Government 2.0: Crossing or Creating Digital Divides?

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digital divides

 

Government 2.0 is an engaging idea that reflects two distinct
periods of thought: the "classical" model of democratic practice which focuses
on citizen participation and peer relationships[i],
and; the modern era of public management where organizations and public
servants are expected to be more flexible and responsive to citizen’s demands,
and can employ technology skillfully to create "public value"[ii].

While Government 2.0 remains an elusive concept in definition and
practice – hence the establishment by the Commonwealth Government of a
Taskforce to examine methods to "accelerate" its inevitable development[iii]
– it tends to be characterized as having three main objectives in State-centric
nations like Australia[iv]:

  • Establishing
    conditions that encourage citizen participation within the sphere of government
    (formally and informally);
  • Enabling
    action at the level of communities (be they physical, professional, of
    interest, or purely virtual) to identify and respond to social problems, and;
  • Reconfiguring
    the administrative functions of the State to more fundamentally reflect
    principles of flexibility and responsiveness.

Overall, the meta-narrative of Government 2.0 is all about boundaries: how can we reduce those
common barriers to action that inhibit our natural inclination to solve
collective problems. It fits neatly with the common (but academically contested[v])
theory of "democratic decline"[vi]:
that these barriers to action have disengaged communities, disconnected
citizens from the State, and in doing so undermined State legitimacy and
therefore capacity.

The Government 2.0 program is ambitious, aiming to solve, in its
essence, the twin dilemmas of collective action and organizational agility. So
it is unsurprising that the program’s proponents have had problems determining
the most effective method of realising the concept.[vii]
In the early iterations of the idea (back when it was encapsulated within the
concepts of e-government or e-democracy) the program tended to focus on 90s-era
change strategies: large projects aimed at "re-engineering" organizations
through detailed analysis of business rules and the development of new computer
systems that reflect these renewed organizational priorities and activities.

This model dominated the approach of the Commonwealth under the
Howard Government. It achieved a number of initial wins (particularly in
delivering administrative efficiencies and the redevelopment of information
systems supporting welfare and employment services)[viii]
but struggled when the discussion shifted from consumers of government services to citizens. The project-oriented, top-down approach fits neatly with
the automation of interactions that are highly constrained by legislative
entitlements and sanctions, but is unresponsive when asked to interface with
individuals who are acting in the more amorphous world of democratic practices:
where the rules of the game are themselves subject to contest and debate.

Lessons are learnt, however, and the current iteration of
Government 2.0 has taken on a considerably different character. Rather than
seeing this form of democratically enabling governance as something to be
"delivered" by the State (programmatic e-democracy), current discussions have
taken on a more pragmatic character. Individuals and organizations (State and
civil society) should undertake a wide array of activities[ix]
to determine "what works", with high levels of public engagement. Thus, rather
than stick dogmatically to an ideological position about what emerging forms of
governance should look like, the future, like the web itself, should take an
organic character. Given the "third way"-like approach to this round of
reexamination and implementation, it is unsurprising that the idea attracts
support from across the political divide.

The fact that it is supported across the political divide,
however, does not mean that this concept is free of ideology.

Just as the initial e-government agenda was strongly influenced by
the dot.com bubble of the mid to late 1990s, the concept of Government 2.0 is
shaped by its parent concept: Web 2.0. As we will see, in taking inspiration
from Web 2.0 to overcome the limitations of the first generation of online
government initiatives, Government 2.0 also implicitly accepts some of its
inherent ideological components.

The concept of Web 2.0 – less a theory than an attempt to define a
transitional phase in the fast moving evolution of the internet – emerges from
two recent technological developments. The first comes from the "pull" side of
the communications equation: the public’s shift from dial-up to "always on"
fast broadband as the most common method of accessing the internet.[x]
The second is "push": the revitalization of web browsers and web programming
that altered the internet from a comparatively static publishing medium to an
interactive "platform" for dynamic content.

The important aspect of Web 2.0 is not the breakthrough popularity
of any of its "exemplar" applications (YouTube, Flickr, Wikipedia). It is that
– as Axel Bruns argues – Web 2.0 changes what’s on the other side of the
screens: us. In a "read-write" world
of amateur bloggers and citizen journalists, the new technology changes us from
simple consumers of content (users skilled in navigating around the web) to "produsers": producer-users adept at
navigation and creation, neither
audiences nor directors.[xi]
Produsers don’t just "break the
fourth wall". That barrier is meaningless for people who’ll download a popular
cartoon, ironically re-edit it with dialogue from a classic 1950s red scare
film, and post it back to Facebook for the enjoyment of their social network. We are the Media.

For me, the notion of produsers
is reminiscent of Henrik Bang’s political concept of the "everyday maker"[xii]:
politically interested, but practically-minded individuals who want to have an
effect at the local level and are not interested in a role in the broad scale
of public life. The everyday maker is interested in affecting their local
narratives and conditions, they will opt in and out of participation when they
have something to add, or something to fix. Just as the produser asks of the web "what can I create?" the everyday maker
asks "what can I resolve?"

It is this notion of the inventive produser or everyday maker that Government 2.0 wants to bring to
the realm of democratic citizenship. Rather than seeing the State as a
pre-determined (and increasingly unappetizing) menu of services and limited
avenues for political participation (voting, party membership, pressure group
activity), a Government 2.0 is one where citizens freely cross the boundary of
participation in response to our concerns, interests, and abilities. Government
2.0, therefore, pushes at an open door: citizens benefit because they can act
in their own interests, while the State gains access to valuable human capital.
This brings legitimacy through public participation in "collaborative
governance" rather than the top-down administration of the democratically
impoverished post-parliamentary democracy[xiii].
Government 2.0, therefore, sits at a cusp: the exponential growth seen in, say,
Wikipedia articles from 2003 to 2006, could be reproduced in participative
governance and co-production – if only we can reprogram or "reboot" government
in the right way.

The notion of a permeable membrane between the political and the
apolitical world is not new to thinking about government structures. In the
1960s Robert Dahl introduced his notion of homo
politicus
(the politically active citizen) and homo civicus (the non-active citizen) in his work on pluralist
politics[xiv].
According to Dahl’s narrative, while civicus
was largely disengaged from the political process because of an interest in
their personal, professional, and domestic lives, there was no significant
barrier to a member of this group entering the public sphere. This could be
done by forming or joining the pressure groups and voluntary associations that
are at the heart of the pluralist’s view of political life. Indeed, where civicus’s interests were substantially
threatened, that form of mobilization would occur. This periodic activation
(and the threat thereof) thus served as an automatic regulator of the actions
of politicus, and the establishment
of barriers to participation (money politics, policy oligopolies) was regarded
as anti-democratic.

This neat "thermostatic" model of political life became
increasingly unrealistic because pressure groups did not act in the way
prescribed by Dahl: shifting away from being mobilizing organizations capturing
large numbers of active citizens to focusing on joining "insider" policy cliques.
Like political parties, these voluntary organizations now increasingly focus on
capturing large numbers of political donations
for the use of professional policy staff.

Complexity and expediency are at the root of this change. For
Bang, the complexity of modern government both discourages the everyday maker
from engaging with state or federal politics and renders their capabilities
less valuable for interest groups. Our fragmented and specialized society
instead promotes the growth of the "expert citizen": full-time political
professionals located in voluntary organizations, who specialize in matching
problems with resources through their mastery of the complex governance
networks that exist in post-industrial "hollow states".[xv]

The question for Government 2.0, therefore, is not about next
steps. The question is how it defines the minimum skill set and workload
required to be an effective citizen.

Through its parent concept of Web 2.0, Government 2.0 comes with a
number of implicit statements about what the next generation of citizen will
look like: The web is "personal" and focused on individual action and entrepreneurialism.
It’s a "maker" world that prizes technical skills to rip, mix and post ideas,
software and data. And importantly, it’s all about "conversation", the key
currency of the blogosphere.

These may well be the characteristics of citizenship our society
values. But we should adopt Government 2.0 having clearly reflected on the
rights and responsibilities these characteristics entail, and the implications
for those who may fall outside of the standards set for homo politicus 2.0.

The radical individualism of some web cultures serves as a
warning: meritocracy based on technical skill promotes and values only one type
of expertise, technical "information literacies". While these skills can be
empowering, we must also recognize how high standards don’t always lift all
boats. The almost fetishistic shift to an "evidence base" in some professional
policy making circles may have served to rationalize policy debate away from
ideology and back to the reality-based community,[xvi]
but sometimes at the cost of other types of knowledge[xvii]
(occasionally deliberately). Barriers to participation are not eliminated,
they’re simply reconfigured.[xviii]
For Bang, the alienation of "lay" knowledge is an important cause of the
pathology of non-participation.

If we must be produsers
how many of us make the cut? It’s hard to tell. If evidence from the United
States is anything to go on, however, then we can generously say it’s less than
22% of the population (if posting a comment online at least once in a two year
period makes you a rip-mix-burn expert). Realistically, the figure might be
more likely in the 7% range (adults who daily blog, just smaller than the number
of people who read blogs on a daily
basis).[xix]
While that certainly is a conversation of produsers, many of us are clearly still
sitting on the sidelines. Maybe generational replacement will fundamentally
alter this, but after 18 years experience of the World Wide Web, perhaps we
should start to question whether this ever youthful "new media" will ever be
capable of delivering our projected hopes for participative democracy.

The notion that Government / Web 2.0 is "all about conversation"[xx]
also needs to be teased out. The conversational nature of blogs, social
networking services, and e-consultation chat systems is appealing to our
imaginary "classic" democracy (be that the Athenian marketplace, European
coffee houses,[xxi]
or even the walk-and-talk Whitehouse of the West
Wing
[xxii]).
But this – intensely American – notion of political exchange needs to be
questioned in the cultural context of Australia.

Australians are not, by and large, a politically declarative
bunch. Unlike the button-wearing politics of the United States, surveys show
that explicitly political personal conversations have been a constantly declining form of political activity in
Australia[xxiii],
with Australians more likely to see overtly political speech through the lens
of the hectoring bores of Don’s Party
(1971) than James Stewart’s impassioned filibuster in Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939). The concern, therefore, is that
Government 2.0 might just demand that we become technically far more engaged
than we currently are, to undertake a specific form of political interaction in
which we are decreasingly interested.

What social contract lies at the heart of Government 2.0? Must we
be expert citizens or is there space for the everyday maker? Gerry Stoker has
argued that, rather than raising the bar, we need to accept the value and
appropriateness of a "politics for amateurs".[xxiv]
We need, therefore, first to define what that means, then the reprogramming can
begin.


[i] As opposed to hierarchical relationships that characterize
conventional understandings of power politics: the top-down orientation of
State action and corresponding inverse narrative of bottom-up resistance.

[ii] Moore, M (1995) Creating Public Value: Strategic Management in Government, Cambridge: Harvard
University Press.

[iii] Government 2.0 Taskforce (2009) Towards
Government 2.0: An Issues Paper
, 23 July, p.3.

[iv] As opposed, for example, to the United States, where there is less
of an emphasis on the role of the Government on "community building",
reflecting an avoidance of government intervention in the private sphere.

[v] Norris, P (2003) Democratic Phoenix: Reinventing Political Activism, Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

[vi] Putnam, R (2000) Bowling
Alone : The Collapse and Revival of American Community
, New York: Simon & Schuster.

[vii] The array of Government-sponsored electronic consultation trials is
a good example of this problem. While some jurisdictions claim success (e.g. Queensland), most
initiatives at the local, state and federal level have not lived up to early
expectations of rejuvenating participation. Chen, Gibson and Geiselhart (2006) Electronic Democracy? The Impact of New
Communications Technologies on Australian Democracy
, Focused Audit,
Democratic Audit of Australia,
Canberra: Australian National
University.

[viii] Examples would include the development of the ATO’s E-Tax package,
and the creation of Centrelink and the Job Network system.

[ix] Including, but by no means limited to, the default release of
datasets to enhance the capacity of citizen oversight and policy debate, the
development of electronic and online consultation and collaboration "agora" for
citizen participation, and greater emphasis on social capital projects to
address local issues through collaboration building.

[x] Australia
still retains about 1.3 million dial-up internet accounts. These tend to be
predominantly located in rural and remote areas. This number has been tapering
off over recent years as customers switch to broadband services (normally ADSL)
and new customers enter the market choosing broadband where available.
Australian Bureau of Statistics (2009) 8153.0
– Internet Activity, Australia, Dec 2008
, Canberra: ABS.

[xi] Bruns, A (2008) Blogs,
Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond: From Production to Produsage, New York:
Peter Lang.

[xii] Bang, H (2004) Everyday
Makers and Expert Citizens: Building Political not Social Capital
, Canberra:

ANU.

[xiii] Richardson and Jordan (1979) Governing
Under Pressure: The Policy Process in a Post-Parliamentary Democracy
, Oxford: Oxford
University Press.

[xiv] Dahl, R (1961) Who Governs?
Democracy and Power in the American City
, New Haven: Yale University
Press.

[xv] The hollow state is "a metaphor for the increasing use of third
parties, often nonprofits, to deliver social services and generally act in the
name of the state." Some authors also note the "hollowing out" effect of
devolution and global/regionalization. Milward and Provan (2000) "Governing the
Hollow State", Journal of Public
Administration Research and Theory
, 10(2) pp. 359-380.

[xvi] Suskind, R (2004) "Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W.
Bush". The New York Times Magazine.
17 October.

[xvii] For example, indigenous knowledge, local histories, and information
from outside of a narrow band of technical specialties.

[xviii] Batterbury, S (2007) "Evaluation and Exclusion from the Public
Arena: the Case of the British Deaf Community", Open to the Public: Evaluation of the Public Arena, Boye, Breul and
Dahler-Larsen (eds), New Jersey: Transaction Publishers.

[xix] Pew Internet and the American Life Project (2009) Trend Data, http://www.pewinternet.org/Static-Pages/Trend-Data.aspx

[xx] Stewart-Weeks, M (2009) "The Great Promise of Web 2.0", Government 2.0 Taskforce, http://gov2.net.au/blog/2009/08/10/the-great-promise-of-web-2-0/

[xxi] Goode, L (2005) Jürgen
Habermas: Democracy and the Public Sphere
, London: Pluto Press.

[xxii] That happy fantasy world liberals could retreat to during the Bush
administration. Jennifer (2008) "West Wing — My Fantasy Alternate
Reality", Mixed Race America,
September 24, http://mixedraceamerica.blogspot.com/2008/09/west-wing-my-fantasy-alternate-reality.html

[xxiii] McAllister and Clark (2007) Trends
in Australian Political Opinion: Results from the Australian Election Study,
1987-2004
. Canberra: Australian Social Science Data Archive.

[xxiv] Stoker, G (2006) Why Politics
Matters: Making Democracy Work
, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

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