gov2.0 – that we are getting close to critical mass.

    A suggestion that I think may help this speed the culture change is forums that allow individuals to come forward and self identify and meet with other of like mind. Something sponsored by Gov or APSC or the taskforce – something regular- a twitter network for Govt workers – something like Govloop in the states… something to build the momentum.

    great post – keep up the great work


    • 2009 August 5


      A suggestion that I think may help this speed the culture change is forums that allow individuals to come forward and self identify and meet with other of like mind. Something sponsored by Gov or APSC or the taskforce – something regular- a twitter network for Govt workers – something like Govloop in the states… something to build the momentum.

      This is easy, in the cloud, and you could implement this tomorrow — my global NGO uses yammer ( as a private internal twitter service. It uses email registration (eg, only people with a email address can register). Integrates nicely with twitter, in that I can pull discussions ‘out there’ in behind the wire just by appending a #yam tag on an RT. Costs nothing at the scale we’re using it at (several hundred users) but at scale might be a few quid necessary.

    • 2009 August 7

      Something sponsored by Gov or APSC or the taskforce – something regular- a twitter network for Govt workers – something like Govloop

      Why not use Govdex? It has wikis and forums and is specifically created for cross-government collaboration…

    • 2009 August 13

      Its heartening to see people like Ben in the APS agitating for change, all power to all of you

  8. 2009 August 5

    I really enjoyed reading this post. Thank you!

    There is another way to manage risk – redundancy

    Take a big project, split it into lots of little projects with their own goals. Take the most risky mini-projects, give them half the amount of time and money that they need, assuming that there’s a good chance the mini-project will fail. If it fails try again (it didn’t cost much money or time).

    Even, by allowing failure in the mini-projects, the overall project can have a very low risk of failure.

    If you try to design systems and processes that never fail anywhere, you’ll end up with a system that works perfectly for the one thing it was designed to do. Change any part of what it should it do and it proves to be difficult. This is the “design philosophy” of the public service.

    Alternatively, break a big system into lots of little interacting parts, some of which will work and some of which won’t, mix in redundancy and make each part cheaply and hey presto you have something that both works, is adaptable and doesn’t cost heaven and earth.

    For software development this way of looking at risk is called Agile.

  9. 2009 August 5

    Matthew Landauer is right about using Agile, but it’s not an approach that’s limited to software development. I’m teaching it as a project philosophy in a fed gov dept at the moment across design, comms, and business program areas.

    For me, Agile goes hand-in-hand with risk minimization, waste minimization, collaboration and communication.

    More of us should be using it in gov to manage new projects, including web 2.0


  10. 2009 August 5
    Kevin Cox permalink

    I agree with the idea of using the concept of agile development. This approach has been called various things over the years. I quite like idea of calling it an evolutionary approach and we have been using it successfully for many years.

    It is necessary to have a “vision” of how you wish the system to evolve. This is what I call the principles of the system. In legislative terms it is the explanatory documentation that tries to explain the purpose and reason for the legislation.

    In systems development you start with the minimum system that achieves a useful result and you evolve from that system.

    When you look at a lot of legislation and in particular the regulations of the legislation you find that the people who have formulated these documents have been writing the equivalent of computer programs. Trying to do this for ANY computer system development is doomed. This is why it takes so long and there are so many systems development failures in government and industry. It is too hard to specify systems in detail as they change the moment someone starts to use them.

    How does this translate to Government 2.0? As previously mentioned it is suggested that there is a concentration on the “principles”, implement an example, evolve it, and see if the principles can be implemented and revise the principles but do not try to specify exactly how to everything.

  11. 2009 August 5

    Thanks for all the comments. Have been out giving talks of various kinds all day, so it’s great to get back to the office to find so much tasty food for thought in the comments.

  12. 2009 August 5

    An expression that covers the conservative public sector approach is “accepted practice”, implicit approval of all internal stakeholders on courses of action, even if not effective or efficient.

    AIEC sees this with Australian university and TAFE personnel involved in international education promotion offshore. Many personnel feign ignorance of advances in the internet for market analysis, development, promotion and recruitment in deference to accepted practice of travelling incessantly under the guise of “marketing” to meet offshore agents face to face, talk through brochures, do a few tours…..

  13. 2009 August 5
    Catherine permalink

    Thank you for recognising this problem. In some ways the remedy is simple: encouragement, all round.

    Risk-taking requires courage – courage to explore new territory, where Things Might Go Wrong, whence The People might curse and say ‘Well, you shouldn’t have gone there’.

    Fear gets us nowhere. We must openly acknowledge (in advance) risk and the reasons for taking it, and (in retrospect) the outcome and the lessons learned. All that takes courage too – which The People would commend. Maybe they’d say ‘Well, it was worth a try’.

    And hey, maybe the risk would pay off and The People would rejoice!

    So, Prime Minister, ministers, agency heads, courage to you! Because (as Stephen suggests in his comment) risk-taking needs to be allowed, even encouraged, by those at the top.

    Take risk, take responsibility. Onward! I for one encourage you.

  14. 2009 August 5
    Martin Stewart-Weeks permalink

    Great conversation.
    Soime things are missing:
    1 Politics (the game is played in large, sculputral blocks of carefully designed, tightly controlled activity which is about a million miles away from all of the terrific sugestions and insights)
    2 Accountability (you can’t adopt an agile model of policy or service design without an agile model of accountability; we don’t have such a thing…nowhere near.)
    3 The risk conversation (in the public sector, and in many corporations too, we are hostage to a thin, contrained and limited conversation about risk. Always about risk of doing something wrong or making a mistake instead of the risk of failing to change, to innovate and to discover a new dimension of performance).
    Exhortations for public servants to behave differently and to adopt new ways of working without dealing with these context issues will lead to frustration and much slower progress than we’d all like to see.

    • 2009 August 5

      Martin, it’s the issues you point out, and many of the questions enunciated in the recently released paper that have many of us amongst the experienced practitioners frustrated.

      Frustrated, because the answers already exist. The steps to take have been established and proven many times over.

      In no small part, the Taskforce is starting from too basic a position. The questions in the paper and those you put have, in large part, been answered in one form or another for several years. Many of us have lived through them. We already have workable, exemplar answers to them. Answers learned through activity, problems solved and experiences had.

      Continuing to talk about all the same questions and issues faced, for example, by POIT over two years ago will get us nowhere. We need to be many steps further along already.

      Isn’t it about time that we defined this not as a thing to explore possibilities, but as something to present ways forward?

      If the Taskforce sought out the people who have already done work – in the private and public sectors – to resolve these issues, we could be presenting something of real substance to the government come the end of December. Something that offered vendor and provider neutral patterns for moving rapidly forward, risks mitigated and on to a place where the real business of Government 2.0 could be taking place.

      It’s not always as hard as we’re making it out to be.

      • 2009 August 7
        Martin Stewart-Weeks permalink

        A great post from the ‘inventor’ (?) of MyPolice, the idea that won the recent Social Innovation Camp in Scotland.

        “It is an exciting push in the direction of using social media within a public sector organisation. We’re not just using social media because it is the latest hot topic in the government. We’re using the tools to empower citizens to collectively make decisions on how their local area should be policed.

        If we can convince the police that our idea can add value to their service, reduce the time they currently spend ‘engaging’ with the public and improve relationships with the communities they serve, all at the same time, we’ll be looking at some pretty big changes and perhaps a step towards giving more power to the people.”

        There are ways to work ‘with the grain’ so that Web 2.0 looks like it is useful to those who are initially sceptical. The way the story is told, the site was developed with local police to show them how well designed social media tools could help them achieve what they want – better engagement with the community, saving them time and money etc.

        Like you say, we know how to do this stuff so this is where we should start.

    • 2009 August 6
      Kevin Cox permalink

      Catherine – Martin,

      The points you raise can be overcome if we apply the principle of anonymity with responsibility. That is, you are protected from “mistakes” and stupidity and misunderstanding but not from lies.

  15. 2009 August 6
    Warweary permalink

    This comes down to a couple things. We all want the government to be accountable. We all read news stories of government [expletive deleted], government embarrassments, government not doing anything right.
    The public is sending a very strong message. “Do it right.” Fair enough. As a public servant, I want to provide the best possible service I can. The other message I see the public service getting is “We will slap you hard if you do it wrong”. Hey, that’s not fair. If the public service is going to be innovative, it’s going to make mistakes. Public servants are human too.
    I am not a faceless bureaucrat, I am someone trying the best I can. I see stories in the paper about grocery choice, about fuel watch, about the access card. Sure, they made mistakes. And they were hung out to dry about it.
    You want innovation? Where is it safe for us to be innovative? The area I work in has been told not to interact with you guys. You are presenting an example of it right now. Something is obviously happening at the moment. And instead of trying to work with your faceless bearcats, you are publicly slamming them. You are rewarding the risk adverse culture by making it hard to bring head up out of the foxhole. No one works well when their every move is harshly critiqued.
    McShane & Travaglione (2007) identify five approaches to changes to organisational culture. Here are my suggestions based on them:

    1) Actions of founders and leaders: the founders of an organization influence the initial organisational culture. Subsequent leaders also impact and change the culture. You are considered a leader in this space, leading the taskforce. Model the culture you want to see. Encourage other leaders to do the same
    2) Introduce culturally consistent rewards: rewarding behaviour that reinforces the cultural values. The public service has a risk adverse culture. Make it safe for us to make changes. Give us good news stories about the good things we are doing.
    3) Don’t maintaining a stable workforce: all employees influence the organisational culture. When staff turnover is low, there is little disruption and challenge to existing cultural values. Give us some new people who are not saturated by the current risk adverse culture.
    4) Manage the cultural network: the cultural network operates through the unofficial ‘grapevine’. Such things as internal newsletters and rituals can reinforce cultural values. Give us good news stories, stories of innovation that can inspire us.
    5) Select and socialise employees: when hiring new employees, organisations often look at how well potential employees will ‘fit’ with the organisation’s culture. Once employed, employees are exposed to the cultural values of the organisation and socialised into the culture via orientation procedures, social events and interactions. Ensure the newbies maintain their innovative ideas.

    (McShane S & Travaglione T, 2007, Organisational Behaviour on the
    Pacific Rim, 2nd edn, McGraw-Hill Irwin.)

    Here’s my last suggestion. You and the taskforce are making an assumption that the public service is one single culture. We are not. There are a lot of counter-cultures inside the pubic service, some of which are those you want.

    1) Find and strengthen those innovative counter-cultures the public service already has within its departments

    • 2009 August 6

      Warweary, you’ve been directed not to work with the Taskforce and it’s ideas!? That’s tragic. And it’s something the Taskforce should be on instantly – directing it to the Minister(s) to whom they are responsible and getting it fixed.

      But it’s an example of the risk aversion we all know about. It’s that hurdle that needs to come down first, because, as you say, clever things are being done in the public sector. It’s just that nobody discusses them for fear of retribution. There’s a blame culture at work in some parts of the public sector and certainly in a number of Minister’s offices. There are also unreasonable expectations of time and commitment coming from those places as well.

      A lot of this goes to the politicisation, particularly of the SES, from the time of Keating and especially during the Howard years. It’s arguably worse under the current government, with the strong West Wing-isation of the PM’s Office. Senior bureaucrats and even some Ministers are being cut out of the loop.

      I don’t think anyone here is rewarding risk aversion. Rather, they want to see negative attitudes to risk of any sort reduced so that ideas and innovation can flourish. Lots of us have worked for long periods in the public sector – some still do. Others like me, work with the public sector (but don’t discount the possibility to return should the right opportunity arise).

      You raise points that need dealing with. Soon.

      • 2009 August 6

        The perception that “We will slap you hard if you do it wrong” comes from experiences like Grocery Choice where it appears that the metaphorical “hard slap” was applied. So that fear is somewhat justified – however, if we take time to look at why that was the case, and why Government has had experiences like this, there is something to be learned.

        The reason that this is the case is because of how the end result came about. Grocery choice was not developed in consultation, and in concert with the people it was seeking to help, so it’s failure was almost inevitable. The problem wasn’t so much the failure, but it was the failure after a lot of money and time had been spent.

        Failing fast is something that is good and I think largely encouraged by the public. In my experience, working in a web 2.0 world, if you fail in an open manner, and all the while are receiving feedback, every “failure” is just an opportunity for improvement.

        Having open and transparent feedback systems creates the environment where it is OK to fail. For then failing is just a necessary step in the building process. Without this, failing is all for naught.

        I agree with Stephen that if you have been told “not to interact with us”, this needs to be addressed, so I’d really like to thank you for your honesty, and openness.

    • 2009 August 6
      Kevin Cox permalink

      Warweary part of the problem can be addressed by “anonymity with responsibility”. Readers of this blog do not need to know who you are but we do need to know whether or not you are employed in the public service in order to evaluate your comments. If they were from someone not employed and who has been running a campaign against the government then we would look at what you were saying in a different light. We do not need to know who you are just your “credentials” for saying what you are saying. We also need to know if you express the same position under “Peace be with You”.

      Having this facility makes for better and more open dialogue and interaction.

      It is my belief that the overwhelming majority of people both within and outside the public service want to have a cooperative dialogue and to explore possibilities. Most people do not want to “knock” the public service – but sometimes they do it simply because they do not understand the problems and constraints imposed on public service systems which would be alleviated if the explanation could be given.

      One of the difficulties with building government systems is the difficulty to run experiments. If systems could be built that were “beta” and tried out as such then it would make for much better systems. Green papers and white papers are great in the area of policy formulation and perhaps could be a platform from which to build beta green and white systems.

  16. 2009 August 6

    Good to see the conversation getting to the heart of the challenges that the TaskForce faces.

    Government is a large and complex organisation, with most incentives geared towards maintaining the status quo (because that is the natural state of power in any large complex organisation). “2.0″ is disruptive technology that will re-engineer information flows within government and between government and the people. But the natural order is for strong resistance from within (Machiavelli first pointed this out), and technology will only be effective when operating in combination with other forces.

    In my view there are four forces for change that can be channelled to achieve change in government – leadership, economics, heroes and citizens.

    Leadership has to come from political leaders – they alone are the ones that can adjust the values that public servants operate within. However, other political issues – education, healthcare, taxation, foreign affairs, environment, transport, law and order – will always be higher up the agenda than reform of the bureaucracy.

    Economics is a powerful force for change – organisations change when they can no longer afford to stay the same. In NZ, where I am based, the financial crisis that we faced in the 1980s (as a result of the collapse of our agricultural exports to Britain arising from the EU) led to major reform of the public service. There have been similar pressures in most other jurisdictions, and there is some indication that the current global financial meltdown will create some additional pressure for change. As the current catch phrase goes: “never waste a good crisis”.

    Heroes is the word I use for those who operate within the public service to drive change from within. These can range from “skunk-works” activities to free up government information, to personal leadership of high visibility transformational change programmes by senior public servants. The bigger the change, the bigger the fall, and the less incentive to take the risk.

    Citizens are the most powerful force that will, over time, create change. The role of txt messaging in the fall of the Estrada government in the Philippines in 2001, and the recent power of twitter in Iran after the election are two dramatic examples. Other examples include the use of people’s choice to drive better performance in service delivery in government administration.

    Effective public service transformation have components of all four of these forces acting together. I give three examples here, I am sure anyone on this discussion can create their own:

    1. The movement that is currently sweeping through American federal government – started by a combination of leadership (Obama) and citizens (internet campaigning), reinforced by economics, and some emerging heroes within the administration.

    2. The current change in California, almost entirely driven by economics at this stage, and needing an enrolment of leadership, citizens and heroes, if it is to pull out of a downward spiral.

    3. Government reform in the UK in the 1990s, which used a combination of leadership (Tony Blair) and citizen choice, supported by heroes in various government agencies and only a small amount of economic pressure.

    So what are the lessons for the Task Force? Make sure that all four of these forces for change are harnessed to a common future vision. Government 2.0 can deliver lower cost government, economic growth, citizen engagement, and rewarding job opportunities for those in the public service with the courage to seize them.

  17. 2009 August 6

    Thanks – that’s a great comment Laurence. Some real food for thought. It’s such a multi-headed beast we’re dealing with that it’s not surprising that the methods of tackling it are so multi-dimensional. But it does show that good policy recommendations are just the beginning.

  18. 2009 August 6
    Neil Henderson permalink

    Great comment Laurence – I agree a big crisis would be a great initiator for change – pity we seem to have missed the recent GFC in Australia.
    So, we need to find another initiator, are any of these possibilities? :-
    1. E-Health
    2. Henry taxation review
    3. The next Federal election
    4. Environment – reducing gas emissions, becoming more efficient

  19. 2009 August 6

    Of those three Neil I’d probably go with (4) as the one that would engage public interest, and perhaps importantly, sympathy — ‘we’re changing our service/practice X to cut our CO2 emissions’ is as close to a free pass as you’ll get I suspect.

    I’m with global organisation in 60+ countries, and the cultural&financial driver of trying to get on ever fewer planes is moving the organisation towards better, flatter, more internally transparent online collaborative techniques. Alas culture doesn’t change overnight, as many people are welded to their email, but we’re getting there. [Tangentially there was the same experience with HIV -- you can't have a deep understanding in the organisation of how to deal with HIV in terms of programme, until/unless you have the right culture and policies of your own staff with HIV.]

    I think internal change in practice and culture (towards dialogue, and information sharing rather than hoarding) here can be a key to unlocking a similar outlook when dealing with the barbarians outside the gates (ie, the public).

  20. 2009 August 6
    Martin Stewart-Weeks permalink

    We may well be reaching the point where we need some ‘real’ discussion in a room with a few folks to hammer some of this out. A terrific exposure of the complex tangle of ideas, opportunities and barriers at play here. As Nicholas says, a many-headed beast…

    Which means a many-headed response, including (just quickly summarising some of the themes from the discussion thus far):

    1 Honest assessment of the status quo and the continuing challenges of taking the risks that much public innovation implies
    2 Avoid the danger, though, of either overstating the difficulties or of ignoring the experience of those who’ve found ways to work around the obstacles and have considerable track records of innovation inside the public sector. Find them, tell their stories and learn quickly from what they have achieved.
    3 Adopt the Millar four-pillar approach and formulate not just policy suggestions but some practical projects that would bring together leadership, economic (or other) necessity, citizen engagement and some internal heroes

    I was especially struck by the various exhortations to (a) avoid indulging in what could be perceived as simply another form of public servant-bashing (which I don’t think we are, by the way) and (b) make sure the taskforce pushes the debate considerably further with some solid ideas for change. Don’t simply rehearse what we already know…

    Two things keep recurring in my mind. One is that change is emotionally confronting. There is an inescapably personal dimension to all of this, a reliance on enough people inside the system with the kind of open mind set and the requisite emotional range to nurture, lead and tolerate processes of deep change (ie the kind of people who don’t mind if their own attitudes and power are sometimes the subject of the change process itself). Tricky stuff which no amount of theorising and checklists of principles will fix.

    The other is that once you have this culture change monkey by the tail, you have to accept that the more you pull on it, the more you will awaken the much larger beast at the other end, which will confront you with tougher and more fundamental questions about the role and purpose of government itself. (I think the monkey/beast analogy might have got a bit chewed up – apologies!).

    It seems hard to debate the way we want pubic servants to be and to behave if we don’t also have a discussion about what we want government itself to be in the networked age. I know that’s going to sound impossibly ambitious for some and it’s always a risk to widen a discussion so far that people find it hard to engage it properly. But Government 2.0 has always been as much a debate about changing notions of government itself as it is about pragmatic ways in which to harness the tools, instincts and values of Web 2.0 to the task of better public governance.

    • 2009 August 6

      Martin, I think you’re absolutely right. Let’s get a smart group in a room (several times) as well as have their deliberations available as close to real-time online as possible. Make that group a combination of the insiders (public sector ataff from whatever form of public sector we can) and the (semi) outsiders (former public servants, consultants, entrepreneurs, interested others).

      Use as many people as possible who have been involved in one way or another in helping organisations in government and the private sector do this sort of thing already so we can collaborate and aggregate experience – positive and negative.

      We can then use that material as real meat to take to the government in the report (and before).

      Laurence’s advice is wise as ever. His former role puts him in a great place to discuss the wins he saw as NZ CIO, but also to make abundantly clear those things that did not work. Indeed, NZ seems often simply to be getting on with the job of doing things that have a sniff of Government 2.0 about them. If only that were the case here – many things are being done, but they have a tendency to be hidden under layers of reticence to discuss.

      So, when can we make it so? I’m happy to help out in any way I can.

    • 2009 August 14

      great wrap up of the thread Martin. Maybe it is time to do some short summaries of the threads for newbies who we hope will stumble upon this excellent conversation

  21. 2009 August 7
    Neil Henderson permalink

    I am happy to help with a rundown of what I have seen does and does-not work in Federal Government (less experience in State/Territory work).
    Imagine if we could have something as simple as this forum to address our need for authentication, or taxonomy? IMO some of what needs to be done here is simply a case of putting the capability out there & “see if they will come”.
    I’m happy to contribute if this would be useful.

  22. 2009 August 9

    This reminds me of the Wikimedia Foundation’s email list a long time (6 years) ago, when people started to talk about ‘the next steps’, and lots of newbies sprung out of the woodwork. “These threads are impossible to handle”, “the signal to noise is 1%”. Success does have its problems, eh?

    So before we “get a smart group in a room (several times) as well as have their deliberations available as close to real-time online as possible” could we take note that calls this form of media ‘distance learning’, and has quite a few tools available.

    Nic, you might see what Pia has come up with on kate lundy’s blog, and how ‘the public sphere’ is being supported (tools and approach). And they’ll be some interesting approaches come out of the GLAMwiki conference.

    I won’t go on about the practice (chicken) vs. policy (egg) arguements, and what comes first. But if it’s practice you believe in as a driver of more inclusive governmental media, then you’ve taken your first steps; well done!

    If you want an example of how its handled in the ‘real world’ then offers some instruction, and moodles are the favoured tools in the .edu space. But I’m sure you’ll choose what suits this community.

    Regardless, the first step is replacing the AGIMO copyright here with a creative commons (type). It’s not the copyrights that are important; it’s what they represent (to government bureaucrats and citizens). Personally, I don’t give a stuff. But there are all these back room jobs waiting to be created by the standardization of the process.

    • 2009 August 9

      Simon, I’m well aware of what the .edu community, Wikimedia and Kate Lundy’s office are up to – I’m involved in several of them quite directly (as an organiser of and speaker at two of the Public Spheres) and provide professional advice to the .edu sector on using these sorts of tools, changing culture and adpting to that change for parent, students and educators.

      You’ll even see exactly what that activity is if you take a quick look at my blog. I live and breathe this stuff.

      My comment of “people in a room” was focussed on the fact that it will be quite likely that several Canberra locals will be involved in the Canberra-based activity in the first instance.

      I wholeheartedly agree that there are several highly useful, online options for doing all this.

      • 2009 August 17
        simonfj permalink

        Hey Stephen,

        Please don’t think I’m being critical. It’s just that as gov2, edu2, kate, etc move along, and more people attend, things will tend to fragment – a blog here, a wiki there, all with different domain names and people who staff them. It just tends to run that way. I’m only pointing out that we need to consider how to keep the conversations around the same “hive”. I’m using whirpool simply because it’s forums work, due to having various moderators (and reps from various telecos) staffing (collaborating in) the one domain, and directing people to the appropriate discussion thread. It’s a successful (sustainable)communications model.

        If you know wikipedia lists, you’ll know that ‘everyone’ considers foundation-l, as the main list for the WMF, to have real problems with the signal to noise. It was fine when just a few people were using it. It’s just a problem with success, which is one tool being focussed on re wikimedia’s strategy at present. I’m just noting it early, because the WMF community is a good exponent of open governance.(or closed chaos as some believe), and is starting to address the problem of an orientation space.

        The other primary issue, which has been touched on few times around here already, is the need for authentication = The Single Sign On if you like. You know the impossibility of trying to introduce a common log in into the WMF space (although some headway was made). I would just be interested to know a little about where AGOSP got to, because it’s delivery was promised (firstly in June) and we could use it to pull lots of remote groups together, and break a few cultural barriers down. It might also stop the spam filter eating my entries.

    • 2009 August 10

      Hi Simon,

      This blog is licensed under a Creative Commons 2.5 Attribution Australia License. Please see our Copyright Statement for further details.

      The copyright notice you pointed out has been updated. Thanks for your feedback.


      Taskforce Secretariat

Comments are closed.