Government 2.0 — the substance behind the semantics

By Pia Andrews

Monday October 28, 2019

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THE PIA REVIEW: PIA ANDREWS This is a Public Sector Pia Review — a series on better public sectors.

Ten years ago, I was part of an optimistic and enthusiastic community that was forming internationally around the possibilities for reimagining government, public sectors, and democracy, by using new opportunities from the Internet and increasingly accessible technologies. It was broadly framed as ‘Government 2.0’, which was both fun but also sparked a continuous semantic argument amongst many. It was fascinating to see people rail for and against the term, when it was the substance of exploring new possibilities and the grassroots sense of exploring new ground together that was the most interesting, important and (potentially) disruptive. 

There was foundational work in 2009 from thought leaders like Tim O’Reilly, who spoke about Government as a Platform (see also his great paper from 2010), which challenged people to think differently about how public sectors could operate if we took the lessons from the Internet, tech sector, and open source. In Australia, the government of the day commissioned an Australian Gov 2.0 Taskforce, which was itself a multi-sector and diverse group led by Dr Nicholas Gruen. The taskforce embarked upon significant public consultation to develop a recommendations paper for the government, which was almost entirely agreed to in the government’s response and which led to a lot of activity within a couple of years, including: 

But the Gov 2.0 Taskforce was also a significant catalyst for bringing people together across different sectors, disciplines, and perspectives around reimagining government. It was a fun and formative time for many people, communities, and organisations, with the ripples still felt. 

Personally, I still draw inspiration and practical guidance from a lot of the work done and from many people I remain connected to. But, there are many people entering the public sector now who don’t know about or appreciate the importance of that time. 

I am particularly concerned to see a repeating pattern of people continually re-discovering ideas that should by now be normalised in our public sectors, like the notion that public participation in public government might have value, or that the public sector can adopt new technologies while also adapting to better and more accountable governance. Or that user-centred and agile methods can improve public outcomes not simply in IT but in anything from service delivery to policy.

Many thanks to Thomas Andrews and Craig Thomler for their peer review of this article, and I do still recommend Craig’s great and long-running blog eGovau, which has a plethora of examples and commentary of the evolution of public sectors over the past 15 years.

I recently re-read a Gov 2.0 primer I wrote 10 years ago and thought it might be helpful as part of this Public Sector Pia Review to briefly revisit the opportunities and lessons from Government 2.0. I would also suggest that perhaps at a grassroots level we need to either reclaim the term or find something else we can rally around so that, at the very least, we can reconnect as a community for mutual support in the very necessary and urgent reforms required for the public sector to continue to be fit for purpose during the increasing pace of change dominating the 21st century, and to best serve the increasingly complex, interdependent, and changing needs of the communities we serve.

A few of us from back then, including some original members of the Gov 2.0 Taskforce, thought it might be interesting and fun to undertake a 10 year review of our progress against the Gov 2.0 Taskforce Report recommendations, and to consider what has happened in the past 10 years and what we need to do next. Not just what we should recommend, but what we, as individuals across sectors, can do to improve and reform our public sectors for better public outcomes. 

If you can, please come along or contribute to our Gov 2.0 Taskforce Ten Years On event on November 16th.

Many thanks to The Mandarin, Cordelta, and the Museum for Democracy for their generous support of the event. 

Firstly, this is about you

I want to first frame this article as being about you. Not your team, your profession, your organisation, your jurisdiction, or your leadership. It is not about the complex context in which you work (particularly if you work in the public sector), nor about all the reasons why this stuff is hard. This is about you choosing to do your part, in whatever shape that takes, to maximise public good, the best public outcomes, and the best public sectors we can create. It is about not waiting to be asked, or for permission, vision, or leadership, but rather to figure out innovative and effective ways to apply your skills, passion, and values every day in everything you do. It is not about being rewarded or lauded — it is about you choosing to deliberately make our society just a little bit better.

This article is primarily directed to Australian audiences, but if you’re in another jurisdiction I hope you’ll still find the following ideas and observations useful.

Getting back to basics: what ‘Government 2.0’ is

When I first heard the term ‘Government 2.0’ I thought it sounded pretty naff. It was obviously riffing on Web 2.0, and a lot of the successes talked about looked like fairly straightforward uses of the Internet by politicians and government agencies. 

A lot of excited people waded into the Government 2.0 debate with talk about access to data and transparent decision-making, or shiny new apps. My view had been they were getting too specific and missing the broader and important need for evolution and transformation of the processes, practices, and structures that were largely shaped in the 18th century or earlier.

Wikipedia defines Web 2.0 as being second-generation web development and design. I think there are four main identifying features of Web 2.0. I say this not as a Web 2.0 expert, but as a long-time geek observing and participating in this space and continually working with emerging technologies and social trends. Following are foundations for understanding the opportunities of Government 2.0:

  • Online and always connected — being online at all times. This means people can use services/data/systems at their convenience, that data and systems can be constantly used, collected and aggregated. It moves away from the concept of tightly managed interfaces with society and towards opportunities for continual engagement and participation by very large and diverse communities. This necessitates changes to manual or analog approaches.
  • Massive integration and aggregation — facilitates data mashups, cross-platform communications, and the ability to publish once and to many places. This creates both great opportunities and great issues for society, as are currently being keenly felt and debated.
  • Broadcasted peer-to-peer conversations — enables global social networking, online public community development, a shift from one2many (i.e. public statements) to many2many (i.e. online forums and chat), and the range of public and private conversations therein.
  • Beautiful and dynamic user experiences — the shift to a user-centric, dynamic, interactive, and beautiful user experience is an important factor, especially as there is now far more understanding about how people use the Internet and how it differs from other media.

As mentioned in an earlier article, Tim O’Reilly neatly defined Government 2.0 in the best, most accessible and most persistently meaningful way I have seen. This encourages me to continue to use his definition:

“Government 2.0 is not a new kind of government; it is government stripped down to its core, rediscovered and reimagined as if for the first time. And in that reimagining, this is the idea that becomes clear: government is, at bottom, a mechanism for collective action. We band together, make laws, pay taxes,and build the institutions of government to manage problems that are too large for us individually and whose solution is in our common interest. Government 2.0, then, is the use of technology—especially the collaborative technologies at the heart of Web 2.0—to better solve collective problems at a city, state, national, and international level.” — Tim O’Reilly, Government as a Platform (2010)

The opportunity of Government 2.0, then, is the ability, as Tim puts it, to reimagine government and work towards fundamentally better public outcomes in accordance with the values and culture of the society you serve. This necessarily means we need to shift from a 100% reactive approach to things (megatrends, threats, and even opportunities) and start to ensure at least a reasonable proportion of our efforts, time and resources are committed to proactively designing better futures towards which we can progress.

Craig also raised a critical lens:

“… it is about taking ownership of our governance and future, rather than allowing external factors and interests to drive this future. The essence of risk management calls for risks be identified and pre-emptively avoided/mitigated (ahead of responding to realised risks), the essence of preventative health care is to avoid illness through changing behaviours, environments and proactive steps, ahead of treatment with medicines. Gov 2.0 is about thinking about how we organise ourselves for the future, and design the pathway to the future we want from the many possibilities presented (adapting and evolving our understanding as we progress). It is about Leading us into the future, rather than just Managing events as they occur.” — Craig Thomler

Arguably, Government as a Platform is a crucial enabler for Gov 2.0, and indeed for any fundamental transformation of our public sectors to be fit for purpose in the 21st century, as it represents not just a technology or design principle but rather a paradigm shift to governments operating more like a series of high-value nodes in a network that feeds from and into a complex and interdependent global social and economic structure. 

Governments have some special and unique responsibilities, but the more we can operate like a foundation upon which others can build value, the more we contribute to greater public outcomes, and the greater impact we can have for less effort than it would take to do it on our own. 

Open Government

In Australia, we are very lucky to start with a reasonably Open Government, with transparency to varying degrees enshrined in legislation and practice. Obviously, there is always more to do, but there is already a lot of public engagement, consultation, and information made available, including about the operations of our parliaments. 

Online tools and methodologies offer some new ways to improve our system and to help get the average busy Aussie engaged. After 10 years working in the public sector, and 10 years before that working with the public sector (in the tech sector) I really believe that open that isn’t digital doesn’t scale, and digital that isn’t open doesn’t last

We see plenty of Open Government initiatives looking at better ways of getting access to documents (FOI requests) which are themselves unreadable PDFs, which creates an issue of scale when people or organisations are trying to retrospectively hold the government of the day to account. On the other hand, plenty of digital initiatives have been attempted that are developed internally and that have resulted in shiny new stovepipe closed systems that only last as long as the company or individual who commissioned them. 

With this in mind, I personally think good ‘open government’ is the natural result when you have both:

  • government policy and practice that informs, empowers, involves, and collaborates with citizens, and
  • a well-informed and engaged public (which is essential for democracy), and
  • an empowered public service that continually improves itself and shares knowledge across silos to maximise learnings and preserve and build on good practice and approaches.

We originally identified three main focus areas for open government:

  • Open, transparent and participatory decision-making — engaging citizens directly in the processes of decision-making, whether that be political (e.g., policy or legislative development) or bureaucratic (i.e. planning a new piece of public infrastructure). This improves public trust in government as it becomes open for scrutiny and oversight. After all, it is OUR public sector, all of us. With the dramatic increase in the use of machines, automation, and AI in the day-to-day work of public sectors, this means a necessary consideration, planning, and development of 21st century trust infrastructure to ensure decision making in government is accountable, traceable, appealable, auditable, and ultimately, accountable.
  • Citizen-centric services — government agencies (and services) engaging with citizens based on their individual needs, which can mean leveraging information such as their location, type of help they need, perhaps even personal information. This means citizens are given the right information, from the right person, in a single place.
  • Access to government information — ensuring all government information that can be made available (excluding data with privacy, security, or commercialisation implications) is available to the general public. This encourages public and private innovation on top of government data, to the benefit of the society and economy.

First steps for Government 2.0

I have tried to put together some practical first steps for government representatives and agencies who are struggling to understand this concept. 

The first step is to connect. Connect with others in your sector (other teams, other departments, other jurisdictions), connect with your clients/users and those affected by your work, connect with naturally aligned organisations (with shared goals), and connect with multi-disciplinary groups to help inform your work with a range of perspectives, experience, and expertise in the room. Just by connecting with others you will see what is possible, learn from the past, and hopefully contribute to the efforts, evolution, and momentum of change across the public sector. 

Learn from others’ successes

“That some achieve great success is proof to all that others can achieve it as well.” Abraham Lincoln

Look at existing successes around the world (including non-Western and non-English-speaking countries), and the broader impact of these case studies. This will help you understand some basic strategies that may suit you and some ideas of the impact that may result. Below, I’ve put four sets of examples I think we can learn a lot from. I’ve also got another article on participatory governance which has some great case studies (that I won’t repeat here). Here I’ll focus more on Gov 2.0 examples from the times past.

Success in Australia

Some amazing people have been pushing this barrow for years — with varying degrees of success — and have created some cutting edge Gov 2.0 initiatives.

At an agency level, there are many successes driven by passionate Web 2.0 and Gov 2.0 individuals which have been extremely beneficial to many projects and citizens. I’ll post some of these case studies soon. Unfortunately, often enough, champions of citizen-centric services and online engagement in the public service are unable to talk publicly about their successes, but that is another story. There are useful examples from before 2009 in the Gov 2.0 Taskforce report itself and the Government 2.0 Public Sphere (PDF, sorry) even as well as a variety of public sector innovation awards. I would also strongly refer people to the early and formative Design Gov efforts (from Web Archive of 2013) in Australia that were trying to instil design and service thinking well before it was cool.

Success in the U.K.

A lot of the early work in the U.K. was formative for early Australian efforts, including the Power of Information Taskforce (2008), which was based on a report completed in 2007 by Ed Mayo and Tom Steinberg called the Power of Information review. The core aspects of the taskforce recommendations include: helping people online where they seek help; innovating and co-creating with citizens online; opening up the policy dialogue online; reforming geospatial data; modernising data publishing and reuse; and, a modern capability. This work formed some of the context for the open data work in the U.K. and the establishment of the Government Digital Service (GDS). In the past 10 years there have been many, many great success stories, civil society progress, and transformation of the public sector, but I was particularly excited to see the Civil Society Strategy, released by the UK government, which is a clear acknowledgement of the need to improve participatory governance.

Define your success criteria, and make it outcomes-oriented

It’s important to consider early on what Government 2.0 means to you, both strategically and practically. What do you see as success criteria for a successful Gov 2.0 implementation? For me, and for most public servants, it is about public outcomes. So, regardless of the pressures you are under, keep those public outcomes in mind, because a) it will keep you sane, and b) it will help ensure high integrity outcomes over time.

Beware the hype

‘Government 2.0’ was a buzzword, and new buzzwords emerge every day. You always need to have a way to differentiate between hype and reality without falling prey to simple optimism or pessimism. This is why both multi-disciplinary AND public participatory approaches to public policy and services are so critical. There is a lot of hype about, and you need to ensure when you are engaging expertly with experts in this space that they really know what they are talking about. You also need to carefully consider new products and services in this space to ensure they meet your strategic needs. Simple and easy solutions, particularly the solutions your users can engage with and aggregate will be more used and more useful.

Cross-reference advice you receive, build relationships with several people/groups/companies in this area, get your people involved in the community, and pool your resources with others in government to help you. And remember, there are no silver bullets, no single-solution or single framework that will solve all your problems.

Engage with the community

There are some passionate individuals and communities in this space, and empowering one or a few internal champions to engage will be enormously beneficial through what is learned and then able to be integrated into your strategy. Below are a few communities I knew of 10 years ago. Where are the equivalents now?

  • Twitter — check out the #publicsphere, #gov2au, and #gov20 hashtags (discussions), and connect with people who are participating in the discussion. This will rapidly get you in touch with many local experts, as well as in tune with what the Twitter community interested in this space are saying.
  • Conferences — look for and attend Gov 2.0, Web 2.0, and Open Government events. There are many happening in Australia at the moment, and some significant ones also happening overseas. They used to be announced on some of the Gov 2.0 communities below.
  • Gov 2.0 groups/lists — there were several useful ones. A few I joined at the time included the Gov 2.0 Australia mailing list, the GovLoop networking group, the Gov 2.0 Ning group, and of course it is worth subscribing to and participating in the Government 2.0 Taskforce blog.

I’m not sure where a Government 2.0 community can now converge, engage, and connect. There are certainly a lot of ‘digital government’, ‘innovation’, or design in government communities which have some crossover, but sometimes they get a little limited to digital transformation and business or service delivery imperatives rather than broader public sector reform. 

Find small wins first, but don’t stop there

There will always be small wins, and the best thing to do would be to consult with your users on what they want and their prioritisation to help you identify small and quick wins in this space. A few potential examples are below, just to get you thinking about what kind of practical things you might want to do:

  • Ensure your news and information is available by RSS or ATOM — both are formats that allow people to subscribe to and even aggregate your updates. News might include local council or agency updates, weather reports, press releases, or speeches. Anything you want to communicate publicly.
  • Ensure geospatial data (location) is stored with your data; for instance, infrastructure projects or events have clear location information. Then expose this location data along with the normal information so both you and the general public can create user-centric maps based on your your data.
  • Make iterative improvements, and don’t look for a single, all-inclusive solutions, because a) great ones don’t exist, b) they rarely do any one thing particularly well, and c) they will be out of date within the month and are hard to replace or append to. Look for specific functions you want, and iteratively add them as part of your backend suite, integrating them seamlessly into your front nd. This way you can add and remove functions as you want them. To achieve this, you need all your technology to be standards compliant with web standards, data formats, and protocols. It will give you a lot of flexibility in the long run.
  • When considering public consultations, put the consultation online on a blog post for public comment and allow people to respond to  each other. Let people know the comments will be included in the public consultation. You could also run a public sphere event for further public consultation.

But if you only focus on small wins, you run the risk of staying peripheral to systemic change, and thus limited to small changes. There is only so much ‘low hanging fruit’, and I would argue the top of the tree is now where we need to focus.

Constantly re-evaluate

Ensure you plan into your Gov 2.0 strategy regular reassessment (perhaps quarterly or half yearly), as this area will continue to change and shift. You need to be able to adapt and engage. Your participation in the Gov 2.0 community will assist you in assessing your own progress and to help maintain momentum.

Long-term success in the Open Source community

There are many lessons that can be learned from the Open Source community. The strategies of online engagement, public collaboration on projects, encouraging positive and constructive input, consultative decision-making, and open and transparent processes have been very effectively used by the open-source community for over 30 years. Here are a few examples:

  • Encouraging constructive public contributions — ensure there is a well-communicated tangible project goal to ensure everyone is heading in the right direction. This helps you draw your community back from unconstructive behaviours. You also need to set the tone of the project. Whether it be some instructions on how you’d like them to participate or a code of conduct, setting the tone will help keep the community constructive. Users will often self-regulate if there is clear direction on the goals and tone of the project.
  • Ensure people can easily find and access whatever they need to contribute — the more barriers to entry (which may be anything from a non-disclosure agreement to buried information), the fewer participants you’ll get. You need great documentation for how to participate and to explain the philosophy of the project. Where possible, include people in the planning phases and decision-making of your project so the process benefits from broader community input and also from people wanting to see it succeed due to the sense of personal contribution in the process.
  • Release early, release often — this idea is based on software code being released early in the development cycle, and as often as possible, as this makes it easier for other software developers to test and contribute to the project. From a Gov 2.0 perspective, this could be applied to any sort of online engagement from policy development to general communications. People would prefer to have access to the information in a way they can both access and hopefully contribute to than wait for a potentially more perfect but slower response. The perceived perfect is the enemy of the good, particularly when it comes to establishing an open process.
  • Many eyes make all bugs shallow — basically, the power of ‘crowdsourcing’ as it is becoming known. Creating a discussion or a thing in the public eye and garnering the wisdom of the crowd by encouraging and empowering many participants.
  • It all comes down to values — the open-source community is not a single, homogenous culture, but there are some common values held across the spectrum that create a basic foundation for collaboration and coordination that traverses cultural, language, geo-political, and other usual barriers to engagement. If you take a values-based approach to the work, if you engage with, understand and reflect the values of the communities you serve, then your policy, services, regulation, etc will naturally be more aligned to what is needed, and will naturally be more successful, sustainable and self-perpetuating.

Last word

This is (still) a very exciting time for government and citizens. I know a lot of people, particularly public servants and those working with public sectors, who are feeling frustrated, skeptical, under pressure, and even scared to engage in reimagining our public sectors. But if we don’t, who will? 

We have opportunities to improve our public sectors through the use of online, technical, participatory, open, and distributed approaches, and there are myriad ways to weave these into our daily work. It would be great to see more leadership, more vision, more support, encouragement, etc, but can we afford to wait? Can society afford for you to wait?  

If you embrace Government 2.0 and the notion that we need to reimagine our public sectors in partnership with the broader community, we can collectively achieve better and more sustainable outcomes for everyone.

Good luck, have fun and thank you for doing your part to make Australia a better, more inclusive and more equitable place to live for everyone. Stay focused and do what you can.

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