Turnbull's Government 2.0 vision

The Shadow Communications minister berates Labor's half-hearted commitment to transparency and reckons it's almost as if they have something to hide.

Let me start by thanking the Australian Computer Society for hosting this conference and offering me the opportunity to speak here this morning.

Information technology and communication networks play a crucial role in our economy and are becoming almost as important in our lives beyond work. We – and by ‘we’ I mean end users – increasingly take them for granted. The proportion of Australia’s population who respond with equanimity to separation from their smart devices, outages in the networks that carry their data, or downtime for the applications and services they rely on is becoming smaller and smaller every day.

And as technology becomes more pervasive and our everyday reliance on it increases, the responsibilities which fall upon the shoulders of ICT professionals, such as yourselves, are growing just as quickly.The next two days are an opportunity to discuss these challenges with your peers, listen to experts across a range of disciplines, learn how different organizations are responding to emerging demands and technologies, and share your own wisdom and experience. Box huggers can fret about the imminence of the cloud and what it is going to do to them. 

This is an incredibly exciting time in technology. The real unit cost of capturing, storing, transmitting and processing data has been falling more or less continuously for four decades.Now as these technologies and the way we combine them become more mature, we are seeing just how powerful and transformational they can be.

Individuals possess new way to communicate and interact, enjoy greater convenience in many of their transactions, and have unprecedented access to knowledge.Businesses have powerful tools for improving their understanding of their customers, evaluating and more efficiently organizing their operations, and reaching new markets. Developing countries are using rapid adoption of ICT to leapfrog stages in earlier periods of economic development and more rapidly catch up with the advanced nations, such as our own. Digital content and fast networks are upending established industries such as media and entertainment, opening the door for new players, more participation by consumers and different forms of content.

And governments. Well, let’s talk about governments. Specifically, today I’m going to discuss what’s come to be known as Government 2.0. Broadly, that is a term which refers to using IT and the internet to achieve a number of overlapping and reinforcing objectives.

Among the most important of them are the following:

  • Improving the efficiency and convenience of existing public services, often by providing more opportunities for users to specify preferences or tailor interfaces. This builds on earlier efforts to provide online access to many routine services.
  • Leveraging the vast quantities of raw data that governments accumulate by delivering new services that mine this data for value, and providing opportunities for external players such as private sector developers to access data and create such services. Think of all the great apps that have been developed. TripView in Sydney is one I use all the time, which uses City Rail data to provide a very easy interface on a smart device that enables you to know when the next train is coming.
  • Another objective is to make government decisions and on-the-ground activities and policy developments much more open and transparent. 
  • Another one is increasing opportunities for government agencies to interact and collaborate with the public, including interests affected by a particular initiative or change in the law.

Now it’s easy to see how these objectives are connected. For instance, transparency about the timetable and process for developing a policy and a precise specification of the objectives it is intended to achieve are pre-conditions for any push to obtain more detailed and meaningful feedback from interests that are affected , or to unearth a more effective or less costly solution by crowd-sourcing the problem.

The idea that we are entering a second phase of public sector use of the internet and ICT is of course derived from Web 2.0, itself a shorthand description for the more interactive and collaborative ‘social’ internet and we’ve seen gradually evolve over the last 10 years or so.

It’s exemplified by companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Tumblr and by all those wikis – the shared read/write web pages increasingly used in organizations to document collaborative activity and the knowledge this generates. Another name for Web 2.0 could be the ‘read/write’ Internet.

The potential for increased and more effective government/citizen interaction if we translate these ideas to the public sector is not hard to see. The United Nations expresses it this way in its e-Government survey, and I quote: “A range of opportunities for citizen participation are offered by Web 2.0, a term that refers to web applications that facilitate interactive information sharing, interoperability, user-centred design and collaboration.”

While Web 2.0 doesn’t automatically assume particular standards or technologies, it relies heavily on licensing that permits transformation of published content, technical abstractions such as AJAX, and XML-based metadata.

And likewise, although Government 2.0 doesn’t define or specify particular technologies or standards, it’s widely agreed use of open standards greatly increases the likelihood that it will be in fact successful. Examples include the use of standard, settled licenses and intellectual property arrangements for documents, raw data or data feeds that are made publicly available, and non-proprietary technical interfaces or APIs wherever these need to be exposed.

Over the past few years Government 2.0 has been an important theme in many advanced economies, with extraction of value from accumulated non-sensitive data, greater openness and improved interaction with citizens being the consistent themes. In 2009 there were major commitments from governments in both the US and UK governments to make a large quantity of their accumulated data available on the internet.

In Britain David Cameron and the Conservative Party promised prior to the 2010 UK election to increase online disclosure of information about procurement, parliamentary processes and debates and government decisions, positioning this as part of a broader push for decentralisation and a return of power to citizens. 

There is plenty of evidence that these efforts are more than just window-dressing.

Sites where raw data is made available to external users such as data.gov in the US and data.gov.uk in Great Britain have succeeded in encouraging developers to create consumer-facing applications which offer a demonstration of the value which can be provided by packaging government data in compelling and easy-to-understand form.

In the US, where recovery from the GFC-induced 2009 recession has been painfully slow until pretty recently and unemployment is still 8.3 per cent, an app named “Employment Market Explorer” provides job hunters with the ability to compare their local market to the broader picture. They can compare local, regional and state unemployment rates and analyse labour market dynamics and demand trends in each of them.

It’s very easy to see the value of such a tool in a vast and diffuse nation where individuals are famously willing to relocate in pursuit of economic opportunity.

In the UK one of the most celebrated Government 2.0 applications has been FillThatHole.org.uk. This is an app which permits residents to automatically register potholes with their local council – and obliges the Council to then acknowledge that maintenance at that particular site is necessary. Think of the transaction costs of persuading a local government authority to repair a road hazard in the pre-Government 2.0 days, what it would have required – perhaps attendance at a council meeting, which are typically held late night in a hall, a council hal; badgering of councillors; desperate pleas; perhaps even the disappearance of a small cars or a bicycle into the pothole before its existence is even acknowledged. Now British drivers who spot a pothole don’t even need to know which council is responsible for the road in question; they just fill out a simple webform.

In Australia, too, there has been a good deal of attention paid to these issues over the past few years. The Australian Government Information Management Office within the Department of Finance has been studying how the community interacts with the public sector since 2005, and Government 2.0 has constituted an important part of its work over the past few years. 

As in the UK and the US, a significant volume of non-sensitive data has been made publicly available at www.data.gov.au and there are a handful of applications, about 15, that exploit it; perhaps the most famous to this point has been Dunny Directories, which provides the location of public conveniences on a mobile device for those in urgent need of relief. But it is clear to say that progress has been much slower than in the US or UK, especially in respect of the non-data parts of the agenda. 

Half-hearted commitment to openess

I would argue that it is equally clear that this in large part reflects both the Labor Government’s half-hearted commitment to openness, and a public sector culture which is also yet to make the necessary adjustments in attitude needed for Government 2.0 and is frankly, that it is not yet fully adept with the technologies it involves. Technology is often not the challenge; it is the technological imagination that is in greatest scarcity.

Labor’s double standards in this area can be seen in many areas. One of the clearest is their refusal to disclose to Parliament detailed quarterly information about the progress of the NBN or to subject it to the full effect of the Freedom of Information laws.

I had intended not to mention the NBN today, but now I have. But it has to be said: it’s almost as though they have something to hide.

Now, a taskforce on Government 2.0 headed by Dr Nicholas Gruen reported to AGIMO on these matters at the end of 2009. It’s notable that Nicholas’s most important conclusions were: 

That public servants should engage with the community by “forming or joining existing online communities of interest around issues of relevance to government policy, service delivery and regulation.” He argued this would lead to more citizen-centric policy.

That the release of public sector information be positioned as invitation to the public to engage, innovate and create new value.

And that public servants be encouraged and rewarded for engaging online, as opposed to being disciplined, without compromising their impartiality and professionalism.

Now it is fair to point out that the openness and willingness to frankly disclose the details of policy development needed to genuinely advance Government 2.0 in these areas is contrary to many of the traditions of the Westminster System. In all of the variants of that system of government public servants are seen as playing a very different role – seen but not heard, supporting the government of the day regardless of their personal opinions, in fact not expressing their personal opinions, and very much not intended to be the public advocates for policy or engaging with the public in respect of policy.

Now Government 2.0 does compromise that tradition. Instead of politicians being the sole interfaces with the public, public servants increasingly would be part of that interface. But the benefits are enormous. The benefits are absolutely enormous and Governments should not be left behind.

Nick Gruen provided a good summary of what we ought to be trying to achieve here and it is all about putting the citizen at the centre. And this is how he defines it:

“Being truly citizen-centred means placing the citizen at the centre of the entire public service endeavour. This requires a meaningful commitment to actively engaging and empowering people at all points along the service delivery chain — from high-level program and policy formulation all the way to the point of service delivery, and capturing feedback from the users of services.”

Now part of the key challenge here is recognising that there is no public servant, no politician, no expert, whose brilliant idea or plan could not be improved by the input and assessment and criticism of others. And of course Web 2.0 enables us to do that in a way that was hitherto so cumbersome it was unworkable.

So to make Government 2.0 to work, it requires a change in the mindset of both politicians and public servants. It requires a degree of humility and a preparedness to look out for, to seek out, the views of others in a very engaging way. Often when the public are invited to make submissions about policies, those submissions are ignored or are treated as just the untutored, naïve contributions of the ill-educated. We all have to do a lot better than that, quite frankly. And if you just look at the policy failures of this current Government, so many of them could have been avoided by better engagement.

Now think of the Mining Resources Rent Tax, the MRRT, that’s just passed through the Parliament. Concluded – I suppose there’s no longer such thing as a smoke-filled room but we could imagine it was a smoke-filled room – concluded anyway in a closed room between the Government and the three biggest mining companies. The officials were chucked out of the room at one point. An absolutely shocking, undemocratic way to create any policy. But there had been a complete failure during the development of this whole resource taxation issue to properly engage the public.

And you know, at the outset – and this is something I wrote about at length in the Fin Review on the weekend, so I apologise to those of you who have already read it. But the resource super profits tax which was the original policy rock on which all of this foundered was based on an elegant but utterly uncommercial assumption which ran like this: Because the Government, so it was proposed, would accept a put – that is to say, pick up the tab – for 40 per cent of the unrecovered costs of a mining project. And this is where the elegance continues but the commerciality ceased, therefore the cost of capital for the promoter of that project as to 40 per cent of the project, should be no more than the long-term Government bond rate.

Now that’s a sort of a Brown tax on the cheap. If you wanted to do that properly, you would have to put the money up front. If you put the money upfront, it would be a different equation. But having a guarantee or a put to the Commonwealth at the end of the project is something that the market – commercial people, of which I used to be one – would regard with absolute cynicism and attribute no value to.

So that concept was developed between the Treasurer’s office and the then-Prime Minister’s office, no doubt. But had it been broadly discussed, had that issue been both discussed and debated, both at a tabloid level but also in the detail and with the intellectual rigour that a well managed engagement on the web can achieve, the uncommerciality of that proposal would have been clearly exposed and the Government would never have gone out with it. It wouldn’t have been good for the opposition, of course.

But the Government would never have gone out with it and therefore you wouldn’t have had the shambles of policy making that ended up with the MRRT, which will end up in judgement satisfying absolutely nobody. Because the miners will not be happy that they’re paying extra tax and those people who think the miners should be paying more tax will be outraged they’re not paying enough tax, or very much tax at all in the final event.

So I’d say to you because I know many of you are, most of you are probably working with government here, given the location of this conference. There is a big opportunity here, we have the tools, the barrier is our technological imagination, our preparedness to change our mindset and to recognise that we can mobilise much greater resources for policy making and governments if we bring people in. 

Better engagement for better policy outcomes 

And I’ll leave you with this thought. Governments have traditionally seen freedom of information as being a price, a heavy price that they have to pay in order to live in a democracy. There are very few public servants in my experience, and very few politicians for that matter, who would not believe – they mightn’t say this but they would not believe that their policy-making and the discharge of their obligations and duties would be more effectively and efficiently done if it could all be done without the scrutiny of the press, and without the scrutiny of the public. 

It reminds me of lawyers who say that it’s a wonderful profession if only they could only not deal with any clients it would be perfect. This assumption that freedom of information and transparency is just a price we have to pay to live in a democracy, is absolutely wrong. Yes, it is a price we pay to live in a democracy and it’s well worth the price, but my point is that we will have better policy outcomes if we are prepared to engage.

Now that requires a couple of things and I’ll just leave you with these thoughts as none of this is simple. Politicians like myself are going to have to be more disciplined when these issues are under consideration and are being debated and resist the invitation from the media to rule this in and rule that out. 

Most media interviews with politicians are not designed to elicit information but are designed to trap politicians because the whole culture of the media’s engagement with politicians nowadays is largely a ‘gotcha’ exercise. It’s not invariably the case but it’s very often the case. So what politicians have got to do is to be able to say if there is an issue out there and there are ten options or more, talk knowledgeably about them, canvass a few pros and cons, when they say ‘will you rule out doing this?’ say ‘hang on, we’ve got a process going on here and I’m going to respect it, I’m going to respect it. I am not going to shut anything off because that would be treating the people with whom we are engaging with contempt and we’re not going to do that so we’re going to engage them.’

Winston Churchill once said complaining about the media is like complaining about the weather – it might make you feel better but it’s not going make any difference. But the other thing is that the media needs to be more focused on information and policy and less on the game, the gotcha game of political one-upmanship. If I could just give a good local example here – I want to give it a gold star – is in what’s a burgeoning area in what’s now called data journalism. Really, journalism should be data journalism — it’s only significant because for quite a while there hasn’t been very much of it.

You would have seen this week the front page of the Canberra Times. Now Edmund Tadros and Markus Mannheim produced an excellent report and an online interactive on Labor’s very expensive reliance on external consultants.

They’re spending more than $500 million a year on KPMG –, @craftyninja here would say that’s money well spent – and Price Waterhouse Coopers mainly to justify policies like the National Broadband Network when all they needed to do of course was proper cost-benefit analysis in the first case. And they had a good agency to do that for them in the Productivity Commission. 

But the main point is that this report, a very useful piece of work, was compiled exclusively by examining contracts posted to the website AusTender that’s tenders.gov.au.

So that’s a good example of how skillful journalists can take advantage of more data coming online and then presenting it and packaging it in a form that makes it more accessible for the general reader.

So congratulations to all of you for the work you do. I hope your two days are very enlightening and don’t be defensive, remember nerds rock. Thank you


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