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Constitution 2.0 - agile government

Hello world

In my interview for the position of Constitution Council CTO I went out on a limb and presented a vision to implement it like a startup. Writing a constitution is serious business, but at the end of the day, it’s 25 people plus staff working for four months on a single document.

This fresh approach to government IT seemed to hit a chord with the planning comity and after having assured everybody that it could be done given the challenging deadlines and limited budget, I got the job.

My mission statement was to provide the best possible information technology setup and services to the delegates. Ensure that all information and data would be stored and presented in an accessible manner to all. Provide open channels for communication between the delegates and public. And finally, use as much open, free, hosted cost efficient technology as possible.

Armed with that I set to work designing a mini parliament based on the requirements written by our current parliament. There was a set process, number of committees, types of documents, live streaming of meetings etc. There was also the case of setting up appropriate working conditions for delegates and staff.

From the get go, I assumed the same mindset for the budget as for a company of my own. I happily pay taxes but as a taxpayer I want government money to be handled with the same care as in any privately run startup. I quickly found out that suppliers had different ideas. For every tender, I had to send the proposals back and carefully explain my approach. Those who got my line of thinking where able to come up with creative solutions, sometimes for half of the initial quoted price.
Tools of the trade

My first task was to setup Google Apps for the current office of 5 staff and canceling the Outlook hosted service. We used the Google migration tools to transfer the mail archive and the staff continued using Outlook or switched to either web or Mozilla Thunderbird clients. The transition took half a day and we used the free version until the delegates actually arrived at the office. The total cost for Email and Google Documents was $50 per person and we managed everything in-house.

I used my own Mac throughout the project and in the same manner asked the delegates if they required a laptop or wanted to use their own. 9 out of 25 actually chose to use their own and that helped bring cost down.

We decided to provide laptops to delegates and employees. I requested proposals for lease or purchase of 40 laptops with options for Windows or Linux, MS Office and Open Office. Only one of the providers was in a position to offer an open source approach but it actually cost more than an off the shelf basic Windows laptop. From the responses I got, I deducted that the vendors have not had many requests for Open Source IT setups and we have a long way to go before providing such fully serviced options for government purpose. After going back and forth and asking silly questions like "why is that laptop less expensive on your website?", I finally found a sales person who understood where I was coming from and offered me a lease for a quarter of the purchasing price. Top of the range hardware and we managed to put up first class working conditions for less than half of the allocated budget.

Microsoft Office was included with the laptops and I noticed a sigh of relief with the staff that was getting stressed about having to learn to use Open office. It was also important to me that the delegates could start working in a familiar environment without having to spend days on adapting to new interfaces. We set up the Google Apps Sync for Microsoft Outlook which meant that no-one noticed or cared where the email was hosted. Except of course for our tech savvy minister with his Mac/iPhone/iPad setup who was thrilled to discover that his setup worked like a charm. All platforms had equal rights during the making of this constitution.

Some of the delegates and secretaries fully embraced the Google Docs environment and worked together on text documents during meetings, collaborating and taking notes within the same document. This worked exceptionally well for those willing to take the leap.

As for other web based applications, we used DropBox for backing up the personal documents and document sharing, Issuu for sharing PDF documents, MailChimp for newsletter management, Google Analytics for web traffic, Skype for all those interviews with the foreign media, Google chat for internal communications, YouTube for video, Flickr for photos and we relied heavily on Facebook for internal and external communications. All of these solutions where either free or charged few dollars for subscription. No hardware, limited or no setup, no hassle.

I spent considerable time considering different options for streaming the public council meetings. Everything from hosted solutions like Livestream or Ustream Watershed, or to building my own setup using something like Wowza media server. The requirements included on-site backup and as we have a cap on international download in Iceland, I had to stream from within the island. Again working closely with local vendors, we came up with a plan where equipment was leased and we used remote controlled cameras to limit the staff cost. Unfortunately the most cost efficient solution used the proprietary SilverLight streaming format and I received most flack from the geek squad for this decision. It was the only available plug and play, low cost solution at the time. If this had been a more permanent setup, I would have spent more money on deploying an open standards streaming platform. It was unfortunately not justifiable for this short period of time but hopefully we'll see some local streaming providers offer such solutions soon.

This covered the basics in addition to a leased IP telephony system, a couple of printers and broadband connection. We purchased nothing except a couple of USB disks and our server room was completely empty.
Agile approach

There is actually a spin to this story where the High court ruled that the election for the council were void and that put everything on ice for a while. I'm not going to dwell on that, aside from the impact on the setup and designs for the IT system. Our parliament decided to go ahead with the council work and in the process, decided to give the group free rains and only set a delivery date. It meant that there was no way to prepare for the documentation process, as the council would spend the first couple of weeks coming up with the plan. I did my best to prepare certain building blocks, assumed a lot of things but kept the designs fairly open and flexible. To my enjoyment, the delegates where influenced by a SCRUM master from CCP games company and also took in some of my suggestions for going all in on the social media front. This led to a much improved work process and simplified my designs from the earlier plan devised by parliament. It also helped being on a management level and work with a group of people that considered technology to be a core part of what we where doing. Together we came up with process improvements almost every day that where interpreted and implemented as web interfaces to support the workflow.

I used my background and experience from VYRE ltd. using the Unify content management system to design and build a fully integrated document management and publishing platform. All content ranging from meetings, meeting notes, draft documents, formal letters, proof reading, legal review and the canteen menu passed through the intranet forms and workflow and was published on our official site (excluding the menu).

The process was very agile, every week there where new types of documents or content that we had to publish or put in front of the public eye for review. We had white board planning meetings with stakeholders, translated that into rough designs and interaction diagrams which I posted online on my unofficial geek blog for feedback. I did most of the coding myself but got some invaluable assistance from TM software during key crunch time sessions and from the brilliant minds at Kosmos & Kaos when it came to presentation and design. Many times we where carrying out final tests and deploying changes just minutes before important meetings where about to start. It was very at the edge of your seat type of development, but that is also very much how we roll in Iceland.

One example was when the board decided that we should turn on public commenting for the weekly published draft of the bill. Oh, yes and we would like to have that implemented before the meeting next week. I set up a quick list of requirements, including Icelandic interface, no cost, ease of use, good moderation and management tools and profiles for commenters. Reviewing what was out there and weighing pros and cons, we ended up using the Facebook commenting system. They had just recently enabled signing on using hotmail, yahoo and other mail services and drastically improved their moderation panel. We have the majority of Icelanders on Facebook already, it was free, it took one evening to implement and worked like a charm (3600 comments in 3 months). I did receive two phone calls from frustrated people that did not like the use of Facebook. But having explained our motives and the alternative of not offering any such functionality on the site, they both opted in to using a Yahoo email profile to participate in the online dialog.
Highly recommended

All in all this was a thrilling experience and a privilege to take part of this process. Our approach using technology and social media was widely reported and I will cherish the moments when the traffic was poring in from Guardian, Mashable and Techcrunch. Cloud based technology helped us setup and run the 4 month project and disassemble for a fraction of the allocated budget but also helped us work more efficiently and deliver the new constitution bill on time. Government is perhaps the most conservative field of practice out there. The main takeaway here should be that government can learn a lesson or two from modern agile project management practice and by embracing technology innovation. We managed to involve thousands of people in our work, invent a new way of drafting bills and most importantly, deliver a solid constitution bill in 4 months.

Finnur Magnússon

Lesið 2232 sinnum