At the end of June I went to North America. I visited Washington D.C. and Ottawa to meet people and talk about data and search. It was hard work but I had a great time.
In Washington D.C. I spoke at the Legislative Data and Transparency Conference and met people from the White House IT team. I also visited the National Democratic Institute and spent time with colleagues from the U.S. House of Representatives and other federal government institutions.
In the past year I’ve been more outward looking than ever before. It's made me aware of the shared challenges in ‘digital’ for other organisations. So the main purpose of the trip was to learn how other people approach similar work.
The similarities are reassuring and the differences make you think. There were some things that colleagues in the U.S. and Canada have approached differently or spent more time doing with great results. Having got a fresh perspective, there are also things that I think we’re doing well in PDS.
Working with your community of users
At the conference I was impressed with the mix of public servants, lobbyists and civic tech people there. There were some well established relationships and the atmosphere was positive and supportive.
In Ottawa, some of the people I met in the new Canadian Digital Service were already active in the civic tech community. It means they can use their networks and add context when building government services.
We at PDS could definitely work closer with these kinds of people than we do at the moment. So participating in these communities is one of the objectives for my data and search team.
Stick at it
The success story of the U.S. House of Representatives ‘bulk data task force’ at the conference was great to hear. It’s taken years of sustained effort to improve the provision of data from the institution. Users of the data like Joshua Tauberer of govtrack.us praised the team’s efforts and said that their data was increasingly easy to work with.
There was also a recognition that the ‘bulk data task force’ started as a reaction to criticism. Individuals and institutions facing up to that and doing something about it is admirable.
I’m also pretty open about how our current data services could be better and we need a few more years of sustained effort to improve them.
The benefits of organisation
I found it much easier to relate to the Canadian system of government than the U.S system. The Canadian House of Commons felt especially familiar although there were some differences. I thought it was interesting that responsibility for buildings and strategic planning belongs to the Chief Information Officer.
There was also a theme of thinking about a problem as a whole. From the fabric of a building to its technology infrastructure, to the business systems using the infrastructure and then to their outputs and outcomes.
Closer to my own job I thought there’s a lot to recommend the Canadian House of Commons approach. All their systems are developed under one umbrella regardless of whether it’s a commercial off-the-shelf product, a business system built in-house or a public-facing website.
On the other hand, provision of services to the Canadian Senate is largely separate from the House of Commons. Whereas in PDS we work with both the House of Commons and House of Lords and I prefer it this way. Particularly when it comes to providing shared services and building joined-up services for the public like our new website.
I don’t think anybody is going to change the organisation of Parliament’s administration based on my trip to North America though. Still, I hope we can think collaboratively about the problems we have like our Canadian colleagues. Whether we’re looking at strategic programmes of work or looking at problems with buildings and new working environments.
When it came to openness about their work, there was a real variety of views and practice. Some were totally closed. Others were committed to working in the open including public source code, blogging and using both official and individual social media for the organisation’s benefit.
It’s not a competition but this is the area where I was particularly happy with how we work in PDS. I feel encouraged to be public about our work and I don’t feel constrained or limited to only telling the ‘good news stories’ either, which is important. I think that others could follow our example.
This was my first ever trip overseas for work. Hopefully I did a good enough job representing PDS to go on some more before too long. And I even wore a tie at the appropriate times.
Thanks in particular to Reynold Schweickhardt for inviting me to the conference, Soufiane Ben Moussa for hosting me at the House of Commons, and to Kirsten Gullickson, Tasha Riddell and Olivia Neal for setting things up and looking after me.
Read more about the work of the data and search team.