The first thing that struck me about John is how different he is from the stereotype of a government IT professional.
Personable, approachable and possibly the only tea drinker left in the US, John was trained in physics but pursued a career in IT after it was pointed out to him that there were more career opportunities in IT than science.
He came late to government, spending a number of years founding and working in early-stage start-ups before making the leap to public service in 2005, as Director of E-Government and Web Services for the State of Texas, reporting directly to the State CTO.
In that role John was responsible for shepherding the TexasOnline.com program (now texas.gov), implementing 829 new online services, and leading to 83 million citizen financial transactions, with more than $5 billion online revenue.
John believes that government is at an interesting crossroads – still applying governance principles from the 19th and 20th centuries, while trying to rapidly adapt to the 21st.
He talked to me about the vision that the founders of the US had for their nation, a participatory democracy where citizen involvement in governance didn’t end with their vote, where citizens were empowered and supported to contribute to civic life.
John says that with today’s technologies it is now possible for societies to realise this kind of vision – to reshape governments to be more participatory without losing the strong institutions and traditions that make democracy possible.
We discussed how government institutions are designed to maintain the status quo, the value of bureaucratic processes in maintaining stable, safe and secure societies, however these strengths can also become weaknesses when politicians and public servants stop asking ‘what is the goal of government’ and focus on repeating the processes in government – resisting change from within or without.
John asked the question ‘what is the role of citizens in delivering government services?’ saying that governments need to begin considering citizens as stakeholders and engaging them in the same way agencies engage expert panels, companies and lobby groups.
He also commented on how government’s tendency to silo problems and attempt to solve them individually is failing – today’s problems are complex and multifaceted, crossing traditional ministerial portfolios and requiring complex and collaborative solutions.
John argued that the current structures in government are poorly suited to solving these problems, and our reliance on subject matter experts – rather than problem solving experts – meant that many problems are being seen through specific lenses and perspectives that made them difficult, if not impossible to solve.
He gave the example of US state road taxes on petrol – designed to cover the cost of maintaining roads. As cars have improved their efficiency, travelling far further – and doing more road damage – on the same amount of petrol, the gap between the funds the tax raise and the maintenance cost has been growing.
John asked a group of road policy experts in government about this issue, and their response was that the solution was simple – raise road taxes. His comment to me was that while the experts may think this was simple to do, it wasn’t simple to get tax increases through political processes or sell their value to the public – more participatory processes and more innovative solutions were needed for the long-term.
He said that the increasing size of many of the complex problems that face government today mean that the odds are in the favour of those who advocate for more participative government and Government 2.0.
As traditional approaches to problem solving fail, due to agency silos, expert bias and limited community involvement, governments will be forced to look towards more innovative solutions – involving citizens and reshaping bureaucratic processes.
John also said that digital was an opportunity for governments to do more than simply replicate their business processes online. Rather than mimicing or tweaking paper-based workflows and forms for online use, agencies should use the opportunity to reinvent their business processes.
This involves questioning every assumption – what information is needed, when and how is it needed, how should it be stored, actioned and how should citizens be informed and engaged throughout the entire process.
John says that agencies that simply replicate existing processes online are unlikely to realise the full benefits in cost-savings, accurate completion and citizen satisfaction – an automated mess is still a mess.
He says there are no shortage of example of how technology has transformed business processes and the situation is no different in government. If agencies and politicians can focus on the goals and outcomes they are working towards, rather than bury themselves in repeating the same processes they’ve used for decades.
John also suggested that a reinvention approach allows room for innovations in how government services are delivered. For example as train timetables become digitalised, why should trains runs at the same time every day?
Would it be possible to adjust train schedules on a flexible basis, managing it like an electricity grid, based on the number of travellers and communicated via electronic messaging boards.
He also asked whether child protection services could be radically reinvented to provide 24/7 access to case workers for children in need. Could a single contact phone number, SMS and email address be used to route case workers to where they are needed most, using GPS and mobile devices to ensure they had the information they needed at all times to maximise their efficiency and protect more children from harm.
In conclusion John was of the view that egovernment, Government 2.0 and the rise of digital citizens who wish greater participation in the democratic process, should not be seen as a threat to traditional democratic institutions – we’re not trying to add a third house of parliament.
Instead he said that these movements and emerging technologies should be embraced as a way to realise the original intent and goals of government – to represent, serve and involve citizens.