Case Study: Public Sphere as a Gov 2.0 example of Open Government

Government 2.0

We are using the term Government 2.0 to describe the new opportunities presented by online technologies and social methodologies to achieve a more open government.

There are many wonderful Web 2.0 and bleeding edge initiatives in government, often done under the radar and on a shoestring budget. A successful “Government 2.0” initiative may leverage various Web 2.0 tools as well as online community and consultation processes, but ultimately must have an outcome that is tangible and beneficial to citizens. It ought to make people’s interaction with government a more satisfying and personally relevant experience.

Some practical Gov 2.0 examples may include:

  • Using GeoSpatial data to display the most accessible government services available to a young mother in Cowra.
  • Using social media tools for constituent consultation on a new government proposal or legislative draft.
  • A government agency making some of its data publicly accessible, and then working collaboratively with the broader community and industry in preparation for/the midst of an emergency situation.

Open Government

Open Government policies and practices provide benefits in different ways to different people:

  • Citizens – having open access to information and decision making helps build trust and confidence in their government. Communities can effectively become part of the process, rather than simply having decisions imposed upon them.

It’s important at this point to clarify the distinction between the work of elected members of Parliament, which includes politician’s interactions with their constituents – and the administrative aspects of government, which include the delivery of services such as health, education and social welfare. With that in mind:

  • Politicians – Open Government sets a higher bench mark for accountability for politicians. It also provides opportunities for greater and more meaningful interaction and to garner a broad range of community and expert perspectives, in order to make well informed decisions about important issues.
  • Government administration – Open Government policies and practices lead to more effective and efficient service delivery and decision making by directly engaging with citizens to accurately define their needs and tailor services accordingly.
  • Industry – Taking an open approach to government can produce some exciting secondary outcomes such as innovative use of Public Sector Information (PSI) in the private and public sectors, creating new opportunities for economic growth.
  • A good example is the value adding by the private sector to open geospatial information generated in the public sector.

The benefits of Open Government, and open approaches generally can be summed up by Cory Doctorow :

‘Historically, openness – in the widest sense of the word – has been an important contributor to economic success: Open societies experience faster economic growth and political stability than closed ones.’

How government administrations deliver services within the context of both Open Government and Gov 2.0 presents a real challenge and leads us to the first principle of Open Government: how you make services genuinely citizen-centric.

The 3 Pillars of Open Government

Due to the convergence of impending faster network access (NBN), mainstream use of the Internet and online tools, the resourcing and ICT up-skilling of school children (DER) and the global shift towards e-Government and better online engagement with citizens, there is an opportunity to construct what we see as the three pillars of Open Government. These three pillars are citizen-centric services, open and transparent government services and facilitating public and private innovation.

  1. Citizen-centric service – governments have a responsibility to serve the needs of citizens as best they can, and in a way that is individually meaningful to each person. Information can be aggregated and presented in a way that is personalised to a specific person’s need, all with very little information from the citizen (such as a postcode or work status).
  2. Open & transparent government processes – citizens have a right to participate in the democratic processes in an informed and empowered way. This means creating a genuine means of engagement between citizens and governments in policy development and decision making. This partnership will become increasingly important as we as a society face new social, economic and environmental challenges that require rapid and well-informed responses.
  3. Facilitating public and private innovation – there is some government data that for either security or privacy reasons cannot be made publicly accessible. However, there is a lot of data that can be published, and through open access – particularly in open formats – can be aggregated and value-added. 80% of government data can also be linked to a location, which provides both opportunities for delivering citizen-centric services through mapping, and provides the opportunity for public and private innovators to aggregate and present data in new and useful ways.

The core responsibilities of government, in relation to this third pillar, lie in:

  • opening up appropriate government datasets for public use and mashups
  • using open standards, open formats and open APIs
  • ensuring useful metadata is collected, maintained and published
  • applying permissive copyright to data to simplify management and use of data

While considering what the principles of Open Government should achieve, the question for us became ‘What can we do to translate the theories into practice?’. We came up with several ideas, one of which was the Public Sphere initiative. Our Public Sphere initiative is a practical attempt to tap into the wisdom of the crowd, capture and record those insights, and then collaboratively organise and draft them in the form of advice to decision makers.

The Origins of Public Sphere

Although Pia has only been working in the office for 5 months, we have known each other for 5 years and have often exchanged notes on where technology and democracy converge. This led to us collaborating on running a local summit called ‘The Foundations of Openness: Technology and Digital Knowledge‘ inspired by the Prime Minister’s 2020 Summit. In retrospect this local summit was a very basic prototype for Public Sphere. This event was supposed to be streamed, however we had limited success at the time. We did however have an overwhelmingly positive response to this idea.

The next incarnation of this type of interactive policy development came in early 2009 in collaboration with Adjunct Professor Tom Worthington (ANU) on the topic of Green ICT. Tom’s innovative use of Moodle in both events meant that we were able to capture the content in a perpetually open environment.

The third incarnation combined the lessons from the earlier prototypes. In early planning, the Public Sphere was designed to be purely a virtual environment for policy collaboration. After our research and experimentation, we realised that the inherent strength of the new online social media tools were most effective when used to complement a physical get together – a focused, timely and facilitated presence – ideally with a specific goal that people can rally around. This is why each Public Sphere includes a short conference-style event as well as the open online submissions period for input to the blog or wiki. The discussions are encouraged to be online, whether through Twitter, comments on the Live Blogging (which doesn’t require an account) or other methods. This means there is a continual and distributed feedback loop on what is being said or discussed, which helps us understand community responses to ideas being put forward, as they are put forward, and in a way that can be easily analysed after the event. In the traditional sense, people can physically attend the conference and network. However the idea is that people can participate equally in the process and discussions, whether in person or online.

We then wanted to capture everything in a meaningful way, whether it be a thoughtful treatise or a reflective tweet. We needed to do justice to people’s time, effort and expertise. Our task was to come up with a method that was collaborative and transparent, but resulted in a document presented in a digestible format for government decision makers. A wiki was the obvious tool.

In designing the Public Spheres, we’ve tried to combine the best aspects of a highly accessible conference that doesn’t disadvantage virtual participants; has a strong peer review process and applies the most collaborative possible process of government consultation.

The outcome from this process is a briefing paper which identifies all the ideas put forward, the community responses to the ideas and specific policy recommendations on the topic. This paper is then formally presented to the most appropriate channels in government. For instance the issues paper can be delivered to the appropriate Minister to assist with their decision making, as we have done with all of our Public Sphere briefing papers to date. In the immediate future, we hope that government agencies and departments could use a similar methodology to help them develop a well informed view which in turn becomes frank and fearless advice to their Minister.

Public Sphere is part of an ongoing experiment and we understand it is only part of the solution. We look to the exemplary Smithsonian example, where the actual policy itself was developed through a publicly editable wiki. Through our successes we hope to encourage similar innovations throughout government in crowdsourcing policy development to improve democratic participation in Australia and to work towards an even more open government through Gov 2.0.

Useful references

Writings and references by Senator Kate Lundy

The Three Pillars of Open Government

Metadata conference opening address

Copyright Future: Copyright Freedom – dinner address

Podcast interview with Professor Larry Lessig of Creative Commons fame

GLAM WIKI: Finding common ground – speech on access to PSI, current government initiatives and the importance of digitising and making available cultural assets

Spatial information: New Zealand steps up – speech

The Gov 2.0 Public Sphere briefing paper is a comprehensive list of resources, case studies and other useful information on this topic. It is compiled from the input of over 300 individuals

Writings by Pia Waugh

Gov 2.0 – Where to Begin (Parts 1 to 3)

The Foundations of Openness – a paper on practical implications of closed and open approaches to technology. Meant as a guide