On Beginning to Engage

It was a surprise yesterday to see the response of the Australian Federal Government to the report produced by the Government 2.0 Taskforce (released in December 2009). A surprise not because it wasn’t expected but because of the delay in producing it and, for me, the brevity of it’s response.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. As Minister Tanner said on the new AGIMO blog,

Whilst today is the completion of one phase, it is also very much the beginning of a new one. The task now is to implement these changes, beginning with assisting agencies to make the most of the opportunities offered by Web 2.0.

The response provides signposts to the future of government in Australia, it does not, and is not meant to, be the government’s all encompassing policy in this area. This will be worked out over time (through experimentation and identification of best practice across agencies) and through different legislation (for example the Freedom of Information (Reform) Bill and the Office of the Information Commissioners Bill).

I found the response to be both exciting and challenging. Exciting to see the potential of a governmental commitment to the three fundamentals of open government as defined by the taskforce:

  • using technology to increase citizen engagement and collaboration in making policy and providing service will help achieve a more consultative, participatory and transparent government
  • public sector information is a national resource and that releasing as much of it on as permissive terms as possible will maximise its economic and social value to Australians and reinforce its contribution to a healthy democracy
  • online engagement by public servants, involving robust professional discussion as part of their duties or as private citizens, benefits their agencies, their professional development, those with whom they are engaged and the Australian public. This engagement should be enabled and encouraged.

Challenging though, in terms of the amount of change to the existing culture of government that these recommendations will bring about.

Improving guidance and requiring agencies to engage online

For a while now, I have heard from many public servants who see enormous value in being able to more easily and effectively collaborate with other agencies, community stakeholders and citizens in the areas of policy development, planning and service delivery. I have also, however, heard on numerous occasions that the current culture of government and potential consequences of ‘speaking out of line’ have led to public servants remaining quiet and not engaging with the community – in particular where the community are discussing and debating on non-governmental sites and platforms.

This response promises guidelines, freedoms and “active demonstrations of appropriate usage” which will hopefully allay many of those concerns.

Right to Information and the Information Commissioner

For me, one of the most interesting areas of Government 2.0 is that of providing open access to data, both structured but also un-structured. The governments response in these areas is, predictably, a signpost to the Freedom of Information (Reform) Bill 2009 and the draft Information Commissioner Bill 2009). This is the right place for the discussion on this area however I hope that the spirit of Government 2.0 is not lost when those bills are finalised and become legislation. An example is the provision of such information through the data.gov.au portal in the same standardised and open manner as structured data sets to enable re-use. A great example of the is the Federal Register in the US which is made available on the data.gov site in xml format. Government documents must be not simply made available but also made re-usable, searchable and comment-able.

Definition of Commonwealth Record

This is one area where I think both the initial recommendations of the Taskforce and the response of the government require some further thought and concrete examples for Agencies. The response says this:

Under the Archives Act 1983 agencies are required to retain Commonwealth records as defined in that Act. This obligation will continue to apply in the Web 2.0 context. To assist agencies to fulfil this obligation, the NAA will produce guidance on what constitutes a Commonwealth record for the purposes of actions undertaken in the Web 2.0 context. (emphasis mine).

In my view, a Commonwealth record is not dependent on the medium through which that record is created. Accroding to the quoted Act:

“record” means a document, or an object, in any form (including any electronic form) that is, or has been, kept by reason of:

(a)  any information or matter that it contains or that can be obtained from it; or

(b)  its connection with any event, person, circumstance or thing.

So regardless of whether a ‘record’ has been produced using Word or in some Web 2.0 context, the guidance on ‘what constitutes a record’ should surely be the same. Now, as to how those records are captured, archived and disposed of is another matter. Take Twitter as an example, in the US, the Library of Congress is archiving all public tweets from day one of Twitter. Perhaps out of scope for many Agencies, but certainly capturing the tweet streams of agency personal, of response to agency personal or of specific hash tags is not outside the realms of possibility.

Of course, one of the project reports commissioned by the Taskforce addressed this area in great detail and I hope that it’s recommendations are given the attention they deserve as the Government begins to roll out guidelines in this area.

Final Thoughts

The Response, like the original Report, heralds a new step on the journey to a different way of ‘doing government’, a fundamental change which will take time, will be met with both hostility and excitement; with fear and renewed hope. The cultural change both inside and outside of government will be huge; the role of legislation will need to give way to a degree to experimentation and, in some cases, failures; but the potential outcomes to the community (which after all is the driving purpose behind the Government 2.0 initiatives) are immense.

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