is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more
uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new
order of things.’ Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince (1532)
One of the key hurdles for the public sector and legislators in
heralding in the changes that will make the promise of Government 2.0
successful will be culture change.
There’s no question that culture change in any organisation is
tough. Let alone the challenge it poses in huge, distributed, diverse and
largely conservative constructs such as federal and state public services. Yet,
it is this change that I consider will be the make it or break it factor in the
transformation that the Government 2.0 Taskforce
will be advising the Federal government on in December this year and that
governments in other constituencies across Australia (and indeed, the world)
are also seeking to make.
Change is an uncertain thing. How do we convince others of the
need for the change? How will we be successful? How do we define success? How
even do we measure that success when we don’t even know where the journey of
change might take us? And how do we go about making those changes happen?
The Government 2.0 Taskforce is moving ahead relatively well in
defining the issue for its audience and incorporating input from the community
of interest. There are some significant issues that the Taskforce will need to
address when it delivers its report:
a lack of a cohesive "whole
of government" approach at any level of government
a view of accountability that
inadequately rewards those responsible for success and innovation
inadequate trust and permission
models across public sector management
a change to openness as a default,
including removing reticence to participate or obfuscation of participation
- a negative-only perception of risk
Of course, these factors are
not true of all individuals, nor even their agencies, in the Australian
public sector. They are, however, representative of the public sector generally
– both in my experience as a public servant and in my time working with the
public sector as an outsider.
In New Zealand, the US and the UK, the public sector has been equipped with
well-publicised rules of engagement for workers that permit them to actively
engage with the public in online communities. These rules are ably backed up by
existing codes of behavior that govern public sector employee conduct
generally. In Australia, such rules exist, but the weight attached to them, their
currency, the level of publicity and explicit, high-profile support for them
from either Ministers or the most senior levels of the public service is
largely missing in action or unclear.
No wonder both individuals and agencies themselves are largely
confused or indeed, oblivious, to what the position is on engagement of public
Other nations have appointed both Ministers for Digital Engagement
and, in the case of both the US and the UK, senior public servants whose ambits
include digital engagement. In the US, we have seen the young, vibrant and
demonstrably engaged, Vivek Kundra, the United States Chief
Information Officer, driving change from the top. In the UK, Andrew Stott is the Director of Digital
Engagement, and is also leading the way, connecting directly with the public
and public servants. These people both understand the online channel and its
importance to the advancement of the Government 2.0 agenda, and also visibly
live and breathe the culture it requires.
In this country, we have neither a Minister nor a senior public
servant with carriage of digital engagement as a specific responsibility. Some
Ministers even seem at cross-purposes. The Internet censorship agenda being
advanced by Senator Stephen Conroy, is in fact anathema to the Government 2.0
model. Yet Finance Minister, Lindsay Tanner is strong in his support for a reform agenda that
can hardly be enhanced by a filtered and potentially slowed Internet.
In my time as a public servant, and in my experience since, the
model of accountability that we see in the public sector is largely tied to
responsibility for action and carriage of blame should something go wrong.
Again, this is not true of the entire
public sector, but it does represent the perception you get from the whole.
Taskforce member, Martin Stewart-Weeks of Cisco noted recently
"We need a theory of "accountability 2.0" to match
the instincts and values of gov2. Any ideas?" #
My response to Martin argued that it was not just
accountability that was needed, but also new models of authorship, trust and
What did I mean? My argument was, that in order to achieve the
cultural change needed with the least resistance, several things must happen.
First, I believe a mandate
to implement these reforms and to behave and implement in the required way is
needed from the highest levels. The
Prime Minister and the Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and
Cabinet should be the ones that deliver this mandate to the Australian Public
Service (APS). From there, there can be no argument. They should be supported
by the APS Commissioner, the Finance Minister, in his capacity as the Minister
responsible for the Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO)
and the Special Minister of State.
And, second, the seemingly at times closed culture of the public
sector must be shifted to one where:
the creators of innovative
programs and thinking are identified for their good work, publicly and often
openness and publication of
material is the default (it should be noted that the FOI reform agenda of the
current government is moving this way)
public servants are explicitly and implicitly
permitted to engage with the public online (and offline) where they have the
necessary subject matter expertise to do so, and
public servants are trusted by
their senior executive and Ministers to not just do their job but to do it in
the public eye and in concert with an engaged, contributing public.
An example of this is alive and kicking now in the work of the
Government 2.0 Taskforce. As noted by Matthew Landauer of Open Australia, just one of the
public servant members of the Taskforce has seen fit to engage via
the channels the Taskforce is using, whereas almost all of the non-public
servant members of the same have engaged in some way. This is unfortunate.
There is an active Australian Government 2.0
community on Google Groups. Yet, very few of the many public
servants who participate there do so officially. Many of them have explicitly
stated that they are unsure or afraid of the consequences of doing so. They use
personal email addresses and are sometimes reticent to discuss not only what
agencies they work for but what projects they are involved in. That this
approach is viewed as necessary by so many is disappointing.
Third, and finally, there needs to be a change in the negative
perception of risk in the public sector.
It is not often that you encounter a public servant whose
perception of risk also encompasses risk as an opportunity to innovate. You
more often encounter a fearful perception of risk that imagines how an adverse
outcome might be difficult to explain for the member of the Senior Executive
who will be questioned in Senate Estimates. You can hardly blame public
servants in this case.
All these changes must be supported by relevant and ongoing
education and mentoring to ensure that the public sector is equipped with the
skills to manage this change with the greatest opportunity for success.
I’m under no illusion that the change needed in the public sector
at all levels of government is a significant challenge. So, what to do? I do
not have all, or even many of the answers. But I have many ideas. As do others.
It is when these ideas are allowed to come forward, treated seriously and acted
on equally seriously that we will have the most opportunity to bring about this
much needed change.
So, public sector,
let’s act. Let’s "take the lead in
the introduction of a new order of things."