The federal Government 2.0 taskforce roadshow rolled into Brisbane today as part of its series of open forums in all the state capitals. The federal government sponsored taskforce’s aim is to increase public sector information and online engagement. About hundred or so people came along to 175 Eagle Street in central Brisbane to give input to taskforce about making governance more democratic and accountable. In attendance was chair Nicholas Gruen and three other members Brian Fitzgerald, Lisa Harvey and David Solomon
While the “2.0” in the name suggests the use of web 2.0 read-write tools, the biggest task for the government (if it is serious about it) will be engendering cultural change in a public service that is used to zealously guarding information. The cultural nature of the problem is shown in the taskforce’s terms of reference. Their aims are to make government information more accessible and usable; make government more consultative, participatory and transparent; build a culture of online innovation within government; promote collaboration across agencies and try out something new.
The roadshow was a roadmap of how they might approach the task. Gruen ran the proceedings. Nicholas Gruen is the CEO of Lateral Economics and a former economics adviser to two Labor governments in the 1980s and 1990s. He also writes for the Australian Financial Review and blogs at Club Troppo. He began by saying the taskforce had to engage skeptics and show that Government 2.0 was a way of delivering on the mission of agencies that was better than the way they do it now. He then threw the session open to suggestions from the floor.
Most of the first hour of the session got a bit bogged down on records management. Several members of the audience wanted to know how governments would manage public access of intermediate documents, and whether people would have the opportunity to give feedback on unfinalised documents. Gruen said government agencies had an obligation to consult on policy development and spoke about using blogs and date/time stamped wikis that can track changes to ensure a transparent history. But he also noted there was a difference between public and private spaces for conversation. He said some requests for FOI, such as a recent Daily Telegraph request for the butchers’ paper of a government conference, were “frivolous”.
Gruen then passed the baton to Lisa Harvey who is an IT specialist working in the not-for-profit sector. She said the government’s role should be one of “facilitation, feedback and watching”. What she wanted to see was a conversation between constituents about the issues that mattered to them. One audience member then asked about how this conversation would be moderated given the likely divergence of views and the possibility it could spin out of control. Gruen said we needed to be more libertarian about it. He said that on his blog (Troppo), he does not tell commenters what to do. The one rule there is: “use your common sense”. But he admitted he would have difficulty convincing governments of this.
Gruen was of the view that as much as government information as possible should be in the public domain so that citizens could comment on it. In his words, it equated to the open source mantra of Eric Raymond that “enough eyeballs make all bugs shallow”. But as almost everyone in the room agreed, it was more a matter of culture change than technology that was required. He wanted to give the government a forum where they could openly say “we stuffed it up” and look for help to fix problems.
The last day for submissions to the taskforce was yesterday. It will provide a final report on its activities to Lindsay Tanner, the Minister for Finance and Deregulation by the end of 2009 at which time the taskforce will disband and hand over to a government-appointed information commissioner. The challenge will be to show this is not merely technological determinism where society adapts to new technologies to avoid complex questions about their impact or who controls them.
What the force needs to do is meet head-on the hoopla that greeted Tanner’s announcement of the board in June. “We have to accept that when we open ourselves further to public discussion…we won't always like what we hear,” he said at the time. “But if the new technologies and ways of using them mean that government is in closer and deeper contact with citizens it serves, and is harnessing their best ideas, the government will only benefit.” Roll on, the day.