Government 2.0 – reinventing eGovernment or something different?

This short talk is to be delivered to the IBM Smarter Workforce – Government Leadership Forum on 9 September 2009.

“Every dystopia is a utopia turned inside out… The problem isn’t in the basic idea, it’s in the arrogance of implementation. It’s in the idea that we will get it right the first time.”
– Steven Lloyd Wilson #

Government 2.0 is more than just eGovernment with a new name. eGovernment in Australia has largely focused on delivery of services and programs via online or connected means – an admirable agenda that has in large part been successful in the 10 or so years it has been a priority. But online delivery is just a part of what Government 2.0 offers.

My personal view is that Government 2.0 is an unhelpful term. As with Enterprise 2.0 and Web 2.0 before it, it somewhat unintentionally puts technology in people’s minds and creates visions of something large, expensive and complex that will be done to government rather than by government and misses the point about the groundswell culture and practice change supported by technology that is arguably the more substantial and world-changing aspect of the thing.

Tim O’Reilly, one of the co-creators of the term Web 2.0, and now passionate Government 2.0 advocate, describes Government 2.0 as requiring a shift to platform thinking, where government provides the platform for amazing things to happen – think highways, the Internet, GPS (all originally created by government) – and builds services on it, but also opens it up in order for citizens and business to build their own applications, products and services. Ones not considered or even dreamed of by government, but using the infrastructure and data provided by government.

Still, this description focuses on the tools and technology. I think the end game Tim is moving towards is systems thinking – considering government and all the things it does as a part of much larger, contextual puzzle. If we focus on the tools and technology, we risk becoming obsessed with minutiae that hide the real possibilities.

To my mind, the tools and technology are the scaffolding upon which Government 2.0 can be built – a critical part of the whole, but not the answer in and of itself. Rather, for Government 2.0 to succeed, we should focus on the models delivered by 2.0 thinking – lightweight, agile, responsive over reactive, prepared to make small mistakes, open, collaborative – and the fact that at its heart, it’s about people.

So, let’s begin with a useful definition, the definition used by the very active Australian Government 2.0 community that has gathered on Google Groups to discuss the subject. I’ve chosen this definition not just because I had a hand in making it, but also because I think it’s one of the most balanced out there:

Government 2.0 is not specifically about social networking or technology based approaches to anything. It represents a fundamental shift in the implementation of government – toward an open, collaborative, cooperative arrangement where there is (wherever possible) open consultation, open data, shared knowledge, mutual acknowledgment of expertise, mutual respect for shared values and an understanding of how to agree to disagree. Technology and social tools are an important part of this change but are essentially an enabler in this process.

You’ll see from the definition that there’s a significantly larger picture that needs to be understood, explored, experimented with and ultimately implemented to make Government 2.0 the reality it can be.

Government 2.0 makes a deliberate effort to break down what can seem impenetrable barriers of bureaucracy and introduce a more human face to the executive arm of government. Public servants are encouraged to engage with each other and with the public where possible, within their own spheres of expertise. Rather than outbound communication from agencies to the public, the discourse becomes conversation – amongst the public sector, between the public sector and the community, and amongst the various parts of the community itself. This conversational approach offers many benefits – the public sector is kept constantly attuned to the needs and wants of the public, the public is less baffled by bureaucracy as they are in more frequent touch.

Borrowing heavily from the culture of Open Source, Government 2.0 assumes that publicly open, multiple and rapid iterations of policy, of programs, of ideas is a good thing. Not necessarily for everything government does, but as and where appropriate. Adopting this practice allows for a more agile approach to policy development and program delivery. The big bang approaches of the past where services delivered by the public sector are found to not be suitable for some reason but are unchangeable and therefore an expensive waste of funds and effort due to the implementation model, can be replaced with an approach that sees things tested in public and subject to change as shifting priorities and needs are identified.

The Government 2.0 Taskforce itself is using this model to help identify the priorities the public want to see returned to the government in its report. So too are events such as Senator Kate Lundy’s Public Sphere, which have proved measurably successful and have cast the net wide for input and expertise. Efforts in other jurisdictions too, have seen significant success in prioritising policy, funding and human resource needs. Just last week several announcements here and overseas moved the conversation along.

New Zealand’s State Services Commission has announced NZGOAL, an experiment in licensing Public Sector Information with an appropriate license in order to adopt, as they say in the announcement, “principles which embrace, among other things, the notions of open access, open licensing, creativity, authenticity, non-discrimination and open formats”. They very deliberately state it is an experiment, designed to be iterated and improved over time through input from many sources. This announcement and what it means has been noticed here and as far away as the UK by senior members of the Parliament, as well as by advocates of more open licensing of PSI.

In Australia, we have moves in this direction too. The FoI reform agenda will necessarily see a change in licensing for some material, it’s a change that has already been adopted by some organisations and there is help available from the Government Information Licensing Framework for agencies unsure how they should more permissively license their data for reuse

Just last Friday, NSW Premier, Nathan Rees announced at the first NSW Sphere event that not only would the NSW Government be sponsoring a $100,000 competition for development of applications that made innovative use of public sector data, but also that “Governments have to overcome old habits of secrecy and control. We’ve got to be interactive. The old one-way street style of politics has to go.”

This announcement bore more than a passing resemblance to the Prime Minister’s words in last week’s John Paterson Oration at the Australia New Zealand School of Government Annual Conference, where he emphasised the need for an innovative, open, outward-looking APS and a culture within the APS that supports these things. It also echoed the words of outgoing Commissioner Lynelle Briggs who has more than once stated the need for a citizen-centric public sector and the need to look outside the boundaries of agencies to academia, to business and to the public themselves by using systems thinking to solvewicked problems“.

The solving of wicked problems and a truly citizen-centric approach to government will mean that the ability for the public sector and the legislature to connect closely and collaborate with those outside government must be enhanced. Amongst other things, approaches like this support and enhance the government’s Social Inclusion agenda.

Moving our public sector to a culture, set of practices and technologies that actively embraces Government 2.0 is high on the agenda of the current government with the Taskforce due to report on its findings at the end of December, the Prime Minister expressing his desire to see these types of changes and Minister Lindsay Tanner strong in his support for culture, practice and technological change that will support this agenda. I have no doubt that it presents a significant challenge for public servants of every generation, but the promise it holds can deliver better evidence-based policy, more targeted programs and an open environment where the public sector is no longer an inscrutable mystery to large parts of the community but is something made up of real, approachable human beings with names and who really care about us – it’s not that these things aren’t already the case, but by adoption of Government 2.0 they become a given.

Government 2.0 is so much more than just eGovernment with a new name.

In closing, I’d like to quote the position on Government 2.0 from the Obama campaign.

“We need to connect citizens with each other to engage them more fully and directly in solving the problems that face us. We must use all available technologies and methods to open up the federal government, creating a new level of transparency to change the way business is conducted … giving [people] the chance to participate in government deliberations and decision-making in ways that were not possible only a few years ago.”
– Obama campaign policy statement #

Leave a Reply