Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Open government - what does it mean? (Public Sphere Camp series)

In the last two weeks before the Government 2.0 Public Sphere Camp in Canberra on 22 June, I'll be posting a series of articles on government 2.0.

This will cover areas such as,
  • what does 'open government' mean in the context of the internet,
  • how is government 2.0 being introduced around the world,
  • what is occurring in the open government and government 2.0 space in Australia,
  • what benefits will government 2.0 generate for Australia,
  • what are the costs and risks of government 2.0,
  • what are the leading hurdles to government 2.0 in Australia.
I'd like to link to those posting on a similar topic - drop me a comment below.

Today I thought I'd start by discussing what 'open government' means in the context of the internet - at least to me.

Wikipedia defines open government as,
the political doctrine which holds that the business of government and state administration should be opened at all levels to effective public scrutiny and oversight. In its broadest construction it opposes reason of state and national security considerations, which have tended to legitimize extensive state secrecy.
Open government operates on the philosophy that a nation's government exists to serve the best interests of its people.

It takes the approach that the best way to ensure that the governing party and public service are acting in the public's interest is to make the machinery of government open to continual public scrutiny and accountability.

This can include making processes, procedures, decisions and data freely available in the public domain on a timely basis. It can also include actively consulting and collaborating with stakeholders and the public on directions and decisions.

Most people I have spoken to in government are pro-open government. They recognise that they work for the public and have the responsibility to ensure that the decisions made by government are to the benefit of citizens and that citizens understand the basis of these decisions.

However governments have other responsibilities to their public which can limit or conflict with the intentions of open governance.

These include preserving the privacy of individuals, maintaining effective law, order and national security and placing the interests of citizens ahead of the interests of citizens in other jurisdictions. Many decisions taken by government are also designed to serve the majority - or a specific minority - of society, weighing up relative benefits and costs. It's simply not possible to make all of the people happy all of the time.

This is generally where open government changes from an ideal to a spectrum, ranging from tightly managed societies where information and freedoms are rigidly and centrally controlled through to free and open societies without any central management where social or individual rights may not be enforceable, let alone enforced.

The challenge for governments is to find the level of openness that best meets the needs and desires of the society it serves - based on what is technically possible and resourced at the time.

The arrival of the internet has significantly changed the scope of what is possible for open government. While it may not have shifted the needs or desire of the public for privacy and the rule of law, the internet has greatly enabled citizens and government to share data and information and collaborate and consult stakeholders and citizens in a cost-effective manner - sometimes known as government 2.0.

Data is often where open government starts. For many years Australia and other western nations have had Freedom of Information laws designed to help individuals gain access to data the government has collected - without breaching individual privacy or national security.

Without going into a discussion on how well these laws have operated, the aim was to meet open government goals to make government data and information more freely available to the public.

Data is an accountability tool for the public. It can be used to scrutinise government decisions, to understand why one group in society appears favoured over another or to understand - and question - how government is collecting and spending money from the public purse.

Until the arrival of the internet it was extremely costly to make government data available. On top of other reasons, this made it difficult for the public and the media to sometimes understand or scrutinise government decisions.

The internet has changed the landscape for data. An organisation with web-enabled systems can not only distribute its reports more cost-effectively, but can make the underlying data available for the public and stakeholders to reuse to discover new insights and add new value to old figures.

A prime example can be seen in the evolution of the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) over the last twenty years. In the 1980s the ABS used to sell its statistical reports in paper and multimedia form. Although the data was collected using funds from the public purse, the cost of distributing the information made it uneconomical to make it freely available to anyone who wanted it.

During the 1990s the ABS moved to a dual online-offline model, where reports were available online in summary and then full form at little or no cost, while print publications continued to be charged. All the ABS data was secured under a copyright which required that organisations seek ABS approval for reuse.

In the last few years the ABS has moved to uncovering more of the data under the report information, allowing individuals and organisations to use the CData Online service to extract data subsets from the Census for their own use. This data is available free and is released under a Creative Commons license, which permits free redistribution and remixing of the data, simply attributing the ABS.

Of course the ABS is only one of 30 or more Australian government departments which actively collects information about their portfolio interests, customers or citizens. Not all of these departments are at the same cultural maturity level as the ABS, or have invested in the systems required to expose their public data in the same manner.

This leads to significant unevenness in the capability of government to be open. It also raises questions around a central commitment towards openness where these efforts are not funded or prioritised.

The United States Federal government has tackled this issue at a central level. President Obama famously released a memo on government transparency which made open government a priority for the executive leadership of every federal agency.

The US has also launched a central portal for publicly available data, Data.gov, which is progressively aggregating data released by federal agencies - and illustrates which agencies are not pulling their weight.

Data sharing alone isn't open government. Another consideration is how government communicates with and involves citizens and stakeholders in decision-making.

In the past Town Hall events, dinners and events on the campaign trail, letters to Parliamentarians and departments, focus groups and lobby groups were the prime ways in which citizens could access and influence government decision-making processes.

These come with a high cost and low reliability. Generally only a few people get to speak at public events and these are often the loudest and most opinionated - or are backed by significant interests. Letters are a dying medium, with it far more likely that people will dash off a quick email then go to the trouble of laborously writing, signing and posting a physical letter.

With the internet it has become possible to get a greater sampling of peoples' views in a very short time.

While not all people are online, or use the medium with the same expertise, it does provide an avenue to rapidly assertain the views of a large (80% plus) segment of the population, whilst older consultation techniques can be used for the remaining population.

The internet also allows for greater qualitative assessment of different views as it doesn't simply offer the ability to communicate, but also to aggregate similar views, for individuals to complete polls, rate ideas and effectively vote on decisions in ways that are little different to how we conduct our most critical democratic act of voting.

We already use online consultation in Australia, with the federal government placing many national consultations on the business consultation site. State governments have their own mechanisms in place. These are still first generation tools, simply providing access to documents and supporting email or written responses.

The UK has gone a step further with its Petitions site, where it allows citizens to create and run petitions for submission to government. This supports citizen-to-citizen interaction as well as citizen-to-government.

The US has gone even further, using suggestion markets to both collect suggestions and to rate their relative importance. This would be similar to taking all of the UK petitions and allowing the public to not only add their names but also provide a prioritised list of which petitions are more important to them.

The US government first used this approach to gain an understanding of the public's views of the priorities for the incoming President in a Citizen's briefing book via Change.gov. It has subsequently used the same approach for a variety of topics and to collect questions for the President to answer, including for discussing the topic of open government itself.

Despite fears around misuse, the actual level of inappropriate use for all of these sites has been extremely low - lower than the number of hecklers at an average physical event. More of a challenge has been coping with the huge response rates - tens of thousands of ideas voted on by millions of Americans.

Open government in summary
So to wrap up today's post, the principle of open government reflects the commitment of a governing party and the public service to be accountable and inclusive of the public in their decision-making processes.

The practice of open government involves balancing the needs and wants of the public for openness with their desire for privacy and security, shaped by the technology of the day and the level of resourcing committed to openness.

The challenge today is how to bring Australian government consistently into the internet age, meeting citizen's desire for openness and transparency within the resources available to departments.

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