Ful­fill­ing one of the rec­om­men­da­tions of the Gov­ern­ment 2.0 Task­force Report, the gov­ern­ment released its Dec­la­ra­tion of Open Gov­ern­ment last week. This is an extremely good thing and bodes well for the progress of Gov­ern­ment 2.0 in Aus­tralia. Per­son­ally, I had hoped to see this dec­la­ra­tion made in the Par­lia­ment, backed by new leg­is­la­tion or a com­mit­ment signed by both Houses. It would have been a strong, final show from the gov­ern­ment before the elec­tion. As it stands, it’s some­what less firm than the Task­force had rec­om­mended, as noted by iTWire.

Regard­less, the step that has been taken is an impor­tant one and sets the Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment 2.0 World some­what at the head of the game, as Andrea di Maio notes.

As ever with these things, there is a great deal of com­men­tary from those who see both pos­i­tives and neg­a­tives in this action, with many accus­ing the cur­rent (now care­taker) gov­ern­ment of disin­gen­u­ous­ness in mak­ing the dec­la­ra­tion now.

I under­stand their con­cerns, and they are valid, but a very clear dis­tinc­tion needs to be made here between the leg­isla­tive and exec­u­tive arms of gov­ern­ment and which part is most affected by and acts in respect to Gov­ern­ment 2.0. To my mind, it is very much the exec­u­tive — the pub­lic sec­tor — that is in play here rather than the politi­cians. This is an impor­tant distinction.

We need to recog­nise too, that an unfor­tu­nate con­flu­ence of cir­cum­stances has taken place that has likely had an affect on the commentary:

  • there is a large por­tion of the elec­torate angry and dis­il­lu­sioned with the Rudd and Gillard gov­ern­ments for main­tain­ing an agenda where mat­ters such as the Inter­net fil­ter and traf­fic mon­i­tor­ing remain in play
  • there is the immi­nent retire­ment of a highly respected min­is­ter in Lind­say Tan­ner, who has been a major cat­a­lyst in dri­ving the Gov­ern­ment 2.0 agenda
  • the FoI reforms remain incom­plete and many peo­ple still real dif­fi­cultly face in mak­ing suc­cess­ful FoI requests
  • and, of course, the call­ing of a Fed­eral election

It needs to be made abun­dantly clear that the Dec­la­ra­tion of Open Gov­ern­ment has no direct con­nec­tion to the government’s fil­ter­ing and other related poli­cies. Those fill­ing the com­ments at the announce­ment are shout­ing at the wrong place. In the wrong way. As Stil­gher­rian noted recently at ABC Unleashed, view­ing all poli­cies and changes through this prism is mis­guided. The fil­ter­ing pol­icy, while defin­ing this gov­ern­ment for many (includ­ing me in no small part) is very far from the only pol­icy the gov­ern­ment has.

One thing that is clear if you work in and around gov­ern­ment for any length of time is that this gov­ern­ment, in spite of any other fail­ings we may per­ceive, is very sup­port­ive of a more open, respon­sive and account­able pub­lic sec­tor that is engaged with and serv­ing the greater pub­lic. While there is still a very long road to travel, the Aus­tralian Pub­lic Ser­vice is in the midst of a series of very major reforms that seek to make it more adapt­able, more agile, more inno­v­a­tive and more citizen-​​centric. The Gov­ern­ment 2.0 agenda is a big part of that and the exis­tence of the dec­la­ra­tion on an agency web site (rather than a min­is­te­r­ial web site) is impor­tant and firmly places a flag in the ground.

EDIT (thanks to Craig Thom­ler for the prompt): How­ever, with the depar­ture of Min­is­ter Tan­ner, there is no senior catalysing force for Gov­ern­ment 2.0 in the Min­istry any more. This presents a real risk. With­out some­one like Min­is­ter Tan­ner, the ongo­ing progress of the Gov­ern­ment 2.0 agenda faces a clear and present dan­ger of being put to the side or ignored as pub­lic sec­tor man­age­ment that isn’t yet con­vinced of the value of open gov­ern­ment places it in the “too hard” bas­ket or sug­gests it isn’t appro­pri­ate for their agency or that it will cost too much money. All of these are com­mon excuses for inac­tion that I hope aren’t used.

As Craig Thom­ler notes below, Gov­ern­ment 2.0 and open gov­ern­ment “…is still frag­ile in Aus­tralia at the Fed­eral level. Key planks have been put in place, how­ever it has not yet been firmly embed­ded in the DNA of the pub­lic ser­vice.” He’s right, and as much as Gov­ern­ment 2.0 advo­cates like Kate Lundy are pop­u­lar and respected in our com­mu­nity, I’m under no illu­sion as to her wider influ­ence in the Labor Party; it’s not nearly as great as we might wish. As for the Lib­eral party, where is their open gov­ern­ment advo­cate? I’ve seen nary a peep from any Lib­eral politi­cian in all the time I’ve been think­ing and talk­ing about this issue.

Cul­ture change in the pub­lic sec­tor, an issue I have been point­ing out for a sig­nif­i­cant length of time, is the real issue here — for both pub­lic ser­vants and politi­cians. Until the needed cul­ture change occurs amongst the leg­is­la­ture and exec­u­tive such that they accept as read that an open, engaged inno­v­a­tive and col­lab­o­ra­tive pub­lic sec­tor is the nat­ural state of things, Gov­ern­ment 2.0 and other open gov­ern­ment moves face the real risk of only part-​​acceptance rather than being embed­ded in the DNA of government.

Change must come from the top. The very top office in the land. I sus­pect the Prime Min­is­ter doesn’t have Gov­ern­ment 2.0 on her agenda.

To all those who I know have been work­ing espe­cially hard to get the Dec­la­ra­tion done, I say well done! But we must keep the momen­tum going and make this the way we do things.