The text and slides below are for my session at Public Sphere #2 – Government 2.0: Policy and Practice which is being held at Parliament House tomorrow. The talk is just 10 minutes long, so I don’t go into any real depth – but it is a nice, quick overview.
For something organised quickly and on the enthusiasm of volunteers and the power of whuffie, it’s going to be quite the event! Make sure you watch the twitter stream for #publicsphere, the live blog and the video stream (all details at the link above).
UPDATE: Video now available.
In our modern democracy, the ability for members of society to participate in some way is a fundamental and accepted right. Indeed, we use the term participatory democracy to describe one in which constituents are empowered to engage in the political decision-making process.
There has until recent times, been a burden of activity and wherewithal required that has meant only those with a singular desire to engage with the process of democracy – either at the legislative or executive level – have truly been empowered to do so. Whether that has meant by lobbying, protest or civil unrest, letter-writing or even the burdensome process of being elected to some form of legislature, it has been a task that took real effort.
How things have changed.
In the 21st Century the old, largely broadcast model has been broken. The ability for people, anywhere, to participate has shifted thanks to a medium, the Internet, that is ever more ubiquitous, more social, and relatively cheap. We really are all a part of a huge melting pot posessed of the capability to participate. One-to-one and one-to-many communications are no longer the optimum modalities. We are now the inhabitants of a many-to-many world.
In recent times, as we have seen in the near-instant distribution of news in China after the Sichuan earthquake and in the coordination of political action in Moldova, Egypt and most recently, Iran, the capability for production and participation has been bolstered by the easy availability of networks where each participant is both broadcaster and receiver. A desire to participate, an increase in real or sought-after freedoms, relative ease and low cost of connectedness and the ever-accelerating power of tools that connect people online now means that there is a massive supply-side surplus to the ability of people everywhere to engage actively and meaningfully in the political process.
The power of networks is such that for every new node – each new person – the power of the network increases exponentially. We are hyperconnected and there is no going back. In fact, we are leaping ahead at pace.
It is more than time for our social institutions – for government – to join in. They are no longer the broadcasters, apart from the conversation. They, and we, are of the conversation.
But there is a problem.
Governments are largely used to mostly talking at the constituency rather than with the constituency. It’s not their fault. It’s simply the way things have always been.
So why is it a problem?
It’s a problem because in today’s hyperconnected world, a legislature and an executive that isn’t engaged in a close, many-way conversation with the public it serves is no longer fit for purpose. Both risk rapidly increasing irrelevance if they fail to adapt to the new world; one in which the public can, will and has done for itself where bureaucracies are too slow to respond to emergent needs and changes in opinion. In a hyperconnected world, to invoke Gilmore’s Law is easy – the connected community will route around the damage and do what needs to be done without the help of government.
There are attendees here today whose organisations are living, breathing examples of this very action – OpenAustralia, the Centre for Policy Development, TweetMP. We’re all empowered to do more than we could be in the past by our communities and our connectedness.
Today’s event is called The Public Sphere. The term, coined by German philosopher and sociologist, Jürgen Habermas, defines a place, physical or virtual, where open discussion of issues prevalent in society can take place and political action to remedy those issues can be formed. A strong, civil public sphere is a fundamental underpinning for a functional and successful liberal democracy.
Members of governments here, in the UK, in New Zealand and most particularly and publicly in the US, say many of the right things about participatory government underpinned by a connected and engaged society. This is a much needed first move. But it is only the first. It is far from the end game.
In a society as connected as Australia, where according to recent research from Forrester, 3/4 of Australian adults online use social tools, 1/4 create their own content, around half are members of social networks, government needs to be present in online communities, listening and responding and sometimes talking. A public service that is disconnected from the public it serves through the government of the day is no public service at all. Rather, it is a bureaucracy. Impenetrable. Byzantine. Inscrutable.
The legislature and the public service need to take action to participate online in a more sophisticated way than previously. This will require a fundamental shift in views on openness, risk, conversation, community, collaboration. A shift in the who, the what and the where. This will be a difficult task. But it is one that we must do soon if Australia is to be truly the clever country we have claimed to be for so long. There are well-evidenced benefits to innovation and creativity from collaboration of all kinds.
It is a misquotation to use it here, Churchill will no doubt spin in his grave, but it seems apt. A public service not engaged in active, ongoing conversation with the public “is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key.”
That key is a change in culture.
Australia is arguably a few steps off the pace with respect to the public sector being comfortable, and often, even prepared to engage with the community in a conversation aimed at collaborating on making our democracy better.
In this case, one of two things happen, and occasionally both. First, the public sector risks being inadequately informed of the needs and wants of the public and risks giving bad advice to government resulting in bad policy, programs and legislation. And second, the public may grow increasingly frustrated with the public sector, and through it, the government, for not heeding their mood.
I doubt anyone here today considers either of those outcomes desirable.
The right moves are being made at high level. But too slowly and not publicly enough.
The APSC has had a document in draft, Circular 2008/8, since December last year that lays out a largely workable set of guidelines for online engagement of public servants. But why is it still a draft seven months on? The APS Commissioner who is speaking here later today, recently gave a speech to the John Curtin Institute of Public Policy that laid a framework for a much richer engagement with the public that squarely places the citizen at the center of government. And the most recent State of the Service Report makes specific mention of the need for government and the public to engage more closely.
When I speak with public servants as I often do, too few of them at any level, are aware of these documents, the policies they embody, and the strong push for this new openness and engagement. In conversation, I hear many arguments against open engagement between government and the public. Too hard. No skills. Management resistance. Not allowed. It’s not the way we do things.
We need to take action to remove whatever it is that causes these blocks.
There are many public servants at all levels of government who stand ready, willing and able to engage directly with the public if only you will let them. They are knowledgeable and capable and proud of their work. They will help you govern and help you develop and deliver better government by being deeply connected into the communities they serve. By being a trusted, real and human part of those communities. If only you will let them.
We need to actively encourage change within our parliaments and our public sector that removes the resistance to this engagement. It is far easier to point out the size of the chasm than to start building a bridge over it.
As politicians and public servants we should be ensuring our colleagues and our staff at all levels are empowered to participate and provided with the skills they need to engage with the public openly and on an as-needed basis within their spheres of expertise.
And we need to do it urgently. Urgency does not imply haste, it simply implies rapidity.
And this culture change is urgent. Of this have no doubt.
As a former public servant, as someone who works with the public service today and as a member of the public, I, and others like me, believe this is a matter of national importance and that we must act soon and decisively.
And, as people who understand how both the public sector and the online world work, we want to help.
Together, we must reboot the model for engagement between government and the public to make it more open, more human, more frequent, more of a regular conversation focused on listening. And we must empower public servants at all levels and not just official communicators to be those that engage.
If we make that change, our governments and our public sector can be more relevant to the people; enacting policy and programs and delivering services that really matter and working hand-in-hand with an engaged, informed public participating in government.
Not only Yes We Can, but Yes We Must.