Talking About a More Digital Government

How can we create a more digital government?

June 22, 2021 Code for Australia Season 1 Episode 1
Talking About a More Digital Government
How can we create a more digital government?
Show Notes Transcript

Matt Sawkill, Managing Director of Code for Australia and Jithma Beneragama Executive Director of Digital Design and Innovation at the Department of Premier and Cabinet explore what civic tech is, what makes a digitally mature government and tell us about some great initiatives happening around Australia.

A full transcript of this episode is available here.

Key takeaways: 
“When you're talking about change and you're talking about re-imagining processes and products, the technology is the easy part of that and there's always a huge amount of effort to get the organisation to have an aligned point of view about what the problem is and what a solution might be.”

“You need to make sure that you have the right capability within the organisation and that the organisation itself is at a point in time and has the mindset around change and being able to accept change”

“The more decisions you make before you have a team on the ground building software, the greater the chances are that you're building the wrong software”

“That whole framing, that there's an idea of a non-technical person is, you know, it's something we really challenge.”

“People tend to work in the public sector because they want to make impact and they want to do something that's beneficial for society”

"The biggest barriers to doing digital well happen before the tech team is on the ground."

Resources mentioned: 
Read more about digital transformation on Code for Australia’s blog
Join Code for Australia’s Slack channel
Tech For Non Tech training
Get involved in Civic Makers
Single Digital Presence
Vic Gov API
Engage Victoria
Human-centred Design Playbook
Digital Victoria

Credits and thank yous: 
The show is hosted by Esther Semo and Sean Hua. Consulting producer is Daniel Semo. Podcast artwork designed by Nigel Moyes with illustrations by Indah Ibrahim.

This episode is brought to you by Code for Australia 
Code for Australia are a not-for-profit organisation, working in collaboration with public sector teams and the tech community to help create a world class digital government. To find out more about Code for Australia head here 

Want to be a guest on this podcast? 
We’re always looking for folks working in civic tech and government to speak with about themes you're encountering or work being done. If you’re keen to have a chat to us contact us at 

Esther Semo:
We'd like to start by acknowledging that this podcast was written and recorded on the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. We pay respect to the elders past, present, and emerging and extend this to any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people listening. This always was, and always will be Aboriginal.

Hi, welcome to Talking About a More Digital Government, a podcast by Code for Australia. My name is Esther and I'm Code for Australia's Head of Community and Communications I'm newish to the world of digital and I'm super keen to learn as much as I can from our guests and our listeners.  

Sean Hua:
And I'm Sean Design Lead for Civic Makers, a tech focused community initiative. I've worked within local government as well as on tech teams, looking from the outside in, and I'm endlessly curious about the ways tech can be leveraged for the public. Throughout this podcast series, we're going to be asking big questions, highlighting cool innovations and showcasing some of the incredible work that's happening in government departments and teams around Australia.

Esther Semo:
In our first ever episode, we're going to be diving into what we mean when we talk about a more digital government and what we mean by civic tech. We'll be hearing from  Jithma Beneragama Executive Director of Digital Design and Innovation at the Department of Premier and Cabinet in Victoria. And we'll also be hearing from Matt Sawkill Code for Australia's Managing Director who's been involved in civic tech since before it even had a name. First up, we'll be talking to Matt about what exactly civic tech is and what government teams can do to build successful digital products and services.

Matt Sawkill:
My name's Matt Sawkill.  I'm the Managing Director at code for Australia. I've been involved in, I guess, the world of civic tech  for what feels up my whole career. I started out as a web developer back in the nineties, I guess I'm one of the older digital natives running around and it's always been a passion of mine to use technology for good to sort of democratize society, bring people together, let people express themselves. So as my career developed I built more of an understanding around how civil services were delivered and wanted to get more involved in it. I guess I saw joining Code for Australia as a chance to directly be involved in, in sort of raising standards and changing how government does things. So it's very sort of personal, I guess, passion of mine to sort of be involved in this. 

Most broadly civic tech is a movement. So it's where people with skills and technology and design come together with the people who deliver civil services,  to help society. It's in the name, really the word civic and tech , and it is a movement that started guess in the United States. There's a real, I guess, disparity there between , the level of talent and expertise and the way things were done in, Silicon Valley and in the tech industry versus the skills that, and the platforms that the government had access to. Over the last sort of decade or so there's been a lot of people, I guess moving from a traditional career in tech to one where they can help out, through the sort of tech movement,  a chance to use these skills for good. 

It's obviously now a very international movement as well. So organizations like ours have sort of picked it up in different countries. There's over 30 members in the Code for All Network that we're a part of. So it's great to see it sort of spreading around the world. 

One thing that's really nice about civic tech is that it's distributed it's much like the internet itself. No one's in charge or sort of making decisions. It's up to the sort of people in themselves to kind of take it where they want it to go and anyone can start a civic organization or find a way to get involved in, in some capacity. I'm going to talk a lot today, I guess, about our work with government, because that's where our expertise and what we do, but obviously organizations outside of government not-for-profits NGOs and things like that, a big role to play as well. 

Esther Semo:
How does Code for Australia fit into that civic tech landscape?

Matt Sawkill:
There's sort of three main functions, I guess, that we have as an organization. The first one is sort of going out there and finding partners inside government who might want to get involved. So it could be teams with a particular challenge or folks who have a bit of a mandate for innovation that are excited about. Bringing in some ideas from the outside and then sort of finding a good opportunity for civic tech so we do a lot of, I guess, identifying who those folks might be and giving them the tools they need to sort of progress the discussions with it in their own organization. Then the fun part, which is when we actually identify one of the challenges where we can help is bringing in the people from our network and the civic tech world to come into government to do that work with them.  And then obviously things like we're actually doing right now. Right? Like telling the story, getting the word out there.  You know, civic is nothing without being able to sort of share what's working what doesn't and letting other teams learn  from our sort of journey. So if you're listening to this podcast, you're participating in civic tech right now, which is kind of cool the other way.

I like to frame it as around I guess, our values and then how civic tech organizations and people in the movement tend to operate. Obviously, we have a lot in common with teams that are good at doing digital stuff in the first place. I guess being data led and working in a sort of iterative design led manner. Our friends at Code for America, talk a lot about being people first. And  I really love that kind of framing  it talks to sort of bringing in people to sort of be involved in the projects, the value of sort of designing with users. Another thing that's really important for us as sort of having diverse teams and just improving the representation of people that you wouldn't normally see in this context. 

We talk a lot about helping not selling and this is probably a key difference between us and other organizations a little bit on the outside of government, but are coming in to show them how, how this digital stuff has done. So we're not trying to create more work for ourselves or do anything other than sort of give people, imagine the right direction and make a little bit of a boost and show them how to do this stuff.

And then we also talk a lot about, I guess, openness and transparency. And this comes up in a lot of ways. The first is just by what we call working in the open, sort of letting everyone know what's going on and inviting people in to sort of see how the process works.  Demystifying technology and how tech teams work in that way as well as just looking to leverage open software and, and promote open data and all these things that we know are going to be enablers of a better society , but we just need to show what's possible. 

Esther Semo:
So, what are the biggest challenges for government doing digital well? 

Matt Sawkill:
The biggest barriers to doing digital well inside government generally happen before you have a team on the ground who can start doing their work. And there's a bit of a common thread I think, to a few of the things I might mention here. Ultimately, the reason for this is that government are really conscious of risk and the consequences of getting things wrong are pretty severe for them. There they're building services that, you know, help the entire population and spending public money. So they want to spend it well. But how the kind of how that  manifests itself is in some practices and some ways of getting organized that aren't really compatible with doing digital well. So the way I always like to think about it as the more decisions you make before you have a team on the ground building software, the greater the chances are that you're building the wrong software. When those sorts of factors collide  it really creates the environment that we're trying to sort of address in our work. 

So one area is for example, is just around the concept of project management. So government tend to work in you know, fixed budgets and set timelines and things like that. Because if you have a deadline, then you can know that you're on time. And if you have a budget, you can know that you're on budget, but digital projects don't really suit that kind of mindset.  They're always live products you want to build them for, I guess to have a future use case as well. You need to keep maintaining them and not just sort of fixing bugs, but adding features and responding to feedback and keeping them up to date, to suit changes and how people are using them and people's expectations as well.

So government kind of have a way of doing things that is really well suited to the other tasks they have like infrastructure and service provision and things like that. It's if you're building a bridge, right? You want to know what it's going to cost and how long it's going to take and how many cars are going to drive over it so you can build the right bridge, but having all that thinking beforehand and put them all these specs together, means that when you do go out and actually put a team together to deliver this thing, they've already got a vision execute on they've got constraints. And you know, it's not necessarily the right thing. You do need to go out and sort of understand from your users what you should be building for them and, and what their needs. One of the nice things about digital is that, you know, if you've built this bridge and you need to add some lanes to it, cause there's more traffic on a particular day, well you can do that if you've got your architecture right. But that's not really  thing that happens, you know, when you're building actual bridges.

 Another big area that is obviously strong in digital and the technology sector is just, shared platforms and reuse and leveraging open source components and not having to, you know, build the same solution to the same problem more than once. This approach is quite hard in government, because there's not a lot of infrastructure for collaboration between teams. If you want to collaborate with someone on a project, they've got to do all the same kind of project management and procurement that you do.  There's various barriers to exchanging resources between teams and it's all very siloed. So it's just not an ecosystem that really supports collaborating and sort of pooling resources and, you know, if you build the back end of the system, we build the front end and those sorts of arrangements. So yeah, just that whole collaboration space is probably one of the bigger barriers to doing things well. 

I guess with everything I've just this is very much talking about the status quo and you know, where things are at historically. There's plenty of good work being done. There's plenty of reform happening in this space. There's some great examples of people doing things differently across Australia at the moment. And I guess, you know, we're not saying that it's all bad, but we'd love to help connect people that are a challenge in this space with some of the success stories and some of the learnings we've had with people that are pushing things forward and doing things a bit better.

Related to that is just the concept of outsourcing. When you don't have the capability in your own team, you need to go out and find a partner who does have it , but if you're trying to be efficient with how your money is spent, you maybe not ask them to produce a ton of extra documentation order to do that kind of knowledge transfer or capability building with your own team. Even if you've got sort of contractors or consultants coming into your, your physical building or your virtual one these days , unless you've got it in the contract that those people have to do some some training, or do some knowledge transfer, it's not going to happen.  It's not in the interest of those partner agencies either. You know,  they're businesses, they have commercial interests they don't want to go above and beyond the contract  to deliver a better service when they've got to get on and win the next piece of work.

Esther Semo:
I think a really good example of the way that Code for Australia have helped government overcome some of these barriers is the work that you did with Canterbury Bankstown city council. Can you tell us a bit about that? 

Matt Sawkill:
So Canterbury Bankstown, as you can tell from the name is actually amalgamation of two existing council areas. And they'd done a ton of work with sustainability and waste management - there's a concept called Smart Cities  which  basically involves government using a lot of sensors and data to sort of better improve the service delivery. The team that Canterbury Bankstown had invested quite heavily in this, they got a great grant from the federal government to support that. They'd gone out and sort of put sensors on their trucks. They knew a ton about what was going on with their waste.. But how this manifested internally for their staff was just lots of different systems and platforms with little individual pieces of data and they already valuable, but it was quite a hard time for the customer service staff to jump between platforms and know what to look up, where to help people that are actually calling them and coming to them with inquiries.

So we sent a Fellowship team in there to build a new customer service application. They call it a dashboard and really it was just joining up all of those disparate  data sources and putting one easy to use interface around it with a team it had had a lot of success. One is in just designing and building the software itself. They used Human-centered Design practices. They worked in a different way, I guess, for our partners at council, they got to sort of see what Agile meant in practice and how the team were able to iteratively add features in response to feedback and  people using the app once it was launched.

And it was a really, really good project in terms of knowledge transfer and documentation. This is the thing we struggled with a bit historically at Code for Australia because their Fellowships tend to have a timeframe around them and we're not always sure what's going to happen when we leave the building. So we were really excited about what the team achieved on this one, because not only did they leave behind a ton of documentation, they also did a lot of work with council staff to sort of build knowledge, explain the decisions that are being made, sort of teach people how the system has been architected.

 It's in pretty good shape, I guess, for the ongoing maintenance,  they're gotta be able to add features to it, add functionality to it and the architecture that the team developed really supports that as well. So not only was it a different way of working, it was a different way of building for council and we're pretty confident that they going to be able to sort of embrace it and carry on with the work we did moving forward.

Esther Semo:
Yeah, that sounds like a really good example of building internal capabilities within a government team. But what about for non-technical people? How can they get involved in that digital process? 

Matt Sawkill:
Yeah. I think that whole framing, that there's an idea of a non-technical person is, you know, it's something we really challenge in a lot of our work. I think anyone that's involved in a delivery process or project becomes more technical by osmosis, by understanding and being part of the decision making, being in the rituals, talking to the team members and understanding what they're doing. So I think that's a mindset that's really important for us.

We have a few programs like our Tech for Non Tech training for example, which prepares people to have a more successful time working with delivery teams. And I think, when it comes to that,  digital work, regardless of how it's being done , whether it's with a third party, whether it's internal, whether you've got another government agency helping your team out  just get involved, just sort of try and pull some of the walls down and get people talking to each other, get people involved in the process.

We obviously work in an Agile way and the teams that are doing this work well are too, which means there's lots of opportunities for people to get involved. There's various rituals where planning is done and decisions are made, showcases where people can sort of hear the story of of the work and how it was done and we did sort of just encourage folks inside government to make the time to attend those things, to get along to sort of get exposed to the work. And if you are working with, with an external partner, just sort of encourage them, give them some incentive to transfer some of the knowledge back to your organization and you'll see a lot of value really quickly. 

Esther Semo:
Here's a question we're going to ask all of our guests. What's one thing you'd like every public servant to know? 

Matt Sawkill:
I think if there's one thing I want public servants to know it's that we're here to help, we're out here and we're available and we're ready to get stuck in. I think everyone I've met in government got into this work because they wanted to make a difference. They wanted to help people. And there's a ton of folks in the tech and design sector who feel the same way and want to do meaningful work and they're just looking for opportunities to do it. So it's pretty magical when you bring those forces together, you know, don't be afraid to try something a bit different. If you reach out to the civic tech world, you know, we'll meet you on your terms. We'll bring some new ideas to bear. 

Esther Semo:
And what's one thing you'd like every citizen to know?

Matt Sawkill:
There's a lot of negative coverage of what government doing, a lot of people sort of getting frustrated and complaining about it. I think, you can help. You can make a difference. You can actually, you know, put your hand up and get involved. Whether it's through a program that we're running or another sort of opportunity in the world of civic tech, you know , put that energy to use and help your fellow citizens out, bring some of your expertise to bear. It's a very, I guess, inclusive, accessible, , fun world to be a part of and so no reason to come along and get stuck in.

Sean Hua:
Thank you to Matt Sawkill and now we'll hear from Jithma Beneragama about how it's people and not just technology that are integral to the process of digital transformation. 

Jithma Beneragama:
My name is Jithma Beneragama. I work for the Department of Premier and Cabinet. My title and role is Executive Director of a group called Digital Design and Innovation and what we are is a whole of government transformation group. The area of focus for us is very much about creating what we call digital infrastructure that will help deliver a sustainable transformation for VIC gov.  Some of the platforms and products that we have delivered so far are things like Single Digital Presence, which is a whole of Victorian government publishing platform. The Victorian government API infrastructure, which has gateway plus standards and development environments and other products like Engage Victoria. 

I would describe ourselves as a product function within government, which is actually a bit of a leap. When we first started talking about products, as opposed to projects, it was a relatively new concept within Victorian government, but it's one thing that I think has really helped with our success. So by that I mean, we run a range of different products and each of those products has a Product Manager. But supporting them and the way that we're structured is a whole bunch of other capability that tries to make sure that the products that we are focusing on trying to develop are really fit for purpose. So we have a real strong focus on service design and UX. And so we have a UX team that UX team is a central group that's sort of working on UX and service design as a product for government, but also provide capability and function into each of our different product areas. We have an analytics group who work hand in hand as well around trying to ensure that the starting point and that the way that we're making decisions are based on data. And then alongside that we have a dev ops function so that dev ops function is trying to make sure that we're not sort of building out separate silos in terms of how our technology operates, but trying to make sure that we have a common core and common technology base that allows for that sustainability that I talked about earlier in our transformation agenda. And then around that we have so Scrum Masters and Project Managers. We have comms people cause a lot of the work that we try and do relies very much on driving change and being able to tell our story well, and in a compelling way, both internally and externally is a real driver for trying to achieve what we're trying to achieve. Then we have project management and support, around all of that. 

Esther Semo:
What does it digitally mature government look like? 

Jithma Beneragama:
I reckon that's a point in time question. When we think about digital transformation, we think about sustainability. And by that I mean that you can't just focus on the front end or the things that are really amazing and beautiful and easy to use. Obviously that's the end point you want to get to, but in order to get to that, you need to start working from the back as well as the front. So you need to understand what your core capability is - what you have in place in order to make sure that the transformation you're driving is sustainable. 

So when we start thinking about our program of work, we talk about it in sort of three broad areas. We talk about it in terms of core digital infrastructure. So those are things like that I mentioned earlier. So our API infrastructure, they fundamentally change the way that information and data flows through the Victorian government. We talk about our web publishing program and that's about again, fundamentally changing the way that we're publishing and putting information out. Behind that there's a whole bunch of processes and frameworks that we're putting in place that allow for a more sustainable and more programmatic way of things being done.

So there's a bunch of guidelines. There's playbooks, like the HCD playbook, the OpenData playbook , and then below that again is all about skills capability and mindset. So in order to be able to drive transformation, you need to make sure you've got the right skills within the organization. You need to make sure that you have the right capability within the organization and that the organization itself is at a point in time and has the mindset around change and being able to accept change. 

Esther Semo:
What can you tell us about Digital Victoria and how that fits into all of this? 

Jithma Beneragama:
So Digital Victoria was announced in the 2021 Victorian state budget. What it is, is a new entity that's coming together to drive sustainable digital transformation within the Victorian  government, it's really focused on sort of three broad areas. So one is around better government service delivery. The second one is then around  a more efficient public sector. And then the third is really looking at how we can link our digital transformation within Victoria to broader economic growth within the state. 

Esther Semo:
How exciting we can't wait to find out more. Can you talk to us about the people side of digital transformation? 

Jithma Beneragama:
So I think it's a really interesting and exciting time to be working in digital transformation within the public sector. And that's in two parts. So even before COVID, there was a huge appetite for transformation and you could see it through works or programs of work like DV and how that's come together, but more broadly just through our existing program. So you look at things like the whole of Victorian government API infrastructure, that was all pre COVID and it was driven around a aspiration to make it easier for information and data to be shared between government departments. Same with a Single Digital Presence that there had to be a better way for the Victorian government to approach the way that it was putting information out to people.

Now all of these things, when you really strip them down and take technology out of the equation are really broad and complicated change programs. And so what you are then talking about is changing ways of working that have been ingrained for decades. And getting people to think about doing things in a different way, getting people to re-imagine, how problems might be solved and that stuff that I've done both within the public sector, but also in the way that we had to, that I worked before the public sector and the private sector.

 When you're talking about change and you're talking about re-imagining processes and products and everything else. It's always, especially when we're talking about large legacy organizations,  the technology is the easy part of that and there's always a huge amount of effort to get the organization, to have an aligned point of view about what the problem is and what a solution might be. And so that I think is something you would hear from teams. 

I think I'd go one step further and I'd say that when you look at a lot of people who are working in digital within government, most of them have come from other industries. So lots of people from digital agencies, people who've come from large corporates.  People from startup, , academia from all sorts of different walks of life. One thing that they will all I think agree to is that the public sector and the way that public sector works is actually really different to many different organizations. And so when someone who might've worked in a digital agency for a really long time comes and tries to work in this context, there is a bit of a steep learning curve because you have to learn about the briefing process. You need to understand how the structures of government operate. You need to understand the particular culture of the public service and the public sector. And so there's a fair bit to get your head around as a new person coming and working in this. But on the flip side, I'd say that of all of that there is generally, and I think actually, like generally there is always a common theme that you see within a lot of people working in the public sector that you don't necessarily see in other organizations, which is, there seems to be a real commonality and alignment around purpose. People tend to work in the public sector because they want to make impact and they want to do something that's beneficial for society and so that's where I think when you start off with this  really diverse paths that people might've taken into working in this organization and the experiences that they've had, the thing that they tend to coalesce around is purpose and that's something that we do a lot of, and we actually actively hire people from as many different walks of life as we possibly can, because we know that we are driving transformation, if we're driving change, then we are also talking about a new culture, a new way of doing things.  So we are bringing all these different people together with these different points of view and different experiences, which then help us to sort of chart a new course not just in what we're delivering, but also in the way that we work. 

Esther Semo:
Yeah. I think that leads in really well to the question that we ask all of our guests, which is, what's one thing that you'd like every public servant to know?

Jithma Beneragama:
One thing I talked to my team about is the amazing opportunity we have to work in the organization that we're in right now, but also that we have an obligation to really think about what the services we are delivering stand for and how they come together. The way we work could be purely incremental in, in terms of the transformation that we're driving to and the service delivery we're creating, or it could be transformative. And in reality, it's probably going to be a combination of both. 

And so if I go back to the question about what I would like every public servant to know or to think about it's that we have this amazing opportunity to really think about how digital by digital, I don't just mean technology. I mean, processes, I think about people and skills.  I think about ways of working, how we take all of that to create the best possible services for Victorians, but also create the best environment within which we work to deliver those services and that we have the opportunity to push things and to think about service delivery through that lens and it's up to us to really sort of, to strive for that.

Sean Hua:
It's really interesting to hear what makes a more digital government from Matt, Managing Director of Code for Australia and Jithma, the Director of Digital Design and Innovation in the state of Victoria. One of the things that struck out to me was it's not just about the technology. It's about the systems that get put in place. There's particular ways of working, you know, thinking about whether or not the things you're building are fit for the people who are going to use them. And when you have decided that, yes, this is the right thing to be building. How do you build that right? There's going to be a whole bunch of things that need to fall into place around who works on the project and what skills that they have. And this ties in nicely with what Matt mentioned about getting people from the private sector, into the public sector, people in the US you know, they realized they could take their skills from Silicon Valley and you use them for a public good. It's a grassroots movement. So you can join into, I'm just going to throw in a shameless plug here for the Code for Australia Slack channel. There's a brilliant community there , that's how I first joined,the community and help start up another shameless plug Civic Makers. If you ever feel like you want to contribute to building a more digital government from a volunteer perspective, feel free to jump in. 

Ultimately how I feel about it is that civic tech and building a more capable and more digital government is about personal participation. People who work in the public sector want to make a difference, but you don't have to work in the public sector to make a difference. Government can impact the lives of so many people. And as a result, I feel like we all should have a say in how our government is. 

Esther Semo:
Yeah. I think one thing that struck me in what both Matt and Jithma said is just how important people out of the process of creating a more digital government. The stakes are really high, right? It's not as though we're just building a product that's for commercial use. We're actually building things that directly impact people's lives. So I think we can all agree that people need access to the best possible digital services. 

Something else that resonated with me was that making change is hard, but that doesn't mean that it isn't worth it. I think often people think changes within government are slow and incremental, which isn't always a bad thing. I think a certain level of risk aversion can be a good thing. But one thing I think is for sure, based off what we've heard today and that's that we are in the midst of a bit of a digital revolution and we can see it happening in Victorian government and in governments  around Australia. It's a really exciting time. And I'm really glad we got to speak with both Matt and Jithma about it. 

We want to say a big thank you to both Matt and Jithma for taking the time to talk to us on our first ever episode of Talking About a More Digital Government. If you'd like to find out more about the work that the Digital Design and Innovation team are doing, or if you'd like to get involved in Code for Australia, check out the show notes for more information.

We're also looking for guests for future episodes. So if you work in government and want to have a chat to us, please get in touch. In our next episode, we're going to be looking at an innovative new legislation process called Rules as Code , which is an approach to creating and publishing policies in a machine readable way. Until next time.