mfioretti: open government*

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  1. In February the Service Innovation Lab completed a three week discovery sprint on how policy, legislation and the business rules of government can be human and machine consumable.

    ‘Machine consumable’ means having rules so software can understand and interact with them such as with a calculation or eligibility criteria for a benefit.

    This post looks at the outcomes of that discovery sprint from a policy perspective and what lessons can apply to designing a new way to draft legislation and deliver more effective government services.
    Policy intent - avoiding ‘lost in translation’?

    As a policy adviser, I need to juggle:

    How do I create ‘future proof’ policies? For example, what will artificial intelligence (A.I.) mean for transport safety or how will someone seek and receive financial ‘robo-advice’?
    How do I remove barriers preventing better policy design and delivery, such as why do people need to get things confirmed ‘in writing’ for different departments so they can access services?
    How do I know if the policy is delivering the results we intended?

    The Better Rules Discovery tests what “fit for purpose” could look like, using two real bits of legislation (the Rates Rebates Act (1973) (external site link) and the Holidays Act (2003) (external site link)).

    This small project forces me to think about some big things. It’s not just about linking artificial intelligence and other technologies into government decision-making and service delivery models (though that is pretty amazing). The insights I take away are a bit broader, and are reflected in the discovery sprint report:

    Service design fundamentals can improve policy advice - Policy advisers offer solutions to gnarly amorphous questions such as how do we increase business innovation, solve child poverty and lower greenhouse gas emissions? Techniques such as co-design, agreed common definitions of the problem and ‘end to end’ thinking through to implementation can help uncover information a traditional, linear policy approach may not. These approaches may benefit all policy advisers, not just those focussed on delivering a government service, or drafting legislation.
    It’s not about us, it’s about them – As public servants we help the public and access services. Techniques used in the Better Rules project such as concept, decision, flow models and mapping customer journeys offer ways to unpack the steps people take to access a service. And they debunk some assumptions we may have.
    Take the imperfect first step – We should use some approaches explored in the Better Rules project such as spending more time to agree on the problem definition, before leaping to solutions or having multi-disciplinary teams.
    Focus on the ideal future end state – It’s more invigorating to focus on what could be than on thrashing the same old problem. Integrating digital thinking in developing policy (including concepts like pseudocode and software code) can flush out new possibilities and embed digital options into our solutions. It would also encourage more end-to-end thinking, rather than throwing my policy solution over your operational fence.
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  2. Gaining cross agency access to the “rules” of government is critical to seamless and integrated services. This includes the eligibility criteria or calculations for benefits or entitlements across different agencies for a single life event - the financial assistance eligibility tool for SmartStart (external site link) powered by a digital rules engine, is a good example of this.

    Right now, these rules are largely kept in legislation, but also in operational policy and practice. So, to get an all of government view of the rules for cross agency service delivery, we identified machine consumable(1) legislation as an area to explore, as a possible reusable component. We did a short 3 week discovery on the notion of “better rules” starting with the idea of machine consumable rules, which also explored the connection between policy, legislation and implementation, and how they could work more closely together for better public outcomes. You can read more about what we did, what we learnt, and our recommendations for taking these ideas further in the full Better Rules for Government Discovery Report.

    ‘Machine consumable’ for the purpose of this work means having particular types of rules available in a code or code-like form that software can understand and interact with, such as a calculation, the eligibility criteria for a benefit or automated financial reporting obligations for compliance.

    The traditional models of creating, managing, using and improving the rules of government were developed for use in a non-digital environment, and can result in a mismatch between policy intent and implementation. New digital technologies and the effective use of government data present opportunities to better deliver to people’s needs. To fully realise these opportunities, however, policy and rules need to be developed in a manner that recognises the context of impacted people and systems, and enables digital service delivery where appropriate.

    Making government rules machine consumable so they can be used by service delivery systems is fast becoming a key component in the digital transformation of governments, particularly as we seek to integrate service delivery, automate information exchange and some decision making, while also ensuring government transparency, responsiveness and accountability.

    It is difficult to produce machine consumable rules if the policy and legislation has not been developed with this output in mind.
    An effective way of developing such policy and legislation is for multidisciplinary teams of policy analysts, legislative drafters, service designers and software developers to co-design the policy and legislation, taking a user-centric approach that focuses on how the service could most effectively be delivered. In this case ‘user’ can mean people and technology systems as the end users of machine consumable rules.
    Co-designing rules with policy and service design increases the chances of the policy being implemented effectively and as intended, and can reduce the time it takes to deliver on the policy intent.
    Machine consumable legislation that is co-developed:
    enables legislation, business rules, and service delivery software to be developed in parallel, ensuring consistency of application, and significantly speeding up the service delivery to people
    increases the opportunities to automate and integrate service delivery (including through the use of artificial intelligence).
    Common frameworks, reference points and data points (like concept and decision models and ontologies(2)) will assist multi-disciplinary teams to co-design policy and legislation and, once developed, can be used as blueprints for the development of human and machine consumable rules without the need for further translation of the intent and logic (which, in turn, reduces the time and resources required and the chances of errors).
    Not all legislation is suitable for machine consumption, but a multi-disciplinary approach will assist in making better rules.
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  3. In short, the authors together seem to find little evidence that tools for "citizen voice" translate into "citizen teeth" to prompt action on the part of governing officials. To put it another way: There is a wide chasm between uptake of these tools by the public and institutional impact. Reflecting on the chapters, Peixoto and Sifry write: "To conclude, the challenges of inclusiveness and government responsiveness are not exclusive to civic technology and are certainly not new. Rather, they are the backdrop against which institutions and democracy have evolved throughout history. Whether civic technology makes a difference or not will ultimately depend on the extent to which it addresses these challenges as they are manifested today."
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  4. why did the GDS ban apps? It wasn’t because they weren’t technically savvy enough to build them.

    Cost, he says. Apps are “very expensive to produce, and they’re very very expensive to maintain because you have to keep updating them when there are software changes,” Terrett says. “I would say if you times that by 300, you’re suddenly talking about a huge team people and a ton of money to maintain that ecosystem”.

    How did the UK reach an increasingly mobile population? Responsive websites, he replies. “For government services that we were providing, the web is a far far better way… and still works on mobile.”

    Sites can adapt to any screen size, work on all devices, and are open to everyone to use regardless of their device. “If you believe in the open internet that will always win,” he says. And they’re much cheaper to maintain, he adds, because when an upgrade is required, only one platform needs recoding.

    From voter registration to driving license applications, citizens use response sites with simple designs that are easy to follow. According to estimates by the British Treasury, the GDS saved US$8.2bn (£4.1bn) over four years by taking an approach that emphasized simplicity of design and openness of the service.
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  5. Insomma, più che un’agevole via per la conoscenza, la nuova versione del decreto in discorso sembra un percorso ad ostacoli verso una trasparenza che, strada facendo, si è ridotta fino a diventare un vicolo stretto. Ma non è tutto: relativamente alle associazioni, fondazioni ed enti di diritto privato che esercitano funzioni amministrative, attività di produzione di beni e servizi a favore delle P.A. o di gestione di servizi pubblici, il diritto alla conoscenza potrà essere esercitato “limitatamente ai dati e ai documenti inerenti all’attività di pubblico interesse” solo a condizione che il loro bilancio sia superiore a cinquecentomila euro. Anche in questo caso, tale ultimo requisito, inizialmente non previsto, sembra palesemente preordinato a ridurre in modo sostanziale una trasparenza molto enfatizzata. Infine – ciliegina su una torta abilmente confezionata con sorprese incluse – sono state eliminate dal novero dei soggetti passibili di disclosure le associazioni, le fondazioni e gli enti di diritto privato nei quali le pubbliche amministrazioni abbiano poteri di nomina dei componenti di organi degli governo e, quindi, capacità di incidere su tutto il resto: non sembra necessario aggiungere altro.
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  6. Tech Platforms for Civic-Participation - Public Version : Platforms
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  7. In the 1910s, the number of cars in the US exploded from 200,000 to 2.5 million. The newfangled machines scared horses and ran over pedestrians, but by the time government could pass the very first traffic law, it was too late to stop them. Now Kevin Matley writes in Newsweek that thanks to political gridlock in the US, lawmakers respond to innovations with all the speed of continental drift. New technologies spread almost instantly and take hold with almost no legal oversight. According to Matley, this is terrific for tech startups, especially those aimed at demolishing creaky old norms—like taxis, or flight paths over crowded airspace, or money. "Drone aircraft are suddenly filling the sky, and a whole multibillion-dollar industry of drone making and drone services has taken hold," says Matley. "If the FAA had been either farsighted or fast moving, at the first sign of drones it might've outlawed them or confined them to someplace like Oklahoma where they can't get in the way of anything too important. But now the FAA is forced to accommodate drones, not the other way around." Bitcoin is another example of a technology that's too late to stop. "But have you heard the word bitcoin uttered once in any of the presidential debates? Government doesn't even understand bitcoin, and that's been really good for it." Uber and Airbnb show how to execute this outrun-the-government strategy. By the time cities understood what those companies were doing, it was too late to block or seriously limit them.
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  8. Many instances of democratic empowerment enabled by technology take place at the local level and thus elude national-level measures of democratic gains. Restless citizens in many countries may be unhappy with their non-democratic political leaders, but they use accessible technological tools to focus their energies locally — engaging in their local community with FixMyStreet, holding local and regional officials to account on spending issues using BudgIT, and tracking the performance of their local schools with Mejora Tu Escuela. In other words, technology’s positive political effects are now gaining traction in sub-national ways.

    We like to think that Gutenberg’s press brought on the Reformation. That’s probably because we prefer a compelling narrative to a messier truth.

    In 2009 I started Twaweza, an ambitious social change initiative in East Africa, in part to realize the “deeply democratizing” potential of communication technologies. The spread of independent (or rather not government-controlled) radio, television and newspapers, cheaper mobile telephony, and the Internet was profoundly important because it allowed ideas to be generated and shared anywhere and by anyone, at unprecedented speed and cost. Authorities would no longer be able to keep a lid on what happened and what people thought; innovation and aspiration would flourish.

    But over six sobering years of trial, error, and partial success, we learned that it doesn’t quite work that way and probably never has. Technology does not drive anything. It creates new possibilities for collecting and analyzing data, mashing ideas and reaching people, but people still need to be moved to engage and find practical pathways to act. Where the fear of being beaten or the habits of self-censorship inhibit agency, technology, however versatile, is a feeble match.

    The ways in which authorities and corporations exercise power to stifle human agency are real and increasingly naked. That these need to be exposed and disrupted is clear. But the much harder task is to figure out how to motivate and organize people to press for social change, where fear is warranted, bandwidth is crowded by a thousand demands, and success is uncertain.

    The Gutenberg press, the ballot box, and the Twitter feed are wonderful inventions to propel democratic impulse. But we fetishize them at our own peril. The truly revolutionary aspect of human revolutions is the hard work of forging collective belief and action.

    the challenge of advancing or consolidating democracy in many countries is not only — or even predominantly — about increasing avenues for citizen expression. It is also about establishing credible representative institutions that can respond to citizen demands and needs. Building such institutions has been an uphill battle for many aspiring democracies, and technological fixes can only provide limited assistance.

    Interestingly, a parallel debate is emerging in the economic domain. Paul Krugman of the New York Times recently asked, in a column entitled “The Big Meh,” why all the technological development of recent years, which seemed to promise all sorts of economic leaps and bounds, has coincided with economic slow growth and rising inequality, especially in the countries most enjoying this technology. Perhaps as answers are reached about that question they can be brought together with further exploration of the political side of the ledger and a more complete answer to both will emerge from the intersection of the two accounts.
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  9. We live in a society of instant gratification: Just about anything can be delivered; any job “task-rabbited”; and many things can even be instantly live-streamed. How does this square with the typically slower pace of government? Government cannot be as nimble as the commercial sectors by design, and this can often be for good reason.

    Governments need to have equitable contracting procedures and serve as stalwarts against partisan proclivities. They can also work to protect the public and its commons over the bottom line. How to marry the seeming gulf between instant expectations and government?

    Increasingly, governments are incorporating technology to bridge this seeming divide.
    The first wave of technology and government was modernization — everything from new hardware and safer architecture to e-governance. The future of technology and government will be determined by how well government can incorporate tools to make government more collaborative, participatory and responsive.
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  10. il caso della regione di “TechCounty” in California (Los Angeles? San Francisco? è descritta cautelativamente come “una contea tra le più avanzate al mondo in termini di penetrazione delle tecnologie ICT”), dove un progetto pubblico di partecipazione on line (essenzialmente un grosso forum) – lanciato dal governo locale e dedicato al tema delle adozioni – si è ritrovato a fine corsa con pochissimi interventi da parte della cittadinanza. Insomma, un caso non sporadico di fallimento dell’Open Government.

    I cittadini però non c’entrano. Una serie di interviste semi-strutturate ha portato a concludere che, in questo caso, le cause sembrano tutte interne all’amministrazione, e molte le conosciamo bene:

    problemi di budget - l’amministrazione, nella metà degli anni 2000, era in crisi dopo la bolla delle startup tecnologiche, e sono entrate nelle casse molte meno tasse del previsto. Da qui il blocco delle assunzioni e i tagli al personale. Anche se la decisione di lanciare il progetto era stata presa prima che questa situazione si verificasse, il “futuro incerto” di molti dipendenti ha pesato. Inoltre, la società esterna a cui era appaltato il forum aveva alti costi, e si “mangiava” molto del budget disponibile per il progetto.
    problemi organizzativi - all’interno dell’agenzia per i servizi sociali, il problema maggiore era la ben nota “mancanza di tempo” tra i personale interno. Un programma nazionale – chiamato semplicemente “e-government” – avrebbe potuto dare supporto, ma si è scontrato con problemi di coordinamento tra le decine di diverse agenzie locali, che presentavano livelli molto diversi di sviluppo tecnologico (siti “avanzati”, altri abbozzati da volontari…) e quindi risultava molto debole.

    Le difficoltà organizzative, al contrario, sono il maggiore dei problemi che possiamo chiamare “strutturali”. Processare, gestire e modificare i propri comportamenti sulla base del feedback che proviene dall’esterno è una sfida che mette in discussione modalità decennali di gestione della cosa pubblica. Quasi nessuno è davvero riuscito a gestire grandi numeri con successo.
    Inoltre, i problemi di coordinamento tra varie amministrazioni (in Italia in particolare tra ministeri e regioni) sono lampanti nei casi di materia concorrente. In particolare, la governance della PA digitale in Italia è un caso “da mettersi le mani nei capelli” almeno dalla metà degli anni 2000.
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