Web 2.0 enables and accelerates the transition to a more connected world in which open, user-centred and self-organising networks create value, including public value. That’s the Web 2.0 proposition with which millions of people and thousands of organisations around the world are busy experimenting to see just exactly what kinds of value they can get from these new ways of organizing.
As governments and the public sector start to do the same, they will encounter the same challenge as others have, which is that these new tools don’t just change structures and processes, they change behaviour as well. In order to thrive in this kind of world – connected, contingent, collaborative – you have to adopt a certain set of behaviours that are similarly open, interactive and engaged. The obvious conclusion is simple, but demanding – no change without culture shift.
This is the big challenge underlying the ability for governments to make the most of this new way of working and these new tools for democratic conversation. If they want to use them to improve the design of public services, to empower citizens to use information to create new services themselves or to harness more powerful combinations of knowledge and expertise for better policy, then they have to embrace the consequent shift of culture and behaviour too.
As it turns out, this is much harder than it sounds in the public sector, although it’s true that it’s turned out to be much harder in the corporate sector too (even though they might not always admit it). As the Issues Paper points out, we’ve spent quite some time defining what it is that constitutes the requisite behaviour from a public servant, including things like impartiality, balance, fairness and the absence of partisan political advocacy.
The problem, though, is that these definitions were shaped in a world fundamentally different to the one which ‘government 2.0’ is ushering in, including especially the speed with which issues emerge and change, the level of transparency about government thinking and activity and the complexity of the ideas and inputs now clamouring not just to be heard but to be influential.
Somehow we have to find a way for public servants to be able to engage with this world on terms that are both satisfying and safe. Assuming that the twin extremes of prohibition and unfettered licence are unlikely to work, we have to set about finding some new territory somewhere along that spectrum that is fit for purpose.
I have no idea where that point on the spectrum is. My inclination is to be more permissive than not. But perhaps more useful than any single attempt to pick the new sweet spot is to encourage a process of active and energetic experimentation that will get us closer to that outcome, and more quickly, than simply sitting around talking about it.
One key to this dilemma is to accept that we may need more than one set of rules for public servants, over and above the core values set out in the Act. This goes to the heart of a more profound discussion about the role of the public service itself, and therefore of the people who work in and with it. It may be that we’ve arrived at a point where a richer and more nuanced set of rules, differentiated for changing conditions and contexts, need to be developed and tested.
The Web 2.0 tools and platforms have the capacity to do in the public sector what they demonstrably have done in other sectors – to dramatically open up the landscape of innovation by making it possible to think about, design and execute whole new business processes, products and services and radically more open and democratic ways of communicating and collaborating.
For the public sector too, the rising demand for innovation in policy development, program design and delivery and organisational practice is enabled, and sometimes accelerated, by the new tools themselves. In that sense, the rapid spread of use and influence by social networking technologies, and the habits of mind and culture that they reflect and reinforce, is becoming an inescapable feature of public innovation in its own right.
Many agencies lack the experience necessary to move towards Web 2.0 and may even be protecting themselves from gaining it. The fact is that these new tools thrive on the principle of ‘learn by doing’. The whole point is to experiment with their capabilities and potential and, in the process, bring about change and renewal.
A determination to invest time and effort to nurture that process, as a natural consequence of the more widespread adoption of the new tools themselves, might be a necessary priority.
It would be a good outcome from this discussion if, over the next little while, we engaged on a deliberate but gradual conversation about what it is to be a ‘good’ public servant. If that means revisiting some of the ways in which that question is being framed at the moment that might be no bad thing. To find a way to unlock the considerable expertise and insight that public servants can bring to the big issues and policy challenges of the day so they can play a full and active role in the more open, connected and collaborative models of governance that are taking shape would be both worthy and timely.