Rebooting Australia?




Australia’s history and unique geography
have both played an important role in shaping Australian society and the system
of government that supports it. Building on the foundations of Britain’s legal
and parliamentary system, local political leaders built the institutions that
eventually transformed Australia from a colony to an independent nation. They
did it, however, in a way that suited their times and the task of managing a
large continent. Can Australia’s 20th century governance structures
deliver solutions to 21st century problems?

Increasingly, distance and a relatively
small population are no longer barriers to the changes that come with
globalisation. Like the rest of the world, Australia now finds itself facing an
array of  interlinked social, economic,
geo-political and environmental challenges. These challenges can only be solved
if we are all part of the solution, not by governments alone. Unfortunately,
the current political class has no vision that involves the people, other than
as periodic voters or focus group members. This old model of government is
failing to solve the difficult, complex challenges and long-term issues we are

For example, the inability of the States to
agree on the effective management of the Murray-Darling Basin highlights the inefficiency
of the current approach and its inability to deal with complex problems[i]. One
solution proposed is to centralise policy and decision making about this
particular problem at a Federal level, but it is neither clear nor certain that
moving the issue to a higher level of government will mean that they are any
better equipped to solve it[ii].

It is now time to take a serious look at
how we can leverage human talent, energy and creativity to begin rebooting the Australian
political system. We need to create sustainable, affordable, long-term
mechanisms for public engagement. A new approach to government in the 21st
Century can use the vast human resources that exist both within government and
among citizens to accelerate progress, solve complex problems and help develop
modern, affordable services.

Smarter, simpler, social technology has a
key role to play here. Our society is capable of running itself better, and
cheaper, if we trust people to be part of the solution, rather than passive
‘consumers’ of services who just get to swap their federal and state
representatives periodically. We need to see government as an enabler or a
force multiplier that can combine with the energy and resources of ordinary
people to improve governance and public service delivery. This, howerver, also
means re-balancing our expectations of government and encouraging (and possibly
educating) us as citizens to be, individually and collectively, more socially
responsible.  Social tools supporting
real conversation between government and citizens can also help people develop
realistic expectations, instead of making unlimited demands (e.g. like
expecting a Scandinavian level of services combined with a US level of taxes).

The first thing we can do is to make better
use of government spending to make it go further. Government procurement should
be treated as a stimulus fund, and used to deliver social and economic benefits
as well as products and services. Big ticket projects in areas such as IT,
Health and Defence have a high failure rate, which is made worse by the
tendency to select a large supplier and require them to spend all the money up
front in one big hit. This has now been recognised in the case of the national
e-health record rollout, with calls for a more pragmatic and incremental
approach that targets identified areas of need first[iii].

Instead, it makes more sense to adopt an
investment mindset and provide seed funding to various potential suppliers
(ideally community groups and small companies as well as generic corporations
that specialise in outsourcing contracts), and then provide more substantial
first and second round funding to those projects that show potential, until a
clear winner emerges. This way, funding can be leveraged to stimulate
innovation as well as deliver a service, and an iterative multi-round approach
is more likely to pick winners than just handing over the whole thing in one

Social Innovation Camp (
is an early example of using this approach for designing Web-based solutions to
real social issues. It brings together software developers, designers and
social entrepreneurs to transform a set of early-stage concepts into prototype
web-based tools in under 48 hours. Ultimately the aim is for the best idea to
become sustainable social ventures. Social Innovation Camps have taken place in
the United Kingdom and the concept is being taken to Eastern Europe (Slovakia),
New Zealand, and is coming to Australia in March 2010.

The second thing we can do is harness
people power to improve existing democratic and public services. If we are to
target spending on public services better, then we also need better ways of surveying
and identifying need. Too many public sector bodies are created as part of a
shiny new political initiative and then waste huge sums of money consolidating
their own position rather than helping people, before finally being wound down
after a few years.

One of the best lessons of the social web
is the idea of rapid feedback-driven iteration as an evolutionary model. The
launch of a service is just the beginning of a process whereby user involvement
and feedback drives improvements and refinements. Giving feedback need not be
onerous. There is a wealth of (often ignored) behavioural and usage data that
can provide useful feedback to developers and designers, even where it needs to
be anonymised. Instead of ‘experts’ gathering requirements, obtaining a huge
budget and then spending it all in one go, this evolutionary model seeks to
co-create services with users. There is a lot of good thinking emerging around
concepts of service (co-)design[iv]
in the public sector, and perhaps it is time to apply this on a bigger stage.
There is both a cost and a quality rationale for citizens to participate in the
process of service delivery, which implies going way beyond the current
practice of occasional consultation.

For example, Patient Opinion ( is a
pioneering service that provides a transparent feedback channel for patients
and their families about their experiences of receiving care in the UK’s public
health system. For the people concerned it ensures individual complaints of
poor quality care are addressed. This system can also be used to say thank you
for the treatment received and much of the feedback through Patient Opinion is
actually positive. However, more critically, this qualitative feedback
compliments quantitative data collected by hospitals and helps to actually
drive process and service improvement, rather than simply reporting that data.

In government, as in business, we suffer
from organisational models that are too expensive, cumbersome and inefficient
to succeed in the current climate. We need to place people above process and –
assuming we have hired the right individuals and trained them well – let them
get on with their job. Key to this is the introduction of simple, social tools
that let people develop their own networks within organisations and use these
to get things done. Corporate IT has become a blocker not an enabler and we
urgently need a new, more human-scale approach to internal communications and
knowledge sharing within organisations in both the private and public sector.
We need flatter, more agile organisational structures instead of the
stultifying middle management bureaucratic machines that exist because
organisations fundamentally don’t trust their own people, let alone their
customers and users.

The big question, though, is how to achieve
this? Despite the presence of politicians on Twitter, Australia’s public
institutions are unchanged, and we are still left with a government designed
for the 20th century. We also lack some of the catalysts for change, like
MySociety ( in the UK,
and our third-sector is woefully under-prepared to step up to an enhanced role.
In the United States, the Internet was crucial to Obama’s spectacular
refactoring of the US body politic, and has acted as a driver for even greater
innovation in how government operates.

There are some positive signals. Initiatives like
OpenAustralia ( show
that even if the government itself lacks the capability, then the Australian
community is itself ready for the job of creating new people-powered structures
and services.  The 20th century is over,
and we urgently need more scalable solutions to 21st Century problems.
Harnessing people power online would be a good start.

[i] Transcript of
interview with Senator the Hon. Penny Wong on 29 May 2009

[ii] Snatch the
Murray-Darling Basin from the states to save it, Crikey, 24 July 2009,

[iii] Small steps
better in e-health, The Australian, August 18, 2009,,25942529-5013040,00.html

[iv] Recommended
reading for public service co-design:



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