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Australia’s Digital Economy: discuss it, but not here

The document Senator Stephen Conroy launched this week, Australia’s Digital Economy: Future Directions, is labelled “final report”. But that just means it’s the final deliverable of consultations which began almost a year ago with three workshops and the Digital Economy Forum in August and September 2008.

It would be easy to criticise the report for just listing the challenges without providing any solutions. Indeed Ian Birks, chief executive of the Australian Information Industry Association, did just that. It’s more of a discussion, but it does do quite a good job setting the scene and it does identify the issues that will need attention,” he said.

Birks is right. There’s nothing new here. It’s just all of the Rudd government’s digital stuff bundled together in one convenient “roadmap” document with an attractive orange cover.

I suppose that’s why Liberal Senator Nick Minchin couldn’t really get a handle on it, other than to bleat the predictably ideological point that the National Broadband Network is “the most profound market intervention seen in this country”. Odd how this particular piece of basic infrastructure is “market intervention” but roads, sewers, hospitals and street lighting are not.

It’d be easy to mock the report for being fully buzzword-compliant, what with its fashionable website tag cloud, social bookmarking buttons for ease of blogging, Creative Commons (CC) license and availability on a snappy orange USB memory stick  — especially since it’s already on the website in four different formats including Open Document Format (ODF) when there’s only a PDF on the stick.

It’d be easy to mock Conroy’s office for accidentally sending out the media release before the website was ready and even before the launch had happened  — oh what a funny digital cock-up hahahahahaha! But I promised to limit that mockery to a single sentence and there it is, Emma.

Still, putting all the issues on the table is an important part of developing a strategy. Given that people look at issues through their own narrow prisms of interest, this report will help policy-makers and the media understand that building “the digital economy” does indeed include everything from digital literacy in schools and cyber-safety to copyright protection and other legislative reviews.

The report also explains in a nutshell how the government sees its role: as an enabler for society as a market, and as a “government of the gaps”:

Government’s role is to fill a gap left by the market, address social inequity, protect the community, assist markets to work fairly and efficiently, and address market failures.

The transformation of our economy into a digital economy is appropriately, however, a market-led phenomenon… In its role as enabler, for example, the Australian Government is building or facilitating the development of our digital infrastructure, facilitating innovation and setting a conducive regulatory framework. With these commitments, it then turns to industry and the community to take the lead to realise the full the potential of Australia’s digital economy.

That CC license, allowing redistribution of the report, signals a major change from restrictive Crown Copyright rules and is an example of the “open access to public sector information” the report promotes. It must’ve taken serious negotiation to get public servants’ heads around that!

Yet the report also shows how much work still needs to be done before we have Government 2.0. The web page invites comments but states, “It is not our intention to publish any comments we receive.” There’s no way to interact with this discussion paper  — except to email in a comment, which no-one else will see.

The Government 2.0 Taskforce has its work cut out!

Perhaps those words “final report” are part of the problem. In the digital realm, the pace of change is so fast that nothing is ever final. Everything is constantly adapting to changing circumstances. Rather than printed on paper with an air of finality, everything is in perpetual beta.

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