This site was developed to support the Government 2.0 Taskforce, which operated from June to December 2009. The Government responded to the Government 2.0 Taskforce's report on 3 May 2010. As such, comments are now closed but you are encouraged to continue the conversation at

What about the rest of us?

2009 September 11
by Lisa Harvey

Without doubt one of the biggest questions is: how Gov2.0 can be implemented within the the culture of the Public Service? Patricia Kelly, in her blog post last week:  noted that the Taskforce is grappling with the question and pointed to other discussions on how innovation in the public sector can be fostered and embedded in the culture.

The fundamental dilemma for digital engagement is that public statements are scrutinised and analysed for unintended consequences and to predict unpredictable responses and this does not fit an online environment where engagement is immediate, open and casual. It is like speaking in a different language. Also, the release of data, sometimes less than perfect data, under a re-use/re-mix license for uses unimagined rings all the public service alarm bells.

But the Public Service does not exist in a vacuum and the culture is as much a reflection of our response to them as anything else. The Public Service operates between legislation, policy, citizenry and politics.It’s a tough job keeping all those masters happy. This is not just about the public service, it is also about the rest of us.

What do we expect of our Public Service? I’d like them to be a responsive, engaged and innovative group of people who are committed to the idea of public service and making our country a better place for everyone.

To be this they have to be able to operate with freedom, authority to innovate, ability to express ideas and to express their committment to public service by engaging with the public. To do this they have to be trusted, respected and aknowledged for the good works they do.

In a world where we expect our Public Servants to engage online we must also accept that sometimes the conversations might not go exactly as intended by one side or the other. Is it fair to hold officials accountable for a misplaced phrase or an overly enthusiastic opinion? How do we, the citizenry, enable the engagement by tolerating and forgiving such mistakes? What is the media’s role in this?

Where we want our public service to release data freely and enthusiastially we also have to recognise that sometimes the data will be imperfect or that our use of it will be imperfect.

As we demand more online engagement by our Government, should we not also create an environment where such engagement is supported? As we demand the release of data should we not also ensure that we use it wisely and responsibly?

Perhaps, as suggested by Mark Pesce in a recent discussion we need an ethic of government engagement. This goes beyond frameworks and guidelines. An ethic is also independent of technology and will inform behaviour in the context of the diversity of government activity and all participants in it, including the rest of us.

If we are asking the Public Service to change its culture. Should we not also look to our own?

13 Responses
  1. 2009 September 11
    elton permalink

    If we are asking the Public Service to change its culture. Should we not also look to our own?

    My initial reaction is ‘Wouldn’t that be nice, but that’s expecting a little to much from areas of the public realm like the media.’

    But then I stop and think about the majority of people that would be engaging the Public Service through Gov 2.0. The majority is going to be the tech-savy gen-x, the tech-crazy gen-y and the tech-augmented gen-next. They’re used to betas, jumping from one social network to another and logging on one day to find that the entire game has changed forever. As such I think they are, and will be more so in the future, open to things from government being a little ‘looser and free flowing’ on most things.

    Sure, there will be the media another other interest groups there ’sniffing around’ but if something like an ethic of government engagement encourages and promotes the public service (at all levels) to respond in immediate, open and casual ways then let’s have a go. What’s the worst that can happen?

    • 2009 September 11

      Elton, I agree with your ideas about the “who” of engagement, except for my fundamental disagreement with you on the generational distinctions, which are progressively more being proved not to exist in anything except marketers’ minds.

      It will be the motivated and connected – an ever-growing proportion of society in spite of the notion of the digital divide – who will engage with government this way, but we very much aren’t the product of any generation, rather we are the product of situation – needs, wants, desires, motivation.

  2. 2009 September 11

    Great subject Lisa! I’ve been banging on about this topic for a while too.

    What us #gov2au’ers need to remember is that there are human beings behind a lot of the public service work we’ll need to do to make Gov2.0 a reality and therefore we need to factor in the incentives for them to make it happen. This is true for any change or any organisation.

    We need to make the case that a lot of this work will make life in the public service easier, not harder (”something new – it must be hard!”). I’d like to see some more work done in this space from those in the #gov2au community.

  3. 2009 September 11

    I consider this issue critical. So much so that I spent approximately 30% of my submission recommending a relaxation of the constraints on public servants participation in public.

    Quoting from my submission:

    In an environment of open consultation and perpetual beta, errors and omissions become matters of public record. As such public servants need to be provided room to fail, if they are not to be forced into paralysis or subversion of the access policy.

    To operate successfully Gov 2.0 must accept the existence of errors and implement tight corrective feedback loops seeking a trajectory of increasing accuracy. It cannot work if public servants are in constant fear of criticism and rebuke for the errors and omissions that are a natural part of any drafting or problem solving process.

    That being said, I’m not sure that “As we demand the release of data should we not also ensure that we use it wisely and responsibly?” is feasible. Mandating wisdom and responsibility is going to stumble on the fact that all of us have our moments of foolishness and caprice. That being said, I don’t think this is necessary.

    I don’t believe we need (or indeed should) shelter public servants from embarrassment. It is jeopardy that is the problem. There are four threats to a public servant that I can identify:

    Political – embarrassment to the minister leading to dismissal or rebuke

    Legal – official sanction by the courts or tribunals

    Administrative – official investigation or rebuke by ombudsman or internal review

    Social – retribution by other public servants threatening and impeding career.

    Can we answer this question: “How can we ameliorate the risk public servants perceive these elements pose to them; with and without the cooperation of the media/society-at-large?”

    • 2009 September 11
      Martin Stewart-Weeks permalink

      Great response and some important insights. I agree that mandating responsibility isn’t necessary and could be counter-productive. The approach as you and others have noted (for example Carig Thomler in his response to Patricia Kelly’s original blog post) is to set conditions favourable for innovation to occur and then to callibrate the reward-and-sanction settings that drive public servants such that they are both enabled and indeed encouraged to take advantage of those conditions.

    • 2009 September 11

      Andrae, the mitigation, or even removal of risk in the eyes of the public sector, and the significant cultural change that will need to accompany this from Ministers and other politicians, from the public sector at all levels, from the media and from the public is an issue I think we agree wholeheartedly on.

      Nicely put.

  4. 2009 September 11
    simonfj permalink

    What is the media’s role in this?

    Well, if you’re philosophic ( I am) you might be viewing all this discussion about Web 2.0 as one that recognizes the change from broadcast to interactive media. OK, so the older people are used to viewing the 7 O’clock news and believing everything they see (NOT). Even my 80 something parents just laugh at the reports filed by 20 something’s attempt to fill the space between ads (even on the ABC).

    That discussion we were having about an online ID (SSO) was just recognising that even PS, or even pollies are allowed just to be citizens. I continue to be confused by all this talk about “our government”. Is there such a thing? There;s just a bunch of people trying to do a job, and because of the lack of communication between the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’, all we can do is have another inquiry after another stuff up.

    It’s not even ( I believe) an ethic. It’s just that everyone watches too much TV, and believes it. I remember about 12 years ago when one policy maker was putting “to be interpreted liberally’ on his docs. But if you’ve never had a Liberal education, you’d never know what it meant. Thank God for wikipedia.

  5. 2009 September 11

    To add to Simon’s post above.

    We are all citizens and therefor we are all the government.

    The notion of ‘the government’ as separate and distinct from ‘the people’ is at its root a method of siloing – to either transfer responsibility or blame.

    The “government’s data” is the “people’s data”, the “government’s spending” is the “people’s spending” and the “government’s decisions” are the “people’s decisions”.

    The concept of a citizen’s sole contribution to public policy being a vote every 3-4 years is already dead (though I think many people have not yet noticed).

    With a combination of social and technological changes Gov 2.0 will reduce the artificial barriers we create between government departments and ‘the public’ (which includes public servants too).

    This needs to be reflected in changes to how public servants, politicians AND other citizens are expected to behave – with appropriate checks and balances for those who choose to behave in ways at odds with the community’s expressed desires.

    If we manage to transition our institutions and thinking successfully – and this is much more difficult and less well mapped terrain than a mere global recession – Australia will be incredibly successful throughout this century.

    • 2009 September 11

      Craig, very “Here Comes Everybody”, not that I object – Clay is a hero and a (geographically distant) pal.

      I’m with you wholeheartedly. Seeing the various Estates (another outmoded concept) in the hyperconnected world we live in as separate is foolish in the extreme. We are all of the government, of the people, of the media and of leadership – to believe anything else these days is singularly blinkered.

      As soon as out institutions – legislative government, the public sector and education in particular – realise this and begin to adapt and adopt, the better off we will be. Or indeed, here we will all come, ready to replace the old with the new.

  6. 2009 September 12
    Kevin Cox permalink

    The concept of anonymity with responsibility solves many of the issues both expressed here and in the post “Liberating Heritage Collections”. It is the approach used in wikipedia.

    Allow anyone to change data and add data as long as they obey a set of rules which can be defined for each data set – e.g. the changes must be true and legal and appropriate and the data is allowed to be changed. While it is difficult to define these things it is much easier to see if something is not true, legal and appropriate when we “see it”. Some data should never be changed.

    To prevent mischief makers or saboteurs changing or inventing history all changes are logged and are available. Anyone can challenge an entry and a challenge removes the change until it is reviewed “by the crowd” and by the custodian of the data.

    If a person persistently makes mischief they are banned from changing or adding to any data set for some period of time.

    If a person makes changes that have legal penalties there is a method for them to be held accountable – perhaps simply by them removing their cloak of anonymity if they insist on the change being kept.

    The technology is available to make the above possible.

  7. 2009 September 14

    Hi Lisa

    I noted your entry and thought I would go back and have a look at what Gov 2.0 is all about. Much of it has little to do with Web 2.0 in my opinion and indeed has something to do with the culture of disclosure or non-disclosure (depending on your point of view of course). I believe you have a very valid point but the issue goes beyond culture alone. So going back to those first principles, here are my comments against your terms of reference.

    The Government 2.0 Taskforce (‘Taskforce’) will advise and assist the Government to:

    1. make government information more accessible and usable — to establish a pro-disclosure culture around non-sensitive public sector information; The only thing that Web 2.0 adds to this is the “usable” part and perhaps the “accessible” part – but that is more in the context of “cheaply accessible”. Governments have always had the choice to make information available and accessible. Why they feel they need a “pro-disclosure culture” now should have nothing to do with Web 2.0.

    2. make government more consultative, participatory and transparent — to maximise the extent to which government utilises the views, knowledge and resources of the general community; Again, this has always been possible. Web 2.0 should make it more efficient to do so.

    3. build a culture of online innovation within Government — to ensure that government is receptive to the possibilities created by new collaborative technologies and uses them to advance its ambition to continually improve the way it operates; Now that is a valid aim perhaps directly related to Web 2.0. The issue is “innovation”. Governments have not often been innovative, which often involves risk of some sort. The difference in this case might be the push to make it happen regardless of the cost …only governments can really do that ….the NBN for instance.

    4. promote collaboration across agencies with respect to online and information initiatives — to ensure that efficiencies, innovations, knowledge and enthusiasm are shared on a platform of open standards; and This is a BIG call and desire. There are at least two issues at play here a) Where is the platform(s) available? My experience is that government agencies tend to not know what is available to them internal to a department let alone in another department. It will require a significant amount of internal to government marketing. b) we are an aging population and the public service reflects that demographic. What is easy and familiar to a <30 year old is certainly not familiar to someone say 40+ in some instances. My experience is that many many public servants find it difficult to use the features of Microsoft Word properly, let alone to use a wiki, twitter (if they are allowed), forums etc. Some government departments don’t even permit WWW access!

    5. identify and/or trial initiatives that may achieve or demonstrate how to accomplish the above objectives. Interesting. Where will they trial it and among who? I suspect they will only trial it among those that want to use it (hence they will seek volunteers)….not the ones who don’t …a sort of self fulfilling experiment that will provide a way improving what they do for those that want to use it ….but for those that don’t …what do they do? More of this below I hope.

    The Taskforce will advise Government on structural barriers that prevent, and policies to promote, greater information disclosure, digital innovation and online engagement including the division of responsibilities for, and overall coordination of, these issues within government. This is a government cultural change that needs to occur. The public doesn’t need encouragement to have government become more open. I think some of this may have to do with governance.

    The Taskforce will work with the public, private, cultural and not for profit sectors to fund and develop seed projects that demonstrate the potential of proactive information disclosure and digital engagement for government. More information can be found on the Taskforce’s Project Fund page. Not sure how the “public, private, etc sectors” can help “proactive information disclosure” ..I presume within government. The government has to do this with its policies and public servants. Those sectors can help with digital engagements though.

    In particular the Taskforce will also identify policies and frameworks to assist the Information Commissioner and other agencies in:

    1. developing and managing a whole of government information publication scheme to encourage greater disclosure of public sector information; Not related to Web 2.0 though!

    2. extending opportunities for the reuse of government information, and considering the terms of that use, to maximise the beneficial flow of that information and facilitate productive applications of government information to the greatest possible extent; A few motherhoods here and laudable aims. It will mean “sharing” of information which I suspect in many cases would be problematic with privacy issues. But there are lots of bits of information that could be shared without those constraints …contracting, tendering, projects ….etc. So targeting what to share I think is the best start for this one.

    3. encouraging effective online innovation, consultation and engagement by government, including by drawing on the lessons of the Government’s online consultation trials and any initiatives undertaken by the Taskforce. OK …”effective” is the operative word here.

    There are three general challenges as I see it:

    1. I suspect much of what they wish to do has nothing to do with Web 2.0 as a government has always been able to make information available – it has simply been their choice of how much. Accordingly, the only real assistance Web 2.0 will provide is to make the accessibility and manipulation of what is made available more efficient and widespread (you don’t have to come to Canberra to access a hard copy file for instance – you can do it over the web).

    2. The issue of more sharing and so on between government agencies will be interesting. The challenges are many and not related to the “ease of sharing” that Web 2.0 may provide = silos, legislative issues, discomfort with software, the huge training bill ultimately … name a few off the top of my head.

    3. Using tools to share information or to collaborate is going to favour certain types of people …and that is perhaps the younger generation. Australian demographics say we are an aging population, so the likelihood of the older generation having unbalanced representation due to the lack of Web 2.0 skills is a real issue …the legislation will be slanted toward those that participate not those that DO NOT participate. I found this quote from Kate Lundy very interesting:

    I think it is fair to say it represents the wisdom of the crowd that participated in this Public Sphere topic. This was quite a crowd too. In addition to the 35 speakers, there were 170 attendees, 400 watching the live video stream and over 1500 watching the live wall (Twitter, Flickr and liveblogging feeds). These people and others constituted 41 blog commenters, over 20 bloggers, 300 people tweeting and 22 wiki contributors.

    It may have represented the wisdom of the crowd that participated …..but that is the actual point ….it represents those that participated….not those that did not (which is probably about 99.99999% of the population). I suspect this is how the “trials” will go too ….and everything will be positive no doubt because of it.

    However…..having said all that …it has to happen and it has to start somewhere…..and this is a good start. I hope a lot of positives come from it.

  8. 2009 September 14

    Sorry – my web link didn’t work because I put both of my sites down!! This one should now work.

    Pat :-)

  9. 2009 September 24
    James permalink

    Here’s a keynote from an open source perspective that ends up asking the same question.

Comments are closed.