7 September 2020
Alfred Deeb

Governments’ responsibilities

Governments around the world have a critical responsibility to their citizens. Why? Because happy and thriving citizens ultimately mean a happier and thriving country, which translates to a happier and thriving civilisation.

Firstly, citizens need their basic needs met — something that we take for granted in first-world countries. These basic needs cover good security, good infrastructure, good education and good economic policies. On top of this, governments need to provide other services and processes that help us move forward as a society and as a civilisation. However, it’s not easy for governments to deliver.

The challenge

Historically, government jurisdictions have been trying to solve similar problems in isolation rather than coming together to solve the problems. This has led to fragmentation across tech platforms, processes and citizen user experiences. In addition, often the different approaches and solutions across government rely on proprietary technologies, resulting in vendor lock-in and prohibiting innovation.

While governments around the world do face other problems, these are the issues we’re particularly passionate about at Salsa.

CivicTech, GovTech and open data help government

Emerging trends to tackle these problems focus on helping governments become more open, more connected and more consolidated.

Imagine a world where governments are:

  • More consolidated — less fragmented and therefore more efficient across platforms, people and processes.

  • More connected — able to better connect and engage with citizens, and able to better connect and engage with each other - other governments and jurisdictions.

  • More open — opening up their datasets and adopting open source technologies to build greater trust and foster innovation by co-creating with citizens and industry.

Three emerging trends delivering on this future world are:

  1. GovTech
  2. CivicTech
  3. Open data

These three trends are at different ‘stages’ of maturity, with open data being the most mature in the government space, followed by CivicTech, and then GovTech.

What is GovTech?

In Salsa’s view, GovTech is about using technology to optimise governments’ internal operations to make them more efficient and more consolidated. This is why we’re heavily involved in the GovTech movement, because it ties with Salsa’s vision of helping governments become more consolidated.

What is CivicTech?

CivicTech is about using technology to help governments ultimately better engage and connect with their citizens. CivicTech ties to Salsa’s vision of helping governments become more connected.

What is open data?

Open data is data that’s freely available for anyone to use, reuse and redistribute as they wish. In the government space, open data is about opening up datasets so they can be used by others, i.e. citizens, industry, etc, for analysis or to create new products or services. Open data is an area, a movement, we’ve been part of for some time, both staying on top of developments and leading the charge through projects and advocacy. Open data ties to Salsa’s vision of helping governments become more open.

GovTech in action

GovTech can be seen in many areas of government around the world. Estonia is a world-renowned leader when it comes to digital government. E-services were first introduced in Estonia in 1997 (!) and they launched digital identity in 2001 and e-voting in 2005. So definitely progressive leaders, using technology covering both GovTech and CivicTech (given most of their e-services are focused on engaging with citizens and making their lives easier). You can read our blog on Estonia as digital pioneers for more information.

The UK Government has also done significant work over the past few years in GovTech, such as major consolidation through its GOV.UK websiteExternal Link . GOV.UK brings together an impressive 24 ministerial departments and 412 agencies/public bodies. GOV.UK provides one central hub for all things government for UK citizens. Also focused on consolidation and standardisation are UK initiatives and frameworks like the UK Service StandardExternal Link , API standardsExternal Link , the GOV.UK Design SystemExternal Link and directives for open standardsExternal Link .

The UK’s GovTech Catalyst programExternal Link is a great example of government backing GovTech — in this case by providing a £20 million fund specifically set up to pay vendors that use innovative digital technology to solve public sector problems. These are all examples of how the UK leverages GovTech to be more open, more connected and more consolidated.

Here in Australia we have several examples of GovTech in action. Two examples close to our heart (yes, we’re a bit biased!) are GovCMS and Single Digital Presence.

GovCMS is a consolidated whole-of-government content management and hosting platform that enables Australian Government agencies to build secure, resilient, modern and compliant websites quickly and focus on delivering quality digital content and services to its citizens. GovCMS also streamlines, simplifies and speeds up procurement because Aus government agencies don't have to go to market, write an RFQ, and evaluate responses from vendors around hosting platform options, etc.

Victoria’s Single Digital Presence is a consolidated whole-of-Victorian-government citizen experience platform that makes it easier for Victorian government agencies to deliver information and digital services to its citizens.

The GovCMS and Single Digital Presence platforms are built on open source technologies DrupalExternal Link and LagoonExternal Link , making them both fully open source technology stacks, further contributing to governments becoming more open.

Launch Vic’s CivVic LabsExternal Link is the Victorian equivalent of the UK’s GovTech Catalyst program, although it’s arguably even more disruptive because it’s changing the traditional government procurement paradigm. Through CivVic Labs, the ‘lab’ is partnering with startups to solve problems for government, instead of government going out to tender for specific pieces of work.

CivicTech in action

Some of the UK and Estonia examples mentioned above can be classified as both GovTech and CivicTech — CivicTech because they’re improving how government engages with citizens and delivering real benefits to citizens.

In the US, a great example of CivicTech is the many cities bringing their 311 services online. In the US, citizens dial 311 to report non-emergency issues (e.g. road damage) and find out more about city services. Over the past few years, many cities have created 311 apps, including Houston, Boston, LA and New York (to name a few). This initiative ties into our vision and governments’ vision to create governments that are more connected to their citizens.

Here in Australia CivicTech is still emerging. However, five great examples are:

  • Service NSWExternal Link helping citizens access more services (also a great example of GovTech and consolidation)
  • Engage VictoriaExternal Link — centralising public consultations so Victorians can have their say on Victorian government consultations.
  • Service WA locator — creating a personalised, location-based experience for WA citizens.
  • WA public consultationExternal Link — capturing and managing WA’s public consultations to help WA citizens connect with their government.
  • QLD Responsive GovernmentExternal Link — QLD Department of Housing and Public Works is involved in delivering a more responsive government. Part of this is the Tell Us Once initiative, which is building digital identity and streamlined information sharing such as a Business Service Catalogue accessible via API.

Open data in action

Open data is relatively more mature in governments around the world. The ‘base’ level in government is open data portals, across both the federal and state levels. We’ve seen the creation and refinement of these open data portals happening in Australia over the past few years and more and more agencies are opening up their datasets by adding them to the portals. These portals are a central place where citizens and industry can discover, explore and use open data sets. Ultimately this allows governments to support co-creation and co-innovation with citizens and industry. Australia’s federal and state open data portals are:

One very important layer of open data is the use of open APIs, something that governments around the world are tapping into.

Open APIs make open data machine-readable, which supports programmatic access. This facilitates co-innovation and co-creation by enabling citizens and industry to build new platforms and technologies that underpin the government data.

A great Open API example relates back to the US’s 311 service. In 2010 Open311External Link launched to help standardisation across the 311 service. The 311 concept has continued to expand. For example, Europe took Open311 and built on, with CitySDKExternal Link , which focuses on city services around participation, mobility and tourism. And in the UK and Australia, Open311 has been used in conjunction with FixMyStreetExternal Link to help citizens report local problems.

For example here in Australia, the recently launched Consumer Data RightExternal Link uses APIs to transfer data, if clients decide to use the service. Also at the federal level, Australia has an API portalExternal Link , where government departments can register their APIs for citizens and industry to discover and use government APIs.

There are also more emerging applications of open data, such as autonomous cars and the use of vehicle-generated data. Driverless cars have a critical dependency on the road laws. To enable autonomous cars, governments around the world need to open up the road laws as APIs, so cars can ‘read’ and obey the rules. Obviously security, resilience and scalability are paramount to protect the open APIs from any interference or failures. We also recently blogged on the potential of vehicle-generated data.

Traditionally government has been responsible for both the data and the service for citizens. However in the new world, government can focus just on the data and open up their APIs to enable citizens and industry to create better digital services to deliver the data. This does, of course, put a responsibility on government to ensure practices and policies around open data and open APIs are clear, safe and robust.

Who’s leading the GovTech, CivicTech and open data movements?

There are many peak bodies and institutions in government driving and pioneering this movement in terms of policy, reform frameworks, best practice guidelines and specific projects.

For example, at the global level, we have the Open Government PartnershipExternal Link paving the way to help create a global environment of open government. Currently, 78 countries are part of the Open Government Partnership. The policy areas within the partnership cover a broad range of topics, including digital governanceExternal Link and how governments can leverage technology to help citizens. This drives government to be more open and more transparent, which ultimately serves the citizens (CivicTech in action).

In Australia, the Open Government Partnership AustraliaExternal Link comes under the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C). Australia released its first national action plan in 2016 and work is underway for its third action planExternal Link . One of the commitments from Australia’s second (and current) national plan is to improve the sharing, use and reuse of public sector dataExternal Link . Open data is a key element in helping governments become more open.

The D9

Also at a global level we have the D9 movementExternal Link , a group of nine countries that are (D)igital pioneers. The group started off as the D5, and has grown to nine countries — Canada, Estonia, Israel, Mexico, New Zealand, Portugal, Republic of Korea, United Kingdom and Uruguay. Currently, the D9 has four focus areas:

In addition to these themes, all participants are focused on:

  • User needs
  • Open standards
  • Open source
  • Open markets
  • Open government
  • Connectivity
  • Teaching children to code
  • Assisted digital
  • A commitment to share and learn

There’s a strong crossover between these principles and the Digital Transformation Agency’s Digital Service StandardsExternal Link , specifically:

1. Understand user needs

3. Agile and user-centred process

7. Use open standards and common platforms

8. Make source code open

Australian peak bodies and centralised agencies

In Australia, in addition to the Open Government Partnership AustraliaExternal Link we have initiatives like the PM&C’s Australian Data and Digital CouncilExternal Link , which connects state and federal governments to share knowledge and work on shared deliverables. This helps to connect jurisdictions so they can work together to push for innovation and consolidation in Australian government. In turn, this will improve citizen engagement, and thus enable CivicTech. By coming together they are breaking down silos, sharing lessons learned and initiatives with each other, building on each other's work, contributing back to each other, and ultimately pushing innovation boundaries further and advancing citizens and society.

Australia also has the Digital Transformation AgencyExternal Link (DTA), the central digital authority of the Australian Government. The DTA leads several different projects that come under GovTech, CivicTech and/or open data. For example, the DTA’s houses government open data from across Australia, its whole-of-government hosting strategyExternal Link looks at consolidating hosting, and three platforms the DTA is currently workingExternal Link on consolidate services and aim to deliver a better citizen experience.

At the federal level we also have the Department of Finance playing a role in GovTech, through its whole-of-government digital platform, GovCMS and through its lead role in procurement.

Centralising digital government

More and more countries are centralising digital government and working across jurisdictions. Examples include:

Procurement changes to help government transform

We’re also starting to see procurement policy changes that are disrupting the marketplace. This is changing how governments engage with industry and how we’re helping governments solve problems. In fact, in some instances the whole procurement paradigm is shifting, as governments move toward agile builds and spinning up quick proof of concepts before investing too heavily. The UK’s GovTech Catalyst programExternal Link is an example of a ‘disruptor’ in the procurement process, as is Launch Vic’s CivVicLabsExternal Link .

As part of these procurement changes, governments need to ensure they’re across what we see as the major six concepts for reducing risk and improving the final solution in modern ICT project delivery. These are:

  1. User-centred design — Ensuring the project is tailored to meet user needs from the ground up.
  2. Agile software delivery — To deliver maximum business value as soon as possible.
  3. Nominating a product owner — Someone who represents the agency and its requirements within the project and ‘owns’ the end product.
  4. DevOps — Combining the development team (‘Dev’) that builds the solution with the operations team (‘Ops’) that manages the solution post go live.
  5. Building with loosely coupled parts — Delivering across a number of smaller semi-independent projects with an individual agile development team.
  6. Modular contracting — Breaking up the overall procurement into smaller discrete contracts and therefore smaller engagements.

Taking on ICT projects in these ‘new ways’ helps government innovate and deliver to its citizens more efficiently and with less risk. It also helps vendors deliver important GovTech solutions to government.

Many governments around the world are changing the ICT procurement process to help deliver better government services. In the US, the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform ActExternal Link (FITARA) of 2014 was a major IT procurement reform. This has seven main deliverables, including consolidation of ICT services and reduced costs.

Consolidating frameworks

As you’ve already seen in this Insight, much of the work happening in governments around the world focuses on consolidation. This can be seen in the prevalence of whole-of-government solutions. Some of these I’ve already mentioned (e.g. GovCMS, Victoria’s Single Digital Presence, the DTA’s whole-of-government architecture and the DTA’s whole-of-government hosting strategy), however there’s a lot more going on in this space — here and overseas. For example, whole-of-government design systems are now the norm. They provide components and code that agencies across each country can use to build compliant websites faster and more easily. It also creates design consistency, which helps with the overall citizen user experience. The Australian Design SystemExternal Link is one example.

Another Aussie example is Australia’s National API Design StandardsExternal Link . These provide a standardised framework to make it more consistent and easier for APIs to connect websites, databases and other software across governments. These standards were actually an Australian Data and Digital CouncilExternal Link initiative and were built on Victoria’s work on API standardsExternal Link , showing how connecting jurisdictions allows for knowledge sharing and a government that works together as a unified whole.

These Aussie examples are helping governments consolidate and drive change.

How Aussie states are contributing to the movement

In addition to the work happening at the national level here in Australia, there’s also a lot going on within each state in terms of GovTech, CivicTech and open data. This work is being driven by:

These initiatives cover service consolidation (such as Service NSW and Service SA), platform consolidation through whole-of-government digital platforms (such as Victoria’s Single Digital Presence), citizen outreach (such as Engage Victoria), and open data (including each state’s/territory’s open data portal).

Importantly, the states and Federal Government working together and sharing information and tools help them help each other to ultimately help all Australian citizens.

Where to next?

While we’d like to acknowledge the digital pioneers and programs that are contributing to the movement — breaking down those silos and driving genuine change — there are more changes we’d like to see...our where to next.

Ideally, we’d like to see:

  • Australia become part of the D9 (D10 if we join!) so we can share and exchange with other digital pioneers
  • The extension of the Australian Data and Digital Council (or perhaps a separate stream) to include digital pioneers and leaders closer to the ground
  • Greater sharing and re-using of consolidated platforms

We know these are easier said than done, but they’re also important next steps.

We’d also like to see government continue to open up more data sets, supported by more APIs. This will encourage industry and citizens to co-create and co-innovate to push us all forward. Part of this framework is continuous consolidation through whole-of-government platforms. The more consolidated, the easier it is to open data and standardise access, which in turn drives co-creation/co-innovation with citizens.

We realise this takes time. Time to educate, time to experiment, time to advocate. But government can start small, one service at a time. Changes should also be part of a continuous community workflow loop, with government departments learning from others, giving back, making mistakes and giving those lessons back too.

Salsa’s role in the movement is to continue to advocate through publications like this and our Digital Transformation in Government seriesExternal Link , Open Data Insights seriesExternal Link and blogs like our open revolution insight.

Importantly, we’ll continue to join the dots by joining the people when government clients come to us with a problem we know is being worked on (or solved) by someone else. Connecting governments/public servants that are trying to solve the same problems is one of the many ways we do our bit to help governments become more open, more connected and more consolidated.

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