How do you use technology to improve citizens’ lives? Tell us about your role or organisation.

As Director, Strategic Engagement in the Department of the Premier and Cabinet, I head up a team responsible for developing a suite of open innovation initiatives under South Australia’s Reforming Democracy policy. At the core of this policy is the idea that government makes better, more durable decisions when it engages people in the decision-making process.

People in our communities are best placed to judge whether a policy, programme or service will improve their lives. Technology enables us to bring their ideas and expertise to solving problems and exploring new opportunities; at a fraction of the cost of traditional engagement methods.

Over 110,000 people (10% of South Australia’s population) are now signed up to YourSAy – our online engagement hub. YourSAy hosts conversations between people in our community and policy makers on key issues. It also offers a platform for our other democratic reform initiatives: for example, enabling citizens to decide the allocation of funding in programs like Fund My Neighbourhood and Fund My Community.

YourSAy and its social media channels, help promote South Australia’s direct democracy initiatives like Country Cabinet (where Ministers travel to regional communities to better understand their concerns) and Citizens’ Juries where randomly selected citizens take deeper dives into policy dilemmas. The YourSAy platform also hosts our Open Innovation Challenges and links to the Open State Festival.

Our team advocates for quality community engagement across the public service. We do this by providing online tools and training in social media and engagement as part of our public sector development program: Better Together.

My team also promotes government as an enabler of ideas into action. For example, the Open State Festival provides a shared platform (venues, tech, program and marketing) for our partners from business, universities and the community to explore ideas and plan collaborative action to create our future.

What has been the most exciting thing that you worked on in 2017?

The inaugural Fund My Neighbourhood grant programme was certainly the most exciting, if not daunting project in 2017! This participatory budgeting programme enables citizens to decide how to spend $40 million on neighbourhood improvement projects.

We were delighted when local residents posted more than 2,500 project ideas online, seeking funding of between $10,000 to $150,000 to improve their local communities. Projects included children’s playgrounds, community gardens, sports facilities and some creative ideas like a volunteer tri-shaw service to take old people in care out into the community.

More than 33,000 people signed up to YourSAy to decide which projects to fund. Over 122,000 votes were received through our bespoke online voting tool and almost $20million allocated in the first round.

Fund My Neighbourhood had steep timelines. It was at concept stage in June 2017, and the successful projects were announced in late November. Delivering the project involved a ‘just in time’ approach. It was incredibly challenging and was an amazing achievement for our team.

Fund My Neighbourhood built on our experience with Fund My Community, a $1million participatory budgeting program to alleviate disadvantage. Now in its third year, Fund My Community has delivered exceptional benefits for both government and the community and was recognised in 2017 with the United Nations Public Service Award for Excellence.

What tool or technique particularly interests you for 2018?

I’m interested in how civic tech can be made intuitive so that more people can participate – so 2018 will have a focus on improving user experience.

I’m also interested in how government can use the methodologies of the sharing economy to create new value for citizens.

If you were to share one piece of advice that you learned in 2017, what would it be?

The classic advice to innovators is start small. The problem with this is that small ‘boutique’ projects often don’t make a substantive difference and don’t achieve their purpose in a noticeable way. The boutique innovation remains small and is not therefore mainstreamed or sustained.

So start small, test and trial, but plan and build the capacity to scale up for greater impact.

What was the greatest challenge that you overcame in 2017?

Both of our major projects in 2017 were challenged by the volume of people wanting to participate which meant rapidly scaling to manage demand.

The Open State Festival saw more than 18,000 participants join international and local experts to peer into the future. 280 business, government, community and university partners hosted 160 events to tackle the challenges we face as a state, and as global citizens, across six themes: Future Food, Future Human, Future Enterprise, Future Planet, Future Cities and Future Democracy.

Fund My Neighbourhood followed hot on the heels of Open State, so it was a huge year for our small team.

What book did you read in 2017 that most interested or inspired you?

I’m reading UK Futurist Richard Watson‘s Digital vs Human. Richard was one of our Open State speakers this year. He offers tantalising glimpses into a tech-driven future and questions where the line between humans and machines should be drawn. Technology, he says, will give us god-like powers, however the real question is what we do with these powers. What do we as the human race wish to become?

Who inspired you in 2017, and why?

Elon Musk inspires with his long-range vision for humanity’s future and his steadfast determination to deliver it. I admire his willingness to disrupt conventional thinking and his use of technology to make electric cars, solar, batteries, and perhaps one day, space travel accessible and affordable.

This year’s Open State speakers also inspired with some big ideas! Dr Genevieve Bell, Professor Beth Simone Noveck and Professor Indy Johar explored the frontiers between technology and democracy, challenging us as public servants, to use the resources available to us to make our citizens lives better.