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Mr Gruen goes to Washington

2009 October 3
by Nicholas Gruen

Being flat out on other duties has prevented me from providing you with a ‘write up’ of my time in Washington D.C. at the Government 2.0 Summit. To picture yourself there, just picture Kate Lundy’s Sphere Camp and then soup it up by making the speakers the most energetic and powerful movers and shakers in the largest most tech savvy country in world – bring on the CIO and CTO of the United States, don’t give them all that long to talk, so they have to be succinct (we’ve got so much other stuff we need to listen to), have the Twitter feed live on stage and off you go.

So there you have it, a hall of hundreds of people from all around the world, most massively ‘multi-tasking’ away, looking, listening, emailing, twittering, reading the twitter feed, meeting, setting up deals and on it went. Very energising I must say. I won’t give you a blow by blow description, but there were some terrific presentations. On the downside, I think those who have been great at thinking about Web 2.0 – like Clay Shirky and Tim O’Reilly didn’t really excel in explicating the potential of Govt 2.0 but plenty of others who have been working in the area – like Beth Noveck, Vivek Kudra and Aneesh Chopra and Andrew McNaugten did. You can watch virtually the whole thing on line here.

But the most significant impression I left with was not only about the Summit itself which was terrific, but about the US and us in comparison with it. As an Australian public policy practitioner Australia is at the forefront of many if not most areas of public policy. We’ve been major innovators in public policy since Europeans got going on these shores (the First Fleet was a contracting out job – and a successful one! – Trouble set in with the second fleet but I digress . . .). However I’ve got bad news in this area. I’m afraid the US has such structural advantages that it’s way ahead of us. And other countries like the UK have been at it for longer, and they’re ahead too.

This paper by Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation provides an inventory of some of the initiatives underway in the US but also offers it in historical perspective. What is striking is that virtually all the progress in openness in government in the US over the years has not come directly from the government. It’s been prompted and fought for by civil society. The insiders are being dragged along by the work of the outsiders.

Here’s a great example Miller gives. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) maintains a database of the financial reports companies are required to file with them. This database (EDGAR) was always available…to the right kind of people…for a fee. They resisted the idea that this information should be available on the internet. In the 90s however a public domain advocate, Carl Malamud (with a little help from benefactors) purchased access to the data and put it online in an accessible format. The SEC was stunned by the site’s popularity and within two years had put EDGAR online themselves. They managed to do this quickly with the eager assistance of Malamud.

At the same time he put EDGAR online, Malamud created an online database of US patents. He noticed high traffic to the site from the Patent Office, from patent examiners frustrated by their own database. He wasn’t just making government information more easily available to the public, he was making it available to the government themselves! Eventually the Patent Office, like the SECrelented and created their own database

Public.Resource.Org, founded by Malamud, is continuing work like this. For instance, on their siteFedFlix is a joint venture with the government to make the vast amount of movies and footage owned by the National Technical Information Service available to the public. The NTIS lendsPublic.Resource.Org the tapes, and Public.Resource.Org puts them on YouTube. The efforts of outsiders have led to a new resource for the public.

Miller provides other examples. For instance, FedSpending is a non government site that provides all the available data on US Federal Government expenditure and allows users to examine and compare it by department or by state or even whether contracts were competitively bid or not.

Congress was then spurred to license the software for its own USASpending.

This episode is interesting because the information made available was politically sensitive, particularly to one Ted Stevens. Miller mentions several projects to promote transparency. These includeMapLightand Fundrace, both highlighting political donations, and OpenCongress (run by Sunlight), which allows you to compare donations to politicians to their voting records and legislation.

Of course Australia is not without its equivalents. Open Australia stands out for me, but there are plenty of others beavering away. I salute them. But if we’re going to match the world leader in this area (and there’s no reason why we couldn’t have a crack) we’re going to have to get quite a wriggle on.

14 Responses
  1. 2009 October 3

    Nicholas – we made a similar point in Headshift’s Rebooting Australia paper, which was included as part of the CPD’s submission to the Taskforce.

    The big question, though, is how to achieve this? Despite the presence of politicians on Twitter, Australia’s public institutions are unchanged, and we are still left with a government designed for the 20th century. We also lack some of the catalysts for change, like MySociety ( in the UK, and our third-sector is woefully under-prepared to step up to an enhanced role… There are some positive signals. Initiatives like OpenAustralia ( show that even if the government itself lacks the capability, then the Australian community is itself ready for the job of creating new people-powered structures and services.

    While civic society does have an important role here, I think its also instructive to look a the sources of income for UKCOD (the parent organisation of MySociety) – the mix of government and non-government funding is quite apparent. NESTA is another UK at arms length organisation that is playing a role here too, although their scope is broader than Government 2.0.
    Recognising this, I think its unfortunate that the (current) scope of the Taskforce doesn’t really appear to accommodate this need to stimulate Government 2.0 *from the outside*. I don’t know if its too late to change this?
    BTW along with Open Australia, I think ASIX deserves a mention for bringing SI Camp to Australia.

    • 2009 October 6
      simonfj permalink

      Dear Mr Jetsetter,

      Just working my way through the recordings. I wanted to ask you about what yu meant by “the US has such structural advantages that it’s way ahead of us”. I didn’t know we were in a race; Aussie culture being so different than US (and the UK). Please explain.

      I’m even more confused by this comment;

      progress in openness in government in the US over the years has not come directly from the government. It’s been prompted and fought for by civil society. The insiders are being dragged along by the work of the outsiders.

      Geez mate, that’s a revelation?

      OK. re: getting a wiggle on. James is suggesting you might want the taskforce to become ‘outsiders’. I’ll say the same. But not to far. Just get this domain outside the server. The reasons are pretty plain, especially considering you’re trying to help our bureaucratic friends to get with an OpenAustralia culture. It might help them past having to work with one hand tied.

      It’s no so much that PS don’t try to do the right thing, it’s just that civil society is so different than a bureaucracy. They can’t change until a policy comes down that says, “everyone else is doing it so you might as well too.”

      • 2009 October 7
        Nicholas Gruen permalink


        The structural advantages of the US I was referring to are these.

        1. It’s very big, giving them natural advantages in info-land where there are huge economies of scale (do it once and the marginal cost of the rest is ~ $0.
        2. Partly as a result of 1 they have the most dynamic software sector in the world – by a huge margin.
        3. They even have the kind of ‘lifestyle’ advantage that Australia had early in the 20th century of setting a bunch of suburban trends (particularly in sunny California) which means a lot of ‘firsts’ occur there and the successful firsts can then grow out of their garages into Apples, Googles, Facebooks and so on.
        4. They have had a more vigorous mercantile culture than other English speaking countries I know of and have had for a long long time. This, and the opportunities in such a massive market, and the advent of modern IT now see the US with the most entrepreneurial culture in the world. (I’m guessing, but I don’t know anywhere more ‘can do’ than the US.)
        5. They have a more adversarial culture within government in which the various arms of government ‘check and balance’ each other. The upshot has been that investigation and disclosure of information has been a jealously guarded by the Congress. We do OK in this regard with the way in which our Senate operates in the usual situation where the government does not control it, but the traditions are not as well entrenched or as fiercely guarded. The US has the CBO, and I’ve argued in other contexts that we could do with something similar.
        6. They have a much better cultivated jurisprudence of the public domain than we do where we still copyright Hansard and pretty much anything that moves. (This is information that the government is trying to get out there, would you believe!)

        Anyway, I started this list being sure of 1 and 6 and came up with the others as I went along, so thanks for the prompt! No one (least of all me) was expecting the Spanish Inquisition.

        • 2009 October 21
          simonfj permalink


          Thanks for this list. I’ll go hrough them pt. by pt.

          1. Software, as an industry, is factor of bandwidth. Produce once, with the internet, your audience is global (so long as you have translators). Certainly you have to promote. Using twitter as an example, you have to make it a fashion. (an old CEO of Amdahl clued me into this 25 years ago). So that arguement doesn’t stack up.

          2. Yes, as a part of their culture, ‘their’ software industry is one dynamic industry. (and inclusive; Google maps as one e.g.)

          3. You haven’t been to the northern beaches of Sydney have you? Many of the multi million dollar houses are empty in winter. So many Euros in media use it as their bolthole from Europe. We don’t need to argue here. I understand what you’re saying; you watch of lot of US TV, like everyone in little Oz.

          4. “vigorous mercantile culture”. You mean like the one which created the Financial crisis? I know what you mean though and i’d say you’re wrong. That’s a common (Aussie) misconception which you’d need to spend time in Europe to be convinced. In short, Yanks play poker and Euros play Scrabbleor Chess. (and China plays Mahjong). E.g. Lehman Bros. $600 Bil in assets one day, zero the next. Only the simple minded think that the numbers in a balance sheet (or GNP total) are representative of reality. They’re just indicators. But entrepreneurial? In the Peter Drucker sense, yes.

          5. Yes, it’s the concept of an ‘adverserial culture‘ which we can agree on (to a degree). In your face as i call it. But if you dig, there are a few other features to the culture; the most dynamic volunteering (by numbers) in the world; the largest philanthropics in the world, etc. Europe on th other hand, has had a few more millenium to build institutions which aren’t as individualistic. (so they do’t need as many guns) As it was put to me at a recent conference, “the yanks legislate where we would want to write a policy”.
          The drama which kinda brings this to the surface at the moment, in the software/bandwidth space, is this poker game between AT&T, Google and Apple. In Europe, they’d be swapping shares.
          “traditions are not as well entrenched or as fiercely guarded” You’d know this better than I. So I’ll say the same as I say to Pia. Look after yourself and don’t burn out.

          6. “cultivated jurisprudence”? Well, OJ proved it has the best jurisprudence money can buy. Have you spoken to the people in this version of government? (at that house on the hill) I think you’ll find they are waiting for someone like you to make it obvious. I also think this is one of the problems with progressives. The bureaucracies can’t change until they get some idea of whose leading (this term).

          You take it gently. Cultures change slower than (bureaucratic) routines, and the Australian culture, as confused as it is sitting between those of the UK and US, is pretty bloody good.

    • 2009 October 7

      Thx James and sorry for the delay in replying. I have taken a particular interest in the issue you raise and indeed in MySociety and in the fact that they started with a very small grant and then got a decent sized grant from the Treasury and were on their way. I asked Tom Steinberg about this when I met him in Washington. It would be nice if we could get something analogous happening here.

      Not quite sure what you mean by this.

      I think its unfortunate that the (current) scope of the Taskforce doesn’t really appear to accommodate this need to stimulate Government 2.0 *from the outside*. I don’t know if its too late to change this?

      But if you mean that we don’t seem to be interested in what I call ‘info-philanthropy’ I can certainly claim to be having myself contacted Philanthropy Australia and sought from them both a submission and an application to do a paid project from the project fund.

      Any further suggestions you have on the matter would be most welcome.

      • 2009 October 7

        Nicholas – thanks for your reply. I’ve replied to your comment to my post, but will also copy it below:

        It’s great to hear that you are encouraging this. I was making reference to the apparent scope of the TF’s project fund that on the face of it appears to be focused on PSI and government engagement with citizens. Aside from the need to address how people in government themselves collaborate as part of the Government 2.0 agenda, I see two gaps or constraints in that scope:

        The ability to fund projects that side-step government to deliver community services or other social outcomes; and
        The ability to fund groups that can innovate independently of the political and public service agenda.

        I think both are important additions to the overall mix of initiatives for ensuring we create Government 2.0 ’solutions’ that are fit for purpose in the Australian context and reflect community wants, rather than just the current government’s perception of what that agenda should be. Unfortunately I don’t think any of this will happen without the support of the government to help start the ball rolling.

        Of course bear in mind that I’m on the outside waiting to see what other projects and initiatives are going to actually go ahead. So if the submission by Philanthropy Australia (and others you might have encouraged) is a step towards meeting this gap then I will be very excited to see it happen.

        • 2009 October 7
          Nicholas Gruen permalink

          OK – so, apart from anything immediate, let’s say at the end of this process there is money left over in the Project Fund. What should we do with it?

          • 2009 October 7
            steve permalink

            Hi Nick,

            Sorry that the following is not specific.

            I am concerned that this Government 2.0 effort might follow the same path as the ideas summit. Lots of enthusiasm, energy and ideas but..well….nothing, to my knowledge was ever implemented.

            So, I am hoping that we can come up with at least one idea that is so compelling and beneficial that it simply must be implemented. And if this happens, perhaps some momentum will continue.

            • 2009 October 7
              Nicholas Gruen permalink

              You’re right – it’s not specific. Whether something comes of what we’re up to of course is in the government’s gift (though there are cultural issues afoot that we can help with that will take their course through more general influences).

              But the comparison with the Summit doesn’t seem too compelling to me. What we’re doing is a little unconventional in some ways, but it’s a lot closer to processes that governments are comfortable with proceeding with than getting 1,000 people (my daughter would use the expression ‘randos’) in Parliament House for a weekend.

              • 2009 October 21
                simonfj permalink

                Hey Nick,

                Don’t discount Steve’s comment so fast. Kevin07 did something symbolic with 2020. It was just a icebreaker and needs to be taken in context, like “the apology”; something which needed to be said (done) so we could all ‘buy in’.

                Have you seen all the sprouts you’ve seeded? Take a look at the PM’s site, socialinclusion, and quite a few others. OK, the bureaucrats don’t know anything apart from the world revolves around our (antiquated) institution. But youse ARE making a cultural change. Even an academic like James can see it, on the outside waiting, like academics = bureaucrats do.

                OK, before i’m accused of being inflammatory let’s all take a breath and enjoy a good laugh, blame the excuse for education in this country for our problems, and start using a few ICT tools to include the unwashed who couldn’t make it to 2020.

                Of course, we might just look at what Pia, and her boss Kate, is doing and help to enlarge the publicsphere.

  2. 2009 October 4

    It’s quite instructive to look at where funding for an organisation such as the Sunlight Foundation comes from: . Money came mostly from the co-founder, several other individual, and then mostly from philanthropic organisations. I am not aware that we would have many such philanthropic organisations here in Australia that would allow us such large projects. It may be the reason we are slower than other countries. But I’m curious to hear others opinions.

  3. 2009 October 5


    While I agree we don’t have the philanthropic traditions or pocket depths of the US (the top US philanthropist gives more than the top 50 Australian philanthropists), I think it’s also a factor that we don’t care about our governance system that much.

    Democracy is just background noise in Australia, except for a few passionate people.

    We didn’t have to fight for self-government or democracy – we were gifted it, and simply don’t appreciate it in the same way as a people who had to fight for their right to party.

  4. 2009 October 6
    simonfj permalink

    I alwasy get myself in trouble for saying so. But honestly, although money might seem to be a problem, the main thing I see is that so much is wasted due to lack of consideration (on a national perspective).

    The example I always give is the connected classrooms programme. $158M is being spent. In one state. It’s not even considered that one state’s classrooms might talk to another. So we have all this equipment sitting in classrooms, rarely used by students, less by P&C’s. In fact its rarely used at all because it wasn’t designed for hosting on the same network, so connect/usage fees apply. And schools can’t handle lumps in their expenditure. I know because the main bureaucrat for digitaleducationrevolution said so.

    I get in trouble when I say “Australia’s institutions are impenetrable”. And when I point at pages like this, and say “look at the bottom”. The scope in which projects are considered is so restrictive.

    The other thing craig says, about the lack of interest in governance has been pretty true, up till now. But I monitor demographics. The baby boomers are retiring. They’ve never been educated to participate. Maybe it’s time.

  5. 2009 October 16

    The problem with progress in the Gov 2.0 arena always falls back to governments being reluctant to share data in the first place. The importance of data being used in 2.0 ventures though can be negligable and doesn’t have to be a stumbling block for community engagement.

    Sites such as the UK’s or in the US both operate on community input rather than relying on an initial revealing of government data. They are both incredibly practical initiatives give back to the community, and hence would find a popular footing if emulated in some way here in Australia.

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