Monday, May 24, 2010

Infallability, government and Web 2.0

Many rulers, from the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt to the Czars of Russia, were seen as almost infallible leaders - divinely selected and empowered to lead their people. To question their wisdom, strength or decisions was often an offence that could be punished by imprisonment or death.

Most modern states are more lenient, however governments still place a high value on being seen to be authoritative, knowledgeable and, on occasion, infallible.

So what is the impact of new media on a government's aura of infallibility?

For a long time traditional media has been keeping governments honest. However it has relied on a relative few number of reporters providing information through an even smaller number of distribution channels. Commercial interests, limited access to information and various other restrictions have, on occasion, left many government decisions and policies with little scrutiny.

Now, with Web 2.0, almost every citizen is also a journalist and publisher. This makes it possible for almost the entire population of a modern state to keep its government under constant 24-hour scrutiny and analysis, covering almost every decision and policy.

How have governments responded to this?

Some have taken a censorship and imprisonment route, attempting to limit debate and scrutiny by imprisoning, or worse, the most vocal citizen critics.

However this isn't a route that many democratic states could (or would) choose.

Instead democratically elected governments can choose to embrace public scrutiny and, rather than attempting to maintain an illusion of infallibility, become learning organisations who acknowledge that they can continually improve their performance.

This is a huge mindset change for those in governments used to the limited scrutiny of traditional media. The change can take some time to embrace.

At the moment while some governments and their agencies have embraced scrutiny as an opportunity to improve their service delivery, policy and operations, others are still conflicted. There are still situations where some individuals in various governments attempt to control and close down public discussions or limit internal transparency through self-censorship and restricted internal communications channels.

These conflicted agencies are, in many cases, doing more harm to themselves than good. When it is publicly visible that the Emperor has no clothes, that a particular topic is of community interest or facts about a situation (potentially including videos, financial analysis and/or expert opinions) are freely distributed online, attempts to limit statements to an agency line can backfire.

In other words, attempts to protect an agency or Minister through controlling information can, instead, create greater risks to them. This activity can damage reputations, expose them as out-of-step or, in extreme cases, result in rolling heads.

Government agencies increasingly need to resist the need to control all flows of information and focus on ensuring that accurate information is available wherever people are having a discussion. They need to ensure that the community has access to the facts - both when government is right and when they are wrong.

This limits the damage of false claims and myths - when government has indeed made the most correct decisions. Equally it limits the damage and distress when government has made mistakes. This approach allows government to retain the respect and trust of the community, particularly when errors are quickly detected and corrected.

Possibly the greatest challenge for public servants related to this shift to open disclosure and less massaging of messages is that it is happening right now.

The Australian Government's Freedom of Information reform law was passed on 13 May this year, Victoria has begun adopting Creative Commons licensing in a proactive disclosure approach for public sector data and NSW's government recently appointed an Information Commissioner and the NSW Premier has directed Ministers and Departments to set "an example of unprecedented openness".

This makes it imperative for agencies to recognise that their environment has changed and adjust their internal processes as quickly as possible.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post @Craig. In fact there is significant reason to believe that adoption of Gov 2.0 tool is going to penetrate non-democratic countries too, just like MS Windows XP :-)