Challenge of our era: transparency, engagement and keeping public trust

By The Mandarin

Wednesday July 29, 2015

The complex relationship between citizens and governments are being recalibrated through the adoption and dynamics of new technologies, argues John Wanna, ANZSOG’s director of research, in a paper released ahead of the school’s 10th annual conference next week.

Executive governments in the Westminster system have traditionally held the upper hand in the asymmetric information game between a powerful executive and everyone else — the opposition, media outlets and citizens. “Sometimes even the parliament doesn’t know what the executive is up to,” Wanna points out.

But now, he says, governments are playing catch-up. He wonders if information communication network platforms will transform the government-citizen/client relationship, or “merely become another instrument of possible influence and control”:

“Already, some sections of government and the community are alert to the opportunities posed by these potentially transformational technologies; but many other sections are either showing little interest or waiting to see what transpires after others pioneer the way.

“We also do not yet know what citizens will make of the new possibilities. Will they seize them and exercise greater democratic involvement, or withdraw into a cyber world of social chatter and entertainment?”

Further, will the abundance of information enhance or erode trust in the state, or will more channels just pollute the well of transparency and engagement? Trust in centralised government data is increasingly being raised in the context of joined-up service delivery and identity management.

By around 2010 most Westminster-style jurisdictions had adopted “Open Government” policies, particularly in Australia and New Zealand, around informing, engaging and participating. But, five years later, what have we learned from this experience, and are they being actively implemented?

The digital divide also remains unsolved, Wanna warns, with many potentially being left out of these open government policies.

“We should also remember that transformational technologies are novel, on the one hand, but highly disruptive on the other. Large bureaucracies are often not the best placed to optimise the uptake of new technological possibilities if they threaten their modus operandi. Transformational technologies will pose threats and challenges to traditional hierarchic public organisations geared towards compliance and due diligence rather than experimentalism. And just as not all citizens are equally capable, so too not all governments or jurisdictional levels are equally capable (or resourced) to exploit the possibilities of a brave new world of information possibilities.”

Star line-up of speakers

Three heads of state public services — Blair Comley, Chris Eccles and Kym Winter-Dewhirst — along with some of the world’s most sought-after academic minds in public administration are part of the line-up of speakers to tackle these questions.

This year’s conference will explore and address these issues under six key themes:

  1. Shaping (and re-shaping) our democracies and democratic outcomes in the new information age – exploring how our public, private and community sectors can better respond to the potentialities of the information age;
  2. Using transparency to rebuild or enhance legitimacy and trust relationships between governments and citizens, and contributing to greater confidence and assurance;
  3. Engaging in authentic engagement through opening up policy processes to improve the public sector’s capacity to deliver public value and meet rising citizen and community needs;
  4. Exploring how we can better share administrative data for effective outcomes, integrate additional and non-governmental data sources and gain real benefits from managing and interrogating ‘big data’;
  5. Reflecting after nearly 40 years on whether we have got the balance right with freedom of information (FOI) laws, especially as most of our jurisdictions have now adopted default disclosure provisions and open access regimes;
  6. Finding ways to use rapidly evolving digital systems and other transformational technologies to improve policy advice and public management and the quality delivered services.

Gary Banks, dean of ANZSOG, said the conference “will have a blend of academics and practitioners who really know what they’re talking about, and ultimately we make it real for public servants. So the implications for public servants come out in our conference in a way they don’t in other conferences.”

Registration for the 2015 ANZSOG conference closes Friday.



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