Government 2.0...it can be a reality | acidlabs Studios
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Government 2.0…it can be a reality

Government 2.0…it can be a reality

Australian public policy blog, Unleashed, published by our national broadcaster, the ABC, has a new piece by me entitled Government 2.0…it can be a reality on what it would take to transform government to really get Government 2.0 right.

At around 800 words, it doesn’t go deep. It’s just the first of several pieces I intend writing on this theme.

I’ve reproduced the article below should you wish to comment here, though I’d be glad for your comments and criticisms either at Unleashed or here.

Since coming to power in late 2007, the government has run a consistent agenda of public sector reform.

Beginning with the amendments to the Freedom of Information Act to encourage a pro-disclosure model for the release of public sector information (PSI), there has now also been the report of the Government 2.0 Taskforce, PM&C Secretary, Terry Moran’s blueprint for public sector reform and the Australian Public Service Management Advisory Committee report onpublic sector change. The government has made a strong and public show of accepting the vast majority of recommendations in these documents. The changes foreshadowed by the reform agenda are as relevant to state and local government as they are to the federal public sector.

In spite of all the apparent will for change in the public sector on the part of the government, with the intent of bringing into existence a brave new world of open, accountable, communicative Government 2.0, there remains an issue.

The will and capacity for change within the public sector itself.

The government’s reform agenda requires a profound tectonic shift of both technology and culture in parts of the public sector.

It will mean that the public sector is equipped with new, usable and useful tools that allow them to collaborate with each other on and intra- and inter-agency basis, with the legislature and with the public. The public sector must be given access to the tools of Government 2.0 – social tools and up-to-date IT environments.

For those of us in the public, hyper connectedness is, if we so choose, a given. Yet, for many agencies, even reading a blog that may be relevant to your work is impossible. Let alone watching a web video on iView of last night’s The 7:30 Report or Q&A that may have immediate relevance to your work today. Or alerting your management to a problem with your agency that has become apparent on Twitter.

For many public sector workers these things are just not allowed. Their IT security staff and often, their management, deem such things “unnecessary”. In such circumstances, how can the very many hard working, dedicated public servants out there (and they are out there in spades) be expected to do the vital work they must do with ever-decreasing budgets and massive pressure to increase productivity?

The practice of blocking public servant access to useful tools that can be utilised to do their jobs better must go.

The changes heralded by these reforms will require agencies and their staff to move from a model anchored in the past where closed, inscrutable decisions made by civil servants whose only communication to the public is outwards and formal was the norm to one where the public sector becomes a far more communicative, two-way organisation, engaging with and engaged by both the governments and publics they serve. Where Jürgen Habermas’ notion of The Public Sphere of discourse and legitimisation of policy and legislative change through open, public debate, is realised in full.

Alongside the tools and technology, public sector culture itself must change.

Despite many in the public sector keen to take up the many cultural challenges the reform agenda implies, there are significant hurdles that will need to be overcome in order to bring the reality of Government 2.0 to light. The nature of consultation will need to shift – one day, one week or one month consultations will have to become continuous with policy reform cycles shorter and more agile – responsive to public opinion. Openness and communication out from and back into agencies needs to be the norm.

In a particularly cringeworthy example of getting it badly wrong, last Friday’s AFR noted Defence Housing Australia’s CIO, Shane Nielsen, rejecting that agency’s engagement with a Facebook group disillusioned by DHA’s services. This is incredibly short-sighted. In the 21st Century public sector of Government 2.0, this should be seen as an opportunity to reform and improve service delivery through (probably difficult and complex) engagement, rather than turning a blind eye to bad news.

The aversion to and perception of risk as a thing that is only negative needs to switch to one where a little appropriate risk and some innovative ideas aren’t envisaged as something that’s inevitably going to get you hauled before the Secretary, Senate Estimates or the Minister. Rather, small innovations need to be welcomed, celebrated and encouraged.

That change has begun, but for very many agencies, the notion of trying something new or a little risky, or engaging in discourse with their public is anathema to them.

Having worked in and around the public sector for the past 20 years, I’m under no illusion that the reform to bring about real Government 2.0 in Australia, at any level of government, is going to be hard. However, I hope and dream that it can happen.

Many of the public servants I work and collaborate with look to their counterparts overseas, seeing what is being done in the UK, or the US and wishing it could be done here. The fact is, it can.

If the government allows the public sector to change in the way it says it wants it to, and if the public sector can change itself in this way, Australia promises to be a leader in Government 2.0. In many ways, we are already are.

Stephen Collins
trib@acidlabs.org
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