On engaging government with web 2.0

The draft report Engage: getting on with government 2.0 has just been released.  The report is 159 pages long so it’s a fairly hefty piece of work looking at how government can better engage with the Australian public.

The sentiments within the report are good.  Open government is a nice idea but it remains to be seen whether open means “just ajar” or whether the door is really left open.  I am still to see how open government works within a political system that is essentially both protective of information and adversarial politically.  Perhaps there are some lessons from the UK government experience.  From what I hear, open government over there has caused a massive tsunami of useless information being made available at considerable expense.

Engagement is a nice idea too.  Government needs to better hear from, and collaborate with, the public.  There needs to be improved transparency and a more informed conversation between the public and government.  Online engagement will certainly be assisted if Australia ever manages to get a decent and affordable  telecommunications system.  The great Australian broadband initiative is still to come online.

One key message is for better engagement between the public and public servants. However, I sense from the report that what this engagement really means is that government departments increase information on websites to gargantuan proportions and, somehow, this plethora of “government information” is actually what people want.  Using my content management experience, I can tell you that what people use the internet for is to complete a particular task, or find out some information to complete a task, not just a casual trawl through government documents for the fun of it!

The report does talk about the web 2.0 tools and suggests that they can be used to facilitate greater engagement and interaction between the public and government.  The trouble is, for these tools to be effective they have to be placed within an information architecture and organisational culture that is not currently the norm, and in some cases completely opposed to openness and innovation.  Such conservative long-held public service cultural norms will not easily be dismantled and this will certainly limit the effectiveness of web 2.0 tools.  The tools won’t be the problem, but the operational architecture and hierarchical workforce structure of government will be inhibitors.

The online engagement strategy using public servants is also interesting.  I think this aspect will involve some major organisational cultural shifts, especially at senior levels of the public service.  Engaging online with public servants  has some pretty important ramifications. 

To start with, public servants work for the Minister first and the workplace culture is still one of protectiveness rather than openness. I’d love to see a truly open and innovative public service but I am not confident that one will emerge quickly enough to really make true public engagement count.  The notion of a public service that offers fearless and frank advice, let alone responds that way to the public, remains elusive in the current Australian political domain.

Furthermore,  there needs to be better funding of public servant agencies to allow people to allocate time to engage and respond to the public.  It’s all very well to say that government information is a public resource, but it’s people in the public service who have to find the time to provide appropriate information, and actually find and deliver the necessary information.  One only has to experience the intricacies of obtaining assistance through Centrelink, Veterans Affairs, and Health to know how difficult and time-consuming obtaining the right information can be.

There is likely to be a significant resource issue here since the technology alone will not be sufficient to really provide true levels of public-government engagement.  Perhaps the web 2.0 technologies, and some traditional web 1.0 technologies, will help governments provide a platform for engagement.  But these are only platforms.  This is why I fear that government websites will become massive dumping grounds for information rather than true portals of public-government engagement.  Plonk a trillion words and documents on a website and bingo – engagement!  It really doesn’t sound like a pathway for successful engagement to me.

There is also the issue about understanding what is required and who has the ability and capacity to find it.  As any librarian knows, the “reference interview” is sometimes difficult in any one-to-one encounter, let alone online.  In many public service agencies, these type of informal information requests come to a “library” or some “library-like function” because libraries are traditionally staffed by people whose experience is understanding the reference question and finding the resources best suited in answering the question.  Unfortunately, there is a perception in some quarters that libraries are not needed, or are not key players, within government departments.  Oddly, there are no additional resources elsewhere in government departments to undertake this kind of work, let alone by people skilled in finding, reviewing, and making quality judgements on.  Once again, I fear engagement only goes as far as a website crammed to the gunwales with information….and then sinking slowly under the weight.  Still, there might be opportunities for content managers and librarians in this area of government engagement.

The draft report also makes recommendations about privacy, security, and the “Commonwealth Record”.  Well folks, I gotta say, that many government agencies don’t have a complete understanding or proper record of the historical and current information within its own walls.  Unless there is significant investment in electronic document and records management, there can be no guarantee that government  information will be input onto a database within the organisation, let alone found and made available at the appropriate level of security and with accurate version control.  Records management and knowledge management need far greater attention in government than is currently the case.

I truly hope that the Australian government is open to many of the recommendations in the report, especially the important issues of openness and citizen engagement.  The job won’t be easy but I can say with confidence that there are plenty of information professionals – librarians, content managers, information architects, knowledge managers, records managers, information specialists, and web editors – that are keen to make the report’s message a reality if only government would give them the responsibility, the authority and resources to make it actually happen.

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