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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