This article is by Craig Thomler, the managing director of digital democracy company Delib Australia and New Zealand. Thomler is one of Australia’s foremost experts on eGovernment and Government 2.0 issues. It first appeared on Thomler’s popular blog, eGov AU, and is replicated here with his permission.
analysis As I’ve blogged previously, when state governments in Australia have changed ruling parties there’s often been a temporary hiatus in Government 2.0 and open data activity, if not a series of backsteps – however in almost every case the trend towards greater digitalisation, engagement and openness has resumed.
With the transition from a Labor to Coalition Australian Government the question social media and Government 2.0 practitioners in Commonwealth agencies will be asking is what is their likely future under the new government?
The new Prime Minister has made it very clear that his infrastructure focus is on roads and that he has a very limited understanding of the value and importance of digital channels. The Coalition was also extremely sparing in its use of social media throughout the campaign, preferring to slip under the radar and avoid risk rather than engage with it (and their lesson in winning the election is that this approach wasn’t a negative).
I’m also yet to receive any response from Malcolm Turnbull or other Coalition parliamentarians in relation to my questions about their policy position on Government 2.0, open data or membership in the Open Government Partnership – even when Peter Timmins from Open and Shut personally contacted a number of members also seeking a response.
Fortunately there’s at least some light at the end of this tunnel.
The Coalition released its egovernment and the digital economy policy platform on Monday 2 September. Amongst a range of topics from NBN to cloud computing, the platform states that the Coalition will release a policy to ‘accelerate Government 2.0 efforts to engage online, make agencies transparent and provide expanded access to useful public sector data’.
The platform indicates that the Coalition will be taking a ‘digital by default’ approach, similar to the ‘digital first’ approach that was beginning to be adopted by the last Labor Government:
“Designate the Internet as the default way to interact with users, other than for defined exceptions. We will look to establish a Digital Service Standard and Digital Design Guide, modelled on the UK equivalents, to ensure consistent design of current and future services.”
Also modelled on part of the UK approach, the Coalition also outlined an aim to “Seek to ensure every Government interaction that occurs more than 50,000 times per year can be achieved online by 2017.”
While slightly less ambitious that Labor’s goals, this is a pragmatic approach to prioritising high-frequency transactions for digitalisation – although it is worth noting that there’s no evidence this would provide significant cost-efficiencies. Sometimes it is better to prioritise lower frequency, but higher transactional cost services for digitalisation to gain experience in the process, realise cost-savings and as ‘quick wins’ as they can often be digitalised much faster.
The Coalition has also flagged an interest in mobile service delivery. While no specific goals for making services mobile-ready were outlined in the policy platform, it did go so far as to require agencies to report what proportion of their digital services are not mobile accessible from 2015.
This is encouraging, but potentially misleading. An agency with hundreds of low-use services may find it far more difficult and expensive than an agency with a few high-use services to deliver and report a high proportion of mobile accessible services.
Equally ‘mobile accessible’ can easily manipulated to mean different things – I can access many services via the web browser on my tablet and smartphone which are still essentially unusable on these devices due to factors including poor design, form complexity, or the requirement for a human conversation to explain specific requirements (hard to call a service desk while using a smartphone to complete the online form).
The ‘digital inbox’ concept sounds like a great idea in theory, however its practical value depends on how well it is implemented. In fact this is the perfect project to have a start-up develop, free of the bureaucratic constraints of government.
Having previously worked on CSAOnline, which allowed Child Support clients to access their letters from the agency online indefinitely via a secure logon, I recognise that some government approaches to developing digital services can be poorly tuned to delivering on customer needs – costing far more and taking far longer than comparative start-up development cycles.
The Coalition policy section on ‘Government 2.0 and Big Data’ seems oddly named and reflects a very narrow view of Gov 2.0 as meaning open data and ‘tech stuff’, whereas most of the international Gov 2.0 community takes the broader view of Government 2.0 being about transforming how governments and citizens interact with the aid of new tools and techniques enabled by digital channels.
The section essentially focuses on having AGIMO ask communities and businesses which data should be made open – something they already do (albeit in a low-key way) and advocating support for public-private partnership proposals from industry and researchers to use big data for public benefit. There doesn’t appear to be a budget attached to this latter approach, so what the statement “The highest return proposals will be supported to proof-of-concept and beyond” means is anyone’s guess.
The Coalition policy doesn’t discuss how the government will or should use social and other digital channels to develop policy, shape services, engage and empower citizens, or provide any guidance as to whether events and approaches to encourage and support civic use of open data will continue to be supported.
Overall it has a very transactional ‘government as vending machine’ view – which is good as far as it goes (creating efficiencies is valuable) – but doesn’t consider the participatory democracy aspects of Government 2.0, where digital channels can be used to support and build democratic engagement, reduce the risks of government getting policies and services wrong and introduce more ideas and analysis to ‘black-box’ agency processes.
We live in a world where the experts don’t all live within the walls of an agency – or an ideological group – and this hasn’t been reflected in either the construction or policy instruments outlines in the Coalition policy. For all these flaws and concerns, at least the Coalition has policies in this area, and overall it isn’t worse (if not much better) than Labor’s policies.
As the policy platform hits the ‘road’ of practical governance I am sure there will be a rising interest in how digital channels can support the Coalition’s goals in government, and agencies will continue using social channels for communication, customer service, engagement and other purposes. On that basis I don’t expect much slowdown in Government 2.0 progress under the Coalition, although we are unlikely to see an acceleration (as the US did under Obama and the UK under Cameron).
Ultimately Government 2.0 is not an ideological topic – it is about effective governance – there’s enormous opportunities in Australia for both conservative and progressive politicians to use the bandwagon to improve government in this country, if they are willing to step onboard.
Also see this previous post by Thomler regarding the Coalition’s eGovernment policy.