Monday, August 24, 2009

Is the Australian government equipped to provide collective public goods online?

Google, Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, Google Maps, Wordpress.

What do all these online services have in common?

They are all part of the world's virtual infrastructure, providing collective public goods that many people, including many Australians, use on a daily basis - whether for the storage, organisation, distribution or discovery of information.

They are also all privately owned and operated (for profit or not). There are few if any similar virtual collective public goods provided by governments.

Finally, from a national security and self-sufficiency standpoint, none of them is Australian owned or operated. If a foreign jurisdiction decided to close down or block any of these services, Australia would suffer at least a temporary economic loss.

On Friday, at the Public Sphere Q&A session with Gov 2.0 Task Force members, the Taskforce's Chairman Dr Nicholas Gruen stated that,
I think it was the government’s job to build Google, Facebook, Twitter. I’m quite serious about that.

While, for some, this statement might appear unusual - or even absurd - Dr Gruen is stating that one of the core purposes of government is to develop and provide infrastructure for its citizens, public goods that benefit nations and states but are often too expensive, unprofitable or may be a national security risk if left in the hands of private or foreign entities.

Traditionally public infrastructure has focused on physical systems - rail and road networks, hospitals, libraries and schools, sewage, water and electricity networks, telegraph and phone systems, buses and trains. Or on communications and informational systems such as newspapers, television and radio stations.

However it is time to consider whether that definition should be extended to include virtual public infrastructure. This includes the public goods used to store, discover and distribute information and communication online, just as physical public infrastructure has distributed water, words and people.

This thinking is in its infancy. Few governments globally are providing any of the virtual public infrastructure citizens will need through the 21st century - other than having their national broadcasters go online, as have all other broadcasters.

Of course there are digital initiatives such as the National Broadband Network in Australia and similar schemes being discussed in the UK, US and other countries. However these are examples of physical infrastructure required to support digital communications. Consider this similar to building the roads and railways of the past.

The next step is for governments to consider whether and what they need to provide as the virtual infrastructure that sits on top of these networks - the digital equivalent of buses and trains that will be required on our digital transport network.

So should governments have developed these online services (as Dr Gruen suggested)?

Should they be developing other virtual public goods? The online tools and services that commercial entities will never develop?

Or should they leave it up to the market?

To answer these questions I think we need to go a little deeper and consider whether governments are the most appropriate bodies to develop virtual collective public goods.

In most countries governments limit their online participation to information and service provision - consumer to government to consumer and business to government to business.

While there's no shortage of ability, there is little public sector fostering of direct citizen to citizen or business to business connections or even more complex arrangements such as citizens to government to business and vice versa.

This is often because of the tight restrictions many governments apply regarding what material can be stored and expressed via government-operated websites.

The risk of breaching individual privacy, allowing political commentary (as the public sector is apolitical) and breaching copyright is far more restrictive than were regulations on the use of the (previously government-owned) telephony system, or on public discussions in government-owned public spaces (parks, parliaments, sidewalks and government offices).

These restrictions makes it legally risky for a government department to directly support many online citizen-to-citizen engagements, and even places a significant burden on the governance oversight of citizen-to-government-to-citizen discussions.

So, besides reforming government regulations, or having citizens agree to blanket waivers when entering certain government-run spaces, how can government best provide public goods online?

One alternative is outsourcing. Funding private and not-for-profit organisations to deliver these services on behalf of government.

This has precedents in Australia, for example the jobs network and aid agencies receive government support in the form of grants and contracts to provide certain services on behalf of government.

There are also examples of government supporting (partially funding) private competition to public services - including private schools, child care and bus companies.

Perhaps governments will need to adopt one of these two models online, at least in the short-term while complex legislative and cultural changes take place.

Or is there another way government should meet citizens' needs for virtual public goods?


  1. Australian governments do provide some collective goods online, especially through cultural institutions like the National Archives and Powerhouse Museum.

    In the Sydney session at least, Dr Gruen said this, but also said he was being deliberately proactive. One practical suggestion he made was charitable tax status for 100% not-for-profit online initiatives such as the collective authoring and distribution of open source software.

  2. Problem with "public good" argument is that it privileges the political left. Libertarians would say that publicly-accessible online infrastructure should not be a concern of any gov't. I'm not a fan of public/private partnerships due to contradictory goals and irreconcilable differences. Finding the policy sweet spot won't be easy. But it needs to be found so a cyclical change in gov't doesn't undo it all. Let me ask a different question: how can gov't drive online innovation and define the public goods for online service delivery, but not burden the taxpayer?

  3. Hi Steve,
    I like the idea - but there's still a fund raising issue.

    Fair point. However regardless of whether political left or right, democratic governments have outsourced some services via grants or sales.

    Both sides of Australian politics have sold assets and funded private education for example.

    I think that any Australian government would be interested in considering funding organisations to deliver public services ('goods') that government can't provide as efficiently.

  4. Good points Craig, however I suspect the government, despite any desire to do so, could never have provided these services. Apart from perhaps Google Maps, all of them were non-obvious innovations, and did not start out as "digital infrastructure". Now they are there, the government isn't going to compete, for good reasons.

    On the other hand, I think the old "left wing" chestnut is silly, and the argument to "not burden the taxpayer" is self-defeating. What are taxes for, if not to provide services and infrastructure? They could do a lot more to enable online innovation though, starting by opening up their data and cracking the public service on their collective heads.

  5. As silly as it seems to you and me, the minimalist government standpoint is out there big-time. I want policy to stand the test of time, regardless of who is in power.

    Abrasive language like "cracking the public service on their collective heads" will make them even more defensive about change. A more constructive approach would be preferable, like "what's in it for govt too?"