Open government and community engagement

By GovTechReview Staff
Tuesday, 21 December, 2010

Senator Kate Lundy Senator Kate Lundy

When it comes to open government, as with all things, the most important first step is good leadership. The need for leadership, whether it’s political, structural, or organisational, is critical for real and sustained reform.

The Gov 2.0 leadership that comes from the political level, I think, culminated in our Declaration of Open Government. The Declaration of Open Government was put together by the government on the back of a recommendation from our Gov 2.0 Taskforce, and it really articulated the highest level political commitment to achieving a more open and transparent government in Australia.

Recently, the full implications of the Freedom of Information and Information Commissioner legislation passed last March came into effect. The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner will oversee what those open information policies will look like, and how they’re implemented across the Commonwealth Government, Australia’s Federal Government. This office is going to have a key policy role for the Gov 2.0 agenda in Australia around open data and public engagement.

In a similar vein, we have also seen the Attorney General’s ‘Intellectual Property Principles for Australian Government agencies’ updated to include groundbreaking statements such as:

"Consistent with the need for free and open re-use and adaptation, public sector information should be licensed by agencies under the Creative Commons BY standard as the default."

The second area I want to discuss is the practical task of implementing Government 2.0. What does this plan look like for the public sector and government?

There are a couple of important reports that lay out a blueprint for open, engaged and truly citizen-centric government.

The first one is titled ‘Engage: Getting on with Government 2.0’. This is the report of the Gov 2.0 Taskforce. The vast majority of its recommendations were accepted by the Government and I have described it as a definitive blueprint for implementing Gov 2.0 and aspects of open government for Australia. It’s been internationally commended for its detail and its practical ideas and it’s something I’m immensely proud of.

The other important report towards reform is the ‘Ahead of the Game: Blueprint for the Reform of the Australian Government Administration’. So, what happens next with the Australian Public Service?

Both reports emphasised the need for cultural and attitudinal change across the public sector to more effectively use, deploy and actively engage with citizens via the Internet, the interactive Web, or as we say, Gov 2.0.

Both reports acknowledge there is a key cultural and attitudinal shift that needs to occur if we are going to leverage the opportunities of the Internet to engage with and serve the changing needs of citizens as they choose to engage online.

Both emphasise the need for cultural and attitudinal change to embrace modern technologies and communications tools in the day-to-day business of government.

The Gov 2.0 Taskforce report looks at the nuts and bolts of achieving greater transparency and engagement in government including the release of public sector information into the public domain. ‘Ahead of the Game’ looks more closely – as you’d expect – at the workforce issues and the types of skillsets and the level of innovation that we will need if we are going to adapt to the challenges of the future.

Let me focus for a moment on open information. Open public information and PSI as a public national resource is a key agenda. I think this principle sits at the heart of open and transparent government.

We, as a government, firmly believe that the default position of information should be that it is public unless there is a very good reason for it not to be.

Structurally and practically, this is a huge challenge within the public service. However, once the systems and tools are in place, longer-term management of Government data would be certainly easier and more efficient than is currently the case.

I have consistently referred to three core pillars of Gov 2.0, that is: democratising data, citizen-centric services and participatory government. I believe they provide a good platform for what government can achieve by applying the innovative technologies and methodologies of the 21st century.

It has been interesting to compare what is happening with Gov 2.0 in the UK, the US and in Australia.

In the United States, we saw strong leadership from the very beginning of the current administration, with President Obama signing the Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government on his first day in office. Within this memorandum, the US government approach to open government is outlined, and agencies are directed to comply with the Open Government Directive.

The US Chief Technology Officer, who sits within the Office of Management and Budget, drives the Open Government policy and some innovative reference projects, whilst the Administrator of General Services implements the agenda across all government agencies.

In the United Kingdom, the agenda is largely focused around open data and digital engagement with citizens, and both of these areas are managed at a policy and implementation level by the Office of Digital Engagement. This office liaises with nominated lead officials for transparency and for digital engagement to ensure they are both supported and required to design and implement their own strategies for transparency and digital engagement.

The Office of Digital Management sits within the UK Cabinet Office and reports to both the Minister of Transparency and the strategic advisor to the Prime Minister. I also note that the transparency and digital engagement agenda in the UK has full bipartisan support.

In Australia, the Gov 2.0 agenda largely sits under the Special Minister of State, who is responsible for AGIMO under Finance and the Australian Public Sector Commissioner under Prime Minister & Cabinet, both very important agencies for driving government-wide changes in the public sector and how government works.

AGIMO is the lead agency for the implementation of the Gov 2.0 agenda, and I commend to you their Gov 2.0 Showcase, which is an early stage project to document great Australian Gov 2.0 case studies to learn from and acknowledge.

The Office of the Information Commissioner will also play a role in government information policy, largely around the improved FOI changes to make government more accountable and transparent for citizens.

It was great to see such strong commitment to open and transparent government in the OAIC discussion paper, which has references to the Gov 2.0 Taskforce Report, the ‘Ahead of the Game’ report, and the broader goals of an open and digitally engaged government.

The Labor Government has a number of important policies that underpin the Gov 2.0 agenda, the most important of which is the National Broadband Network (NBN).

The primary tool of openness in the 21st century is the Internet. Therefore it is important for a genuinely open government to have a strategy for universal Internet access that is affordable, high speed and accessible to all.

We have developed a world-class strategy for universal Internet access in Australia with the National Broadband Network, a policy that incorporates the best technologies available and a structure that supports real competition in our telecommunications industry.

Without this policy, our investments in open and transparent government would be the purview of the privileged few.

The NBN is not just economic infrastructure for the future, it’s the necessary social infrastructure for the future that will underpin democratic engagement and empowerment of citizens in this country.

There are a few other enabling policies I’d like to briefly mention. Certainly our investment in computers for schools and our investment in research and development through our public university system all form a part of it, and I’d like to also fly a flag that I think we can do better in investing in our public library system to make sure we have those public places where citizens can have a supported environment to learn about the array of government services that are online or what opportunities exist for them to participate in our democracy, engage with perhaps their local member, or indeed other citizens.

Within my own office, I’ve been experimenting with Gov 2.0, particularly in policy consultation.

About 18 months ago, I wanted to find a way to really engage the public in open and transparent policy development using online tools to broaden the normal consultation process.

In collaboration with my ICT Policy Advisor Pia Waugh, I wanted to give form and substance to how we could incorporate the best elements of online and offline consultation methods, to create a truly open, accessible, transparent and collaborative process of policy development. So we designed and ran a number of consultations which we called ‘Public Spheres’.

A ‘Public Sphere’, according to Habermas, is a space that “…through the vehicle of public opinion it puts the state in touch with the needs of society”.

This kind of engagement in public policy is a great way to represent different views and harness a broad range of expertise, particularly on topical issues of the day.

Although there are certainly many formal mechanisms for participation in Australian government processes, we thought it would be a great idea to create an online public sphere and facilitate regular topics of interest to both the general public and to the government.

This way, people from all around Australia can participate and engage equally with government.

As we run more Public Spheres, we experiment with different technologies and methods to continually innovate and improve upon the recipe for this kind of engagement.

(Please search for “Public Sphere” on to see the Public Sphere model diagram)

This is, of course, still in beta and I hope to see the Public Sphere model evolve into a fully-fledged co-design method for government policy and even policy implementation. Such active engagement with the public would deliver better outcomes and better services to the community.

In early planning, the Public Sphere was designed to be purely a virtual environment for policy collaboration. After some research and experimentation, we realised that the inherent strength of the new online social media tools were most effective when used to complement a physical get together – a focused, timely and facilitated presence – ideally with a specific goal that people can rally around.

This is why each Public Sphere includes a short conference-style event as well as the online environment.

The idea that people can participate equally in the process and discussions, whether in person or online, has been very empowering and has generated incredible good will and constructive input from the community.

We then wanted to capture everything in a meaningful way, whether it be a thoughtful treatise or a reflective tweet. We needed to do justice to people’s time, effort and expertise.

It must be said that the key to the success of the Public Spheres has been the incredible effort and enthusiasm from the volunteers who helped, and the community who contributed. Active and informed community development is a vital part of any public consultation, and no less so when done online.

By coordinating public policy consultations in collaboration with some of the people most passionate about the topics, we had an incredible swell of interest, support and participation. Community development is a vital part of any collaboration.

We have fully documented each Public Sphere we’ve run, and I’m proud to say that we’ve already seen several Australian universities and government departments pick up the process.

I’d like to conclude by saying we are entering an extremely exciting phase for government, democracy and society. There is a strong movement, both here in Australia and around the world, to make governments everywhere more accessible, transparent and engaged. The opening of public sector information as a national resource, the use of the Internet to more easily engage citizens in the design and directions of government, and the development of a truly citizen-centric approach to delivering government services all culminates in an exciting new era.

An era where both citizens and public servants are empowered to innovate, to the economic and social benefit of everyone.

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