This item was writ­ten for Gov­ern­ment Tech­nol­ogy Review and will be pub­lished in the Decem­ber 2010 edition.

There’s an uncom­fort­able feel­ing in the open gov­ern­ment world at the moment.

Many of us, keen to see the agen­cies we work for and with embrace a more open way of doing their work — shar­ing infor­ma­tion, data and policy-​​making with an inter­ested pub­lic and other agen­cies — con­tinue to strive to bring our col­leagues, employ­ers and clients into the world of open gov­ern­ment. On the flip side of the coin (or maybe not), we have organ­i­sa­tions such as Wik­ileaks reveal­ing large vol­umes of for­merly con­fi­den­tial infor­ma­tion (some­times it’s at higher clas­si­fi­ca­tions, which makes it more problematic).

Unsur­pris­ingly, some orga­ni­za­tions (and the peo­ple in them) express valid con­cerns about mass scale leaks and the rev­e­la­tions they could hold if some­one like Wik­ileaks obtained them and chose to release them. They see these con­cerns as a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for shut­ting down open gov­ern­ment efforts and rais­ing the ramparts.

I take a rather dif­fer­ent view.

I’d like to posit that phe­nom­ena such as Wik­ileaks are a symp­tom, rather than the dis­ease itself. Wik­ileaks exists because of the fail­ure of gov­ern­ments around the world to oper­ate openly enough through­out their his­tory. Too much is done behind closed doors. Too much is done assum­ing a veil of con­fi­den­tial­ity or secrecy with­out that need exist­ing. Too lit­tle is done in pub­lic — diplo­macy, con­sul­ta­tion, pol­icy for­ma­tion, shar­ing of knowl­edge, dis­tri­b­u­tion of data con­tain­ing social value.

By no means am I argu­ing for ambit openness.

There is always infor­ma­tion that is wisely kept con­fi­den­tial, and even secret — per­sonal data, mat­ters of com­mer­cial impor­tance, diplo­matic process and progress. But I am argu­ing that the more open gen­er­ally gov­ern­ment is, the less likely it is that events such as the Wik­ileaks rev­e­la­tions that have occurred fre­quently in 2010 will occur. Rather, what will be the moti­va­tion to leak when the busi­ness of gov­ern­ment is open enough that the cit­i­zenry feel that they are being told all they need to par­tic­i­pate, all they need to feel that their gov­ern­ments are doing right by them and not hold­ing back infor­ma­tion they feel is in the inter­ests of the pub­lic to know?

On the mat­ter of diplo­macy, it was only recently that the Lowy Insti­tute pub­lished its paper A dig­i­tal DFAT: join­ing the 21st cen­tury, call­ing on that depart­ment to catch up rapidly with its inter­na­tional equiv­a­lents in terms of open and more engaged online activ­ity. As it stands, DFAT is in the unen­vi­able posi­tion of being well behind the eight-​​ball when it comes to dig­i­tal diplo­macy when com­pared to the US, UK and Canada. Imag­ine what the sit­u­a­tion might be if that agency engaged in pub­lic, dig­i­tal diplo­macy (to an appro­pri­ate extent)?

Agen­cies across the entire spec­trum of port­fo­lios in gov­ern­ment could be real­iz­ing real ben­e­fits if their work was more pub­lic. In the past year alone, my own work has brought in into con­tact with mat­ters as diverse as agri­cul­ture, for­eign aid, polic­ing, for­eign affairs, civil-​​military doc­trine, IT and cul­ture. To one extent or another, agen­cies in these fields, and oth­ers, are tak­ing steps to bring their staff and the work they do into the rich pub­lic sphere of con­ver­sa­tion that occurs when the door to gov­ern­ment is left ajar. And, they are all real­iz­ing ben­e­fits not pre­vi­ously antic­i­pated — intro­duc­tion to exper­tise they weren’t aware of, faster and bet­ter informed pol­i­cy­mak­ing, expo­sure of their work to a wider, bet­ter informed audi­ence than ever before; this is all real, mea­sur­able evi­dence for the value of open government.

In other agen­cies, such as with the recently dis­cussed block­ing of the Ope­nAus­tralia site by Cus­toms (an action already loudly crit­i­cized by Mia Gar­lick, a for­mer mem­ber of the Gov­ern­ment 2.0 Task­force and senior man­ager in DBCDE), the atti­tude remains “block at all costs”, in a mis­guided belief that con­trol of these tools and there­fore “pro­tec­tion” of the agency, can be main­tained by con­trol­ling the cor­po­rate fire­wall. I say mis­guided as these agen­cies are already open to the pub­lic by their staff using tools such as smart phones, per­sonal lap­tops and the increas­ingly pop­u­lar iPad, con­nected to 3G net­works. And it’s through these net­works that peo­ple are already adding value to their orga­ni­za­tions, despite these activ­i­ties being unof­fi­cial and prob­a­bly unauthorized.

This could all be resolved over a rel­a­tively short period and to the sat­is­fac­tion of many in the open gov­ern­ment world if a few things were to happen:

  • AGIMO should be given the nec­es­sary teeth to require agen­cies to begin their Gov­ern­ment 2.0 activ­i­ties, and to estab­lish a timetable, say the end of 2011, for things such as allow­ing staff access to sites that allow them to inter­act with the pub­lic and the pro­vi­sion of a start­ing level of data to the data​.gov​.au repository;
  • AGIMO should estab­lish a team of expe­ri­enced peo­ple from across agen­cies and the pri­vate sec­tor with the nec­es­sary skills and expe­ri­ence to assist agen­cies with their efforts. As agen­cies build matu­rity, they could pro­vide staff to this team on a term sec­ond­ment basis, allow­ing greater spread of skills as well as the capac­ity to build real depth;
  • a series of autho­rized and endorsed train­ing and aware­ness pro­grams, sourced from AGIMO but deliv­ered by both pub­lic and pri­vate sec­tor experts should be estab­lished so that agen­cies could avail them­selves of a way to build aware­ness of cul­ture, tools and organ­i­sa­tional value asso­ci­ated with open gov­ern­ment, and;
  • a more rapid turnover of mate­r­ial through the Gov­ern­ment 2.0 Steer­ing Group needs to occur. To my mind, this senior man­age­ment group needs a noisy cat­a­lyst on board — a pub­lic ser­vant or pri­vate sec­tor per­son with the nec­es­sary exper­tise to shake things up and move mat­ters through the Group far more rapidly than is already the case.

Organ­i­sa­tions like Wik­ileaks pose a real dilemma for many. Per­son­ally, I con­sider them a valu­able, if per­haps some­what undis­cern­ing, com­po­nent of the pub­lic sphere that makes up the extra-​​governmental com­po­nent of Gov­ern­ment 2.0. I’d pre­fer they picked and chose their releases rather more care­fully rather than the en masse dump­ings they cur­rently do. Wik­ileaks per­forms a valu­able pub­lic ser­vice — that of expos­ing the overly secre­tive work­ings of unnec­es­sar­ily closed gov­ern­ments, as has been noted by for­mer UK diplo­mat, Carne Ross.

There’s a way to solve this problem.

If gov­ern­ments were less inclined to secrecy, if gov­ern­ments were more trans­par­ent — as has been promised by both our Prime Min­is­ter and by the new Vic­to­rian Premier-​​elect, if gov­ern­ments walked the open gov­ern­ment talk they are so enam­ored of, we the pub­lic would be less con­fused about how gov­ern­ment works, we’d feel more informed about the pol­icy and leg­isla­tive agenda, we’d feel we had more of a hand in the daily busi­ness of government.

In that world, one of open gov­ern­ment, the pub­lic takes an active role and gov­erns hand-​​in-​​hand with gov­ern­ment rather than iso­lated from an inscrutable pub­lic sec­tor and leg­is­la­ture that largely appears to be deaf to the citizenry.