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Help wanted: Stories for Government 2.0

2009 October 6
by Nicholas Gruen

Location of identified cholera infections by address (London)

Location of cholera infections by address (London)

Ed Parsons of Google Europe gave the Taskforce an excellent presentation last Friday and it began with a telling example. In the nineteenth century the epidemiologist John Snow mapped the places in London where there had been incidents of Cholera.  An opponent of the ‘miasma’ theory which held that cholera spread by people breathing foul air, his map demonstrated pretty powerfully that the cholera outbreak in Soho was related to a single water outlet on was able to argue convincingly that the source of the outbreak as the public water pump on Broad Street (which Wikipedia helpfully informs us is now Broadwick Street).

The anecdote appealed to me because it made the point that the information agenda is ageless – information has been improving our lives for a very long time. The example also shows how much information improves our lives, not just the bottom line. And it shows how setting information out in some new way can ‘unlock’ its worth to us.  Snow’s 19th century equivalent of a ‘mashup’ gave us eyes to ’see’ the evidence in a powerful new way. It’s stories like this that will be crucial for getting our message across.

I can think of plenty of examples like this, but I wanted to ask you guys if you can give us your favourite examples. We’re after examples where ‘mash-ups’ or other Web 2.0 phenomena have made a big difference to some aspect of economic and social life.

There’s also what we’ve called ‘online engagement’. I’ve already used the example of the National Library’s use of online volunteers to correct digitised newspapers. I think such examples could be taken much further, with pathways to involve the best of such volunteers who were well disposed to the idea to greater levels of involvement, including in a deliberative as well as a ‘service provision’ capacity. But at least in the case of the NLA so far, that’s hypothetical. Who has taken this further and how?

Another example that’s often mentioned is the way the NZ Police used a pubic public wiki to help refine their new Police Act. It’s a good story, and good on them for doing it, but in fact when talking to the people there, its motive was a ‘marketing’ one, of getting the story of the consultation out there – and it succeeded brilliantly – all the way to the New York Times. But the public deliberation on the wiki did not lead to a substantial number of refinements to the Act.

So where are some better examples of the potential for online engagement to improve the outcomes of government service delivery and policy making?

Anyway, I’d really appreciate as many compelling examples of Government 2.0 making a difference as you can provide.

(I wonder if there are any stories which can be told in some kind of repeated form – “before Government 2.0 this agency did that with this effect, but now it does this with much better effects”.)

13 Responses
  1. 2009 October 6
    Matt Moore permalink

    Talking to Jason Ryan in Wellington, the NZ police wiki was not a good example of online engagement – but the NZ “Safe As” forum apparently was.

    There’s a couple of issues here:
    - Online engagement that’s just online then it’s going to be a bit of a novelty (unless you only wish to engage with people who spend a lot of time online). A blended approach is needed.
    - “Online Engagement” seems to mean something akin to an online focus group (time-bounded, issue-focused). There’s definitely a place for these but I think the real challenge for government is to engage communities (both physical, virtual & both) online over time.

  2. 2009 October 6

    Its no secret that one of my favourite examples for a long time has been Patient Opinion. You can read the Headshift case study file on it, but even better watch these videos – the first explains what Patient Opinion is all about, while the second is a patient’s perspective on why they think it is important. The Patient Opinion site itself has a few stories that demonstrate how the feedback they collect can have a real impact on improving the delivery of health services on the ground.

  3. 2009 October 6
    Nicholas Gruen permalink

    Thx James.

  4. 2009 October 7

    Several typos, including: “the NZ Police used a pubic wiki to help refine their new Police Act.”

  5. 2009 October 7

    It is slightly circular but the response amongst the digerati in the UK to the initial Digital Britain report was a self organized and collated response based on a series of open ended unconferences that feed into a central document. The process was captured on a Wordpress blog at and was written up in a few places. I wrote a blog post on it here.

    I think the effort showed a couple of things. First that people who care about public policy issues and know how to use the tools can organize a coherent response and that government needed to at least take it seriously. The final report referenced the effort. Secondly, that the ability to do this is currently largely limited to the geeks who know it can be done and know how to go about it. Real success will come when we see one of these that isn’t either a PR exercise or has a direct connection to people who earn their money from commenting on the web. I don’t think its that far away.

    • 2009 October 7

      Cameron – we have already had a couple of “Public Spheres” (a BarCamp inspired style even) on Government 2.0 in Canberra and Sydney this year. However, its hard to say what impact it has had. Interestingly enough, both events were organised independently of the public service by two MPs. However, I’m not sure if they have changed anything or simply reflected that a community of interest does exist outside of government around this issue.

  6. 2009 October 7
    simonfj permalink

    This is one example of one parliament trying to be a bit inclusive, although they’re smart enough to mix the face to face with online engagement. (Go through the Forums.) One of the things you might not be registering is that the web is just one form of media. It needs to be considered as one media in institution’s mix of media tools. I can’t point you at the broadcasts, although there’s a schedule on BBC somewhere.

    I’ll note the Wikimedia Foundation’s projects. They have been the most pervasive and had the greatest impact in pointing out that global institutions are superceding the old National ones. Wikipedia, as one, has always been an example of a lighter form (almost no) governance. But you’d need to feel a part of its global community to understand what I mean. I can’t explain what an Open Culture is to one who must live in a closed one.

    I’m not sure you can continue to use the old language of “government service delivery and policy making” though. As the civil space enlarges to compensate for siloed agencies, hopefully the people inside them may understand that ‘their’ policies are just confirmation of a progression that needed to be formalized (years) earlier. Matt says; “I think the real challenge for government is to engage communities”. I say “I think the real challenge for communities is to engage government(s).

    Most of the evidence you’re after has already taken place in the .edu domain (not so much in Australia). Just view the initiatives , tools and infrastructure circulating around a Google on Open Education Resourcesand distance learning.

    You mentioned in your Washington post that Australia is a long way behind in “structural advantages”. I’m not sure this is the case. It’s just that Australians keep ‘their’ .edu and .gov (and pubic and private) sectors so separated. E.g. All these tools are available to our parliamentarians and bureaucrats but they have no idea of how they may be utilised, even though they insist their children must, and so pay and pay for the half used tools (usually to a multinational).

    I’d forget about trying to make a real cultural change in the bureaucracies if I was you Nick. It’s not fair to insist that they change when our reps are the people who must lead by example. And (if you talk to them) they want to. But good on ya. Keep chipping at monoliths.

  7. 2009 October 7
    Mike Ridout permalink

    The beauty in this story is the policy response: having worked out the problem, I understand the good Dr went and removed the pump handle to the “infected” water source. End of infections from that source. Would that our next web 2.0 findings be met with equally effective and swift measures…

  8. 2009 October 7

    Mike – the other side of that story is engineer Joseph Bazalgette who built the London Sewers that actually helped to fix the problem, although he was ignorant of the cause. Unfortunately I understand that neither Snow or Bazalgette knew of each other. A real Government 2.0 success shouldn’t be just about connecting the dots, but connecting people who can actually do something with the information.

  9. 2009 October 8

    Hi Nick,

    I’m aware of more than a few internal and public facing initiatives in Australian federal government agencies which would make good Gov 2.0 stories, however I am not authorised as a public servant to talk about them publicly without appropriate senior level approval.

    One rule applied across most of the Australian public service is that only specific people are authorised to speak publicly on behalf of a Department. Talking about a Department’s public initiatives (whether their own Department’s or another’s) has, in my experience, been considered by senior management as falling within the scope of this rule. There’s some good reasons this rule was originally created, however it does preclude talking about certain initiatives in a public forum without agency authorisation.

    I can provide a few examples from other countries however these may not resonate as well as initiatives developed within an Australian Public Service framework.

  10. 2009 October 8
    Nicholas Gruen permalink

    Thx Craig. Feel free to drop me a line. Or seek clearance to do so. Obviously I’d love to be able to quote Australian Govt initiatives.

    I’d love to engage you on whether speaking about a department is speaking ‘on their behalf’. But I sense that that’s not a conversation you can have here ;)

    In the meantime, thanks for your input, and I hope we can have some more one way or another.

    • 2009 October 9
      Martin Stewart-Weeks permalink

      No, but it is so germane to the wider Govt 2 venture. We simply have to find a way to disentangle the ‘on behalf of’ and ‘about’ issue. Surely it is possible for a knowledgeable and energetic public servant to talk ‘about’ what’s going on – without trangressing the usual secrecy or confidentiality rules – without being construed as speaking ‘on behalf’ of anyone.

      Is it too silly to think someone like Craig could start his response to a blog like this with a statement that clearly stated “I am not speaking in an official capacity on behalf of the government agency for which I work” and then share his knowledge and expertise?

  11. 2009 October 8

    I know you are aware of this (you referenced it in passing in the issues paper, and Nick has a good article on it at, but just so it’s in writing for the public forum – there’s the excellent two-edged story of the use of Google’s voluntary tracking and information efforts with Google maps during the Victorian Bushfires, and their inability to get permission to use official government data.

    Two edged because it showed how web 2.0 tools can be of genuine public benefit during an emergency, and how restrictive licensing of government data can be a genuine barrier. For those who haven’t heard the story, you can find more details in Nick’s story above, or at,130061733,339294842,00.htm.

    Anecdotally, I’ve heard of similar problems during natural disasters in other states, with incompatible licensing preventing different government departments sharing information with each other, so that they are forced to go to commercial providers for the same information.

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