Broadband Can Wait

Last year I wrote about the idea of Citizen Audits — enabling citizens to observe the activities of government by opening up their computer systems to outside scrutiny. Now via the Dead Roo comes that news that the Federal Government is quietly lurching in that direction. Just not very well. The work to date suggests to Kieran David Bath that DOFA:

  1. Thinks senior management and executives in Australian agencies are stupid
  2. Dont have a clue what Australian agencies actually do (which is maybe because individual agencies couldnt tell them)
  3. Doesnt want a means of tracking expenditures for service delivery
  4. Wants a lot of money wasted, and go to large consultancies, mostly based overseas.

Actually, its probably a combination of all of these.

He’s talking about the new Australian Government Architecture Reference Models. For the uninitiated, these models are a high level way of describing how departments operate. So for example, the Performance Model describes how performance is tracked against department objectives, how it’s grouped and tallied, and so on. The Business Model describes how there are services, ways of delivering the service, and the function of managing Government resources, and so on.

The theory goes that the adoption of this model for all Federal IT systems and projects will allow much closer inter-departmental integration, especially on so-called “Whole of Government” (WoG, funnily enough) efforts. Since each department has the same model underlying its processes and systems, integration is greatly simplified. There wouldn’t be mismatches between fundamental ways of doing things, and moving data to and fro on particular projects would be easy. This would allow cross-departmental reports to be much easier and more meaningful. I imagine this would make the project popular with the wonks at Treasury, the RBA and the Department of the Parliamentary Library.

All good and well, except that as Kieran David argues, the model is incomplete. It is derived from a model developed by the US Office of Management & Budget and the US Department of Defence, but lacks the detail which the yanks have managed to work into the original works. Kieran David again:

In other words, despite the American government providing less to its citizens, it can produce a detailed list of what it does provide, whereas AGIMO technical experts were unable to get a list of what our agencies do from our politicians and senior executives from departments.

Now I fear that Kieran David may be overstating the American achievement, as it is still in large part out of sync with the realities of Pentagon bureaucracy. But in principle he is right: it is important to be able to define what the heck the departments actually do, so we can watch them more closely.

I suppose at this point I should revisit my slightly inflammatory headline and explain my meaning. Labor and the Coalition have engaged in a race to get everyone faster internet (a race which admittedly started with Howard tailgating Rudd). This will probably yield benefits to the economy, but essentially it’s not an urgent issue. I hate to pull a Bill Gates here, but for the current internet 1.5Mbps is probably sufficient. Higher rates are nice for casual users, and available at a cost for users who need it, but for day to day browsing, IMing, gaming and emailing the current infrastructure is sufficient; leaving aside the fact that the biggest bottleneck to Australian internet price/performance is actually the cost of laying fibre to California and Oregon.

I think this issue will have more important effects. To start with it will help to simplify the administration of government. If this means clearing a few desks at DOFA, good. If it means cutting the lead time on a Federal budget (currently 17 months), even better. But if it lays the groundwork for allowing citizens to query or even data mine departmental budgets and activities, even better. So if we’re going to blow a few billion dollars on things, let’s at least spend it on developing an open platform – both code and access – for the efficient administration of government. Broadband can wait.

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9 Responses to Broadband Can Wait

  1. As much as I would like to take credit for that article, it was actually written for The Dead Roo by David Bath. Cheers :-)

  2. Jacques Chester says:

    Thanks Kieran – fixed.

  3. al loomis says:

    government agency opening it’s files? if you’re serious, don’t admit it.

    no one’s reputation could survive that.

  4. Jacques Chester says:

    I realise it runs contrary to the first episode of Yes, Minister, but we could try, dammit.

  5. Dave Bath says:

    Thanks for the plug, and drawing attention to the between-the-lines proof that our pollies can’t say what they do … but …

    (1) I don’t think, however much I’d love it, that they’ll use it to open up the books. Australian governments (all levels) are good at FfI (Freedom from Information) rather than FoI. But it would make things easier for a (horribly underfunded) ANAO. BTW: I’d recommend people keep an eye on the ANAO reports and read between their ever-so-gotta-say-it-diplomatically-or-else lines – particularly on Centrelink.

    (2) It’s actually got almost nothing to do with “IT systems”, but information management in general – the same approach works with pencil-and-paper. The reference models are, in fact, very similar conceptually to “charts of accounts” which have been indispensible to accountants for at least half a millenium.

    (3) My BIG point was that the “Business Reference Model” was empty (well, half a page and a pretty picture to explain what a business reference model is), implying that nobody was able to tell the AGIMO guys (who are trying real hard to do the right thing) what they think the government actually does for us. Hell, our pollies and senior public servants couldn’t even cut-and-paste from the US template. This is, IMNSHO, close to scandalous.

  6. Pingback: Balneus AGA proves government doesn’t know what it does «

  7. Jacques Chester says:

    Dave;

    Thanks for the clarification. I focus on IT systems because that’s my area of interest these days (and to a far lesser extent, it’s also my area of expertise). The link to my original article shows that I think we have the FoI thing backwards – we rely on government to search and filter. Government should retain filtering but search should be opened up.

    Like I said above, it’s unlikely. But just because it cannot be achieved today does not mean it can’t be achieved at all. Politics moves in unexpected ways and patience can pay. In any case it is worth getting the idea into circulation.

  8. Dave Bath says:

    Actually on the citizen searching, this would be a no-brainer if the AGLSmetadata/DIRKS management were up to the recordkeeping standards the NAA describes for the Archives Act: Subject, Keywords, Author, Audience, etc. (For the uninitiated, this is basically filling in the “File/Properties” stuff in your Office-suite-of-choice). If this was done, the scope “commercial in confidence” would have to be assigned at creation-time, not after the FoI request came in. Also, putting in a google-appliance (at around 5 or 6 cents a document) would let the public search (but not see stuff they shouldn’t) and mean FoI requests could be essentially zero-cost in most instances (leveraging the cost of letting departmental personnel find the stuff they need).

    (As a former Enterprise Architecture Standards/Policies wonk with an Australian Public Service Number I know just how critical this is to accountability, and how inconsistently basic recordkeeping rules are enforced – but I’m still cutting code since starting in punched cards/tape days)

    You might like my piece Freedom From Information and Fixing It which expands on this technical solution to the FoI problem.

  9. Pingback: Vic gov recordkeeping slammed by Auditor « Balneus

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