CIO50 2018 #26-50: Jithma Beneragama, Department of Premier and Cabinet (Victoria)
Jithma Beneragama says that while government has some unique challenges around technology and innovation, many of the challenges he faces as director digital engagement and innovation at Victoria’s Department of Premier and Cabinet are the same as in the private sector.
“I’ve worked in startups, large corporations and now government. For the most part, I’ve found that building and connecting technology is relatively straightforward. The hard work comes from driving cultural change across a complex, multi-layered stakeholder environment.”
In his current role, Beneragama has created a vision for ICT that changes how the government delivers information to citizens and businesses.
But there are challenges. Government websites are complicated for end users trying to navigate them and teams that are managing them. When these websites are delivered using different technologies and environments, maintaining and enhancing services becomes resource-intensive, Beneragama says.
“For users, the lack of consistent and intuitive site design, poor information architecture and complex language, makes it hard to find, understand and apply the information they need. Given there are more than 900 vic.gov.au sites, the fragmentation is immense.”
Beneragama and his team created Single Digital Presence (SDP), an open source publishing platform to solve these problems. The platform uses a ‘headless content management system’ at its core, with a Vue.js open source front-end and containerised hosting environment.
“The front-end is built using an atomic design approach, providing pre-built and accessibility tested components which can be used to build a website,” says Beneragama.
“The headless CMS publishes content via an API allowing for syndication and reuse of content across a range of channels. This approach allows us to innovate quickly and has already been tested for use with voice platforms such as Amazon Alexa.”
The design, coupled with open source technologies, creates a platform that delivers a more consistent user interface across government sites and has very low barriers to entry. This approach also means SDP can be provided to any digital agency and that new components created to meet the specific needs are contributed back into the core distribution ready to be used by others, he says.
The second initiative is engage.vic.gov.au, a central website where Victorians can have a say about state government decisions that affect them. It uses a set of consultation and analytics tools that extract maximum value from data and proactively engage users on topics that are of interest.
Beneragama says these innovations came about through his own research into how Victorians find government information. Through this, he learnt citizens’ preferences, challenges and pain points.
“This information was used to create journey mapping tools, the first prototype and business case for SDP. Critically, this research also pointed to the need to build a user-centric organisation. Internal discovery found that the platform needed to meet the needs of a broad user group so it needed to be cost-effective, simple to implement but flexible,” he says.
SDP has already been used by the Department of Premier and Cabinet and Department of Treasury and Finance with a third department in the process of building all of its sites on the platform.
“We are also working with a number of state government agencies to develop their services,” says Beneragama. “An alpha release for a new Victorian government website has been released using the platform.”
Since the platform’s launch, Engage Victoria has hosted more than 150 public consultations that have received around 40,000 citizen contributions.
“Engage Victoria has already delivered a huge amount of value back to the government with an estimated more than 80 per cent reduction in technology cost for digital consultation in comparison to previous engagement models.
“The centralised site and supporting engagement model has resulted in an uplift in take up and usage of government consultations. Our pattern-based approach to the site’s user interface and consultation structure make it easier for users to meaningfully engage in policy design.”
According to Beneragama, transformation is as much about technology as it is about people and culture. When starting work on family violence technology reforms, he was faced with a fractured and complex stakeholder environment. The task was to provide critical information to the right people so they could assess risk as quickly as possible.
“To do this, I asked these questions: what information did we need, who did it need to go to and how quickly?” he says. “This provided the team with a simpler problem to solve. From here before starting with any technology project, we brought together the right people; social workers and database owners.
“We asked each group the right questions. We asked social workers what information they needed to assess risk and how quickly they needed it. We asked database owners what unique information their databases held and how long it took to access it,” he says.
Using these questions as a starting point, Beneragama and his team built a human prototype of the information sharing system for family violence. This helped all involved to understand the complexity of the problem, the tradeoffs that were needed to be made to meet timeframes.
“Most importantly, we allowed them all to see and be part of a solution that many of them believed could not be delivered.”