Six basic questions on open government

Slides for a basic overview of open government given at Sydney’s Customs House Library on 16 May 2012.

There isn’t a transcript for the presentation as such, though the slide titles are embedded at SlideShare. This was a 25 minute address to a general audience uf the public and government workers on how to this about the essence of open government.

Targeting for open government

In building open government services, we often focus on work that delivers fantastic value to the public. But what comes before that? We need to decide who we’re talking to. How we’re doing it. Why we’re doing it. What our expectations are.

The slides below accompany my talk at the Social Media in Government conference in Canberra on 13-14 December 2011. The text below the slides is the “official” version, but is unlikely to resemble the talk as delivered.

For the past 15 months, I’ve been working with a small government organisation with the most forgettable name, but perhaps one of the most interesting missions of any organisation with a .gov.au domain name.

It’s mission, as stated, is to “improve Australia’s effectiveness in civil-military collaboration for conflict and disaster management overseas”.

The Asia Pacific Civil-Military Centre of Excellence is a multi-agency collection of people seconded from the uniformed military, civilian Department of Defence, DFAT, AusAID, Attorney-General’s and Emergency Management Australia, the Australian Federal Police and the NGO sector. The Deputy Director is a secondee from the New Zealand Government.

It’s a fairly top-heavy organisation. Everyone there is an expert of significant standing in their area of expertise, from the former AFP representative to Afghanistan, an Ambassador or Deputy Head of Mission in several countries, experts on international relations, women in conflict, disaster management, and their just retired Executive Director, Mike Smith, who was a senior General in East Timor and former CEO of Austcare Australia (now ActionAID).

On any given day, the Centre can be delivering training to the civilian, police or military staff bound for overseas peacekeeping or disaster recovery deployments, conducting and funding research into strategic policy on civilian-police-military collaboration in conflict and disaster zones or hosting Ambassadors, inter-governmental delegations, senior UN and 3rd sector staff on visits to their salubrious Queanbeyan headquarters.

These people are great at working with each other when deployed and living in demountables in Oruzgan or sub-Saharan Africa, and they’re great at getting together in formal situations such as conferences and high-level meetings – and believe me, these people live for that stuff. What they’re not so good at, and what they pretty much had no idea about when I got there a year ago was open government.

These people are used to dealing in the Chatham House Rule. In diplomatic negotiation. In strategic talks. In their every day work.

And, for that reason, they weren’t good at getting the message out. My mission, in my time at the Centre, has been as part of a two person strategic communications team, to focus on online communications, on stakeholder outreach, on knowledge sharing and on bringing these people slowly and gently into a world where open government and 21st Century communications exists.

Let’s say from the start, this hasn’t been easy. And there’s a long way to go.

So, to set the scene… when I arrived at the Centre, not including me (I’m a little different to the norm) there were, from a 35 person staff:

  • two Twitter accounts
  • four Facebook accounts
  • five people on LinkedIn
  • no Flickr users

Today, it’s a little bit different. There are a few more Twitter users, several more on Facebook and so on. But these people are so busy with their regular workload it’s unreasonable to expect them to be rapid adopters of social tools for their day-to-day work. That stuff just doesn’t fit in with their regular way of operating, and it’s unreasonable (no matter how much the Chief of Staff, the Strat Comms Manager and I want it to be different) to expect otherwise.

So, in a place like this, where getting the message out about what you do and why it’s important is your key task, what do you do? Especially if you’re the only resource with the necessary knowledge and skills?

At the Centre, we took a look at a number of elements:

  • What is the overarching strategic communications goal for the Centre? Who do we need to influence? How? And why?
  • Where are we already achieving those goals? Where are the gaps?
  • Who might we be missing? Who were the “known unknowns”?

What this all led to were a number of short and long term goals, tied into the Centre’s strategic communications plan, that had open government elements attached to them. I have strong management support, all the way to the top of the Centre, and, even though we belong to the otherwise conservative VCDF Group within the Department of Defence, and we need to manage that relationship carefully, there is support there as well.

So, what did we do at the Centre to make open government and social media a part of how the Centre does business? We did a number of things:

  • we reserved Centre identities on a number of social networks
  • we wrote a short, clear, staff social media guidance and had it approved by VCDF and the Minister for Defence
  • we began using Twitter to put out notices about things the Centre was doing and also use Facebook to supplement those messages
  • we started doing project management using Basecamp, allowing us to track project activities and to bring in the frequent external collaborators we work with
  • we redeveloped what was a pretty terrible web site into something more flexible, rebuilding using WordPress. We’re still the only Defence-based organisation with a blog that allows open comments
  • we made a deliberate decision that all future publications released by the Centre would be licensed CC-BY. We’re also publishing all papers produced by Centre staff and our funded researchers online as HTML and PDF on our site as well as on SlideShare
  • we started posting Centre imagery to Flickr. Sure, it’s mostly people at meetings in suits, but it’s a record worth having
  • we started a YouTube channel off the back of our major event last year. It now includes video interviews with a number of leading authorities on civil-military interaction and will shortly be getting several new additions
  • we refreshed the Centre’s newsletter, formerly an email-attached PDF to a couple of hundred people, to be a Campaign Monitor driven email newsletter to over 1000 opt-in subscribers. It largely directs readers to full length content on our site, but also includes newsletter-only content to keep people interested

Now, none of this is terribly different to anything many organisations have done. However, I like to think we’ve done one thing a little differently, and that’s audience targeting.

The Centre has a fairly small, highly specialised audience. It’s mostly very senior people. They’re often not terribly familiar with open government or social tools. They work all over the world and usually have on the ground, “dirty boots” experience. They work for the UN, the African Union, or 3rd sector organisations like the ICRC, or Australian Government agencies, or one of the several near-equivalents to the Centre based in other countries such as the UK Government’s Stabilisation Task Force, Sweden’s Folke Bernadotte Academy, Canada’s START or the US’s Centre for Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Affairs.

We also have a growing group of people interested in our work from the academic sector, especially the security and defence colleges, and from policy and security think-tanks like the Lowy Institute.

We decided pretty early on that these were the people we most needed to focus on in our open government and strategic communications efforts. Unlike a lot of the open government case studies about public-facing efforts we see at the gazillion conferences that now cover the subject, the decision to focus on “people like us” has paid real dividends.

We’re measuring as much as we can as efficiently as we can (and it needs some improvement, no question) but here’s what we’ve noticed (qualifying all this with the fact that our audience is small and highly focussed):

  • our web site receives more than twice the traffic the old site did. We don’t get too many comments yet, but as with everything, it’s a work in progress
  • we have several people who now chat to us on Twitter and Facebook (and we chat back)
  • we’ve improved awareness of our work with all our “parent” stakeholders with Australian Government and with those stakeholders elsewhere who care about our subject matter
  • we’ve begun to pay attention to a raft of new and emergent activity in the civil-military sector that wasn’t even on the radar before we began looking online. In particular, the capacity for online volunteer communities and social media to be a part of the conflict and disaster management first response is an emergent and growing part of the work the Centre is looking at

We’re still not quite a year in to our open government efforts. We have a very long way to go to be anywhere near where I think we could and should be. But, for an organisation that had no idea what was possible a year ago, the fact that we’re doing all this is a big step. Not to mention (and I haven’t mentioned this before now) that we now have a deployed and richly developing wiki-based social intranet that all staff are using.

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 #

Culture change for Government 2.0

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.