We have been witnessing a technological revolution for many years now and like the renaissance, the social revolution that follows is profound.
As recently as 2002 I remember being challenged about what was perceived as my inappropriately high level of enthusiasm for the Internet. The bursting of the dot.com bubble saw many a cyber-sceptic adopt the smug smile of “I told you so”.
However, time has proven the cyber-sceptics very wrong indeed. Despite unreasonably expensive broadband and many broadband black holes, Internet connectivity continues to climb in Australia. True to form, Australians continue to be early adopters of technology and clever innovators.
I believe the enthusiasm for public issues within social networking communities illustrates the broad craving for genuine engagement in the political process by many citizens. They were alienated for many years and the new options for online communications combined with a more engaged government has reinvigorated a much needed public discussion. Online social networking is driving this conversation and governments would be wise to listen.
With the change of federal government to Labor, the true potential of ubiquitous high bandwidth will be realised as the National Broadband Network is rolled out over the next few years and the digital divide will be dramatically narrowed. When considered alongside the latest statistics around Internet usage and users in Australia, this increases the importance of government participating online as a serious platform for citizen engagement.
Another important shift occurred at the last federal election: The Prime Minister gave a commitment to openness, accountability and transparency in Government. This commitment is reflected in the new Freedom of Information and Information Commissioner Bills prepared by Senator Faulkner in his former role as Special Minister for State. Senator Joe Ludwig has confirmed his commitment to press ahead with these important reforms.
It’s also about policy. Bringing the additional openness and engagement that online tools can provide to the process of policy development facilitates transparency in policy-making. From my perspective, these shifts in policy have inspired social activism.
In both the US and UK we have seen strategic work around Open Government.
In the UK the government has focused strongly on citizen-centric delivery of government services, and are engaging with citizens for feedback, collaboration and innovation. UK citizens have responded by innovating when the opportunity has been presented, however with similar restrictive copyright being the norm for government data, innovation has been in some cases difficult. The Power of Information Taskforce, which was established in 2008 released a report outlining strategies for the UK government to improve digital engagement with citizens (POIT) in early 2009.
In the US there has been a strong focus on citizen engagement for citizen empowerment, and more open and transparent governance. The most public example is how citizens were empowered and engaged was the Obama election campaign last year, and they are employing similar strategies now for a large community consultation process around open government. The US has for some time had a policy position that government data should be freely and openly available (eg – the data.gov project) and so citizens and businesses have been able to innovate with US government data creating enormous value to the economy and society, particularly now with online tools readily and often freely available.
For the Australian government, an opportunity to construct what I see as the three pillars of Open Government is presented. Each of these pillars assumes the basic principle of citizen engagement at every possible opportunity to both empower people, and to ensure the results are actually appropriate and useful.
The three pillars of open government.
- Citizen-centric services
- Open and transparent government
- Innovation facilitation
The first pillar of open government is citizen-centric services. The principle is one of recognition that governments have a responsibility to serve the needs of the citizens they represent as best they can, and in a way that is individually meaningful to each person. A fundamental tenet of democracy, to be sure, but a more literal interpretation suggests a much higher priority on the quality of the interaction between citizen and government as services are delivered. The three spheres of government in Australia: local, state/territory and federal, has over the years created inordinate complexity for citizens organising their lives and an avalanche of information and forms to shift through to get anywhere. We now have the technology and the wherewithal to resolve this citizen interface with government, regardless of the complexity behind the scenes. Service innovation is already happening and citizens ought be engaged directly by the Government to try new things.
The second pillar is open and transparent government. This pillar builds on the principles that citizens have a right to the information they need to inform themselves about public and political affairs, and to participate in the democratic processes in an informed way. This second pillar is to ensure genuine means of engagement between citizens and the government in policy and decision-making. This is always harder than it sounds but it is essential to garner the wisdom of the crowd. It is vital that government engage with the broader community not just for a conversation, but in genuine partnership between political leaders and the people so we can as a society respond most effectively to the specific social and economic challenges communities confront. This localisation of policy solutions is essential to ensure relevance of government solutions to real situations, and essential to ensure a reasonable response time to new issues and emergencies. Open and transparent government will grow citizen trust and ultimately participation in policy development and government directions.
The third pillar is innovation facilitation, which refers to the government responsibility to ensure the opportunities are made available for public and private innovation that adds value to government data and systems. This of course takes into account the fact that there are specific data and systems that cannot be openly accessible where there are privacy, security or commercial responsibilities. However, as has been evident in the US for many years, open access to government data can dramatically increase the value created from the data both socially and economically. This means the society as a whole benefits from access to the data. Public sector information ought to be in the public domain not just to facilitate innovation in the public and private spheres, but to enable individual citizens to make informed choices. Just to be clear, I am not talking about personal information that we expect to be private and secure. I am talking about general information about the places we live, the environment we live in, the things we do as a society. This principle should also extend to cultural collections for which the Commonwealth is custodian on behalf of the people of Australia. Transparency in this area would ensure that there is a culture of scrutiny and collaboration rather than a culture of secrecy. Finally, the need for sustainable access to all this information in the future is essential. Open standards and formats become the public insurance policy to ensure perpetual access to government data.
Together, these principles inform what I describe as the three pillars of Open Government. I am committed to pursuing all three and will build on the public policy advocacy I have been doing for many years both when I had the shadow ICT portfolio and since. This approach forms the heart of the motivation behind the Public Sphere events I have been hosting, a number of consultative forums and the local 2020 summit I hosted before that. All the way through I have been inspired by a number of active and inspirational people that have been instrumental. As a politician it is impossible to be across everything and I am the first to acknowledge that my path is one of continual learning. Only then can I be an effective advocate and participate in the sort of changes I have outlined.
I look forward to your thoughts and input as this post is part of an ongoing and very important conversation. The Internet combined with the many people who continue to innovate, collaborate and share continues to change everything for the better.
I know these issues will be more fully explored at Monday’s Public Sphere event: Gov2.0 and I can’t wait to hear the contributions.