Last year, the Australian government awarded two organisations $1 million each under the Business Research Innovation and Investment Program (BRII). The program, part of the National Science and Innovation Agenda (NISA), allocated the grant to help solve the challenge of digitally-enabled community engagement.
Collabforge is currently developing a digital service to support government agencies to design their own strategies and select tools and methods for engagement. Likely Theory is developing a solution that uses machine learning, artificial intelligence and the analysis of input collected through engagement to support proactive personalised invitations to engage. There are no guarantees that the products will be bought or used by government, and all intellectual property and product ownership remains in the hands of the winning organisations.
The initiative was designed to encourage innovators to (1) solve the challenge by building a technology governments could use and (2) found an organisation that would stimulate the digital economy. Through the initiative, the government also is helping to enhance public participation in government decision making, a commitment made in the National Action Plan for Open Government.
The investment was made in an interesting way. In addition to receiving funds, the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science and the Department Social Services have actively supported the participating organisations throughout the process, providing input during the proof of concept stage and user testing for products as they were being developed.
The cynical among you might say that the initiative shirks the government’s responsibility for action 5.2, but to me it does seem intelligent and I’m all for smart governments, cross sector collaboration and civic innovation.
Whatever happens, this is exciting for those of us who practice engagement around the world. The initiative demonstrates the Australian government’s recognition of the issue, the importance of digital solutions and the potential of the market. The selection of Collabforge and Likely Theory’s products also recognises the need for solutions that improve governments’ internal processes.
This may not sound big or sexy, but this is the most innovative approach to affecting democracy I have seen in years.
Together, these two solutions have huge potential to significantly improve the way governments manage engagement, enabling greater participation in policy-making and stakeholder and citizen collaboration between elections, effectively institutionalising democracy within government.
A note from the author
I am a community engagement specialist, and for more than 15 years I have worked with the Australian, New Zealand and Canadian governments as an independent social scientist.
In a nutshell, I am helping governments understand how to better understand and manage the impact of their policies, programs and services on people, organisations and communities, and how they can engage and work with stakeholders and communities.
I am apolitical. I am not affiliated with any political party, technology or any company other than engage2, my services business. I advocate for good democratic practices only. I believe if I am successful at what I do, everyone with an interest or concern will get a chance to participate in our society and the way they it is governed.
In saying that, I am particularly interested in projects where social and environmental interests intersect. I have spent a considerable part of my career helping governments understand and consider the needs, attitudes and expectations of people and organisations in their communities, and the social impacts of their decisions and projects. I have worked on the design and delivery of environmental policy, natural resource management, major infrastructure, and urban and regional planning projects with and for government.
For years, I have sought out innovators, mentors and peers in my field, and I now have great partnerships with public participation, open government, democratic and collaboration specialists across the country and the globe. We support each other on projects, to pilot new techniques and to institutionalise better practices and systems. We confer to measure the impact of our work with and for governments and organisations that want to have a positive social impact.
Together, we are trying to enrich representative democracy through participatory methods that encourage active citizenship, deliberation and increase representativeness between elections.
I am writing this column because I know readers of The Mandarin value public service and support those who dare to innovate inside governments across Australia. By sharing what I have learned, I hope to help you to improve the work you are doing to enhance our public service, deliver social outcomes and increase the way people and organisations can participate in our democracy, society and the way we are governed.
Democracy for the 21st Century
On June 5, in collaboration with Vivid Ideas, engage2 and The Mandarin bring you Democracy is Being Disrupted: Governing in the 21st Century, a professional development event that explores how governments might use these new tools to lead and represent more effectively.
Democracy is being disrupted: Governing in the 21st Century is designed to help ministerial advisors, information officers, technology and digital officers, and engagement and communications managers within government agencies understand the technologies and practices available to help governments lead and represent more effectively.