My reflections from the NSW Digital Gov’s meetup

“It’s hard to transform if you don’t know where you’re going”

I was glad to participate in the “Building better public sectors for better public services” event organised by the Data, Insights and Transformation Unit in the Customer Service Department of NSW Government, Australia.

The main objective of the event was to offer an informal space for the people to have a conversation on how to transform the public sector in a way that leads to the results wanted and expected by the citizens and society. Of course, this goes beyond the design of the public services to discussing some fundamental questions like: what does “good” look like?.

It’s a serious question, too important to take it for granted, or to be overlooked while we are busy coping up with the latest digital buzzwords and technology trends. That’s because:

“It’s hard to transform if you don’t know where you’re going”

as Pia Andrews framed it in her opening remarks.

(Update: while finishing this story, Pia announced that she left her job)

What I liked the most in the event is that Pia asked more questions than offered answers! That demonstrated how the Data, Insights and Transformation Unit was genuinely running this meetup to consult with the public and solicit their views. I find this particularly important and helpful in building trust and encouraging the audience to keep participating in the following events.

Having participated in many similar meetups here in Australia and overseas, and actually organised some, I can point out to two main challenges usually come hand in hand with such open and participatory approach:

Being a passionate participant myself, I would like to share the following three tips that might help the Data, Insights and Transformation Unit (and other public sector organisations) moving forward:

1- Make the conversation two ways! This sounds basic but it can be easily forgotten. As a government department, the least you can do to thank and reward those who showed up at your event is to share with them the details and results of that event as soon as possible. The Data, Insights and Transformation Unit has already done that through an email sent to those who showed up. It would be great if such details made available online so that the wider public can access it which might also help in attracting more “fans” to the ongoing conversation. If this conversation is meant to be a long term ongoing practice, then it might worth it to dedicate a section with the department website for it.

A nice practice (though not always actually practiced!) is to add a human touch to the process! How? One way is to have a human face talking to the people online instead of (or beside) the department logo! Pia used to play this role through her Twitter account. Not sure who will replace her after she left.

2- Use a mix of online and offline channels and tools: during this event, the session was broadcasted live and a number of remote participants actually answered the series of questions we had. Such mix is good, and should be maintained and boosted by the introduction of a variety of tools: round-tables, online polls and surveys, online games etc.

The pros and cons of each online and face-to-face channel should be considered, but overall the diversity in channels and tools can contibute to the diversity of the participants as well as the effectiveness of the conversation.

A word-cloud visualisation of the participants’ answer to one of the questions (shared by the Data, Insights & Transformation Unit)

3- Offer hands on collaborative exercises for the public to work on more specific challenges or issues:

This consultation meetup was more of a “Hello World” event which fit its announced purpose. It offered an opportunity for a high level conversation on how we “the public” envisioned the future public sector.

However, it’s important to allocate some of the future events to discuss some specicif items in the department’s agenda and seek the public insights while working on the solution.

This collaborative design approach can help also in practicing the “human-centred design” principal adopted by the Policy Lab of Digital NSW and increasingly other government organisations.

Here’s an interesting example from the Finish capital, Helsinki on this collaborative design of solutions to specific issues:

This is also a good example of the gaming method I mentioned above.

I truly hope that the Data, Insights and Transformation Unit will keep this open and participatory approach, and I wish Pia best of luck in her future endeavour!

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