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 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.

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