Speech: Launch of the Government 2.0 Taskforce
THE HON LINDSAY TANNER MP
MINISTER FOR FINANCE AND DEREGULATION
MEMBER FOR MELBOURNE
LAUNCH OF THE GOVERNMENT 2.0 TASKFORCE
Government 2.0 Public Sphere, Parliament House
Monday 22 June 2009
Senator Kate Lundy, Co-Ordinator of the Government 2.0 Public Sphere, and our host today;
The Honourable Senator Joe Ludwig, Special Minister of State and Cabinet Secretary;
And Dr Nicholas Gruen, CEO of Lateral Economics.
I acknowledge the First Australians on whose land we meet, and whose cultures we celebrate as among the oldest continuing cultures in human history.
While we gather here in the nation’s Parliament, extraordinary events are unfolding on the other side of the world.
In Iran, a democratic movement has arisen to challenge the result of that country’s national election.
Alarmed, the Iranian government has cracked down on media coverage of the protests, revoking the credentials of foreign journalists, arresting local journalists and trying to block websites.
The regime does not want this story told – and yet it is being told.
We might ask – why?
Because, simply, the world is changing before our eyes.
Protestors are using a range of new media – including websites, blogs, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – to tell the world, in words and images, about what is happening in Iran.
If I were a ruler in North Korea or Burma, I would look at these seismic events and feel very worried indeed.
Worried because one of the great truths of our time is that people want to be free, and information can help them to be free.
But for most governments, the breathtaking pace of change in information technology should not be a threat but a marvellous opportunity.
And that is why we are here today – to talk about how the Australian Government plans to harness the power of the World Wide Web to advance open, transparent government; and to work towards government that makes the best use of the skills and knowledge of its citizenry.
Because the same forces that we see at work in Iran – the power of new technology, the thirst for information and its capacity to enrich human lives – are also changing Australia.
This Government was elected with a commitment to introduce a new way of governing.
One that directly engages business, the not for profit sector, local communities and individuals.
One that does not believe all good ideas reside in Canberra, but instead seeks to tap into and learn from the opinions, experience and intelligence of ordinary Australians.
That is why we brought together 1000 Australians to discuss ideas for the nation’s future at the Australia 2020 Summit in April last year.
Why we have held 12 Community Cabinet meetings across Australia, attended by nearly 6000 people.
Why we have proposed to make it easier to obtain documents under Freedom of Information laws.
And why we have committed to creating an Information Commissioner and a Freedom of Information Commissioner to ensure that citizens enjoy the maximum practicable access to public information, and at the same time are guaranteed that their individual privacy is protected.
We have made these changes, among many others, because we believe the old top-down model of government no longer works.
Today’s citizens are too informed, too smart, too able to access and use information to be simply directed by a centralised government.
And politicians and public servants have to realise that information that is not sensitive for the operations of government or does not breach the privacy of individuals has to be shared.
And that if it is shared, the outcome will be a more engaged populace and a richer public life.
Let us imagine a scenario to illustrate the point.
You are thinking of buying a house.
You go online and using mapping data you access the suburb you are thinking of moving into.
With just a few clicks you are able to access information about schools, parks, child care centres and aged care facilities in the area.
You are able to see whether crime is rising or falling in the area, how fast the local public transport services will take you to work, and how congested the roads are at 8am on a weekday morning.
With a few more clicks you are able to join an online forum about the quality of the local schools, and about the pros and cons of living in the area.
Then, after you have moved in, you are able to go online to tell your local councillor, MP or government agency that a nearby road is full of potholes and dangerous to drive on.
This scenario is not far-fetched. We are moving toward it by the day.
Last year, for the first time, the Internet replaced contact in person as the most common way people last made contact with government.
This year an average of 800,000 visitors are using the main Government website – www.australia.gov.au – each month. Just four years ago the figure was 250,000 visitors a month.
But those statistics merely describe the infancy of information technology in so far as it relates to government.
Today, most online users are still passive receivers of information.
In other words, their most common online activity is to look at text and images on websites.
But that is changing under the suite of innovations that go under the term, Web 2.0.
In its initial manifestation — which we can now with hindsight call Web 1.0 — the Internet was a technology that enabled governments and businesses to broadcast information to citizens and to harvest limited amounts of information from them: by filling in forms, for example.
As you all know, Web 2.0 has turned the Internet from a broadcast medium into a platform for collaboration. And that collaboration can occur between large firms and small, between individuals and firms and it should also occur between citizens and their government.
Citizens are no longer passive users of the Web but instead use it to meet, discuss, argue, build communities and access the precise information they need to manage their lives.
They are able to do so because, with dizzying speed, technology is making information accessible, easy and cheap to assemble, and to provide in people-friendly formats.
Technology is also driving a new focus on transparency — as citizens rightly expect to benefit from public information created using their money.
And technology is bringing people together so that the essentials of public life — including debate, activism and other forms of citizen engagement — are increasingly taking place online.
This poses huge challenges and opportunities for Government, in two major ways.
One, greater access to cheaper information is producing innovation, much of which has public benefit.
During the recent Victorian bushfires a company created a mashup – a website that combines data from a range of sources – to track the location of fires on a map in real time, reducing the demand on emergency information services.
To give another example, the National Archives has created a remarkable website that enables users to not only track Australia’s Anzacs through an online map of Australia but to add photos, documents or comments about them — thereby enhancing our knowledge of the 375,000 Australians who enlisted in World War One.
The second important development is that Web 2.0 enables citizens to bring their knowledge, perspectives, resources and collaborative efforts inside the tent of government.
Through online tools like blogs and wikis governments can use the wisdom of the crowd to continuously improve their laws, policies and services.
And as technology draws the general community back closer to government, it enhances citizens’ understanding that government is much bigger than its parliamentarians and bureaucrats.
That is why people are calling the reform agenda produced by these developments: Government 2.0.
It is an agenda that both enables and requires government and citizens to think about government in new and innovative ways.
Overseas, President Obama made online engagement a theme of his election campaign.
Since his election he has given his new Chief Information Officer, Vivek Kundra, licence to refashion the way US government agencies make data available online.
In the United Kingdom the Brown Government’s Power of Information Taskforce has recommended sweeping reforms to how the civil service publishes, manages and engages with information. There are similar developments elsewhere.
The Australian Government has not been idle in this area either.
Since the Australian Bureau of Statistics made its information free and freely available in 2005 it has seen a huge increase in public use of its data.
And my department has already conducted three trials of online consultation, the results of which will be published in the near future.
Today, to advance the Government’s agenda for online engagement, I am pleased to announce, the creation of the Government 2.0 Taskforce.
The Taskforce is made up of 15 policy and technical experts and entrepreneurs from government, business, academia, and cultural institutions.
It will be chaired by Dr Nicholas Gruen, the CEO of Lateral Economics, and an economist with wide experience in the public and private sectors.
Dr Gruen is also an extremely well-known writer and blogger on issues relating to Web 2.0, new technology and government regulation.
All of which makes him an excellent choice to chair this Taskforce.
The Taskforce will advise the Government on how to:
- make government information more accessible and usable;
- establish a pro-disclosure culture around non-sensitive public sector information;
- maximise the extent to which government utilises the views, knowledge and resources of the general community; and
- build a culture of online innovation within Government to ensure that it is open to the possibilities created by new collaborative technologies, and uses them to advance its ambition to continually improve the way it operates.
Importantly, the Taskforce will not just provide advice to Government.
It will be able to fund initiatives and incentives that will show how the Government can achieve its 2.0 objectives.
In the near future, it will release details of one such initiative – a public competition to show how public sector data can be most creatively assembled and released online.
I can also announce a small portent of what I’m hoping will be a growing trend. Instead of sending it off to a commercial designer, the Taskforce is getting going today a modest online competition to design the banner and logo of the taskforce.
Please get the word out to people you might know that this could be their chance to draw their talents to the attention of a wider audience.
It is a small example of what you can do once you decide to exploit the genius of the Internet.
Certainly, there are challenges for government in advancing this agenda.
First, we need to compile Information Asset Registers so we simply know what information we possess.
Work also needs to be done to ensure that information is searchable across government agencies, not locked up in individual websites.
And searchable by subject matter, or by region or suburb, not by department or agency.
After all, citizens don’t care where information comes from. They just want to be user-friendly.
But perhaps the biggest challenge for government — and for this Taskforce — is build a new culture of openness, a presumption of openness.
Indeed the Taskforce will play a pivotal role in the Government’s ambitious FOI reform agenda.
It will help to drive a change in the way the bureaucracy has traditionally understood FOI from a ‘pull model’, where government information is only disclosed in response to FOI requests, to a ‘push model’ whereby government information is routinely and proactively made available in anticipation of demand.
Both politicians and public servants have to overcome an old and reflexive mistrust regarding the release of information.
We have to accept that in this new world, we won’t always know how information will be used.
Citizens will assemble and combine it, or mash it, in ways that we can’t fully appreciate.
We also have to accept that when we open ourselves further to public discussion, through chat rooms, blogs and online forums, we won’t always like what we hear.
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.
And so, too, will Australian democracy.