Today, the Federal Government responded to the report of the Government 2.0 Taskforce.
While this response has taken rather longer than I would have hoped, that the government has responded in what appears to be an emerging election period, with many policy changes currently in the public eye, means I am more than pleased that the response has taken place.
In the spirit of Senator Kate Lundy’s invitation to respond in her announcement today, my response is offered in a similar spirit; I am aware that working with and for the Federal Government is a significant part of the bread and butter that is acidlabs’ business, but nobody and no policy from the government ought be immune to criticism, whether positive or negative in nature. I hope that politicians involved in this process and the public servants working for them read this post and consider these views along with the inevitable others that will be published.
First, separate from the response itself, I am curious as to why it has been published only as RTF and PDF. Looking at the document, it would have been perfectly suitable for publication as XHTML and significantly easier to deal with for those with accessibility issues if that had been the case. I understand this is coming soon.
Second, congratulations to the government for publishing the response under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Australia license. This walks the talk of one of the Taskforce recommendations and is most welcome.
On to the specifics.
Central Recommendation: A declaration of open government by the Australian Government
That the government has agreed with the Taskforce’s central recommendation and committed to a declaration of open government is greatly welcomed. I hope that the declaration, when it comes, can somehow be enshrined in legislation so that future governments and the public sector are legally committed to maintaining this openness in the years to come.
Recommendation 2: Coordinate with leadership, guidance and support
I think that assigning the role of lead agency to the Department of Finance and Deregulation is largely workable and the remainder of the commitments in the response provide a good underpinning to this commitment. I would like to see, however, external citizen or Ombudsman-like involvement in this to provide a check against the inevitable bureaucracy. A little loosening of the metaphorical shirt-buttons would not go astray.
How that might be achieved is open to discussion and interpretation.
The commitment to engage COAG is also very welcome, though this engagement needs to extend to local government as well. It is at the local level that much of the promise of Government 2.0 can be realised. It is where the rubber hits the road, in communities that need delivery of government services, that most engagement with society can take place.
Recommendation 3: Improve guidance and require agencies to engage online
The Department of Finance and Deregulation is already leading the way by publishing their own social media guidelines. While I have minor differences of opinion with the Department on the policies in this document, I largely believe it’s a great piece of work that could form the basis of the guidance the Steering Group and APSC will develop.
Many agencies still lack the culture and expertise required to implement social components into their everyday business. It will be a critical, if not the most critical component of work that the Steering Group ensures agencies are provided with internal expertise from public sector workers and, where needed and appropriate, external help, in order to bring these skills and the culture needed into fruition.
Including progress reports into the State of the Service report is an admirable starting point. Over time, this should go further and be ongoing, live information open to constant comment and input from agencies, public servants and the public rather than an annual note in a report read little beyond the bounds of the public service.
Inclusion of open submission requirements should have been agreed rather than agreed in principle. The recommendation from the Taskforce already contained the necessary caveats to exclude highly sensitive material from the open submission process. Of course, it’s not appropriate to expose commercial secrets or national security material by this process. That was already covered.
With respect to an open submission requirement, the response, to my mind, would have been better if there was an absolute commitment to open submissions (as the Taskforce itself had during its existence) unless commercial or national security provisions applied.
Recommendation 4: Encourage public servants to engage online
Very many public servants already engage online. That they now have an imprimatur to do so should see a significant growth in such engagement. Obviously, appropriate rules linked to behaviors, good digital citizenship and the various Codes of Conduct rightly apply. I suspect, however, that many agencies will remain reluctant to engage openly while certain attitudes amongst some senior management, IT and agency security staff and DSD remain in place.
It would be beneficial, if as an addition to the response today, a directive was issued jointly by the Prime Minister, the APSC Commissioner and the Finance Minister directing agencies to engage online; development of necessary expertise amongst staff in those agencies notwithstanding.
The response to Recommendation 4.4 suggests incorporation of public-generated content as a part of many agencies’ Government 2.0 programs. I think this is a fantastic idea, but it will need some careful management when applied to contentious material.
Online forums already exist for agencies to share their lessons and initiatives. I am aware however that even Govdex is blocked in some agencies, or strong resistance to its use exists. It is not a panacea, but it is useful. Additionally, the Gov 2.0 Australia Google Group continues to grow as a place to discuss these issues across levels of government and internationally. Membership is becoming more obviously public servant-centric rather than consultants, and this is a good thing. Forums such as the Google Group, GovLoop and Ozloop should be equally endorsed for these kinds of discussions and sharing, where appropriate.
Recommendation 5: Awards
As uncontroversial as this is, well done for committing to include Government 2.0 initiatives in public sector awards for eGovernment.
Recommendation 6: Make public sector information open, accessible and reusable
Choosing to agree in principle and agree, with modification is a bit cagey to my mind. There’s little in the Taskforce recommendations that require either qualification, even considering the FoI reforms in train. Agreeing to use CC-BY as the default and other licenses on those occasions where necessary (which needs definition) would have been non-controversial and given the government a way to reform notions of matters such as Crown Copyright.
Committing to full development of data.gov.au is a great step forward. Ensuring agencies are required to publish their data sets, subject to appropriate exclusions and de-identification would have been a step better.
Recommendation 7: Addressing issues in the operation of copyright
My comments to the response for Recommendation 6 apply equally here.
While I am certainly not a lawyer, I see no reason the matter could not have been passed to the Office of the Information Commissioner for management. To me, this looks like a bit of an out for the government, but we shall see. There may be entirely valid reasons for rejecting this recommendation.
Recommendation 8: Information publication scheme
Not much to comment on here. It would have been nice to see an agreed in this case, committing the OIC and the government to a reform agenda that enshrined Recommendation 8 in the operational framework of the OIC.
Recommendation 9: Accessibility
It is heartening to see a re-commitment to the earlier announcement from the Finance Minister and AGIMO with respect to having all agencies comply with WCAG 2.0. This will go a long way to ensuring equitable access to government information for disabled Australians.
While this may not have been considered previously, the notion of accessibility includes equitable access regardless of connectedness. This is an issue that remains unaddressed in this document.
Recommendation 10: Security and Web 2.0
Again, I think this could have been a simple agreed, rather than an agreed, with modification. Nothing in the Taskforce’s recommendation precludes sensitive material being appropriately secured.
Recommendation 11: Privacy and confidentiality
If this recommendation is already in operation, as the response states, why not an agreed?
Recommendation 12: Definition of Commonwealth Record
Activity in social spaces, where it forms a record, certainly needs to be retained by government. Moves such as the US Library of Congress indexing the entire public Twitter stream go to this issue and similar efforts in Australia will be welcome. However, a more real-time suite of efforts would be a marvelous (if singularly complex) idea.
The response with respect to discovery and application of metadata to PSI is very welcome, and should see timely release of data to the public if agencies are tooled up to do so (this may present an issue in and of itself).
Recommendation 13: Encourage info-philanthropy
Deferring a response to this recommendation is a little bit of an out. There could have been an in-principle agree here, with a note that the Productivity Commission and others would be tasked to respond in detail.
Overall, I give the response as it stands a C+. As my friend and UK-based Government 2.0 authority, Justin Kerr-Stevens, said:
[I’ll] defer judgement. Take the (few) referenced dates and judge on that. The grade will be in application — not ambition.
Progress is being made. The steps are in the right direction though I think it could have been stronger with much clearer commitments. With the past history and evidence coming out of the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand of the benefits of forward-looking Government 2.0 work, the government could have taken strong positive steps to leap forward in the provision of open, connected government engaged with its citizenry. It could be done in a way that is legislated rather than just sometimes qualified agreements. I want to see another statement with a legislative and policy reform agenda clearly laid out, though I doubt very much that this will occur before the election due this year.
Still missing is information on where and how the digitally disconnected are helped and connected with offline. Government 2.0, after all, isn’t just online and nor is only about tools; rather, it’s largely about people and culture.
Concrete commitments with timelines are missing throughout and they are needed to ensure we, the public, have a yardstick against which to measure progress.
Perhaps one of the most important factors, when and how public sector workers will be given the needed permission, skills and cultural change to engage with the public online is not explained. Many agencies still do not engage this way, and there needs to be a timeline to ensure they are required to take action.
The response is also missing anything on measurement of success and how this will be done.
I’d hope to see information on all these matters emerge in the very near future, hopefully by mid-year and definitely before the election in a clear strategy framework to come from the OIC, APSC and the Department of Finance and Deregulation. Without solid action of this sort, all the good work so far risks going astray with a new Labor government or a new Liberal government for whom open government and Government 2.0 progress isn’t as high on the policy agenda.