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.
My keynote from GOVIS 2009 – User Centred Government: More than meets the eye.
The GOVIS tag line is “Connect. Share. Learn.”
So my first question is where is the conference wifi network for all of us to connect? It’s a must have for every conference these days.
Why are we recording the conference proceedings for later distribution? Why aren’t we streaming them live over the ‘Net and recording them?
Where are the tools for all of us to give direct input to the conference sessions as they happen? An integrated backchannel?
My question for all of you is, how many of you are connected and sharing right now, so that your colleagues who aren’t here can be learning from your experience?
How many of you are learning from each other?
How many of you know what your peers from other agencies think of what’s happening at this conference? More specifically, do you know in real time?
I ask, because these are important and relevant questions in the context of open government. Participation on your part is a critical component of the bigger picture.
I ask, because it’s completely doable using free, publicly available tools. In fact, the conference web site points some of those tools out – Flickr, Delicious, Twitter, Slideshare. And that connecting, sharing and learning is happening there. Only you don’t know about it because you’re not connected.
So, here are the rules I generally give my presentations under. I fully expect you to follow them.
everything and anything is possible – ask why and why not and expect a real answer
there are no bad ideas – just different ones
passive consumption is pointless – do tweet, blog, comment, challenge and ask – you get out of this what you put in
If you have the tools here to be participating in this keynote, get them out now and use them!
Connect. Share. Learn.
Where have we been?
Direct engagement in politics has been the purview of an educated and powerful few until recent times. Indeed, the role of the politician, and the executive that serves him or her has largely been to tell us, the sheep-like masses, what is good for us and to expect us to blithely follow along. We change our minds only in the face of corruption and excess, and exercise our democratic rights to switch to a lesser evil at times of election.
But oh, my! How the world has changed. The Beast of the hyperconnected masses slouches ever closer to the Bethlehem of political engagement. And the Beast wants to talk. With you. Yes, you. The politician and the public servant. Directly, or at least more directly. And to hear from you – preferably a lot sooner than the next election or major policy or program roll out.
Two years ago, at the last GOVIS, my friend and colleague, Tara Hunt, gave a keynote entitled Government 2.0: Architecting for Collaboration. In that keynote, Tara spoke of a structure for open, engaged government that riffed off Tim O’Reilly’s rules for Web 2.0. Not so tenuous a linkage as you might think. Tara’s proposed architecture centered on a rich, collaborative ecosystem of linkages between:
a citizen and a service provider
a researcher and the information
a citizen and a public servant
a citizen and her information
a citizen and her experience with the government
Two years on, where are we? In this country and in Australia, we seem to be tinkering around the edges at best. Yet, we’ve seen fundamental shifts in the governments in both our countries – governments that came to power at least in part on the basis of offering a brighter future of consideration and understanding of the needs of the public.
We could be so much further on.
Possibly the biggest obvious shift towards public engagement with government occurred with the election of President Obama in late 2008. The jury remains out, of course, as to whether the changes brought about by the new US administration will prove to be a real groundswell in the opening of government and the engagement of the public. However, the future looks bright. At least at the moment.
There’s a vitally important quote in that video that goes to the heart of what I’m talking about:
Our commitment to openness means more than simply informing the American people about how decisions are made. It means recognizing that government does not have all the answers, and that public officials need to draw on what citizens know.
That announcement, and the program it speaks of, is something that at present, I simply can’t imagine in Australia.
A close friend of mine who happens to work for the State Department at the US Embassy in Canberra told me a story a few weeks back. We were at breakfast, with a group of people who meet every couple of weeks. What do we have in common? All of us do work that involves us using social media in one form or another.
This was my friend’s first time at this breakfast. On that day, he met people who work in state and federal government, who work for PR companies and for nonprofits like the RSPCA.
And he told us something pretty amazing. And frankly, pretty cool.
About six weeks before, all the staff at the State Department, he was assuming world wide, had received a directive to engage with the public. To “… get out there on Twitter and Facebook and whatever” and have a conversation with people. They were actively encouraged, and very nearly mandated, to act as ambassadors and evangelists for their government. Right down to the most junior staff. No more would media units and PR spin doctors be the sole intermediaries, struggling to control a conversation they had, in reality, lost control of years before. Instead, the conversation has been radically disintermediated with real people, doing real jobs, each now a part of the public and engaging face of the US government.
He was excited. He felt empowered. And it was the motivating force behind him coming to his first Canberra Social Media Breakfast.
In the UK, too, things are afoot. Just last week, the public announcement came of the appointment of Andrew Stott as the Director of Digital Engagement. The role is as the most senior public communicator in the UK Civil Service focused specifically on the digital channel. Of course, the media immediately labeled him the “Twitter Tsar”, but the job is far more than that.
In a role fraught with risk and opportunity, Andrew Stott has the chance to bring the British government and its engagement with its hyperconnected constituency rushing into the 21st Century. There is much to be gained if he gets it right.
Nothing remotely like those examples exists in my country.
Where are we now?
The people want to engage. They want to have a conversation with a legislature and executive that listen to what they have to say. It’s not so important that they act on all our wishes – more, it’s important that people are heard, and can hear back from those in government in a more human way.
Pronouncements of what is good for us and Nanny Stating no longer cut it.
…change has depleted the resources that were once provided by… older, denser forms of association.
In a hyperconnected world, our ability to readopt these denser forms of association, 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.
Our families and governing structures no longer inhabit a nearby, 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. In a world where we can be and are increasingly on, we face the very real risk of political, social and cultural hyperisolation if we fail to participate as individuals and as part of society.
Already, we see this happening in our own lives as we increasingly turn to trusted sources for information, turning our back in growing 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.
This gathering together to do as we need, when we need, with whom we need, learning as we go, is the core premise of NYU professor, Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody.
It is also the foundation of many of the lectures of my friend, Mark Pesce, as he discusses the growing power of the connected community. In his talk, Hyperpolitics (American Style), given at last year’s Personal Democracy Forum in New York, Mark connected the dots for us when he said:
Today, quite literally, the notion of power to the people is more true than ever.
And it’s true because government by its very nature is not built to operate in a connected 21st Century – it is often too slow, too risk averse, too monolithic.
In many ways, the public 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.
Sometimes, it’s just about getting a pothole filled, as FixMyStreet allows you to do in the UK and Canada .
Or perhaps it’s about making sure you understand, and can hold to account, your local member for their level of contribution to their elected office. TheyWorkForYou in the UK, and its local equivalents in Canada, Australia and here in New Zealand, are powerful tools to keep a check on the activities of politicians, their parties and the organisations they are associated with.
You have to wonder why these services, services of unarguable importance, needed to be built bythe pople at mySociety. Why weren’t they built by government? Why did they need to be built at all? If we had the open, engaged conversation we’re talking about today with government, perhaps we wouldn’t feel the need to watch the watchers.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
Of course, it’s not just about keeping tabs on our politicians. More importantly, it’s about giving the public more direct access to and input into policy making and legislative activity.
In Australia, the right noises are beginning to be made. Less than a fortnight ago, Federal Finance Minister, Lindsay Tanner had this to say:
I’m a great believer in these collaborative technologies opening up some tremendous possibilities for better government.
Trouble is, this message doesn’t seem to be making its way down to the doers, the public servants on the ground who want to engage in communities of practice and shared knowledge, or are keen to help out where they can with a client having a problem. Whether or not it’s actually their job.
In fact, despite more than one official documentdeclaring quite clearly that public servants are not only entitled to engage online, but encouraged to do so should they wish, most government departments in Australia have tightly restricted networks with near-draconian rules about what web sites are permitted to be seen. And woe betide any public servant seen online in a social network. Demonstrably, it’s slacking off.
Here in New Zealand, too, the government recognises the value of social media and its part in the conversation that the public sector and the governments it serves need to have with the public in order to provide the best advice to government and implement the best informed, most widely consulted programs and policies.
I wonder though, for this country and my own, just how many of the doers are engaged in those conversations? How many of their managers and leaders are accepting this groundswell? How many are embracing the cultural shift and encouraging their people to be out there connecting, live and in color, with the public?
In Australia, too, we have an active online voice with respect to our government’s proposed imposition of a mandatory “clean feed”, filtering out the nasties we no doubt need to be protected from as we “think of the children”.
The government appears deaf to the intelligent and informed argument against this ill-considered policy and the potentially hundreds of millions of dollars it could cost to implement if it comes to be. The clean feed is not only technically impractical – potentially slowing Australia’s Internet speed by a substantial factor – it is a policy that is largely simply not wanted by Australians. Further, the risky legal framework around the blacklist that will underpin the clean feed, lacks transparency and possibility for review.
These are just two examples. If government and the public sector were engaged in a conversation in a more open way with the public, things might be different.
Perhaps, with the benefit of hindsight, there will be a little more listening to the informed public view when both the legislature and the executive are more engaged online in a fashion that meets the expectations of the growing online community. A community who expect to be heard. A community desperately keen to engage with government and the public sector at every level.
My own local Senator, Kate Lundy, in a conjuring of the theories of the German philosopher and sociologist, Jürgen Habermas, has instituted a series of events she is terming The Public Sphere. Open to all comers, the events are run in parallel – online and off – along a theme with the aim of gathering views, opinions and experience that would otherwise not get a hearing in the halls of power. The outcomes from these events will form briefing papers to be taken back to the party room in an effort to influence policy and legislative agendas.
This is a real effort to engage in the idea of Government 2.0 – making government more accessible to the public, encouraging collaboration and idea sharing, looking for the best thinking and building trust in a group – politicians and public servants – who often struggle for trust from the public. The trust and social capital built on both sides acts to make access to government easier, transparency greater and the canvassing of opinion much, much faster.
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 event, capped at 500 attendees, 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 to open up the conversation that must occur, taking input and participation from any interested party, and not just those who can afford lobbyists.
Beyond conversation across the wall – between the government and its constituency – there is another opportunity. It’s an opportunity that many might be more willing to try. That opportunity is to do all this amongst yourselves – intra- and inter-agency conversation and collaboration; a community of peers who can share and build on knowledge you might otherwise not have the chance to discuss.
An effort along these lines has begun with GovDex in Australia, but adoption remains low, with largely experimental communities and continued resistance from many agencies. Yet there are so many opportunities offered by a whole-of-government approach such as this.
Supported by social networking tools within and between agencies, there are countless opportunities to engage in more open conversation, to measurably increase access to expertise, to promote innovative and forward-thinking problem solving and policy formation. This isn’t pie in the sky stuff. There are measured and well-researched benefits to breaking down the silos within and between your organisations and rebooting work practices to a more open and collaborative model.
You need only look to the British documentary, Us Now, recently released for free on the Internet, to see the wealth of opportunities afforded by this shift. Let’s take a quick look.
Further, by reorganising this way culturally, technically and in terms of the skills you give your people, you quite intentionally and directly build competency and expertise in the very business models and tools the public expects you to be using to engage with them. Government 2.0 is as much about the way the public sector and the legislature organises itself as it is about the conversation and interaction with the public. By approaching this from a position of building expertise, you reap the rewards of increased productivity and the ability to deliver better services to the public.
To quote Jason Ryan, of the State Services Commission:
…in the hyperconnected world, engagement is predicated on understanding and utilising social media.
With that understanding – that use and the needed expertise amongst your people – you place your organisations in the box seat to deliver on the promise of Government 2.0. You become that which Government 2.0 most aspires to – an engaged and engaging public sector giving top quality advice to Ministers thanks to an ongoing conversation with the public that involves receiving expert input and breadth of opinion from a diverse and informed base.
I hardly think that’s a bad thing.
In Australia and New Zealand we are now in a desperate race to catch up. If only we can change the way government operates. The connected citizenry already know what’s going on elsewhere and are keen to make their contribution.
One of the most important factors in engaging and empowering the public in the business of government is open data. In Australia, the Bureau of Statistics has licensed the vast majority of its data under a Creative Commons license. This allows the ABS to distribute its data to anyone that can make use of it. The data is available for use by any individual or organisation that needs it – ready to mash with any other data. But they are one of few.
The newly appointed US Chief Information Officer, Vivek Kundra had this to say on the matter of open data just weeks ago at the 2009 Government Web Managers conference held in Washington:
Government data prepared for public reuse should be offered in multiple-formats, be machine-readable and adhere as closely as possible to lightweight standards.
There are already significant movements, such as the Data Portability Project, who aim to help define a data standard that would allow individuals like you and me control and authorisation rights over the use of data gathered about us as well as assist governments and private enterprise make informed decisions about in what form they should offer their publicly available data.
An agreed-to, truly portable data standard would allow information to be passed between bodies such as government agencies, service providers such as the medical profession and education sector and individuals, based on a set of authorisation and authentication rules attached to the standard.
At the TED conference this year, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, had those of us in the crowd chanting a very important mantra:
Raw data now!
What Sir Tim wants is for governments and business everywhere to release for use the unfiltered, unchanged data they collect in our names and allow us to use it. To mash it up and to add value to it.
And what value we could add!
Projects like Google’s efforts to index public data around labor statistics and census findings has implications and presents possibilities that could spread globally.
Other works, like Nation Master and the recently released Wolfram Alpha , present so many possibilities that the true implications for global policy-making are difficult to grasp.
In recent months, through the use of open data and an open communications model (sometimes forced upon the agencies), we’ve seen amazing things happen with data on the Victorian bushfires thanks to a joint effort between Google and the Premier’s office
It’s just one example of data being used to increase public safety and inform the population. There are many more.
With the recent H1N1 breakout, through the use of open communication models leveraging social media, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been able to more actively engage in a conversation around the disease breakout and distribute accurate information in a far more immediate and timely way than the twice daily stand-ups of the past.
So too, the World Health organisation is using Twitter and other channels online to converse with and engage the public in an effort to clearly get their message out.
Alongside official efforts, work by interested and engaged third parties, empowered by the availability of open data, is supporting the work of those in government. HealthMap is a graphical work mapping infectious disease reporting across the globe. Work of the importance of HealthMap, and have no doubt about how important it is, can only be empowered by public officials and their organisations who have overcome the fear of sharing and engagement that permeates much of government in the West.
Efforts like this are increasingly common in the US and the UK, yet they are scarcer than hen’s teeth in Australia.
So, I ask you today, are your organisations sharing all the data they could? If not, why not?
Of course, to have an appropriate level of governance to all this data interchange, we probably need government involved somewhere.
In Australia we have seen the government data interchange space best illustrated by the debacle that is NEHTA, the National E-Health Transitional Authority. Infighting and a series of changes in management have seen NEHTA get effectively nowhere in more than five years with a lack of openness, cost blowouts and disagreements, even in the face of an accepted de facto world standard.
Instead, programs such Google Health are moving forward in leaps and bounds. Not that they won’t have problems, but with a will and a deliberate intent to avoid pointless bureaucracy, they are well ahead of government activities, which to date have to be marked “Not good enough.”
You say you want a revolution
This is where we come in. As members of the public and as public servants and politicians, we must engage.
In our remote corner of the world – New Zealand and Australia – we need to engage as citizens and as public servants with the public we serve far more than we have ever before. We need to embrace a more open model of government that values an ongoing conversation with the public around policy, culture, security, trust, transparency and the sharing of information and data.
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 Country Women’s Association meeting a politician is turning up at next. We must be the catalyst to change that.
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 and to understand.
And we can act on information available to us in an informed, engaged way.
This is a revolution whose time has come. To somewhat misquote President Obama, not only “Yes we can” but “Yes we must.”
Imagine your public sector, your engagement, your government if this was just what you did.
My closing keynote from eLearning08, the primary event on the NSW Australian Flexible Learning Framework calendar.
I want today to tell you a story. Like many stories, our hero is a young girl. She will face challenges and adversity. But she will also achieve great things. She might even find herself a humorous sidekick.
So who is this girl? And what is her journey? She is girl on the verge of the journey into adulthood. A journey that will take her through high school and perhaps to university or vocational training of some sort.
That girl is my daughter, Hannah. She is 11 years old. She is about to finish 5th Grade. In 2010, Hannah will enter high school. It will be the six years she spends there that are perhaps the most important years of her time in formal education, for they will establish the foundation of the skills she will need to carry into further education, into the world of work and beyond into her career and any additional education she might choose to undertake.
As Hannah’s parent, as a business person with more than 20 years of work experience, and as a potential employer, I am only too aware of a number of issues surrounding her education and the working world she will ultimately join that concern me greatly.
Not least of those issues is how the education system and governments in Australia – Federal and State – are dealing, or indeed not dealing, with the increasing need for students of today to have an education that is connected. An education that focuses on the tectonic shift in the nature of society transformed by the emergence of the World Wide Web. An education that understands that the global economy and work were transformed fundamentally in the late 20th Century from an economy of making things to an economy of knowing things. An economy of conversation, collaboration and community.
Society is now connected in a way that changes the game. The village is truly global and even in the Third World hyperconnectedness is making waves. More than this, the classroom and the material taught there is losing relevance as students everywhere, from primary through to post-graduate and vocational education take control of their own learning experiences, collaborating with each other and in social networks that foster creativity, innovation, big thinking and independence of viewpoint.
Educators and education policymakers risk increased marginalisation and further irrelevance if they fail to move quickly. To adapt and adopt to a world that is streaking away from them as the connected – from primary school students to Indian Ocean fishermen – follow the links and learn from each other in a true global village that empowers and permits them to be as productive and innovative as they can and forgives or even ignores the notion of being wrong in favor of the idea of failing fast, cheap and often.
At Kansas State University, Professor Michael Wesch runs a digital ethnography program that explores the changes being wrought upon our culture by the Internet. Let’s take a look at something he and his students made about a year ago.
The quote from Marshall McLuhan at the start of the video is particularly relevant. Let’s look at it.
“Today’s child is bewildered when he enters the 19th Century environment that still characterizes the educational establishment where information is scarce but ordered and structured by fragmented, classified patterns, subjects and schedules.”
Marshall McLuhan, 1967
1967… That’s the year before I was born. So what’s going wrong and what’s happening now?
When Hannah went into class this morning, the environment she entered was fundamentally little different to that which my grandfather experienced in his first day of school in Wellington, nearly 100 years ago. Or that of my father in Devonport 60 years ago. Or mine, in 1974. Chairs, desks, silence, the tools that keep you connected turned off or at best scarce, the teacher in front of the class.
It was then and is now a largely disjointed, form-and-function driven environment where at best, only the very finest teaching draws a few of the virtually countless contextual threads together. It’s an environment designed to produce compliant, 19th Century factory workers. Workers who were a part of a model where one held the same job for life, where creative and lateral thinking were discouraged and where you were expected to simply do and follow orders.
But the world doesn’t work that way any more.
Today, Hannah’s learning environment is the entire world. Arguably it’s larger than that. More specifically, it’s this – Hannah’s learning environment is the hyperconnected world she finds herself a part of on a constant basis. She’s connected continually to experiences and groups from which she learns and contextualizes. Most of those are not mediated in a classroom environment, and many of them are amongst her peers. This will become more so as her ability to socialise and collaborate with her peers increases in complexity and becomes more refined.
As a group they, and others like them, are entirely collaborative, conversational and community focused. She’s connected into these learning experiences on a constant basis through mobile phones, her iPod, the tools she uses like wikis, blogs, online bookmarking and social networks, and any one of the several ‘Net-connected devices she encounters during the course of her day. Often, those experiences are massively parallel – IM and text, while reading or editing something online and listening to something else or conversing with the group in the room. Hannah and her peers are a part of an environment beyond the classroom that empowers them and puts them in control. That allows them to follow the white rabbit down the hole of connectedness until their curiosity is sated. This form of learning is also multi-directional. Hannah teaches as much as she learns. The network responds to her as much as she to it. They are, as Don Tapscott puts it, “the ‘Net Generation”.
Arguably, her learning experiences in the classroom are becoming progressively more irrelevant as the learning experiences she undertakes beyond the class – deliberately or coincidentally – more directly prepare her and equip her with the skills she will need to successfully tackle the 21st Century. She is more connected to, and more contextually so, to what digital ethnographer Kevin Kelly termed “The One” than any generation before her. In generations to come, this will be seen as natural. Right now, it presents an enormous challenge to many educators and education policymakers in the political arena as they struggle to keep up with those wacky kids.
It is a challenge for which they seem ill-prepared and ill-equipped. Consequently, we are seeing significant resistance amongst some educators and politicians to the paradigm shift that must take place in order to build the education system we need. Just this week, we saw further evidence from government and educators of the chasm of misunderstanding of the new paradigm for learning.
With new funding approved, the NSW Government is only too happy to give a laptop to every child in years 7 to 12, taking advantage of the Federal Government’s laughably misnamed Education Revolution. But what is NSW Education Minister Verity Firth crowing about? She’s crowing about the fact that these machines will, in effect, be crippled by preventing the students who have them from connecting to their peers and social groups – where they do the vast majority of their learning. She took singular delight in noting:
“We don’t want these kids to be using these computers for the not-so-wholesome things that can be on the net. And they won’t be able to because essentially the whole server is coming through the Department of Education.”
How wrong Ms Firth is. And how deliciously ill-informed.
Of course, this will fail. The blocking systems will be subject to Gilmore’s Law within days, if not hours. The kids will figure out a way to route around the damage so that they remain connected. And what about when they are in cafés, or at home, or public institutions beyond school walls?
And people like me? We’ll encourage and help the kids break the security. Why? Because it’s when we are connected to each other that we are at our best as a species. When we are engaged in a conversation with our communities, our collaborators, that we are able to most actively seed fertile minds. To reach into the hidden spaces and draw forth the intangible and form it like clay into ideas, and innovations, and the next big thing.
Let’s look to our young hero, Hannah, again for a moment. Hannah began using the Internet at two years of age. She has had her own email address, unchecked by me or her mother, since she was eight. She has administrator level access to the network at home and unfiltered connection to the Internet. And she knows how to use that access.
Contrary to the rantings of Stephen Conroy, of the views of moral stormtroopers like Clive Hamilton, former Executive Director of The Australia Institute, or of Minister Firth, Hannah has never encountered any of this “not-so-wholesome” content on the Internet. She has never downloaded a virus, encountered an unwanted person, viewed porn inadvertently or deliberately. Yet she uses the Internet every day, so by the estimation of some, she should be repeatedly traumatised by inappropriate material, be stalked by a veritable crowd of unsuitable individuals and be someone who is incapable of coherent thought, of spelling or stringing a sentence together and of engaging with others in face-to-face situations.
Of course, this is demonstrably not the case. Hannah is an engaging young person, able to hold her own in conversation with adults and her peers alike. She speaks, spells and writes and does math above her grade level. She enjoys socialising – online and off. Her ability to do most of these things has less to do with her classroom (although many of the fundamentals were taught there) and more to do with her natural affinity, like many people of her generation, to engage with each other in a more human, more village-centric style of conversation, collaboration and community.
Of course, this engagement is mediated via a different tool set than it was before the Industrial Revolution, when humans last really engaged this way. Back then, it was the mead hall or the village green. Now, it’s a much larger place – the Internet.
It’s my view that, generally speaking, the education system is falling a long way behind in terms of providing learners of any age with the type of education they need. I’d like to look specifically at a number of the issues I believe need resolution.
Connected and unfiltered.
From the time the World Wide Web became a public reality rather than a cool toy of the military research establishment, education has become progressively more connected. Yes, our schools are largely online, but the interpretation of online used in education is pretty much a joke.
When our kids walk into the class, what do we do? We tell them to disconnect! We make them turn off their mobile phones and give them limited access to a network that is so tightly filtered it verges on censorship. We force them into a structure that no longer reflects the way society operates. This approach fails to use the way students today learn to enhance the learning process. Rather, it disconnects and decontextualizes the experience.
We take away that which defines our students and the way they live – their hyperconnectedness. Legitimate resources are blocked because they contain words referring to genitalia, or are blocked because they fail to pass someone’s appropriateness filter. What if I want to study the ethnography of White Supremacists? What if I need to research sexual health issues?
Educators often seem to find themselves behind the 8-ball. It appears that there is a serious lack of the right sort of teacher training in using online resources. I don’t believe this is deliberate; more a matter of knowledge, time and understanding. But it is an issue of note.
It’s often the case that the kids are ahead of the teachers in their skill level at finding and exploiting online resources. This was driven home to me this year when it was made apparent at parent-teacher interviews by Hannah’s teacher that she was far and away amongst the most online- and tech-savvy students in the school. None of those skills were learned in class.
Use of online resources is limited by computer availability. Students are afforded time online or even just on a computer in a strictly limited way. In the worst of cases, there are too few computers in a school for there to be several in every class. This execrable situation is arguably the stuff that should be solved by the Federal Government’s Education Revolution. Only, with approaches like those of Stephen Conroy and Verity Firth, it doesn’t look too revolutionary to me. It’s barely evolutionary.
Putting this into perspective for Hannah, she and her peers are being denied frequent enough access to what may be the most revolutionary, most paradigm-shifting cultural change in human history – hyperconnectedness. Without adequate access to online information and connectedness between individuals and groups, they risk emerging into the workforce lacking core skills in discovering and consuming knowledge, in collaboration and in wide-ranging critical thinking.
In a world where knowledge is the stuff of most jobs – including jobs like artist, farmer, fisherman and coal miner – the ability to rapidly contextualize and draw wide-ranging conclusions about information is critical. We need to see the big picture
We must be willing to be and accept others like Alice – insatiably curious followers of the white rabbit down the hole. For it is down the rabbit hole where the bigger picture that will really build our understanding of problems lies. It is there, amongst the talking flowers, the Cheshire Cat and all the madness of the Tea Party and the Queen that the exploratory learners will see the bigger picture and draw in the diverse threads that let them discover the next big idea.
Knowledge workers in today’s world need to be fuzzy and T-shaped. That is, having a core of strong, deep skills, but having a wide ranging and insatiable thirst for more information, wider-ranging skills and more context and meaning for what they do. These skills, fundamental to the new economy of the 21st Century, aren’t being taught enough. Granted, the question of how to make a fuzzy person is a tricky one to solve, but immersive, contextual, connected education is a starting point for making it happen.
I want Hannah to be as fuzzy and T-shaped as she can be. I want her to be able to look at a problem and see the 10 other problems that define it. To try things just so she can get what a problem or person is all about. For her to be able to gather the threads together in a storm of fuzzy, apparently illogical thinking to solve problems in an innovative and creative way, unfettered by thinking either inside or outside of any theoretical box. In fact, she should throw the box away entirely as Step 1!
The classroom, tutorial or lecture theatre is still largely run on an Industrial Age model where learners are taught to behave like factory automatons. The classroom environment makes them ready for a job on the production line, or in a faceless cube farm. It’s anti-creative and busywork focused and not at all designed to equip our children for a world where bursty thinking, creative knowledge work is ever-increasingly the norm. Take a look at Sir Ken Robinson’s talk from TED 2006 if you’re not convinced.
A parallel issue with classroom engagement is that of kids who are unsuited for one reason or another to structured, classroom learning.
My friend, Harriet’s son is gifted. Not dramatically different from other kids, he is able to attend a normal school, has friends, engages with people quite normally most of the time. Yet, in a blog post she wrote responding to an early version of the thoughts in this talk, she describes a child nearly destroyed by an education system that fails to engage him or engage with him:
“The… imagination which creates such complex images, stories, songs and machines is becoming a problem. If you can’t fill in worksheets then you can’t be intelligent. As a result, the small sparkly boy escapes to more interesting places in his imagination.
He is officially becoming a ‘problem’.”
“…parents “INFORMED” that sparkly boy is eligible for gifted education – but there’s a small problem… disorganisation. It is apparently impossible to be intelligent without being super organized, being able to multi-task, track multiple subject areas, and reference officially.”
“By learning to build bridges he is able to use his intelligence and skills to connect people. The world is once again an intriguing and fascinating place. He has confidence in his ability to make a difference. He feels his own place in the world and works collaboratively on issues which he feels are important to his world and himself… His adventures and his risks are real, exciting and relate to the future he is constructing for himself.”
But it’s not just our kids, it’s us too. I began and abandoned Masters’ studies this year because the classes failed to engage me adequately. By being connected and engaged beyond the formal frame of the course, I already had more information of more relevance and more currency, direct from world-recognised subject experts, available to me than that which was being presented in class. And when I attempted to introduce the leading thinkers and their work to the class, I was met with stunned silence or an “I don’t quite get it” response.
I’m not the only one. I know several people for whom the formal education process, either at school or in tertiary study, simply wasn’t viable. They were or are too curious, too well-read, “unstructured in their thinking”, unable to complete written tests, disorganised in a classroom situation. Too fuzzy. At least one of those people is now a an internationally known academic in his field.
To quote another of my colleagues, Nathanael, who is one of the smartest web development minds I know:
“I did Year 8 to 11. [I was] home-schooled for the first seven years. [I was] mostly self-taught; microbiology, quantum mechanics, [and lots more]. My four years at school and college made me dumber, stunted my creative growth and blunted my potential.”
So once more to Hannah. What does engaging mean for her? I can’t think of the number of afternoon’s I’ve asked, “Tell me about school today,” only to be answered with, “Normal,” or a low-detail description of a few activities. Yet, there are also times when I get a detailed, blow-by-blow description of everything! That should be the norm. Education needs to be exciting and relevant to each and every student. In the collaborative, hyperconnected world, everything is relevant, because everything encountered and learned from is a deliberate choice.
Dynamic, diverse and passionate.
Literacy and numeracy are unarguably critical components in a well-rounded education. But it’s not enough for several reasons. The target shouldn’t be functional literacy and numeracy, it should be deep, contextualised expertise.
As well, the notion of creative and arts subjects as lesser to literacy and numeracy is madness. In all schools, the aim should be to produce graduating students that are not only appropriately educated in many subjects, but to do so in such a way as the students are invigorated and excited by the things they are taught. And taught in such a way that during and after school, they remain insatiably curious about their worlds and what their place in it could mean.
We need more Leonardos, more Isaac Newtons, more Jared Diamonds. We need to graduate more people like polymath, Ben Dunlap, President of Wofford College in the US. Ben is a man so passionate about the diversity of the experiences he has had and learned from that you can’t help but be inspired by him. His talk at TED 2007 is truly incredible and something that all educators should watch.
It’s no longer enough to graduate people from education at any level who just get through. The world today, even in business-as-usual, needs more passionate, driven, widely experienced, contextualized life-long learners to drive the agenda – politically, socially and creatively.
Hannah’s interests are diverse. Like many 11 year old girls, she’s a fan of the Veronicas, loves cats and dresses like her friends. But she’s also an emerging explorer. I see in her a growing curiosity about the world. And I actively encourage her to follow the white rabbit wherever it may lead her.
Collaborative on as many levels as possible.
The notion of truly collaborative learning – between students, between teachers and students, between classrooms, between different schools, between different countries – began to emerge when I was at school. We had the concepts, we had the ideas, but the technology was a massive hurdle. Now, the technology has caught up and exceeded those ideas. A massively collaborative, constantly hyperconnected education is a practical and technical reality.
So why isn’t education like this completely pervasive? Why are we still mostly stuck in the classroom? Why is the entire experience not a multifaceted, collaborative, global village of contextualised learning within individual institutions and across any grouping that might be worthwhile? I think it is the very concept of education as an institutionalised practice that holds us back.
It’s things like online gaming that is teaching us leadership and team building skills. It’s editing pages on Wikipedia that help us to learn to reach consensus. It’s the always-on network of text messages, email, social networks that is helping us to build a village where everyone is our immediate neighbor. The power to collaborate easily with anyone and to make it a viable and valuable cultural and learning experience is here. Now.
For Hannah, this world just is. For the rest of us, it’s sink or swim. Too many of us, too comfortable with a world where hyperconnectedness didn’t exist seem to be choosing the sink option, or we are trying to ignore a problem we hope will go away. It’s too late. Society is connected and changed already. It’s time to join in.
My final thought is that education needs to be targeted at producing graduates equipped for 21st Century society.
In Australia and many other places, there is a massive skills shortage across many industries. It’s arguable our schools, from primary school to universities, are not adequately considering the needs of society in preparing graduates for work and worthwhile, functional participation. Issues such as the shift to knowledge work in much of business, the need for creativity and innovation, the apparent schisms between worker generations are all issues I feel are at times inadequately dealt with.
As a potential employer and more importantly as a human, I am less interested in whether someone has formal training in a particular field than if they are engaged and engaging, a big thinker, excited about their world, insatiably curious and prepared to jump in and try something new. It is far better to fail and learn from the experience than to not try and play it safe.
In today’s world, willingness to take a risk in the name of learning and broadening experience is a key factor in building a successful life and business. Too many rest on their past success and hope that this will maintain them. Meantime, the hyperconnected continue to pull ever more rapidly away as our lives become an experience in constant, connected learning and personal and cultural growth.
I want Hannah to take risks. To learn and grow from them whether those risks were successful or not. She will never be told “no” by me if she wants to try something and has a well-reasoned argument for doing it (provided it’s not illegal or a risk to her health).
My view is that there is just one critical question we should be asking our educators and the politicians responsible for education policy and programs:
“What are you actually doing – now, tomorrow, next year – that will ensure our children are equipped with the best connected tools, inspired and engaged by the diversity of their education, taught by the best possible teachers and equipped with all the right skills to enter society as a valuable, contributing, collaborative member?”
For Hannah’s sake, for the future of the type of education I believe she needs to thrive, I’m not interested in policy exploration, white papers, committees and the like. I’m interested in positive, measurable action.
Here you go… My talk from Interesting South 2008.
Unusually, I was incredibly nervous before and during this talk. I’m dreading seeing the video, as I don’t think it’ll be at all flattering or indicative of my usual style. I guess it was a combination of factors – really wanting to present at this event, being late in the schedule (which ran well over time), there being so many great talks on the night with me being third last and having so many people in the audience that I respect highly and whose opinions I value (thanks for being there – Jodie, James, Mick, Mark, Brad, Annalie, Jed, Kate, Gavin, Hans, Alan, Seth – you made the night for me, despite possibly adding to my terror).
By now, many of you will have seen Clay Shirky’s great Web 2.0 Expo keynote, Gin, Television and Social Surplus. The link is in the slides. If you’ve not seen it, you need to; it’s inspiring, transformative stuff. I’m actually a little cross at Clay. He obviously sent aliens to steal my ideas for this talk.
When Clay speaks about the collective societal bender we’ve been on, he’s talking about us failing to make adequate use of the cognitive surplus we all have and are wasting by failing to participate actively. That said, it’s my view that some of the structure business has imposed upon society’s activities since it took the form it currently has during the Industrial Revolution actively work to make it difficult for groups of people throughout society to come together in a meaningful, productive way.
Bastard children of the Industrial Revolution
As humans, we’re social creatures. Beyond core physical and safety requirements, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is largely about integration into society; love, esteem and self-actualisation. We crave association; a community of some form, with others through family, work, school, sport or other interests. Yet the structures that we’ve built into society post-Industrial Revolution belittle those needs. At work in particular and in groups of all sorts, the needs of people have been bastardised into a corrupt form that meets the supposed needs of the of group at the expense of individuals.
We’re dumped into cube farms, or onto factory lines and told to work as a team. Yet it’s often the case that in working this way, our ability to converse and collaborate effectively with our fellow beings is removed from us. They’re removed through the imposition of bureaucracy, through command-and-control structures we’re forced to navigate and through being given work that fails to engage us.
Often, too, the tools we’re furnished with work as if some Infernal power gleefully watches as we’re forced to work against logic and against the way humans are naturally inclined to function. The storyteller in all of us is subjugated in favor of the need for us to be “productive” and our community stops being smart and becomes another dysfunctional cog in some dark satanic mill. In this situation, getting anything done becomes an issue. Our ability to collaborate and have a useful conversation goes the way of the committee. We get wrapped up in the Hell of email and Word documents as track changes and minutia rule and we suffer the pain of never being able to know which version is the latest, or which decision the group has made. We become massively inefficient. We’ve had it hammered into us by our archaic, Industrial Revolution functional model that the org chart rules and bureaucracy is king.
I am not a number — I am a free man!
Communities, by their very nature, engage in conversation constantly. But community by committee is a death by a thousand cuts. Under this model, your community becomes Desperate Housewives; the cognitive heat-sink where conversation and collaboration go to die. Where innovation is consumed by the Cthulhu that is bureaucracy.
It need not be this way. Your community conversations can be amazingly fruitful if the DNA of your community is lightweight. By introducing a culture that facilitates communication, that flattens hierarchy and breaks down organisational silos so that anyone, anywhere in your organisation or business can easily work with anyone else you can route around the damage inefficient tools and process impose.
By rocking the boat a little culturally, engaging in a little organisational entrepreneurship and using the tools of participatory culture; social networks like Twitter, wikis and blogs for example, you can introduce an environment where individuals can converse, groups can collaborate and an engaged, active and productive community can flourish.
Making the leap
Here’s a really simple example of how this approach can work.
I’ve driven this change this year at my daughter’s school. I was elected to the school board at the end of last year and went through a minor level of Hell as I was inundated with emails and processes that were almost gleeful in their inefficiency. At the first meeting I attended, as the new Secretary, I simply declared my opposition to the inefficient, bureaucratic processes being used and noted I was going to show everyone a new way – using a wiki for documents and communication and using Google calendar for keeping track of school events.
I got a few knowing nods, a few “so show me’s” and three or four “what’s a wiki”. I asked for a week to show everyone and got agreement. In two days, they had full meeting notes – every member of the board had logged on, most had added comments or notes and in subsequent months, we’re down from 20 to two emails a month – a “thanks for coming to the meeting last night” from Mark, the Chairman and another from him the day before the next meeting reminding us to turn up.
By changing the tools and focus of the group, we’ve now got near-instant conversation. Much easier collaboration and a stronger community. The staff and board members are so excited by the opportunities this simple change has wrought that they are now seriously talking about expanding wiki use into the classroom and between teacher groups for professional development. This from a group of people who previously largely used computers for email, document writing and web browsing. Now, everyone’s involved and participating.
The Desperate Housewives heat-sink is being militated against by the introduction of a tool set that makes it easy for people to have a conversation; even though we all work in different places we can access it from the Internet. We can collaborate on action items and ideas and we have a stronger community as a result. And were making a difference for the school.
It’s just as easy to do this for the communities you’re involved in; whether they’re at work or somewhere else. Imagine the gains in productivity and engagement, in knowledge sharing and distribution and in the ability to work together effectively without bureaucracy if you did this.
Two days packed with constant conversation with smart folks on all sorts of subjects. I certainly came away with my brain full and my Twitter Following list expanded (more than a few have followed me, too). On top of all that, I got to meet a bunch of new people and put faces and voices to people I’ve been conversing with online for some time. All in all a very rich and rewarding experience.
My session, entitled All you do is talk talk (80s music fans will get the reference) was a new talk about building shared language and understanding in order to successfully evangelize social tools in your organisation. It’s targeted at people in organisations that don’t already use these tools, but the concepts could easily be adopted for any program of change.
Given BarCamp presentations are short – just 20 minutes including questions – it’s not deep and comprehensive. Rather, just a taste of the subject matter.
I also re-presented I am Knowledge Worker 2.0, the talk I gave in San Francisco at Office 2.0 last September.
Both talks were very well received by the audience, so I’m glad I put the effort in to go to Sydney and attend.