Riding startup herd with Wyatt Roy

James Riley
Editorial Director

It didn’t really matter who Wyatt Roy invited to his first Policy Hack event, held in partnership with the Sydney incubator/accelerator Blue Chilli. He was always going to be criticised for it.

I tweeted a photo to mark the start of Policy Hack last Saturday, which attracted fairly sharp and specific sledging within minutes (in fact, the first arrived before Mr Roy had concluded his two minute opening address.)

And that was really just the starters’ gun on a whole lot more criticism of the event throughout the day. Most of it related to who attended Policy Hack, and who didn’t attend, and the perceived naivety of its higher purpose.

Chilled-out Blue Chilli: With Wyatt Roy are very deserving of Policy Hack accolades

I spent the day at the Policy Hack and tried to immerse myself in one of the policy groups. As a working reporter (and it’s nice to be able to call myself that again), I would normally be an observer-only at an event like this.

But I figured I have as much interest in these public policy issues as anyone else. And my invitation just said to bring an open mind and participate. So I did.

These are some anecdotal and personal observations.

First on diversity. Of the two hundred-odd people at the event, I would say there were maybe 40 per cent women. Certainly there were proportionally more women here than any event I will attend this year (except perhaps for the Women in Innovation breakfast at Fishburners last week!)

Half of the ten policy discussion groups were led by women. Thought clearly went into this element of the day.

On ethnic diversity. Always tricky to say much about any room full of people in Australia. Without speaking to everyone, who knows where these people came from? Speaking broadly, I guess the room looked pretty white (as Twitter helpfully observed.)

If I were to make one observation, given my personal interest in engagement with the Asia – I would say the small number of Asian faces does not reflect our tech community. But seriously. Get a grip, people. The world is not perfect, and nor were the Policy Hack organisers.

On business diversity: This was an event dominated by startup sectional interests. But it was also far more diverse than I would have predicted beforehand.

And to be fair, this was a hackathon – the cultural heartland of the startup – being organised by an accelerator. Of course it leaned that way. But I would argue the organisers should be congratulated for the diversity of views they got into the room. They did a good job.

When I arrived at Blue Chilli’s offices on York Street in Sydney on Saturday morning, there were perhaps 40-50 people standing around outside waiting to get in. I didn’t know any of them. So I introduced myself to the first person I saw, and started my day.

That person was Walter Villagonzalo, the President of the The Migrant Hub at Werribee in Melbourne. Mr Villagonzalo is not from the startup community, nor does he work for a mid-tier player or a multinational. But he has an interest in tech.

He has a view that highly-qualified migrants to Australia are being wasted, because they find it too hard to plug into existing professional networks. Australians complain about ‘Brain Drain’ he says, even while there are brain-gain opportunities in the migrant community.

Mr Villagonzalo wrote his suggestion on the Policy Hack ‘oursay.org’ community page. It did not attract a massive number of votes. But he was invited to come to Sydney to attend the event and add his voice to the mix.

This is a voice that would not necessarily be heard outside of a forum like this. Mr Villangonzalo is what was cool about Policy Hack.

The next person I met that morning was Stephen Barker, one of the founders from Squiz – which has been a long-time leader the CMS, CRM, UX creative transformation space.

Squiz is sort of like a startup, except that it is 15 years old, has hundreds of employees, measures revenue in the tens of millions and has offices all over the world.

Squiz is one of the many, many mid-tier Australian tech companies that are headquartered in Australia, that own IP, that earn export revenues from offshore operations and that pay in Australia. And who are coming up against a tax regime that puts that local companies at a competitive disadvantage in its home market compared to offshore-based multinationals.

Squiz wasn’t the only mid-tier tech company in the room. And of course there were multinationals at the event, just as there were academics and researchers.

Finally, there were the government people. Senior advisers from Prime Minister & Cabinet, Treasury, Industry, Innovation and Science, IP Australia, Finance, Austrade/DFAT, and Education.

It was important that these people were there. There is a lot of talk right now about the importance of innovation, and how central innovation policy is to the narrative of the Turnbull government.

There are a lot of misconceptions about what it all means. All the talk and excitement has created some expectations that government might need to temper at some point.

But if the central purpose of the Mr Roy’s Policy Hack was to get various branches of the industry together with a representative chunk of Federal public sector interests and to get the sector talking a common language.

This was a hugely successful event, and one that will almost certainly be repeated across other portfolios. It was very good, and very worthwhile, and Mr Roy and Blue Chilli deserve the accolades they are getting.

Mr Roy’s is not the first Policy Hack in this country. I would argue that goes back to 2008-09 with then senator Kate Lundy’s PublicSphere policy hacks on Gov 2.0 issues. A shout-out here must go to Pia Waugh – a former political staffer to Senator Lundy who was an organiser of the Public Sphere events, and whose job as a Gov2.0 policy expert in Finance is being shifted (with her) into Prime Minister & Cabinet.

Both of those women deserve acknowledgement for their pioneering work in this area in Australia.

My own experience of Policy Hack: I hadn’t been to a hackathon before, so I was very interested to understand the process and to get involved. I joined the group “Make Government Procurement and Data Processes More Open, Innovative and Adaptive.” This is a policy area I have been interested in for 20 years.

The group was being led by Adrian Turner, the newly-appointed Data61 CEO (being the merged interests of NICTA and the CSIRO’s digital productivity flagship. So it was a chance to get to know him a little better also.

The group came up with what I would call quite radical thinking around the use of data. Certainly it was radical in relation to how things are done today – mainly related to Government-as-a-Platform as a structure for service delivery.

I suspect the thinking was probably not radical enough – as it seemed very aligned with the government’s own thinking in this area.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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