Gov 2.0 culture needs nurture (and a catalyst) – and we’re not there yet

Republished from the original post at acidlabs. Please comment as well there if you can.

Earlier this week, I attended the FutureGov Forum Australia.

It was an interesting event, not least because the talking head component was kept to a reasonable minimum, with the model focussed on rotating tables with each new table hosting a discussion with attendees on a particular topic associated with the future of government. It worked well, although a few less topics (or some refinement) so we could spend longer with each group would have been a bonus. I spent the two days of the event mostly seated at the Government 2.0 table (thanks to Martin Stewart-Weeks of Cisco And the Government 2.0 Taskforce who generously let me horn in on his subject of expertise), but also paid visits to the Open Data and Citizen Engagement tables.

Much has been made in subsequent days of AGIMO’s Anne Steward’s comments that public servants need to be “Gov 2.0 activists”, driving change in their own agencies toward the Taskforce’s vision of Government 2.0. I agree with her, wholeheartedly.

That said, as I spoke at the forum with a range of public servants from all three levels of government and a wide range of agencies, one telling fact was apparent – in spite of all the scaffolding being in place for agencies to take real, substantial steps towards Government 2.0 in their agencies, many blocks, predominantly cultural ones, continue to persist.

Let’s be abundantly clear here, everything that needs to be done to make Government 2.0 a reality from the perspective of the legislative and executive arms of government has been done:

  • the government has accepted the Government 2.0 Taskforce’s recommendations
  • the government has also accepted all of the recommendations of the Moran Review, which supports and expands on the work of the Taskforce
  • the APSC has issued crystal clear guidance for public servants on using social tools
  • several agencies have issued their own policies and guidance that could be adopted by other agencies

Yet, the reticence to engage persists. The predominant use of social tools by government remains outward bound, transmitting old style messages via new tools. Rarely, if at all, do public servants at any level in this country actively and openly participate in public social spaces with respect to their work and the work of their agencies. As Taskforce Chairman, Nicholas Gruen notes, “…can’t we just take some baby steps. Pleeeesse?”

That post by Nick Gruen is worth reading, actually. It makes abundantly clear that the barriers are down, but that the public servants seem not to be daring to step over. To my mind, it’s that next step that needs to take place. Now, or sooner.

So, to hark back to the people I spoke with this week at the FutureGov Forum, the same old chestnuts kept coming up:

  • their IT security people wouldn’t approve access to these tools – frankly, IT security people need to get the hell out of the way, and to read this
  • their senior executive see no reason to grant access – what, an explicit imprimatur from the government isn’t enough?
  • they don’t understand the tools – just have a go, it’s not that hard
  • they are afraid of what people will do with their open data – erm, who’s doing evil with their data now and if there are unpleasant messages in the data, maybe the policy or program the data is related to needs fixing

All these (the list isn’t limited to those things, but they are the obvious ones) are matters of culture. They are things that could, with the right catalyst and nurturing, be changed over the relatively short term.

It’s time that a senior minister (yes, yes, we’re in an election – but we won’t be soon) and some very senior public servants – say the APSC Commissioner and the Secretary of PM&C – had a quiet sit down with the Secretaries and other agency heads and told them to make this happen. Now. We need an active catalyst or catalysts on the inside – an Australian equivalent to Tim Berners-Lee, Vivek Kundra or Andrew Stott. An ongoing irritant for the slow-movers.

Beyond making it happen, politicians and public servants need to explicitly move to a place where participation by public servants in the discourse about their work isn’t seen as a negative behavior laden with career risk. No wonder people are reticent when they think their actions will see them hauled before management or a Senate Estimates hearing. This must change.

We also need an active, high profile and necessarily noisy catalyst outside the government making things happen and being an irritant to those holding things up. In the US, Tim O’Reilly and Craig Newmark are ably filling that role. As passionate as Nicholas Gruen is here in Australia, I think he’s not publicly visible enough beyond the politico-tragic-media-wonk-o-sphere™ (I’m delighted, by the way, that I got to use that phrase twice today) – Newmark and O’Reilly appear regularly front-and-center in the US media.

I don’t have the answers, but have a significant number of ideas. They seem doable to me and they seem to align with the ideas of people like Anne Steward and Nicholas Gruen.

So what’s the problem?

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