This short essay is my presentation at the inaugural The Public Sphere to be hosted by Senator Kate Lundy at the ANU on 7 May 2009.
Despite living in one of a relatively few nations with compulsory suffrage, the electorate largely remains woefully uninformed about the political process – how elections actually work, the difference between and respective powers of the layers of government, and the services provided by and obligations of each.
Largely, the legislature is little better in the reverse direction. “Non-core” promises are broken in the name of political expediency and world-affecting policies and programs our nation ought to be taking the lead on are pushed aside in order to curry favor with powerful industry lobbies and a few fringe-dwelling Senators who hold the balance of power.
In a nation where it is in everyone’s best interests to work together, we have governments who continue to proclaim bipartisanship, yet barely manage to hold it together in the face of internecine feuds. They declare they know what is best for us in a manner that is one small step away from Nanny Stating at its worst and we have an executive that favors a Byzantine, impenetrable bureaucracy defined by a public perception of hollow men in grey suits over really understanding what their employees and more importantly the public truly wants.
Today, we’re speaking about the potential social, cultural and industrial impact of an increasingly fast and widely distributed access to broadband in this nation. Despite the recent announcement of the NBN, supposedly bringing 100Mbps fiber-to-the-home to a significant proportion of the nation, my view is the proposal is an order of magnitude in speed too slow and by the time it has been implemented, will be a decade out of date.
That said, there are many opportunities to be garnered by the provision of high speed broadband to the people of Australia. But, concomitant with that technology, a truly Kuhnian paradigm shift must occur in the culture of the legislature and the bureaucracy of this nation in order to fully realise the power of an informed, engaged and empowered society.
We live in a geographically dispersed nation. Our families and governing structures no longer inhabit a close, day or two’s ride from our wattle and daub huts. Rather, we live in a 24x7x365, always-on world where our village truly is global. And, despite continuing to declare ourselves a clever country, we continue to suffer a drain of intellectual capital overseas and an increasing fragmentation of our social infrastructure. In a world where we can be and are increasingly hyperconnected, we face the very real risk of political, social and cultural hyperisolation if we fail to participate as individual and as a society.
In his incredibly important work, The Experience of Middle Australia , Michael Pusey of UNSW states, “…change has depleted the the resources that were once provided by… older, denser forms of association.” In a hyperconnected world, underpinned by a utility provided, equitably distributed, high speed broadband network, our ability to readopt these denser forms of association, then made sustainable by tools such as social networks, become reality. We become the true global village, as much the neighbor to the bloke next door as some geographically remote but by association, close, neighbor with whom we share an interest of some sort.
Already, we see this happening in our own lives as we increasingly turn to trusted sources for information, turning our back in increasing numbers on the formal media which has yet to catch up with this engaged super-community. We empower ourselves to make better, more informed decisions and to take action on those decisions.
Yet, government is falling behind. And why? Because, largely, government by its very nature is not built to operate in a 21st Century that has more or less invoked Gilmore‘s Law on the executive and in places, is not far off doing the same to the legislature. We will “route around the damage” and do for ourselves what government seems incapable or unwilling to do for us.
What needs to happen, and happen soon, is a radical reimagining of the way in which governments engage and converse with the public. It’s no longer necessary nor sufficient, to make proclamations from on high. The constituency wants, and parts of it are demanding, an engaged, two-way and ongoing conversation with both politicians and the public sector. In places, this is already happening. In the UK, a significant number of local government bodies and an increasing number of national bodies are engaging one on one with the public. In the US, too, government bodies are increasingly engaged with the public they serve.
How else do you account for an oversubscribed, attendees capped at 500 people, event that took place in Washington DC just a few weeks ago? The Government 2.0 Camp was a resounding success in attracting politicians, public sector workers and a wide range of informed and engaged others and opening up the conversation that must occur to input and participation from any interested party, and not just those who can afford lobbyists.
So too, in the UK and US politicians are engaging online with the voters they serve.
Yet, in this country, despite a few strong examples, the largest part of e-Government and e-politics is still seeing the world as just another place to make proclamations and tell people what is good for them and at which CWA meeting a politician is turning up at next.
This must change. And soon. Or we risk an even more disconnected and apathetic electorate than we have now.
When politicians and public servants truly seek to engage in an ongoing, personal conversation with the public they serve, I believe we will have the opportunity to see a massive increase in public understanding of government. Alongside that, I believe we will see an attendant increase in an ability to get things done, with the public sector and the legislature working hand in hand with an informed, engaged and empowered community.
In a hyperconnected world, we can be more informed than ever before, by more sources and from a broader opinion base than ever previously possible.
We can be engaged in our communities; local, national or global.
We can empower ourselves and others to know, to understand, in ways just not possible before the advent of broadband.
And we can act on that information. In an informed, engaged and empowered way.
- Pusey, Michael, The Experience of Middle Australia, Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 135, ISBN 0521658446