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EXCLUSIVE - Bringing people and technology together- collaboration in the Australian government

The OpenGov Breakfast Dialogue on ‘Transforming the workplace through ‘Cloud Collaboration’ to improve efficiency, drive productivity and cost savings’ in Canberra on the 13th of October was attended by representatives from numerous different government agencies. The session saw a wide-ranging, stimulating discussion on the current state of collaboration in the government and the primary drivers and obstacles.

OpenGov Editor-in-chief, Mohit Sagar, opened the dialogue session talking about the similarities in collaboration journeys undertaken by governments across the Asia-Pacific region, based on learnings from previous OpenGov dialogue sessions.

He talked about the pushback by employees and lack of user adoption for collaborative technology. A top-down method of implementation through directives might be effective in some countries depending on the culture. But in others, if employees are not happy with the way the system works, they are not going to use it. Mr. Sagar also spoke about the concerns about losing control over data which hinder true collaborative endeavours within and between agencies.

Vaughan Klein, General Manager, Collaboration, Cisco, Australia and New Zealand said that from 2011 onwards, he noticed that both the public and private sectors started focusing on their cost structures. They started trimming the fat out of their organisations but now the process is approaching a point where there is minimal room left to cut costs.

         The discussion has moved to productivity. With budgetary constraints, it has become necessary for government to do more with less. Mr. Klein also highlighted another shift in that earlier most of his interactions were solely with IT departments. That is no longer the case. Now it is as much about people, as technology.                              

He concluded his presentation with three clear current trends he’s observing in terms of collaboration. The first is a focus on video, with the objective being the ability to be present in any room around the world at the press of a button. And the access to that capability has been made democratised through lowering of costs. Mobility and cloud-based offerings, instead of on-premise solutions constitute the other two trends.  

         Brendan Dalton, Chief Information Officer (CIO) of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Organisation (CSIRO) provided the perspective of the research community on collaboration. Scientific Research is by its very nature collaborative. Mr. Dalton said that his role as the CIO is to implement collaboration technologies, not just locally but also on an international basis.                              

CSIRO has 5800 staff and around 3000 close collaborators. That means that collaboration has to be enabled between close to 9000 people. This is excluding the over 2800 industry partners. Mr. Dalton spoke about data.csiro.au which has over 2500 open data sets. China is one of the big users of the portal.

Dr. Tan Tin Wee, Chairman of the National Supercomputing Centre in Singapore and one of the pioneers of the internet continued the theme of collaboration in the scientific community. In order to advance scientific endeavour and discovery collaboration is necessary. Scientists have understood and embraced this, making collaboration a norm and creating borderless workplaces. The other field where collaboration has become an integral part is higher education. Over the last 25 years, education has become borderless. Sharing and collaboration can make the total greater than the sum of the individual parts.

Dr. Tan reminded the delegates that the tools and platforms have been available for the past 15 years. From research and education, now these tools have penetrated the public sector work place. He said that cloud collaboration platforms can enable government agencies around the world to work more productively, efficiently, creatively and securely.

Questions and discussion

The first question asked the ICT executives, “What do you think are the key imperatives for Government right now?” Improving service delivery was the clear favourite with 44% of the votes, followed by breaking down silos and showing technology leadership/innovation at 28% and 17% respectively.

Mr. David Roulston, CIO, Transport Canberra and City Services, ACT Government spoke about the need to break down silos within the building and also with the community. Trish Leahey, CIO, Australian Research Council talked about the conflict between the whole-of-government agenda and continuing operations in silos due to the cultural aspect.

         The statement that technology is the easy part, people are difficult, came up repeatedly over the course of the dialogue in many different forms, as the various aspects of cultural resistance and barriers were brought up and dissected.                                        

For instance, there could be situations where everyone is so highly focused on their own KPIs, that assisting other divisions could be viewed as compromising your own time. This zero-sum game view can have a petrifying effect on collaboration. Dr. Tan Wee gave example of environment incentivising collaboration at A*Star.  

Another example was given by Mr. Sagar from certain south-east Asian countries, where it is considered mandatory to work in view of your superiors, to demonstrate your productivity, thereby precluding any possibility of flexible working.

Facilitating flexible working was selected by 39% of participants when asked how technology can help government transform the workplace.

Some fascinating aspects of benefits from flexibility emerged in the subsequent discussion. Government agencies are competing with the private sector for talent. The ability to work from anywhere would broaden the market and provide access to talent pool from across the nation as opposed to being restricted to a specific city. Flexibility could be necessary in another way for attracting talent. Problems might crop up at any time, any day and the ability to fix it remotely instead of requiring employees to come into the office to fix it could be significant positive.

For agencies with global networks, flexibility can also be about availability in different time zones, as mentioned by Rama Biswas from the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation.

Improved flexibility/ scalability was also the overwhelmingly dominant driver for moving to cloud accounting for 88% of votes.

In terms of service models, 50% of the delegates said they are opting for Software-as-a-service model, while hybrid cloud was the deployment model selected by majority.

Earlier in the dialogue, Bas Wilson from Fair Work Ombudsman stressed on the fact that the new generation has high expectations from the government. Government is running and trying to catch up. But to do so successfully, collaboration is a must.  

Over 50% of government agencies in attendance are using a number of collaboration features, including IM, web conferencing and so on. Most of the tools have been in existence for a while. So, the problem lies in getting people to utilise them.

In addition to the aforementioned culture, security concerns might be an impediment. Gary Pettigrove, CIO, Australian National Audit Office talked about his staff travelling across the country most of the time. They have exchange huge amounts of data and there needs to be security for all the back and forth exchanges. A robust security layer is essential to enable government to adopt collaborative tools.

Mr. Russell Brennan, CIO, Australian Public Service Commission pointed out that the ultimate desired outcome for most agencies is to enhance service delivery and things like collaboration and innovation could be viewed as tools to achieve the same.

         Collaboration for the sake of it, without trying to understand the problems to be solved can be futile. It might not provide any form of tangible gains. The futility of the investments required could make the Boards view it as a waste and result in an effective freeze on worthwhile collaborative ventures in the future. Hence, it is important that government agencies know what the problem at hand is and then figure out what kind of teamwork or partnership might be required.                              

During the conversation the puzzle of end user adoption was one of the key issues. The same individuals who might be adopting the latest communication technologies in their personal lives without a second thought might be resistant to using a new channel at work. This could be partially explained by a generation gap.

It could be resolved to some extent by keeping offerings as simple and straightforward as possible, to access and use. Also, the need for complete, practical solutions was discussed. For instance, a state-of-the-art video conferencing system, but with no associated capability to share documents would have limited use. Here the cloud could play an essential role, meeting the present everywhere requirement and eliminating inconsistencies in versions and features.

Towards the end, Dr. Ole Nielsen, Director Scientific Computing and Systems Engineer, Geoscience Australia brought up the importance of empowerment for enhancing collaboration.  This would consist of understanding the users, their requirements and making them feel that their contributions are valued.

Mr. Roulston also talked about the vertical divide, making collaboration a reality not just for executives but also the blue collar staff on the ground.

Collaboration within and between public sector organisations is imperative. Government agencies understand that. There is gradual but sure progress towards the ideal. There are challenges to be surmounted, primarily because of the ‘people’ factor.  Integrated cloud-based platforms and tools could be a part of the solution, providing a push in the right direction in this on-going journey.

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