Last night’s Government 2.0 Taskforce Road Show in Sydney didn’t look like the start of a revolution. The raised podium with its white tablecloth overlooked North Korea-neat rows of uncomfortable blue chairs. Only one of four Taskforce members had a laptop open. As discussion topics were suggested, they didn’t appear on a big screen, or even a big piece of paper.
Yet the Taskforce has indeed been charged with fomenting a cultural revolution.
Its terms of reference include advising the government on how to establish a “pro-disclosure culture around non-sensitive public sector information”, to “make government more consultative, participatory and transparent”, to “build a culture of online innovation”, to “promote collaboration across agencies” and more. They also have to figure out how to spend their $2.45 million Project Fund.
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Yes, the Taskforce will be disbanded after just six months, and hand everything to an Information Commissioner to be appointed in January 2010.
It’s a big ask. Government 2.0 isn’t just about having fancy new Web 2.0 toys, or mapping existing government structures into some digital space. It’s about creating brand new structures — structures and services that weren’t even possible until now.
One example is FixMyStreet.com, a community-based service which allows UK citizens to report and discuss local problems like graffiti, illegal dumping, broken paving and faulty street lighting. An audience member said she was uncomfortable with a service like this being outside government.
“These are core services for which governments collect rates and taxes,” she said.
Taskforce chair Nicholas Gruen agreed, and went even further.
“I think it was the government’s job to build Google, Facebook, Twitter. I’m quite serious about that,” said Gruen. “It’s the government which is funded to build public goods for the community… We certainly have to be enthusiastic about the government doing their job better, but we also have to ask why the private sector seems to be better at innovation.”
One key factor is fear. A naturally risk-averse public service won’t move until they understand all the possible risks. But at internet speed, you simply can’t know everything before you start.
The trick is to learn by doing, according to Taskforce member Mia Garlick, who happens to work as an Assistant Secretary at DBCDE.
“Let’s go for the easy stuff so we can get something going. Learn along the way,” says Garlick.
“Once you’ve got something simple online, you can see how people interact with it, and build out from there.”
“Fail Fast, Fail Cheap”, as the saying goes.
When Crikey reported the Taskforce’s formation in June, I noted how all this talk of involving the public frightens the blokes in the charcoal suits — yes, they’re still mostly blokes, in every sense of the word. Last night there was talk of the Digital Divide, but it’s really a Participation Divide — a divide that runs right through government departments themselves.
Some people are willing to pick up the new tools and change the way they do things — to accept the risk that goes with innovation, with revolution. Others are not. And if there are too few risk-takers, the revolution will fail.
The Government 2.0 Taskforce Road Show next visits Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Darwin and Hobart.