Monday, November 11, 2013

Has Australia reached 'peak open' in government?

The Open Government Summit in London saw well over 1,000 representatives from over 60 governments and 30 civic organisations meet last week to discuss the progress the Open Government Partnership (OGP) has made in opening up governments to greater scrutiny.

Attendees included heads of state, Ministers and high level officials while Australia, which is not yet a formal member of the OGP (expected to join April 2014), was represented by the Australian Government Chief Technology Officer, John Sheridan.

Indonesia was appointed co-Chair of the OGP - an interesting development given the current asylum seeker 'discussion' between Australia and Indonesia's governments.

One topic that seems to have caused much frustration for delegates was been whether we have reached a level of 'peak open'.

This represents a level where the openness possible using 21st Century technologies meets the unwillingness of entrenched 20th Century government and political institutions to change.

Symptoms include a mistaken focus on egovernment (online service delivery) as 'open government', the release of trivial opendata, while important data remains hidden or even governments using social media engagement to conceal the lack of actual openness or capability for citizens to engage productively with governments in transparent ways.

Another symptom has been the revelations of secret spying by governments on citizens - which may reshape relationships between the US and Europe and between Australia and its neighbours.

Similar signs are visible in Australia. Whilst Australian governments have remained publicly committed to openness and transparency, there's no common agreement on what these terms mean. How open is open? How transparent should governments be?

There's signs that a number of governments in Australia are drawing back from certain aspects of openness, particularly in the political sphere. A number of government social media accounts have fallen silent, or shifted to one-way broadcast, following the last federal election. We've seen the commitment to ongoing release of open data decline in many jurisdictions (after an initial burst) and we've seen little in the way of political leadership for openness, with many signals that politicians prefer controlling information over releasing it.

I've watched open government groups become increasingly frustrated and concerned at Australia's lack of forward motion. Where we see other nations moving forward, Australia appears to be, at best, trading water.

Even Australia's Information Commissioner, John McMillan, appears to have diplomatically suggested that Australia was far more proactive on Gov 2.0 in 2009-2010 than it is now.

The Gartner Hype Cycle is a good model to consider in this regard, and has been used similarly to explain the expectations for, crash and subsequent rise in social media use in government.

Garner Hype Cycle:
Based on the cycle, Australia could be characterised as rising towards the 'Peak of Inflated Expectations' since the Gov 2.0 Taskforce in 2009 (the 'Technology Trigger' that initiated high level public engagement by the Australian Government with Gov 2.0).

The current 'coming together' of open government activists and advocates that I've seen in the last few months, with their concerns over whether Australia is truly progressing in the area - or drawing back - is a characteristic of a shift to the 'Trough of Disillusionment'.

Of course this is only an illustrative model, and may not relate precisely to what is occurring in Australia, or around the world, however if it is it implies there is a great deal of positive change waiting to occur with the 'Slope of Enlightenment', once the Trough has been cleared.

Personally I hope this is the case. Australia can withstand a little less openness in government, which will held the public and media appreciate the value of open and broaden the support for openness in the future.

Right now 'open' doesn't win votes for a particular party and, as such, is largely a nice-to-have beyond the minimum required scrutiny inbuilt into the Westminster system.

If we proceed deeper into the Trough, with a more closed and uncommunicative government, Australians might learn to more broadly recognise the importance and value of openness.

This could turn it into an electorally significant topic, leading to greater political engagement and leadership with openness.

So has Australia, or indeed the world, reached peak open?

In the short-term perhaps.

However the benefits of open government have started to be realised and both media and citizens around the world have been learning that openness reduces corruption, improves accountability and provides economic benefits to nations who are willing to bear the cost of occasionally embarrassing institutions and politicians.

In the long-run I believe that we'll see open government continue to grow and blossom, with both citizens and governments receiving the benefits of more authentic engagement and broader participation in decision-making.

The challenge to public servants and open government advocates alike remains the same - how do you ensure that openness doesn't become a fad, but instead becomes part of the bedrock of our governance and political system, 'inverting the triangle' from a presumption of closed, to a presumption of openness.


  1. We're not even close. Not by a long way.

  2. Hi Craig,

    In 'you're right'. “how do you ensure that openness doesn't become a fad, but instead becomes part of the bedrock of our governance and political system” is the right question to ask.

    This is the next stage of Open Government in Australia. It is this evolution where open-gov becomes an assistive tool instead of just an add on. It is the role open-gov plays in government accountability at the higher level. It is about how gov data and information is positioned for use across a range of activities beyond commercial development (though extremely important) including becoming a critical part of government decision making and setting of policy objectives.

    It is about embedding practices at the core of how government functions to ensure that everything from the processes we follow through to the technologies we develop and use, and the lines of command are recorded in a way where government is not only more transparent, but also more flexible and adaptable to ensure it is able to be responsive to citizens needs as citizens role with government becomes interactive.

    I could go on for days, but you are right, it is time for a review and it is time to identify how we can do better in this space, not only for ourselves, but also for all those stakeholders have a strong interest including politicians, citizens and industry.



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