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Public engagement. Public empowerment.

My keynote from GOVIS 2009 – User Centred Government: More than meets the eye.

The GOVIS tag line is “Connect. Share. Learn.”

So my first question is where is the conference wifi network for all of us to connect? It’s a must have for every conference these days.

Why are we recording the conference proceedings for later distribution? Why aren’t we streaming them live over the ‘Net and recording them?

Where are the tools for all of us to give direct input to the conference sessions as they happen? An integrated backchannel?

My question for all of you is, how many of you are connected and sharing right now, so that your colleagues who aren’t here can be learning from your experience?

How many of you are learning from each other?

How many of you know what your peers from other agencies think of what’s happening at this conference? More specifically, do you know in real time?

I ask, because these are important and relevant questions in the context of open government. Participation on your part is a critical component of the bigger picture.

I ask, because it’s completely doable using free, publicly available tools. In fact, the conference web site points some of those tools out – Flickr, Delicious, Twitter, Slideshare. And that connecting, sharing and learning is happening there. Only you don’t know about it because you’re not connected.

So, here are the rules I generally give my presentations under. I fully expect you to follow them.

  • everything and anything is possible – ask why and why not and expect a real answer
  • there are no bad ideas – just different ones
  • passive consumption is pointlessdo tweet, blog, comment, challenge and ask – you get out of this what you put in

If you have the tools here to be participating in this keynote, get them out now and use them!

Connect. Share. Learn.

Where have we been?

Direct engagement in politics has been the purview of an educated and powerful few until recent times. Indeed, the role of the politician, and the executive that serves him or her has largely been to tell us, the sheep-like masses, what is good for us and to expect us to blithely follow along. We change our minds only in the face of corruption and excess, and exercise our democratic rights to switch to a lesser evil at times of election.

But oh, my! How the world has changed. The Beast of the hyperconnected masses slouches ever closer to the Bethlehem of political engagement. And the Beast wants to talk. With you. Yes, you. The politician and the public servant. Directly, or at least more directly. And to hear from you – preferably a lot sooner than the next election or major policy or program roll out.

Two years ago, at the last GOVIS, my friend and colleague, Tara Hunt, gave a keynote entitled Government 2.0: Architecting for Collaboration. In that keynote, Tara spoke of a structure for open, engaged government that riffed off Tim O’Reilly’s rules for Web 2.0. Not so tenuous a linkage as you might think. Tara’s proposed architecture centered on a rich, collaborative ecosystem of linkages between:

  • a citizen and a service provider
  • a researcher and the information
  • a citizen and a public servant
  • a citizen and her information
  • a citizen and her experience with the government

Two years on, where are we? In this country and in Australia, we seem to be tinkering around the edges at best. Yet, we’ve seen fundamental shifts in the governments in both our countries – governments that came to power at least in part on the basis of offering a brighter future of consideration and understanding of the needs of the public.

We could be so much further on.


Possibly the biggest obvious shift towards public engagement with government occurred with the election of President Obama in late 2008. The jury remains out, of course, as to whether the changes brought about by the new US administration will prove to be a real groundswell in the opening of government and the engagement of the public. However, the future looks bright. At least at the moment.

Let’s have a look at an announcement from the Obama Administration about the formation of the Office of Public Engagement.

There’s a vitally important quote in that video that goes to the heart of what I’m talking about:

Our commitment to openness means more than simply informing the American people about how decisions are made. It means recognizing that government does not have all the answers, and that public officials need to draw on what citizens know.

That announcement, and the program it speaks of, is something that at present, I simply can’t imagine in Australia.

A close friend of mine who happens to work for the State Department at the US Embassy in Canberra told me a story a few weeks back. We were at breakfast, with a group of people who meet every couple of weeks. What do we have in common? All of us do work that involves us using social media in one form or another.

This was my friend’s first time at this breakfast. On that day, he met people who work in state and federal government, who work for PR companies and for nonprofits like the RSPCA.

And he told us something pretty amazing. And frankly, pretty cool.

About six weeks before, all the staff at the State Department, he was assuming world wide, had received a directive to engage with the public. To “… get out there on Twitter and Facebook and whatever” and have a conversation with people. They were actively encouraged, and very nearly mandated, to act as ambassadors and evangelists for their government. Right down to the most junior staff. No more would media units and PR spin doctors be the sole intermediaries, struggling to control a conversation they had, in reality, lost control of years before. Instead, the conversation has been radically disintermediated with real people, doing real jobs, each now a part of the public and engaging face of the US government.

He was excited. He felt empowered. And it was the motivating force behind him coming to his first Canberra Social Media Breakfast.

In the UK, too, things are afoot. Just last week, the public announcement came of the appointment of Andrew Stott as the Director of Digital Engagement. The role is as the most senior public communicator in the UK Civil Service focused specifically on the digital channel. Of course, the media immediately labeled him the “Twitter Tsar”, but the job is far more than that.

In a role fraught with risk and opportunity, Andrew Stott has the chance to bring the British government and its engagement with its hyperconnected constituency rushing into the 21st Century. There is much to be gained if he gets it right.

Nothing remotely like those examples exists in my country.

Where are we now?

The people want to engage. They want to have a conversation with a legislature and executive that listen to what they have to say. It’s not so important that they act on all our wishes – more, it’s important that people are heard, and can hear back from those in government in a more human way.

Pronouncements of what is good for us and Nanny Stating no longer cut it.

In his incredibly important work, The Experience of Middle Australia, internationally recognised sociologist, Dr Michael Pusey of UNSW states:

…change has depleted the resources that were once provided by… older, denser forms of association.

In a hyperconnected world, our ability to readopt these denser forms of association, made sustainable by tools such as social networks, become reality. We become the true global village, as much the neighbor to the bloke next door as some geographically remote but by association, close, neighbor with whom we share an interest.

Our families and governing structures no longer inhabit a nearby, day or two’s ride from our wattle and daub huts. Rather, we live in a 24x7x365, always-on world where our village truly is global. In a world where we can be and are increasingly on, we face the very real risk of political, social and cultural hyperisolation if we fail to participate as individuals and as part of society.

Already, we see this happening in our own lives as we increasingly turn to trusted sources for information, turning our back in growing numbers on the formal media which has yet to catch up with this engaged super-community. We empower ourselves to make better, more informed decisions and to take action on those decisions.

This gathering together to do as we need, when we need, with whom we need, learning as we go, is the core premise of NYU professor, Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody.

It is also the foundation of many of the lectures of my friend, Mark Pesce, as he discusses the growing power of the connected community. In his talk, Hyperpolitics (American Style), given at last year’s Personal Democracy Forum in New York, Mark connected the dots for us when he said:

Hyperconnectivity begets hypermimesis begets hyperempowerment.

Today, quite literally, the notion of power to the people is more true than ever.

And it’s true because government by its very nature is not built to operate in a connected 21st Century – it is often too slow, too risk averse, too monolithic.

In many ways, the public has more or less invoked Gilmore‘s Law on the executive and in places, is not far off doing the same to the legislature. We will “route around the damage” and do for ourselves what government seems incapable or unwilling to do for us.

Sometimes, it’s just about getting a pothole filled, as FixMyStreet allows you to do in the UK and Canada .

Or perhaps it’s about making sure you understand, and can hold to account, your local member for their level of contribution to their elected office. TheyWorkForYou in the UK, and its local equivalents in Canada, Australia and here in New Zealand, are powerful tools to keep a check on the activities of politicians, their parties and the organisations they are associated with.

You have to wonder why these services, services of unarguable importance, needed to be built bythe pople at mySociety. Why weren’t they built by government? Why did they need to be built at all? If we had the open, engaged conversation we’re talking about today with government, perhaps we wouldn’t feel the need to watch the watchers.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Of course, it’s not just about keeping tabs on our politicians. More importantly, it’s about giving the public more direct access to and input into policy making and legislative activity.

In Australia, the right noises are beginning to be made. Less than a fortnight ago, Federal Finance Minister, Lindsay Tanner had this to say:

I’m a great believer in these collaborative technologies opening up some tremendous possibilities for better government.

Trouble is, this message doesn’t seem to be making its way down to the doers, the public servants on the ground who want to engage in communities of practice and shared knowledge, or are keen to help out where they can with a client having a problem. Whether or not it’s actually their job.

In fact, despite more than one official document declaring quite clearly that public servants are not only entitled to engage online, but encouraged to do so should they wish, most government departments in Australia have tightly restricted networks with near-draconian rules about what web sites are permitted to be seen. And woe betide any public servant seen online in a social network. Demonstrably, it’s slacking off.

Here in New Zealand, too, the government recognises the value of social media and its part in the conversation that the public sector and the governments it serves need to have with the public in order to provide the best advice to government and implement the best informed, most widely consulted programs and policies.

I wonder though, for this country and my own, just how many of the doers are engaged in those conversations? How many of their managers and leaders are accepting this groundswell? How many are embracing the cultural shift and encouraging their people to be out there connecting, live and in color, with the public?

Just imagine in this country if your political representatives and policy makers were really listening and engaged in the unarguably heated conversation over the Section 92A amendments to the Copyright Act. Perhaps the New Zealand Internet Blackout campaign would never have happened and the embarrassing back-down that took place need never have occurred.

In Australia, too, we have an active online voice with respect to our government’s proposed imposition of a mandatory “clean feed”, filtering out the nasties we no doubt need to be protected from as we “think of the children”.

The government appears deaf to the intelligent and informed argument against this ill-considered policy and the potentially hundreds of millions of dollars it could cost to implement if it comes to be. The clean feed is not only technically impractical – potentially slowing Australia’s Internet speed by a substantial factor – it is a policy that is largely simply not wanted by Australians. Further, the risky legal framework around the blacklist that will underpin the clean feed, lacks transparency and possibility for review.

These are just two examples. If government and the public sector were engaged in a conversation in a more open way with the public, things might be different.

Perhaps, with the benefit of hindsight, there will be a little more listening to the informed public view when both the legislature and the executive are more engaged online in a fashion that meets the expectations of the growing online community. A community who expect to be heard. A community desperately keen to engage with government and the public sector at every level.

My own local Senator, Kate Lundy, in a conjuring of the theories of the German philosopher and sociologist, Jürgen Habermas, has instituted a series of events she is terming The Public Sphere. Open to all comers, the events are run in parallel – online and off – along a theme with the aim of gathering views, opinions and experience that would otherwise not get a hearing in the halls of power. The outcomes from these events will form briefing papers to be taken back to the party room in an effort to influence policy and legislative agendas.

This is a real effort to engage in the idea of Government 2.0 – making government more accessible to the public, encouraging collaboration and idea sharing, looking for the best thinking and building trust in a group – politicians and public servants – who often struggle for trust from the public. The trust and social capital built on both sides acts to make access to government easier, transparency greater and the canvassing of opinion much, much faster.

What needs to happen, and happen soon, is a radical reimagining of the way in which governments engage and converse with the public. It’s no longer necessary nor sufficient, to make proclamations from on high. The constituency wants, and parts of it are demanding, an engaged, two-way and ongoing conversation with both politicians and the public sector. In places, this is already happening. In the UK, a significant number of local government bodies and an increasing number of national bodies are engaging one on one with the public. In the US, too, government bodies are increasingly engaged with the public they serve.

How else do you account for an oversubscribed event, capped at 500 attendees, that took place in Washington DC just a few weeks ago? The Government 2.0 Camp was a resounding success in attracting politicians, public sector workers and a wide range of informed and engaged others to open up the conversation that must occur, taking input and participation from any interested party, and not just those who can afford lobbyists.

Beyond conversation across the wall – between the government and its constituency – there is another opportunity. It’s an opportunity that many might be more willing to try. That opportunity is to do all this amongst yourselves – intra- and inter-agency conversation and collaboration; a community of peers who can share and build on knowledge you might otherwise not have the chance to discuss.

An effort along these lines has begun with GovDex in Australia, but adoption remains low, with largely experimental communities and continued resistance from many agencies. Yet there are so many opportunities offered by a whole-of-government approach such as this.

Supported by social networking tools within and between agencies, there are countless opportunities to engage in more open conversation, to measurably increase access to expertise, to promote innovative and forward-thinking problem solving and policy formation. This isn’t pie in the sky stuff. There are measured and well-researched benefits to breaking down the silos within and between your organisations and rebooting work practices to a more open and collaborative model.

You need only look to the British documentary, Us Now, recently released for free on the Internet, to see the wealth of opportunities afforded by this shift. Let’s take a quick look.

Further, by reorganising this way culturally, technically and in terms of the skills you give your people, you quite intentionally and directly build competency and expertise in the very business models and tools the public expects you to be using to engage with them. Government 2.0 is as much about the way the public sector and the legislature organises itself as it is about the conversation and interaction with the public. By approaching this from a position of building expertise, you reap the rewards of increased productivity and the ability to deliver better services to the public.

To quote Jason Ryan, of the State Services Commission:

…in the hyperconnected world, engagement is predicated on understanding and utilising social media.

With that understanding – that use and the needed expertise amongst your people – you place your organisations in the box seat to deliver on the promise of Government 2.0. You become that which Government 2.0 most aspires to – an engaged and engaging public sector giving top quality advice to Ministers thanks to an ongoing conversation with the public that involves receiving expert input and breadth of opinion from a diverse and informed base.

I hardly think that’s a bad thing.

In Australia and New Zealand we are now in a desperate race to catch up. If only we can change the way government operates. The connected citizenry already know what’s going on elsewhere and are keen to make their contribution.

Open data

One of the most important factors in engaging and empowering the public in the business of government is open data. In Australia, the Bureau of Statistics has licensed the vast majority of its data under a Creative Commons license. This allows the ABS to distribute its data to anyone that can make use of it. The data is available for use by any individual or organisation that needs it – ready to mash with any other data. But they are one of few.

The newly appointed US Chief Information Officer, Vivek Kundra had this to say on the matter of open data just weeks ago at the 2009 Government Web Managers conference held in Washington:

Government data prepared for public reuse should be offered in multiple-formats, be machine-readable and adhere as closely as possible to lightweight standards.

The opening of data collected by governments, combined with other publicly available data has incredible potential to drive innovation and transform parts of the economy. And the engagement of government in a conversation with its constituency boosts greatly the power of that data freedom.

There are already significant movements, such as the Data Portability Project, who aim to help define a data standard that would allow individuals like you and me control and authorisation rights over the use of data gathered about us as well as assist governments and private enterprise make informed decisions about in what form they should offer their publicly available data.

An agreed-to, truly portable data standard would allow information to be passed between bodies such as government agencies, service providers such as the medical profession and education sector and individuals, based on a set of authorisation and authentication rules attached to the standard.

At the TED conference this year, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, had those of us in the crowd chanting a very important mantra:

Raw data now!

What Sir Tim wants is for governments and business everywhere to release for use the unfiltered, unchanged data they collect in our names and allow us to use it. To mash it up and to add value to it.

And what value we could add!

Projects like Google’s efforts to index public data around labor statistics and census findings has implications and presents possibilities that could spread globally.

Other works, like Nation Master and the recently released Wolfram Alpha , present so many possibilities that the true implications for global policy-making are difficult to grasp.

In recent months, through the use of open data and an open communications model (sometimes forced upon the agencies), we’ve seen amazing things happen with data on the Victorian bushfires thanks to a joint effort between Google and the Premier’s office

It’s just one example of data being used to increase public safety and inform the population. There are many more.

With the recent H1N1 breakout, through the use of open communication models leveraging social media, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been able to more actively engage in a conversation around the disease breakout and distribute accurate information in a far more immediate and timely way than the twice daily stand-ups of the past.

So too, the World Health organisation is using Twitter and other channels online to converse with and engage the public in an effort to clearly get their message out.

Alongside official efforts, work by interested and engaged third parties, empowered by the availability of open data, is supporting the work of those in government. HealthMap is a graphical work mapping infectious disease reporting across the globe. Work of the importance of HealthMap, and have no doubt about how important it is, can only be empowered by public officials and their organisations who have overcome the fear of sharing and engagement that permeates much of government in the West.

Efforts like this are increasingly common in the US and the UK, yet they are scarcer than hen’s teeth in Australia.

So, I ask you today, are your organisations sharing all the data they could? If not, why not?

Of course, to have an appropriate level of governance to all this data interchange, we probably need government involved somewhere.

In Australia we have seen the government data interchange space best illustrated by the debacle that is NEHTA, the National E-Health Transitional Authority. Infighting and a series of changes in management have seen NEHTA get effectively nowhere in more than five years with a lack of openness, cost blowouts and disagreements, even in the face of an accepted de facto world standard.

Instead, programs such Google Health are moving forward in leaps and bounds. Not that they won’t have problems, but with a will and a deliberate intent to avoid pointless bureaucracy, they are well ahead of government activities, which to date have to be marked “Not good enough.”

You say you want a revolution

This is where we come in. As members of the public and as public servants and politicians, we must engage.

In our remote corner of the world – New Zealand and Australia – we need to engage as citizens and as public servants with the public we serve far more than we have ever before. We need to embrace a more open model of government that values an ongoing conversation with the public around policy, culture, security, trust, transparency and the sharing of information and data.

The largest part of e-Government and e-politics is still seeing the world as just another place to make proclamations and tell people what is good for them and at which Country Women’s Association meeting a politician is turning up at next. We must be the catalyst to change that.

When politicians and public servants truly seek to engage in an ongoing, personal conversation with the public they serve, I believe we will have the opportunity to see a massive increase in public understanding of government. Alongside that, I believe we will see an attendant increase in an ability to get things done, with the public sector and the legislature working hand in hand with an informed, engaged and empowered community.

In a hyperconnected world, we can be more informed than ever before, by more sources and from a broader opinion base than ever previously possible.

We can be engaged in our communities; local, national or global.

We can empower ourselves and others to know and to understand.

And we can act on information available to us in an informed, engaged way.

This is a revolution whose time has come. To somewhat misquote President Obama, not only “Yes we can” but “Yes we must.”

Imagine your public sector, your engagement, your government if this was just what you did.

Connect. Share. Learn.

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