Mar 022017
 
how are we using data in our business

Last week I wrote a piece for Fairfax Metro – the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age – looking at how government agencies and private credit companies are mining data.

That story sparked a range of interest with my doing a twenty minute segment on ABC Brisbane today on the topic which morphed into a deeper discussion on surveillance, particularly with the Australian government’s ‘metadata’ laws.

I’ll also be talking on ABC Radio Perth on Monday, March 6 about this story at 6.15am local time (9.15am Sydney and Melbourne).

In the wake of the Australian government’s Centrelink scandala national disgrace that is only getting worse – it’s worthwhile discussing exactly what data is being gathered and how it is being used.

The answer is almost everything with commercial operators like Experian pulling in data from sources ranging from credit card applications to social media services although store loyalty cards remain the richest information source.

As the Australian Tax Office spokesperson pointed out, none of this is particularly new as they have been collecting bank deposit data since the Federal government introduced income taxes in the 1930s.

The arrival of computers in 1960s changed the scale and scope of tax offices’ abilities to track citizens’ finances and gave rise to the major commercial credit bureaus.

With the explosion of personal electronics and internet connected devices in recent years along with increased surveillance powers being granted to government and private agencies, that monitoring is only going to grow.

The best citizens can expect is to have their data protected and respected with financial providers only using what is ethical and relevant in determining our access to banking and insurance products.

Politically the only way to ensure that is to make it clear through the ballot box, the question is do we care enough?

Feb 132017
 

To say Paul Shetler’s stay in Australia has been controversial would be an understatement.

After leaving the UK’s Government Digital Service in 2015, Shetler was the founding CEO of the Australian government’s Digital Transformation office. He lasted 16 months before being managed out.

In January I interviewed Shetler where he discussed the relative differences between countries, the challenges facing those trying to digitally transform governments and large organisations along with some scathing observations about the management of the Australian Public Service.

Parts of this interview were the basis for separate articles in Diginomica and the Australian Financial Review however the entire conversations is worthwhile publishing.

Some of Shetler’s answers have been lightly edited for clarity.

How do we compare the digital transformation journey of different countries?

In terms of the UK, the Government Digital Service really has done a great job. If hadn’t been for GDS we wouldn’t be having the conversation we’re having in Australia today, much less in New Zealand, the United States and other countries.

Digital Transformation wouldn’t be on the table and an awful lot of the basic ideas on how you fix government IT by looking at structural reasons for behaviour rather than just saying “let’s make a nicer interface.” they were really good at identifying those things.

Britain was the pioneer. Every country in the naughties had their own digital strategy but the UK led the way. The US right now is a mess, they don’t really have a digital strategy.

How does the US look with the new Trump administration?

They do have a lot of potential there. I do think the new administration is more likely to do something big to fix things than perhaps the Obama Administration was, because they are talking about national infrastructure.

If you to the United States it’s shocking, the physical level infrastructure is falling apart and on a digital level things are pretty much the same, if you look at the government websites many of them look like they are from the 1990s and they all look and act differently.

They are very much like the UK before Britain started the digital transformation and they’ve had several years to fix it but there’s been no concerted effort because no-one really owns it.

They do have the USDS which operates out of the White House that gets really great talent in to do fix something but they don’t have the authority across the government.

They have 18F who operate on a cost recovery basis who act like an internal consultancy… they have some extremely talented people there and we’ve learned quite a bit from them.. and they help agencies with individual things, like looking at contracts or procurement or whether it’s fixing a particular service. But there’s no vision or strategy that guides it all.

If you go to New Zealand you’ll see they’ve been doing a lot of great thinking. It really influenced us in Australia on user journeys across governments, where you want to get something done that goes across agencies.

Let’s look from the standpoint of the end user; the end user wants to send a child to school, to emigrate to New Zealand or to open up a business. What do they need to do and how can we map it out for them.

The problem in New Zealand is that the team has no authority, all they can do is propose and it depends upon other people saying ‘oh, that’s a great idea’ although there’s been a lot of great design thinking coming out of there and it difficult for that being translated into practice.

One of the things I learned here was you can have all the great ideas and talent but if you don’t have the political will and authority to drive it then a recalcitrant bureaucracy will not going along with it because their interests aren’t in alignment with their users.

What did you find on coming to Australia?

There was a lot of excitement and enthusiasm on what we could do with the idea of the DTO, particularly among the public there was a lot of goodwill as well as in large parts of the Canberra bureaucracy, generally speaking the lower you got down the ranks there was more enthusiasm.

In the UK you have two layers of governments; you have the central government and local administration.

You have the split between politics and policy, you have the politicians who just don’t spend time in their departments. When I was with the UK Justice Ministry the Secretary of State, Chris Grayling, and his ministers were in the building every day.

As a consequence they were very aware of what was going on. There were in there everyday and they could see things. It made it easier for the ministers to give direction and cover for the civil servants.

In Australia it’s much easier for public service to capture the minister, direction is spotty and politicians are easily manipulated, partly because of lack of information.

There’s also the gap between policy and delivery, the UK Department of Justice, for example, works on legal and constitutional policy but is also responsible for prisons, courts and other services. So there’s a tight feedback loop where if a policy isn’t working, you find out pretty quick.

How important are people and existing processes?

You can’t fight human nature you have to acknowledge it and live with it and make it work for you.

In Australia we did a terrible job of working with human nature. This idea we could get Australian government to magically transform itself because it was told to, that I could come here and put up some pretty pictures and say some nice words and everyone would say ‘hey we never thought of that.’

That’s not going to happen when you have entrenched interests, habits, structures and groups who are committed to doing things a particular way. It’s not going to happen and it’s vary naïve to think you can do it, it’s just not how people work.

In the UK, we didn’t focus on consensus we focused on getting things done. When I first met with Francis Maude he said ‘this is not a change management process – this is transformation.”

When we talk about change management it’s often about appeasing people who are throwing up obstacles, this isn’t about appeasing them, it’s about them doing their job. Too often here there was too much appeasing bureaucrats which I think comes down to a lack of political will and perhaps cowardice.

One of the major reasons why the UK was a successful as they were was because Francis Maude was the minister for five years. It became clear he was going to see this through and if you were going to fight, you were going to lose. People got into line.

Because they understood people were competitive they created a group called ‘Digital Leaders’, the digital leaders were the Director-Generals from various departments who were future leaders – most likely to become Permanent Secretaries – and said, “you guys will be those driving the transformation from the Civil Service side.” Of course because these people were all competitive they’d try to outdo each other.

How does the Australian political culture compare?

“It’s quite a bad culture. In Canberra you have people who think they are the intellectual elite of the nation who aren’t really, it’s a relatively mediocre elite.”

The idea you have a group of people sitting around thinking their Big Thoughts in a bubble and telling each other how great they are who then hand those thoughts down to proles who do the service delivery. It’s a very weird class system that’s been built up – you have the Big Thinkers and then even the proles you give it to, they pass it on to the states or an NGO to deliver it.

There is no feedback loop, there is none. You don’t know how much these policies cost, you don’t know what they’re delivering you don’t know what’s a success. That probably suits lots of people.

We saw that with digital dashboard where citizens and ministers could monitor public services’ performance. There was so much pushback, there were some agencies that worked with us but getting information directly from the systems was difficult.

What are the lessons from the Australian experience and for those trying to drive digital transformation?

When the DTO was set up, they had to make a series of trade-offs. It wasn’t GDS, it didn’t have the powers of GDS. It didn’t have the powers to mandate or block.

GDS had both, the idea you could kumbaya your way to transformation, no-one there believed it. That’s why they set up GDS the way they did. They could stop you from spending money, even if you had the budget approval or not, so that was a massive stake in the heart for a number of zombie IT projects.

It’s particularly hard for IT managers in departments to admit that a long running project was a failure so GDS was great. That ability to do the right thing and to have it sanctioned by authority was brilliant. The years of ass-covering were over.

Some kind of spending controls are good and some ICT procurement reform is absolutely essential. That’s potentially really, really good.

How important is finding the right people?

People coming into senior digital roles in the UK government were hired by GDS and that was massively important to get the right people in.

I was thoroughly vetted as were all the other hires and it was important because it created a community of people who thought the same way. We were all committed to the same mission and we all came in at the same time. It’s not talked about much, but there was also a general clearing out of the old leadership.

Having a common sense of mission was important, we would work together and collaborate with each other.

You need to have political will to see them through because the departments will kick and scream but if their autonomy was working we wouldn’t have this problem.

Why are Australian governments suffering IT problems?

If all major government projects were failing we’d not be having this conversation. That said, there is an unacceptable rate of failure and it has to be fixed. Again, departmental autonomy is not working.

Departments have chosen to deskill, departments have chosen to become dependent upon vendors and departments have chosen to put their own interests ahead of users – as we in the case with Centrelink. Infrastructure failures like the ATO or the Census were easily preventable. The idea you’re building data centres in 2016 is insane and anyone who tells you that should be fired.

These are all predictable outcomes and as long as you have a public service that’s not really comfortable with 21st Century technology and which still views as its own departmental in-group as being more important than its end-users then you’ll end up with these problems.

Public servants have to start operating the way a bank or insurance company would – how do I get onto the cloud, not how do I keep workloads off the cloud? How do I build around the user? It’s crazy to be asking these conversations because it’s an incredibly deskilled when it comes to IT. It’s appalling, much more than in the UK.

That’s the problem, when you talk to actual practitioners in the Australian government they acknowledge it. It’s not the guys doing the designs or those trying to use the technologies, it’s those further up the management chain who don’t have the skills or have too close relationships with certain vendors where you see these anti-social behaviours kicking in.

Where next?

I’ve spent sixteen months banging my head against a wall so I’m not in a hurry, I’m looking some opportunities in Australia and a few elsewhere in the world.

Jan 232017
 

“You can’t kumbaya your way though it,” says Paul Shetler, the former head of Australia’s Digital Transformation Office, about the task of bringing an organisation or government into the 21st Century.

Shetler, who previously worked for the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS) and Ministry of Justice, was reflecting on how a brutal approach to change was necessary when confronted by management resistance and a recalcitrant bureaucracy.

I had the opportunity to interview Shetler two weeks ago with part of that discussion being published on Diginomica. One of his key points is when driving a transformation, consensus is the first casualty.

“In the UK, we didn’t focus on consensus we focused on getting things done. When I first met with Francis Maud he said ‘this is not a change management process – this is transformation.’”

However to drive such change forcefully strong leadership is needed and Shetler emphasised that one of the great drivers for digital transformation at the UK’s Ministry of Justice was having a committed and powerful minister.

“One of the major reasons why the UK was a successful as they were was because Francis Maude was the minister for five years… It became clear he was going to see this through and if you were going to fight, you were going to lose. People got into line.”

Ultimately a lack of strong leadership is why the Australian DTO failed, with the country’s political culture seeing ministers rotated out of positions on a regular basis – the Innovation portfolio is seeing its fourth minister in 18 months  – it’s almost impossible for any leader, however forceful, to drive meaningful change.

This raises the question of whether some organisations can culturally handle change, it may well be that some institutions are impervious to change given the nature of their management structures and the people that lead them.

Australian taxpayers may hope that their public service isn’t an institution that resists change but Paul Shetler’s experience is a worrying warning.

Jan 182017
 
social media is about connecting with friends

As the UK government ties itself in knots over what Brexit means, the French administration has announced a new set of skilled and tech visas, reports Tech Crunch.

While the French tech sector is nowhere near the size or diversity of the British ecosystem, it has been growing rapidly and various European centres are jostling to take London’s position as the continent’s leading IT city as Britain seems determined to squander its position.

Like many of these national initiatives the question will the French government have a long term commitment to this program? There is a strong possibility that the next administration in Paris may be as hostile as the British towards foreigners or, once the elections are out of the way, the momentum is lost.

It would be a shame if the French commitment turns out to be fleeting. With France’s economy stagnant, like most of the EU, new industries and talent are essential to triggering growth.

Over the next few years the forces of protectionism and xenophobia are going to cripple many of the world’s economies and societies. Where these visas are in a year’s time will tell us whether France will be one of those nations that’s turned its back on the 21st Century.

Jan 172017
 
Is Yahoo! recovering under new CEO Marissa Mayer

Slowly it’s dawning on government agencies how serious online data breaches can be. That can only be a good thing.

With a billion account details exposed the Yahoo! data breach announced last year was the greatest internet security failure to date.

Now Australian government agencies are worried about the scope of the breach and the number of politicians and officeholders whose credentials may have been affected.

Other government officials compromised include those carrying out sensitive roles such as high-ranking AFP officers, AusTrac money laundering analysts, judges and magistrates, political advisors, and even an employee of the Australian Privacy Commissioner.

The ramifications of this breach are far broader than just a few malcontents grabbing the contents of disused Yahoo! mail accounts or being able to hack Flickr profiles, many of the passwords will have been used on other services, compromised profiles linked to other platforms and the possible for identity fraud is immense.

With social media and cloud computing services coupled to these accounts, it’s quite possible for someone’s entire life to be hijacked thanks to one insecure service as Wired’s Matt Horan discovered a few years ago.

Just like individuals and businesses, the ramifications of careless organisations allowing private information to be stolen can be severe for governments. It’s right that Australian agencies are concerned about where this data has gone.

The official response to continued data breaches has been weak at best so it is good that suddenly agencies are having to face the consequences of the biggest one.

A widespread scare about insecure data may be what’s required to see governments start taking data security and citizen privacy seriously. That may be the positive side of the Yahoo! breach.

Jan 122017
 
how are we using data in our business

Last August the centrepiece of the Australian government’s digital dream came to an end. The Canberra Times this week described how “the Turnbull government has quietly killed off one of its biggest plans for ‘digital transformation’; the hugely ambitious gov.au website project”.

The abandonment of the project was an ignominious end of the plans for a Prime Minister who had promised so much at the time of his appointment, and that a cabinet submission would be pulled minutes before it was due to be tabled indicates the convoluted politics behind it.

Bizarrely, that story ran the same day the Federal Treasurer revealed the government would be running a ‘pilot project’ to put more services online as part of their attempts to harness the digital economy.

That the Australian Federal government is looking to run some pilot projects this year is remarkable given twenty years ago, in 1997, the then Prime Minister John Howard announced all appropriate government services would be online by 2001.

Australian taxpayers would be well justified asking what has happened over the last twenty years.

It could be argued that Australian governments are not particularly good at technology projects given ongoing disasters like the current Centrelink debacle, the failure of the 2016 Census and the collapse of the Tax Office’s portal shortly before Christmas.

Probably the main reason for Australian governments’ technology failures is the lack of focus, as shown by the Digital Transformation Office barely surviving one year.

That lack of focus is even more problematic as digital transformation projects are more about changing cultures than revamping technology, often making them a decades-long process.

Without a long term commitment to projects and policies, initiatives such as the Howard government’s 1997 Investing for Growth or Turnbull’s 2015 Innovation Agenda are doomed to failure. Until Australian governments commit to longer term visions, it’s unlikely any of their digital dreams will be achieved.

 

Jan 112017
 

Last year the Australian Federal government had a smart idea. To fix its chronic budget deficit, it would use data matching to claw back an estimated three billion dollars in social security overspending.

Unfortunately for tens of thousands of Australians the reality has turned out to very different with the system mistakenly flagging thousands of former claimants as being debtors.

How the Australian government messed up its welfare debt recovery is a cautionary tale of misusing data.

Data mis-match

At its core, the problem is due to the bureaucrats mismatching information.

Australia’s social security system requires unemployment or sickness benefit claimants file a fortnightly income statement with Centrelink, the agency that administers the system, and their payments are adjusted accordingly.

Most of those on benefits only spend a short time on them. According to the Department of Social Services, two thirds of recipients are off welfare within twelve months of starting.

Flawed numbers

Despite knowing this, the bureaucrats decided to take annual tax returns, average the individual’s income across the year and match the result against the fortnightly payment.

That obviously flawed and dishonest method has meant hundreds of former welfare recipients have been falsely accused of receiving overpayments.

Compounding the problem, the system frequently mis-identifies income because it fails to recognise employers may use different legal names, leading to people having their wages double counted and being accused of not reporting work.

Shock and awe

Under pressure from their political masters, the aggressive tactics of Centrelink and its debt collectors have left many of those accused shocked and distressed.

I can barely breathe when I think about this. My time period to pay is up tomorrow. I asked them for proof before I pay and I have heard horror stories of debt collection agencies, people being asked to pay so much, people being told there will be a black mark on their credit. I am so terrified. It’s so stupid for me to be terrified but I can’t help it. I am a student, I can’t afford anything!

Reading the minister’s response to criticisms, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that intimidation was a key objective.

The numbers of people involved are staggering. The department of Social Services reported 732,100 Australians received the Newstart unemployment allowance in 2015-16. Should 66% of those have moved off the benefit during the tax year then up to 488,000 people will receive ‘please explain’ notices.

Nearly half a million people being falsely accused of welfare fraud is bad enough, but that is only last year’s figures – due to a  law change by the previous Labor government, there is no limit to how far back Centrelink can go to recover alleged debts.

The System is working

Claiming the Centrelink debacle is a failure of Big Data and IT systems is wrong – the system is working as designed. The false positives are the result of a deliberate decision by agency bosses and their ministers to feed flawed data into the system.

How this will work out for the Australian government as tens of thousands more people receive unreasonable demands remains to be seen. Recent comments from the minister indicate they are hoping their ‘tough on welfare cheats’ line will resonate with the electorate.

Regardless of how well  it turns out for the Australian government, the misuse of data by its agencies is a worrying example of how governments can use the information they collect to harass citizens for short term political advantage.

Beyond welfare

While many Australians can dismiss the travails of Centrelink ‘clients’ as not concerning them, the same data matching techniques have long been used by other agencies – not least the Australian Taxation Office.

With the Federal Treasurer threatening a campaign against corporate tax dodging and the failure of the welfare crackdown to deliver the promised funds, it’s not hard to see small and medium businesses being caught in a similar campaign using inappropriate data.

More importantly, the Australian Public Service’s senior management’s incompetence, lack of ethics and proven inability to manage data systems is something that should deeply concern the nation’s taxpayers.

In a connected age, where masses of information is being collected on all of us, this is something every citizen should be objecting to.