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Some early reflections

2009 June 30
by Martin Stewart-Weeks

A few quick thoughts from the initial launch of the Task Force…

There was some early discussion about the credibility of the task force itself and its lack of obvious ‘heavy’ web/tech representation.   Actually the group is pretty balanced and has a good mix of perspectives.  But I made the point at the Web 2.0 in Govt conference last week that people shouldn’t fuss too much about the TF and its membership, but rather see the announcement as a crack that ‘let’s the light in’ as Leonard Cohen might put it!  It’s an opportunity and we all need to play a role in making the most of it.

It’s reasonable to expect that TF will demonstrate the principles and culture of Web 2 in its own operations and keep the conversation as open and “outside in” as possible. 

We have to work out ways to engage these issues with key public sector leaders and policy makers.  The point about Government 2.0 is that it is fundamentally a discussion about government itself.  So we need to ‘mainstream’ its deliberations and conversations so it can’t be parked as a tech-driven side show.

 We will also have to think carefully about the best way to talk with the communities we want to engage, including the already active and highly connected and those who may not yet be counted amongst the technorati but who have forceful views and great insights to share.

I think the task force is a massive opportunity to connect three big conversations – one about the emergence of a new public sector (culture, institutions, processes etc), one about improving service delivery and another about lifting the quality, reach and impact of citizen/community engagement.  We should always try and keep the ‘frame’ of our deliberations as wide as possible to show how these three  conversations, transformed by the instincts, tools and culture of the new social media, merge into a larger story.

Maybe we can see the TF as a combination of ‘platform’ (ie a space in which we can draw a sustained and energetic discussion, including linking to spaces where that discussion is already happening), a show case (to illustrate what’s possible and how it adds value) and offering helpful advice (to give government some practical guidance about how to accelerate the adoption of Web 2.0 tools, capabilities and behaviours in the public sector…).   This last one especially…”don’t lecture us”, one public servant said the other day at the Web 2.0 conference…”give us advice and encouragement”. Good point…

Finally, it’s inevitable I guess that the conversations here on the blog and elsewhere will diverge in all sorts of directions.  But we have a chance gradually to ‘sort and sift’ the ideas into some larger themes.  A bit of structure won’t hurt!  That’s not about narrowing the discussion but simply the reality that we need to balance the open debate with the need to respond to the specific questions we’ve been asked to consider.

32 Responses
  1. 2009 June 30
    NeilH permalink

    I hope this web 2.0 taskforce can put some capabiliies out there in the public space without worrying too much about the design or worthiness of the capabilities. I think we (in government) are entering new territory with Web 2.0 and in reality we have fairly little idea what will, or will not work effectively. Though there is some evidence from other governments or teh comemrcial sector I agree.
    So, can I suggest that we take the risk (not a nice word I know)of distributing some capabilities out there into the public space without spending too much time thinking about it? Yes, some will fail miserably, but that is ok, so long as some succeed – and that’s not something we can guarantee.
    Go on, take some risks – please…………

  2. 2009 June 30

    Hi Martin,

    from the involvement I’ve observed and experienced with the Taskforce so far I’m actually really up-beat about how this can all play out. I think there have been a few mixed-message, however the TF’s level of engagement with the community really seems to be building.

    I’m also interested in hearing how you think your “3 big conversations” relate to the “three pillars of Open Government” outlined by Sen. Kate Lundy before #publicsphere 2

    * Citizen-centric services
    * Open and transparent government
    * Innovation facilitation

    It would be great to have this sort of high-level framework agreed early on so the structure of this discussion can build upon that.

    #publicsphere 2 was a great day – however I think it would have really benefited from using a framework like this to make it all a bit more integrated.

    I look forward to watching this discussion develop further…

  3. 2009 June 30

    Great to see your comprehensive response to the comments.

    This is a copy of a post I placed earlier, I think it still applies.

    You address points pretty well but I must say that the emerging ‘don’t worry about the make up of the taskforce’ doesn’t cut it with me.

    I have been in this new media game for more than 20 years now. I have seen it all – the creative nation, the OGO, the NOIE, the Ministers, etc, etc, and the AGIMO

    That there is no one from the web development industry on the panel says to me that this could well be another ill fated e-venture from the folks that have been misdirecting policy in the online space for more than a decade.

    You need to involve AIMIA going forward. It is as simple as that in my eyes. Surely amongst all the folks on your panel, there must be space for just one bod from the actual industry that enables the very things you seek to explore.

  4. 2009 June 30

    Sorry, I forgot to add one specific comment.

    Your mention of a “a tech-driven side show” is very revealing.

    At the risk of pushing you further from the points being made since this whole e-venture started, the comment hints at a disparaging view of technology.

    You are very right, at this point and going forward, the questions are about government itself but you omit that, no matter what, it will be an exploration of government using technology.

    You need the technology and, most importantly, the technology paradigms at the centre of your thinking and I am sure that a representative body like AIMIA could bring this to the table.

  5. 2009 June 30
    Janet C permalink

    Picking up the point in the quote from Prof. Ann Fitzgerald, I detect that there is a widening chasm between our experience of the systems we use in our private lives (social networking, wiki’s, news sites, google, shopping on-line, ebay, youtube etc etc – which are easy to navigate, fun to use, entertaining, quick & efficient and which meet our needs – when compared to the web sites developed by governments and the on-line tools tools used for community engagement and/or interacting with clients, (one-way communication, difficult to navigate/find things, frustrating to use, search tools that are not intuitive, prosaic writing styles and a ‘here is the information we think you should have’ tone. One of the issues the taskforce will confront sooner or later is the readiness of public service policy and decision makers to change and adapt their way of working. As Neil H observed, the capabilities need to be there as well as the technology tools.

  6. 2009 June 30
    Peter Alexander permalink

    I think MSW is spot on with his comments here – and to respond specifically to Jimi: My view is that the TF is well balanced. Web developers are not being left out of the TF – we encourage their participation in this conversation – several government members of the TF have web development experience AND the secretariat for the TF is being provided by my team within AGIMO – Online Services along with secondees from several agencies. Online Services within AGIMO have a focus on web policy and development – and we manage and its major enhancement under the AGOSP program.

    We know we don’t know everything about web development and constantly engage the web development community to help us. One of the reasons that I am so glad that the TF is running is the potential it has to deliver us even greater opportunity to engage in our policy development, in our service delivery and more.

    I am also sure MSW did not mean to be disparaging about technology (or developers) – I would put it this way – we have a great number of obstacles in our way but technology is not one of the big blockers.

  7. 2009 July 1

    As nominally a web-tech person (web manager), I think it’s good to step back from technical capability and look at customer demand and business needs independently of delivery systems. This sets the horizon for the next stage of technical development. Without such far horizons, technology progresses either too slowly, or inappropriately. We have all seen examples of solutions looking for a problem.

    I’d also like to suggest the you don’t reply to every comment, Martin. It makes it appear like you need to dominate the conversation.

  8. 2009 July 1

    It’s a bit difficult to judge the ‘mood’ of the group. Having spent some time with Martin, he doesn’t seem to hog or dominate conversation to me. I’m certainly surprised that Tony deprecates what looks to me like Martin’s conscientious attempt to engage with people’s comments on his post. It was his post after all, so it makes sense for him to clarify and extend his comments where he thinks that is helpful. My judgement of the general tenor of comments on this blog so far is that many (I suspect most) people on this blog would prefer to hear more from Taskforce members rather than less.

    But I’d be interested in others’ views.

  9. 2009 July 1

    +1 for engagement

  10. 2009 July 1

    Hi folks, what a quality discussion.I am not so sure about suggestions of people hogging the conversation. I think the responses from the ‘officials’ is fantastic.

    I am not sure what can be added. It is my honest opinion that the policy and the technology need to be at the table simultaneously and in a collaborative and ‘equal’ measure.

    I think this will remain an issue as you good folks go forward and the line about it not being about the task force membership doesn’t sound very web 2.0 to me.

    It sounds like the foundation steps are set in stone before we were told. I think I mistook this as being about tossing up some ideas and that the government might change things based on what interested parties say.

    Anyways, I have to get back to making websites and I look forward to seeing where the task force ends up getting to without the formal membership of the industry (specifically AIMIA).

  11. 2009 July 1
    ben rogers permalink

    great to see the taskforce members being so actively engaged here… its almost like its a conversation :-)

    I would like to register a vote in support of the stance Martin has taken with respect to stepping back from the tech some – the tech is the fun stuff, the detail stuff – sure there are some issues on how to reach unconnected people, but the big issues the taskforce need to get across are about changing the model – changing the way govt engages with the public, how it governs – the level of transparency around its actions. The tech is a great enabler but it needs a problem to solve first.. lets work out what that is, before diving headlong into tech solutions.

    great work team – keep up the engagement.

  12. 2009 July 2

    Hi Ben, I am in complete agreement with you. Yes, the main game is the stuff you talk about and I am not suggesting that the solution is sought before the problem/opportunities are well mapped.

    The reason for having an industry rep and/or practical tech experience at the table is that they can do two things:

    1. Listen in an observe the processes you rightly propose are the main game ATM. Through this they may help make any industry engagement work better because of their intimate knowledge of how we got to the problems.

    This is really just a efficiency in that it can shorten the ‘briefing’ period as the person might come out of the processes you are talking about with some early ideas on the technology paradigms that may be important.

    2. By being well versed in the technology, the person might be able to sometimes steer the conversation with some emerging technology in mind. Note, this is not about talking about that technology (although it might). It is more about the subtle difference that can come from having the technologist at the table.

    But most important, it is the educational and knowledge transfer properties that can come from having the technologist at the table.

    Our world, the web, is all about convergence and it is my experience that great web projects are best served by having the right people at the table.

    I have just been through a web 2.0 issue with one of the local ACT Government departments and we were able to solve the issue and find a really great balance by having me, not a technologist as such (I can’t write code to save my life) and the executive work through it. I was able to help them with some of their issues through things like IP tracking, etc, to stop unbalanced views being expressed.

    Anyway, I think that the die is cast and we should move on. IT is not so important and, as we can see, I and other industry players already have a seat at the table through this great forum.

    Pose another set of thoughts Martin and Co. You can count on me to try to help with my thoughts, for whatever they are worth to the great undertaking you are steering.

  13. 2009 July 2

    Good post Martin, there’s a bit of a global movement going on here….

    Another Leonard Cohen quote comes to mind “Democracy is coming, to the USA”

  14. 2009 July 3

    Hi Martin,

    Good to see engagement starting. Good post. It is good to have the TF as a a focal point, and ideally as a platform enabler.

    Would like to see some real serial entrepreneurs that have delivered real things domestically and globally get involved. Formally. Deeply. Broadly (not just tech).

    Seems like a relatively large gap given the role we pay in paying tax, creating jobs, initiating innovation, leveraging our education system to make the country more competitive globally.

    I bet there was an entrepreneur behind the site, if you can get something like that up plus a site up for it would be a nice start :-)

    Cheers, Pete.

  15. 2009 July 6

    Nice analogy Martin; you’ll always win points from me with Leonard Cohen quotes.

    However I do worry that making a crack to let the light in isn’t enough. From my observations many people working in government have been able to see the web 2.0 light for some time, but the barriers to practice have been too high. Hopefully the TF will highlight a way to make some of the web 2.0 tools taken for granted by hose of us in the private and not-for-profit sectors feasible at a government department and agency level.

    This won’t happen as long as the general mood persists that government needs to just have a culture change and “get over” their concerns as many insist. I for one, speaking as a private citizen, don’t want to see the Australian governemnt “get over” concerns about privacy, liability or security. I want to see them solve those problems properly – and they can be solved – but not by ignoring them.

    Interlinked with this issue is the danger that Gov 2.0 can be seen as a seperate project. There are always budgetary contraints to that every department and agency can do and they should only be considering 2.0 solutions when they enhance efficiency of how they perform their core functions.

    Let’s not be so enamoured with the concept of innovation that we all forget that delivering government services better and cheaper way is the goal (not in a cooler way)!



  16. 2009 July 15

    The gov2 TF is a great initiative and it is good to read comments about what tools, technologies and guidelines we should be looking into.

    One thing I don’t think anyone has covered yet is the lack skills and knowledge needed to use the new web tools and technologies.

    There are still many staff in State and Fed gov departments with not enough skills and knowledge of current web technologies.

    I know many web officers who didn’t know what twitter or blogging was a few months ago. Sure you don’t need to blog or use social networks but if you have a web job then you need to at least know about current and future technologies. right?

    The following para is from a blog I was reading before and I thought was spot on when it comes to the current staff skills.

    Each Agency will need existing staff either trained, and trained well in Social Media or engage an existing Social Media resource, with individual agencies adopting the Whole of Government Framework and adapting to their Agencies needs.

    Maybe there needs to be a review on current skill standards when it comes to gov web jobs.

  17. 2009 July 15

    I think enculturation is a really important point.

    Here are 2 relevant links on this topic.

    Wikimedia have been invited to run some training courses for United States National Institutes of Health (NIH). Maybe Angela Beesley could help organise a similar thing here in Australia.

    Microformat Dev Camps are beginning. It would be great to run this type of event for Gov Workers in Australia to start them thinking about structured data in an open and tangible way. From here it’s a natural evolution to RSS/Feeds and then APIs.

  18. 2009 July 1
    Martin Stewart-Weeks permalink

    How could I posisble disagree!! At one level, this entire venture is about risk – how we define it, avoid it, manage it. The whole point about Web 2.0 is that it changes the calculations we make about risk at least , in part, because it changes the risk calculus by making it easier and faster to try, fail and then try again.

    Now, life is not that simple of course, especially in government when people’s lives may well depend on how well you engage the risk issues. Nonetheless, there is something profound going on as the new social technologies, whose whole ethos is about “try, learn fast, fail quickly and then try something better”, bump up against a public sector culture which, perhaps in some situations for very good reason, is more about someting altogether slower and more considered.

  19. 2009 July 1
    Martin Stewart-Weeks permalink

    I suspect Kate Lundy and I are in furiuous agreement. There may be a number of ways of conceiving and articulating these themes, but I agree that a large, ambitious frame for this discussion is essential. Not only to give the individual pieces of the debate some coherence, but to remind us all the time about what is really at stake here.

  20. 2009 July 1
    Martin Stewart-Weeks permalink

    You might be right but I’m going to stick with my original thesis, which is that in the venture on which we’re embarked the real test shouldn’t be who is on or off the taskforce, but whether we can create the conditions in which the expertise and insight of those with something to add not only get heard but influence the outcome. As Peter Drucker once notably pointed out, the test in any successful organisation is to privilege contribution over status. In the wonderful world of Web 2.0, the very exciting evolution of that deceptively simply, but profoundly subversive precept, is that status is now increasingly a function of contribution. Status is becoming a condition you earn, not something which is necssarily conferred or in the gift of someone else (like a Minister, perhaps?).

    I stand by my claim that the taskforce isn’t really the point (although we can help to shape, to clarify and to assemble the pieces of the puzzle in compelling ways). Almost by definition, much of the “smarts” needed to fulfil the Minister’s brief are not on the taskforce.

  21. 2009 July 1
    Martin Stewart-Weeks permalink

    You are so right and so wrong. Right in the reaffirmation that the new public sector and the rise of the new social technologies are inextricably linked. Wrong in your assessment, which I understand but with which I completely disagre, that my concern about becoming a tech-driven side show is in some way disparaging of technology. Completely the reverse. As a complete non-technologist working for one of the world’s leading technology companies, Icame to the conclusion some time ago that technology was not a side-show. My point is that the TF should offer the opportunity to convince others of the same truth.

  22. 2009 July 1
    Martin Stewart-Weeks permalink


    There is some truth to the observation that some aspects of public policy work – for example, the need to ensure appropriate ‘clearance’ for comments made in the name of a whole government or part of the government – make it hard to translate easily the fun, flexible and furious world of social networking to the public sector. But perhaps not as much truth as some might claim who are anxious to use the assertion to disguise a deeper antipathy to a model of working and engagement that might seem too disruptive and unsettling to the more comfortable rhythms to which they have become accustomed.

  23. 2009 July 1

    Right on the money Janet, it is going to be an amazing journey for all involved.

    Pretty good answering Martin but, in the spirit of open dialogue, can I suggest that you shape your answers with less expressions such as “so wrong”.

    I am aware of your background and acknowledge it. I can’t acknowledge your experience in the web space but I might be wrong and just haven’t found your experience in the web space.

    The key thing here is probably best described by the caveat we always make sure our clients understand – we reserve the right to be wrong. Indeed, I am often needing to go to clients and tell them that things we thought yesterday (or last week, month, etc) are actually now wrong.

    I, myself, am looking forward to the rest of my life being spent learning about this interweb thing and I actually believe the skill of being comfortable when proven wrong is central to the web space.

    So, yep, perhaps a little less of the “so wrong” type of reactions might help this develop into a quality discussion.

    Martin is on the money when he highlights the anxieties that will come with this venture.

    I have found one remedy for this and that is for the anxious to spend time with the webbies.

    This is not without difficulty. To illuminate, with complete respect to all of the good people on the panel, I have young fellas here in the office who know more about web 2.0 than all of you combined.

    It’s that they spend every waking hour in some way on the web. Here they are building the stuff and outside they are living on it. These kidults (as I call them) have not known a life without the web.

    They are digital natives.

    The problem with spending time with them is that they have some qualities that might not go so well in a government/corporate environment. Some are:

    They often smell

    They don’t like to wear shoes

    They tend to completely tactless

    They choose to not talk to people still using IE 6. They think they are evil people who want to hold back their innovations (so that would be the average federal public servant:)

    They wouldn’t be seen dead talking to the people who need to talk to them.

    So, the task force is going to have to work out how to get them to the table or at least their thinking.

    In the end, Janet has it all said much better than I could. The need to be able to change is the key and she is right to wonder how this concept will get up in government (although Obama is starting to get some runs on the board).

    Perhaps that the membership of the task force is set in stone despite what any of us says is an omen that change is not going to come easy – after all Martin, its just a few more sandwiches and another chair :)

  24. 2009 July 1
    Martin Stewart-Weeks permalink

    I’m rarely disparaging – least of all about technology people! But Peter has got it spot on. And it occurs to me, picking up one of his points, that the next 6 months holds out the possibility of a new level of engagement between the web development community and those in government and the public sector. We’ll all find out a lot more about each other I suspect, which I’m assuming will be a good thing.

  25. 2009 July 1

    Hi Peter. I am glad that your team are in the picture on this important government priority. I am glad that Martin sees a new beginning for engagement with my industry.

  26. 2009 July 1

    traitor :) – no, really, good questions but are we sure that one needs to step back from technical capability … I just find that a bit like wanting to build an amazing designers house but stepping back from architecture and building materials.

    Might be wrong but I think best that we just keep the channels open between the industry and AGIMO, if that is possible

  27. 2009 July 1

    Yes, more from task force members and I agree Nicholas, I think that Peter is doing a wonderful job (with the caveat posted above)

  28. 2009 July 2
    lisaharvey permalink

    It is my experience that the process for defining a problem in a technology context is more itterative. In many ways(though not all) we would not be having this discussion without the technologies that enable engagement in new ways. Technology is integral to the problem.

    There is value in the process that asks “What can or will technology do for us?” and then asking “How can or should, and in particular how might, people and institutions respond?”

    In the end technology is more about people and process than it is about technology.

    I agree that models for engagement should not be framed in terms of specific technologies, that would create a use-by-date, they must be more fundamental than that. The challenge is to frame something that works in today’s technology landscape and still works 5 or 15 years from now.

    You are right, Ben, engagement models must be about engagement not technology, and they should also be about technology.

  29. 2009 July 2

    Yes Lisa, you are spot on. None of my suggestions were about not undertaking the considerations as described and with the experienced people on the task force. As you say, it is about also having the technology and tech paradigms at play.

    After all, discussion of the “technology” can easily miss the point that it is actually people making technology do things. It is not technology doing it by itself. And the people that are making technology do things that should be heard.

  30. 2009 July 12
    Martin Stewart-Weeks permalink

    Agree on all points. Remains one of the key issues for this whole discussion to make sure people realise is is fundamentally a discussion about government.

  31. 2009 July 15

    It’s a good point that Valeri makes and one that will have impact on the web efforts on government.

    Mostly the people we deal with across the public sector are good people with good intentions but I am often surprised that they seem to lack some pretty fundamental web knowledge or, better said, web consciousness.

    I think that the TF might look at how these skill levels may be increased, perhaps with digital boot camps for all involved in online work.

    Perhaps this could be considered a part of their induction into their new jobs.

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