Local Government 2.0

Looking at the ways in which the ideas and trends around "Gov 2.0" will look and feel in the ever practical world of local government in Australia and New Zealand.

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  1. Moving Beyond PDF
It’s my observation that documents increasingly need to be authored as documents but consumed as databases.  All of our existing document formats, PDF included, make it hard to do the second part.
The sad truth is that very few people beyond those that are required to, will read Council’s shiny new policy, strategy, land use plan, etc… from cover to cover.  Let’s take your new land us plan as an example.  Why and how do people want to consume this information?
I’ll be interested in it when I’m lodging a new development application - but only the parts that help me get my application approved.  An officer will need to quote sections of it when preparing a decision against my application.  If someone is preparing a district plan they’ll need to ensure it is consistent with the relevant provisions of the overall plan.  When someone is purchasing a piece of land they’ll want to know what the plan says about their specific land parcel.
Notice the unifying theme here?  All the times people want to consume the land use plan they only need to reference specific parts of it.  No one wants to sit and read the thing from front to back.  Same goes for any significant policy, strategy or plan that Council produces.
These needs are best served by making the document content machine readable not just human readable.  If the document is only human readable, a person must do just that - read through the whole document to manually extract the parts that are relevant to them.
A better scenario is that all the content is broken down into manageable chunks and each chunk is tagged by location, theme and weight.  Each content chunk is able to be referenced individually.  This would allow someone to query the document for all regulatory provisions relating to house construction in a particular suburb or all transport guidelines across the Council.  These extracts could be published on the fly as a customised document or used to populate parts of the Council website dynamically.
None of the mainstream document formats can deliver this.  This is more like a database outcome than a document outcome.  This is what I mean when I say documents need to be consumed as a database.
The kicker is that the folk who author these plans, strategies and documents are not database types.  I was recently told about a planning system aimed at publishing planning documents in this way that required the town planners to author the document as an XML file.  To give you an idea of the complexity of that, go the browser you are viewing this post in and select “View Source”.  
So the ideal way to author Council’s policies, plans and strategies is in an environment that presents itself to authors as just a document editor, but behind the scenes stores the document in a structured database that allows formatted publishing to human readable PDF and web sites, but can also provide machine readable data to the land information system, the content management system that published your website or automated sub publications that can be generated at the press of a button.  Oh yeah, and it should also allow multiple people to contribute content simultaneously.
This realisation is driving the solutions I’m working on at the moment in not only developing these plans but managing their implementation.  It’s great that so many of these outcomes can be put in place using the capability already available on Objective’s uCreate platform.  

    Moving Beyond PDF

    It’s my observation that documents increasingly need to be authored as documents but consumed as databases.  All of our existing document formats, PDF included, make it hard to do the second part.

    The sad truth is that very few people beyond those that are required to, will read Council’s shiny new policy, strategy, land use plan, etc… from cover to cover.  Let’s take your new land us plan as an example.  Why and how do people want to consume this information?

    I’ll be interested in it when I’m lodging a new development application - but only the parts that help me get my application approved.  An officer will need to quote sections of it when preparing a decision against my application.  If someone is preparing a district plan they’ll need to ensure it is consistent with the relevant provisions of the overall plan.  When someone is purchasing a piece of land they’ll want to know what the plan says about their specific land parcel.

    Notice the unifying theme here?  All the times people want to consume the land use plan they only need to reference specific parts of it.  No one wants to sit and read the thing from front to back.  Same goes for any significant policy, strategy or plan that Council produces.

    These needs are best served by making the document content machine readable not just human readable.  If the document is only human readable, a person must do just that - read through the whole document to manually extract the parts that are relevant to them.

    A better scenario is that all the content is broken down into manageable chunks and each chunk is tagged by location, theme and weight.  Each content chunk is able to be referenced individually.  This would allow someone to query the document for all regulatory provisions relating to house construction in a particular suburb or all transport guidelines across the Council.  These extracts could be published on the fly as a customised document or used to populate parts of the Council website dynamically.

    None of the mainstream document formats can deliver this.  This is more like a database outcome than a document outcome.  This is what I mean when I say documents need to be consumed as a database.

    The kicker is that the folk who author these plans, strategies and documents are not database types.  I was recently told about a planning system aimed at publishing planning documents in this way that required the town planners to author the document as an XML file.  To give you an idea of the complexity of that, go the browser you are viewing this post in and select “View Source”.  

    So the ideal way to author Council’s policies, plans and strategies is in an environment that presents itself to authors as just a document editor, but behind the scenes stores the document in a structured database that allows formatted publishing to human readable PDF and web sites, but can also provide machine readable data to the land information system, the content management system that published your website or automated sub publications that can be generated at the press of a button.  Oh yeah, and it should also allow multiple people to contribute content simultaneously.

    This realisation is driving the solutions I’m working on at the moment in not only developing these plans but managing their implementation.  It’s great that so many of these outcomes can be put in place using the capability already available on Objective’s uCreate platform.  

     
     
  2. In popular opinion hearing voices in your head is a bad thing. But it actually is the basis of our ability to think! As it turns out we can only think when we collaborate. Thinking is an internal collaboration.

    As young children acquire language they tend to verbalise most if not all their actions. This is a key part of how they learn.

    Naturally they learn to reason, to think, by verbalising the process. A child learning with her mother to solve geometric puzzles reasons through dialogue. “Where does this boat piece go?” “Look at the shape.” “Where can this pointy bit go?”

    The thinking here is actually happening outside, between mother and child. As the child learns, this dialogue starts to be a conversation with self. They hold down both parts of the reasoning conversation. Then they pitch up at school and the teacher says “Sssshhh….” so they start to have the thinking conversation with themself and silently.

    All reasoning is a dialogue. It’s just we learn to do it internally and silently. What does this mean for problems that canot be reasoned or thought about individually? Problems where an organisation needs to think about a problem.

    Current practice for complex strategy documents requiring multi disciplinary input is that everyone drafts their bit in isolation. The document is then consolidated and sent to all authors for review. This review is a conversation but of the most simplistic kind. So it is not very deep organisational thinking.

    Better organisational thinking means richer conversation; more iterations. This is what we really mean when we say collaboration.

    To achieve this requires an online authoring environment. An environment that allows authors to own a section but for others to have visibility and to provide comment in real time. An environment that allows an organisation to think deeply.

    Thanks to the goodness that is Radiolab for the inspiration for this post.  Click the link to listen to the full podcast.

    Radiolab Logo

     
     
  3. Engaging Responsibly

    Councils need to take of the Santa suit before inviting their community to participate in decision making.

    Engaging with Adults

    For community planning to be successful; to improve the practice of local government; to not add to the burdens of local government: we must engage with the community as adults.  If we give the community authority to participate in decision making without responsibility, we treat them as children.  As children the community are dependant and burden Council.  We need to believe that the community are adults and are willing, even eager to take the responsibility that comes with authority.

    To illustrate, let’s think about the family budget.

    I want an iPod

    If you have children, you understand they can’t take responsibility for the family budget.  You don’t want them to.  As a parent you want to create an environment that gives your child the freedom to grow into adulthood.  This affects how you interact with them around what they want and what they can have.  When they want a new gaming console, brand name clothing, a guitar or an iPod, you may discuss this with them but ultimately the answer is yes or no.  You don’t give them authority.

    Contrast this with how you discuss your projects and plans with your partner.  You both take responsibility for the family budget, contributing income and effort.  Undoubtedly your desires are larger than your budget.  Not many of us can afford to have the new car, the overseas holiday, the new home entertainment gadgets and the landscaping all at once.  This means you and your partner agree that the holiday is what you will do this year and maybe buy some new plants but do the work yourselves.

    If one partner in a relationship exercises their authority without taking responsibility and buys the new car, engages the landscaper AND books the overseas holiday, problems arise.  Unless both partners take responsibility, the relationship will fail.

    The relationship between Council and the community is no different.

    Take off the red suit.

    If our community planning offers the community the authority to participate in decision making without also taking responsibility for the decisions, the process will fail.  Without a doubt, granting the authority to influence the outcomes and priorities for the area, without reference to the technical, geophysical and commercial landscape will lead to an unrealistic wish list.  Community planning should not be the equivalent of sitting on Santa’s knee and asking him what they want for Christmas.

    A community that seeks to participate in setting the aspiration and priority for the community must also take on the responsibility  that comes with this decision making.  That includes deciding to increase rates, to reduce or discontinue some services so others can be expanded or introduced.  

    The online mandate

    This idea of tying responsibility to authority in community engagement implies a sophisticated engagement.  This is not just some general comments on a document.  It is an interactive, multi point discussion about priorities and alternatives.  It implies an ability to get hard feedback in the form of structured surveys and voting on specific proposals.

    This dialogue and frequency of interaction mandates an online engagement environment.  Only the web provides the platform that allows the conversation to progress quickly enough and cheaply enough to be practical.

    A couple of quick forms on your website aren’t going to achieve this.  To involve the community to the point where they can take responsibility for the implications of their decisions on the priorities and outcomes needs a method of disseminating detailed information that can readily be navigated without being overwhelming.  It requires strong stakeholder management capabilities so the contributions of individuals across topics and engagements can be compiled allowing you to engage with that person as an individual.

    In short you are going to need a dedicate online engagement environment.  

     
     
  4. Planning to Act

    The World Cup is not the only arena where the Kiwis are shading the Aussies.

    There’s no two ways about it, the All Whites are performing beyond everyone’s expectations.  It’s probably best encapsulated by the statistic making the rounds on Twitter. Number of professional footballers, Italy: 3,541, New Zealand: 25; Result 1:1!

    I’d argue that football is not the the only area where the Kiwis punch above their weight.  There are certainly aspects of their system and practice of local government that are world class, from which Australia should and in cases is, drawing inspiration.

    In Australia the notion of long term planning at the local level is just emerging.  The Rudd government’s national framework for local government identifies the need for Council’s to approach asset management more pro actively and over a longer horizon.  The framework also articulates the need to formally link asset planning, land use planning and the vision of the community for the area.

    In Queensland and New South Wales we see the national framework given voice in new requirements for Councils to have a long term community plan.  The community plan needs to articulate the vision for the Council area for a period of at least ten years.  Local government in both States are looking to New Zealand for guidance and example in simply achieving the massive task of getting the plan drafted and considering how they will seek meaningful community engagement on the plan.

    Meanwhile, with New Zealand Councils into their second ten year plan, the best practice bar for community planning is being raised again in New Zealand.

    Bay of Plenty Context Map

    I was fortunate last week to meet with the Objective local government user forum.  One of the standout contributions was by Environment Bay of Plenty (EnvBoP).  EnvBoP are the regional council for the Bay of Plenty area.  Their view is that the plan itself has no value until it is implemented.  Drafting the plan and engaging the community may seem like big jobs, but the value comes in implementing the plan.  Jim Fretwell from EnvBoP demonstrated the way they link sections of the Community Plan to relevant goals in the strategy plan.  These are in turn linked to the projects and programs in the annual plan and the corresponding provisions of the budget.  

    This gives the organisation clear visibility of how they are performing against the community outcomes in the long term plan.  More importantly it allows them to demonstrate to the community that each of the projects and programs undertaken by Council address the community outcomes in the long term plan.

    Australia, this is where you need to be.  A long term community plan’s value starts in the process of aligning the technical and commercial landscape with the aspirations of the community.  But this value is properly realised once the programs and projects of the Council align with community outcomes.

    Now…, has anybody at Soccer Australia got the name of the all Whites coach?