At a roundtable in Sydney, Miriam Lyons of the Centre for Policy Development (CPD) mentioned the idea of ‘inquiries 2.0’.
As I said to her at the roundtable, I’ve been giving a fair bit of thought to that question myself. Having spent some time on the Productivity Commission. We were proud of the transparency of our inquiries. Indeed the foundational rationale of the Commission championed by the modern ‘official founders of the Industries Assistance Commission of 1974, Alf Rattigan and Bill Charmichael, was the idea that people should not come to government asking for favours – tariffs and bounties in the case of the Commission and its predecessors – without being able to defend their case publicly and subject to independent scrutiny.
Now we have the tools to turbocharge that openness and transparency and to take it further – perhaps a lot further. We’re trying to model what an Inquiry 2.0 would look like though I’m being made painfully aware of our shortcomings – of which more in a moment. I know this blog could be improved in various ways, and a blog is not the ideal collaborative tool for building towards a complex and integrated position on a suite of issues as various commentators have pointed out. We are starting to do that offline – I promise!
But I think our blog is already a site for frank friendly and respectful exchange of information and views, and for dialogue and debate. But as the CPD submission which was not up on our website when I was writing this but may be now points out, there are plenty of ways we can take things further.
The [Henry] tax review is one of the most important inquiries held by the Rudd Government so far, with over a thousand submissions. Yet a member of the public who wants to find out what ideas other people have submitted about the future of Australia’s tax system [on the Henry Review website] has nothing more to go on than the fact that ‘AAFCIS’, ‘ACT Peak Oil’ and ‘Adams, James’ made submissions that are 1.2MB, 51KB and 9KB in size, in November, May and April.
On the bus home the next day, reflecting on the inspiring ideas of the #publicsphere presenters and on Lindsay Tanner and Joe Ludwig’s encouraging words on the role of the new Taskforce, one of my fellow noodle-eaters tweeted to ask the name of the inquiry I’d been complaining about. He then proceeded to scrape the PDFs from the url I sent him, and turned them into a searchable database at http://ray.haleblian.com/taxreview/index.html. It’s a pretty basic site, but overnight, purely for the hell of it, Ray Haleblian transformed an obscure, inaccessible mountain of data into something that is just that little bit easier for an interested citizen to use.
In fact a standard internet search engine can do some of this work, particularly if all the files exist in the same folder on the relevant website.
Still it’s clear that it wouldn’t take much to provide much better searchability and access to searchability than is available. I’m happy to join in the CPD’s implicit criticism of the Henry review if only it’s understood that it is a criticism of us too. We had no plans to do anything particularly different on this site. Actually we hadn’t planned to address the specific point raised in the submission, but I have already suggested internally that each submission have its own comments thread so that people could focus on particular issues raised in them. As has been pointed out to me, my suggestion raises a further issue of consent. People weren’t told that this would happen to their submissions. I agree with the point which suggests ethical and possibly legal concerns (for instance with copyright). So I’ve suggested that we contact people who have sent us submissions offering them an opportunity to opt out.
As I was thinking about this I was registering online for the Government 2.0 Summit in Washington D.C. run by the redoubtable O’Reilly Media, Inc between the 8th and the 10th of September. And as I did so, the web page I was on didn’t just get me to give it my details. It gave me a profile. In fact the system didn’t invite me into a rich world of blogs and wikis hosted for the Summit itself (not that I could find), but it allowed me to set out some things about myself in the usual kind of way that a social networking site would. And I expect the only reason that the site doesn’t invite us all into a Summit specific blog is that the Government 2.0 community is already generously serviced (your increasingly time-poor Chairman thinks over-serviced) by a range of online communities with their profiles, blogs wikis and so on.
But that’s not always the case. And inquiries always generate their own communities. In addition to the blog we’ve provided here, there are plenty of other ways in which steps could be taken to help the community develop. The National Centre for Vocational Education and Research has recently published a paper of mine where I bemoaned the extent to which we suppress the release of data on student opinions about the quality of their higher education providers where the British take very similar data and broadcast it on a rich online database – www.unistats.com. This site enables students to ask questions like “Which pharmacy school (or any other type of school) has the most satisfied students?” and “Which pharmacy school rates best on the question ‘I was always able to get help with an assignment”. In Australia, we have similar data, and it’s made available to participating educational institutions, but then suppressed in the case of the general public.
In any event, my paper pointed out that we could take things a lot further than even the British have. The journey I sketched out – and I’m sure some people on this blog could help me sketch it out further – would be the transition from Gov/Web 1.0 to Gov/Web 2.0. This is how I concluded the essay (with apologies for the length it adds to this post):
One could permit users [of a site like unistats] to adopt ‘avatars’ or internet identities chosen by them which presented them on the Internet as a specific person, whilst preserving their anonymity to other users. However this is a structured and not absolute or anarchic anonymity. To acquire an avatar they would undertake to communicate truthfully and in good faith. Their identities would be known to ‘the system’ so that their privileges could be modified or removed for misbehaviour and they could be pursued in the event of defamatory comments. They would also be warned that it may be possible for other users of the system to work out or speculate as to their true identity.
For the sake of our example we have a student who is at the Mildura TAFE doing hospitality. He gives himself the avatar ‘Sunraysya’. When ‘Sunraysya’ contributes to discussion forums about the hospitality course at the Mildura TAFE, the system verifies that he is indeed qualified to comment – i.e. that he is or has been a student in the relevant course.
Scientist Michael Neilson has commented on “the untapped creative potential existing in latent connections between scientists, and which could be released using suitable tools to activate the most valuable of those latent connections”. Of course this is just an aspect of the greater value of human connectedness, something which is going through a epoch making step change. Once this system of avatars and permissions is established, it becomes possible to facilitate the evolution of very socially, professionally and educationally useful networks of information and communication.
They do not exist currently because the necessary ‘social networking’ technology is only just coming into common use on the Internet, and because to date, statistical systems established by governments have typically imposed a ‘one size fits all’ set of privacy protections on users. Thus most statistical agencies have strict protocols for preventing the release of any information that might enable the identification of someone contributing data. Yet amongst those whose privacy is being protected, there exists a possibly substantial number who would be prepared to forego some privacy in return for others’ doing the same. Indeed the way relationships typically develop, whether in our normal social lives or in cyberspace, is by a process of gradual and reciprocal revelation of information which remains private to others.
Thus people could choose to establish ‘profiles’ either in their own name or in the name of an avatar and to allow others to search them. They could elect to allow people to e-mail them (either directly or via their avatar which would still protect their anonymity) if viewers of the profile wished to contact them. They would then be able to respond as they wished – outing their identity, responding still in the name of their avatar or blocking the sender and/or ignoring the advance.
Such a system would facilitate the evolution of communities of interest and communities of common experience. A student having problems with an aspect of a course could search for mentors or seek private tutors ad hoc tutorial assistance. And it would enable the deep mining of the database, where people might interrogate the system to identify whether a course or a teacher had been well regarded by ‘people like them’ in some specified respect(s) or search for those who had made the transition from one area of professional training to another. It would likewise enable teachers and course administrators to identify some of the strengths and weaknesses of an existing course and/or teacher in terms of their appeal to different kinds of students at a much greater level of detail than is possible today.
Of course this may remind readers of social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook. Facebook began in a tertiary institution – Harvard – with the initial goal of facilitating social, professional and pedagogical networking and communication. It has been built into a vast network with over 150 million users. And Facebook now hosts applications, of precisely the kind – though I doubt yet of the scale – of what is being proposed here. It may well be that the most efficient and effective way to build the capability described here is not to build it on the analogy of Facebook, not to build it like Facebook, but to build it as an application in Facebook.
I wrote the concluding paragraph not to necessarily advocate the course of action contemplated, but to get people thinking. On reflection and taking the example explored in this post, I expect that while individual inquiries are likely to benefit from using facebook there are plenty of good reasons why it may not be sensible to migrate such a central feature of the running of inquiries to Facebook.
But my experience registering for O’Reilly made me realise how easy and cheap this stuff has become – as one would realise on a moments reflection – if it’s being found useful by a lot of parties, particularly parties who have a penchant for open source software, pretty soon it will become commoditised and accordingly cheap. O’Reilly presumably has adapted some software package to its needs and there it is – a capability that can be wheeled out for next to nothing for every function it runs.
Shouldn’t Australian Governments build a similar Inquiry 2.0 capability – not to mention Parliaments which conduct their fair share of inquiries? What other ways could would it be worth moving towards Inquiries 2.0.