I am pas­sion­ately inter­ested in greater engage­ment between gov­ern­ment at all lev­els and the pub­lic. So much so, that I’ve vol­un­teered my time on sev­eral projects that seek to enable the tran­si­tion to a more open, engaged, con­ver­sa­tional form of gov­ern­ment — the type of gov­ern­ment being termed Gov­ern­ment 2.0.

I’ve been stew­ing over this post for a while — cer­tainly since Sen­a­tor Kate Lundy’s sec­ond Pub­lic Sphere event (some real Gov­ern­ment 2.0 in action) and the announce­ment of the Gov­ern­ment 2.0 Task­force. I am a strong sup­porter of both of these efforts, although not so strong as to be blinded to the occa­sional inef­fi­ciency or short­com­ing in them. Noth­ing, no mat­ter how pas­sion­ate the peo­ple behind them and how great the ideas, is perfect.

Like my friend and indus­try col­league, James Del­low of Head­shift Aus­tralia, I have some con­cerns about the cur­rent efforts with respect to Gov­ern­ment 2.0 that are occur­ring in Australia.

I agree with James whole­heart­edly that the cur­rent efforts fall largely into three places. To quote James’ post on the Head­shift blog:

  • Mak­ing Gov­ern­ment 2.0 about the use of Open Source soft­ware — Don’t get me wrong, Open Source has a role to play, but in itself build­ing a Web­site on Open Source doesn’t make gov­ern­ment more account­able or participatory.
  • Not get­ting the basics of social media right — Many of the exam­ples I’ve seen don’t sup­port the basics of ‘social’ in social media. There are plenty of suc­cess­ful social media pat­terns to fol­low, so I really can’t see any excuse not to learn and build on those patterns.
  • Poor user expe­ri­ence — In sites that are explic­itly geared to par­tic­i­pa­tion in a polit­i­cal process it needs to be both easy to par­tic­i­pate and clearly demon­stra­ble that par­tic­i­pa­tion will lead to an out­come (even if that out­come isn’t one that every user might agree with).

I think his assess­ment is pretty much spot on.

In addi­tion to James’ view, I think some greater progress could be made and some bet­ter prac­tice could be imple­mented quite quickly. Here’s where I see efforts thus far.

The good:

  • Some agen­cies are hav­ing a go — this is a good thing and I’m aware of sev­eral oth­ers that have plans to.
  • Some agen­cies have made efforts to engage or appoint peo­ple with respon­si­bil­ity (either explicit or implicit) for their agen­cies’ dig­i­tal engage­ment — com­pe­tent peo­ple such as DEWHA’s Kylie John­son should be given pretty free rein to make things hap­pen. A bit of “get out of the way and let things progress” is needed here.
  • Peo­ple and agen­cies are pay­ing atten­tion to the Gov­ern­ment 2.0 Task­force and efforts like The Pub­lic Sphere — aware­ness is incred­i­bly impor­tant. But there are big prob­lems (see below under Block­ing and obfus­ca­tion).

The not so good (but not nec­es­sar­ily bad):

  • The start­ing point is too basic — many of the ques­tions asked in the Taskforce’s Issues Paper are too fun­da­men­tal. Many of them have been answered, in detail, in suc­cess­ful projects already. There’s no point in rehash­ing many of the issues addressed already by efforts such as POIT in the UK, or by efforts already pub­lic in the US, Canada and New Zealand, all of whom are mak­ing some progress. Of course, noth­ing is per­fect, but we can learn from these exam­ples rather than ask­ing the ques­tions over and rein­vent­ing the wheel. We are more than two years past POIT now. We need to demon­strate that to be the case.
  • Lack of direc­tion from the top — in NZ, the UK and the US, there are senior gov­ern­ment mem­bers such as Tom Wat­son (although he has now resigned for other rea­sons) and pub­lic ser­vants such as Vivek Kun­dra in the US and Andrew Stott in the UK. We have nei­ther a Min­is­ter (or lesser post) nor a senior pub­lic ser­vant whose sole respon­si­bil­ity is dig­i­tal engage­ment in Aus­tralia. Nor do we have equiv­a­lents in oppo­si­tion or the minor par­ties. If this is to be a suc­cess in Aus­tralia, this is needed urgently, and an explicit direc­tion that man­dates action by agen­cies and their staff is sorely needed.
  • Where is the good advice? — agen­cies aren’t or don’t seem to be get­ting good advice from expe­ri­enced prac­ti­tion­ers with suc­cess­ful social projects under their belt, or, the advice they’re get­ting is bad. They seem to be (anec­do­tally) turn­ing either to inter­nal resources who (in their heart of hearts) think they know what they are doing (using inter­nal resources is good, but using them when they aren’t qual­i­fied is bad) or are turn­ing to large con­sul­tan­cies on whom they have tra­di­tion­ally relied and who, frankly, have no idea what they are doing in terms of Gov­ern­ment 2.0, social tools and culture.
  • Skills devel­op­ment — along­side the good advice needed, seri­ous skill build­ing is required. Those giv­ing the good advice ought, rightly, to be respon­si­ble for ensur­ing skills trans­fer and devel­op­ment amongst those with whom they work. Feath­er­ing one’s own nest to ensure cushy, ongo­ing con­tracts isn’t what’s needed.
  • Block­ing and obfus­ca­tion — at least one com­menter on a post at the Gov­ern­ment 2.0 Task­force last week indi­cated that their agency had directed them explic­itly to not coop­er­ate with the Task­force or any­one asso­ci­ated with it. This is a sorry state of affairs.
  • Inad­e­quate shar­ing — agen­cies that are try­ing things should be sig­nif­i­cantly more pub­lic about it. How can oth­ers learn from them if they don’t share? And how can the pub­lic learn about their efforts? In at least one case I am aware of, an agency is under­tak­ing a project with sig­nif­i­cant inno­va­tion oppor­tu­nity but only con­sult­ing amongst pub­lic ser­vants. Excuse me?
  • Still no shift in per­cep­tion of risk — risk is not inher­ently a bad thing. Risk is about oppor­tu­nity also. How­ever, the risk man­age­ment model within the pub­lic sec­tor is heav­ily skewed to the pre­ven­tion of occur­rences rather than the exploita­tion of opportunity.
  • Trans­ac­tional focus — many of the dis­cus­sions I hear or take part in around Gov­ern­ment 2.0 imag­ine it sim­ply to be an exten­sion of eGov­ern­ment. Not so. eGov­ern­ment is man­aged quite well in this coun­try. Many ser­vices are avail­able online in a way that makes it very con­ve­nient for users of those ser­vices (oth­ers such as eTax, not so much). What Gov­ern­ment 2.0 is about is lis­ten­ing, con­ver­sa­tion and engag­ing with the cit­i­zenry (and non-​​citizens too), about par­tic­i­pa­tion in gov­ern­ment by those who wish to par­tic­i­pate at any level and about ensur­ing that gov­ern­ment is some­times the pathfinder to best providers of ser­vices rather than the provider itself.
  • Con­nect­ing the dots and herd­ing the cats — sev­eral major projects the gov­ern­ment is engaged in log­i­cally tie together with respect to Gov­ern­ment 2.0. Those projects are the work of the Gov­ern­ment 2.0 Task­force, the National Broad­band Net­work, FOI reform, open­ness of the pub­lic sec­tor and citizen-​​centric gov­ern­ment as enun­ci­ated by APS Com­mis­sioner, Lynelle Briggs, and the Clean Feed changes that Sen­a­tor Con­roy and his depart­ment, against best advice, per­sist with. One of these does not belong, and it ought to be dropped as a failed pol­icy sooner rather than later. There’s more than enough work coor­di­nat­ing these things for a junior Min­is­ter or Par­lia­men­tary Secretary.

I’ve had sev­eral con­ver­sa­tions now with peo­ple on the Task­force, in the pub­lic sec­tor and in pri­vate enter­prise on these issues. There seems to be broad agree­ment on a good deal of what I argue, while we inevitably dif­fer on the detail (which is a good thing — it sug­gests we’re all think­ing about this).

Time to stop play­ing and exper­i­ment­ing. Time to get good advice. Time to start doing things and doing them well.

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