Sharing policies, patterns, recipes & code across government

This morning at the Drupal Downunder event I learnt about the New Zealand Features site which shares recipes for re-usable Drupal code and patterns across NZ government.

To me this is representative of one of the significant opportunities I’ve seen for government in Australia emerging out of Gov 2.0 thinking and tools is the ability to share between agencies.

Sharing, as a concept, has allowed humans to move from the savannahs of Africa to our current position as the dominant species on earth. We taught each other how to create tools, how to farm, how to build and how to aspire.

While competition is often seen as the key driver of progress, under every competition is sharing – shared concepts, shared goals and, often, shared resources and knowledge. So even in the midst of the most ferocious competitions sharing is going on behind the scenes.

For organisations, sharing is also essential for survival and success. Organisations that configure themselves or act to successfully limit sharing will, by default, be slower to learn lessons, adapt to changing environments, cost more to operate and deliver less in the way of outcomes.

Unfortunately, through siloisation, this sits at the basis of the organisational structures that became popular following the success of the US railway corporations in the 19th Century.

This hierarchical approach for organising unskilled labour to deliver enormous achievements was very effective for managing large numbers of semi-skilled and semi-literate workers performing simple repetitive tasks, such as building a railway or operating a basis production line. Higher level managers, with greater education levels, provided the brains, innovation and held the broader view of the goals.

This hierarchical structure has become less and less valuable as an approach as populations have become highly educated and moved from performing repetitive physical activity to complex and multi-faceted knowledge work. ‘Shifts’ and ‘gangs’ became ‘teams’ and ‘branches’, where individuals were expected to perform a diverse range of tasks well – and to swap in for a colleague where necessary with limited time to train.

As modern organisations remain a hybrid of 19th century railway hierarchies and self-managed teams and networks, they have struggled to balance the needs of activity segmentation – leading to siloing – with the needs to share knowledge.

As the internet has done for many other activities it has taken sharing and put it on steroids. Suddenly you can source knowledge and expertise from anywhere in the world, sharing experiences, skills, lessons and outcomes.

This should likewise have a profound effect on government agencies, who seek to draw on the experiences of other jurisdictions and the knowledge of experts to inform their policy recommendations.

Also important is the ability to share within government between agencies. While a percentage of every agency’s activities differ from those of other agencies, another percentage – frequently the larger number – involve repeating similar activities – HR, procurement, IT management, finance – as well as patterns of activities such as policy development processes, website development processes, internal communications processes.

This is all well and good – and clearly as the internet exists by default people can and will share.

The problem, of course, is that often public officers (like other people) need more motivation to share than the joy of giving. They need time and support, a framework in which to share and guidance on how to do it.

The US government has set about solving some of these underlying needs for a framework in which to share through the GovForge and MilForge initiatives. These sites support the sharing of code between agencies by providing a framework and mechanism whereby code can be provided, categorised, make available and the owners of the code reimbursed – through recognition.

I learnt this morning about the New Zealand site, where public officials have taken steps in the same direction, with the Features site sharing recipes for re-usable Drupal code and patterns.

In Australia we’re a little further behind. While sharing definitely goes on, with some agencies, such as DEEWR, happy to share their web code and patterns with other agencies. I’m aware of code and pattern sharing for tenders, for research and for other activities where agencies go through the same processes, though often for different ends.

However we’ve not yet seen a central site within government for sharing these things. A place where agencies can store their staff policies, communications plan templates, business planning processes, emergency management frameworks, tender documents, research surveys, website code and patterns and more, so others across government can learn from, build on, modify and/or repurpose them – then submit their improvements back into the system.

Effectively this would provide a best practice repository that goes far beyond ‘case studies’ to support government agencies in standing on the shoulders of each other, improving their capability to serve government and improving policy and service deliver outcomes

Gov 2.0 makes this possible, and I hope that, with the example of the New Zealand Features site, these things are not too far away.

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