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.