The public service in a Wikileaks world – Part 1

There is a lot of emotion around the entire Wikileaks issue at the moment. So before continuing I want to make it clear that none of what I have written here is a swipe at our American colleagues. Rather, my view is that all of us – public servants and citizens need to face up to to the many issues and questions the entire situation raises for us. Just like in the United States here in Australia their is a fair bit of emotion in relation to Julian Assange and Wikileaks. That being said, what has taken place has really demonstrated the power of social media to change the game.

Like many people I have been following the work of Wikileaks. In particular I’ve been doing a lot of research to get my head around the ideas of Julian Assange. You might like to check out Swedish Television’s Jesper Huor and Bosse Lindquist rough-cut of the first in-depth documentary on WikiLeaks and the people behind it. WikiRebels: The Documentary | WikiLeaks & Julian Assange

In a lot of what Julian Assange has to say there is a strong element of democracies having lost their way due to the practices of their governments. Specifically, the withholding of information from their citizens to cover up wrong doing, shocking decision making and murder. Personally, I could not agree more with what Julian Assange is saying.

There is a historical thread running through Assange’s ideas. I think it flows like this. Go back to the source of western democratic ideas and practices and we have Athenian democracy – not perfect, but with a small population on a small island democracy could work.

Jump to the industrial age and we end up with bigger and more complex systems. The solution? Bureaucracy. The consequence of that solution? Hierarchy and the control of information.

Fast track to the information age and we see increasing tensions between the bureaucratic control of the flow of information and the need to share information. Then we get social media. Quite literally a weapon for the sharing of information and a nightmare come true for those bureaucracies that like to withhold information from citizens and, indeed, their staff (which at some level is all of them).

There is obviously much more complexity in relation to all this, but I think the fact of the matter is that Wikileas has disrupted the very concept of bureaucracy and exposed on a huge scale the dubious behaviour of politicians and how democratic governments work in practice.

Taking all that into account it is not a long bow to draw to say that the public service needs to start to consider how it is going to operate in a much more open world. Yes, many would argue we have come a fair way. For example, with the declaration of open government. However, how open is open now? Should public servants really have to go along with spin and the withholding of information? What about the withholding of information from staff?

My personal view is that we need to start considering these questions now because governments rely on public servants to do their bidding. That means public servants also have a role to play in terms of supporting democracy and encouraging good behaviour on the part of politicians. It is no longer going to be good enough for any public service (at least in democratic countries), to support behaviours and practices that are at odds with democratic traditions and the free flow of information.

Wikileaks and Julian Assange have exposed, to varying degrees, a dark cultural underbelly. That is why so many politicians and their representatives are so shrill and venal at the moment.

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