This week in Australia, the establishment of a new taskforce was announced, the Government 2.0 Taskforce, in emulation of the UK’s Power of Information Taskforce which reported in March of this year. Leaving aside the woeful title of Australia’s new advisory body, the objectives and powers of the initiative are worthy; the taskforce that, in the age of twitter, shall hereafter be named ‘#gov2tf’, is charged with advising the Australian Government on issues of opening up public sector information to promote transparency, and finding new ways to encourage online engagement in public issues management among the community. As an advancement to the British precedent, Australia’s gov2tf has an A$2.45 million project fund which will be allocated by the taskforce to projects which:
“support the development of Web 2.0 tools and applications that either enable engagement between government and the community or support the innovative use of government information”.
To be honest, I’m not sure about the fund. I see of course that it is important to identify initiatives that can be adopted to promote democratic engagement, but the problem with funding these projects is that selection of initiatives is always based on fulfilling a series of criteria, including application and reporting mechanisms that choke the innovation out of the project with enforced bureaucracy. I find it far more useful for a taskforce like this to simply draw attention to initiatives and projects that already exist. And don’t tell me they don’t exist, because they do. There are plenty of examples of technology-mediated public engagement initiatives, and the sharp rise in unconferences and collective application building events (funded or unfunded) are evidence of that proactive innovation. The problem is that the great work going on in these voluntary networks is not recognised nor highlighted by government.
I’m a fan of criterion based assessment, and I have been an active advocate of measurement techniques for new media. But this is one area where I think governments can afford to let go of their criteria and reporting obsession.
What governments need in the emergent technology arena is not another fund, or another written report. What it needs is to turn up to some of these events, and to talk about the initiatives publicly. This doesn’t mean that speech writers need to spend hours composing long diatribes about how marvellous it is to live in such a deeply connected age. It just means that politicians and decision makers need to say, “What do you think about government putting some money into sustaining things like twitter to assist the protestors in Iran? Tell me by filling in the poll at onlineopinion.com.au. And if you don’t have a PC at home, and you can’t get access to your public library, send me an SMS to 55555 with your response.” Speeches will be a lot shorter, and public engagement initiatives will be promoted far more effectively.
There’s an irony about emergent technology policy and planning that the outputs of these groups are largely predictable and ‘old tech’. Even where a public fund is used to identify new tools, the majority of these will either slip into obscurity after launch or will be greatly applauded for a while but not widely adopted or contributed to, by the policy makers themselves, or those who are not already active participants in public engagement. So the great ‘achievements’ of technology taskforces are celebrated in one thick and largely unread public report, and the new initiatives sparkle at their sauvignon-blanc launches, but thereafter are populated only by the usual suspects. Instead of insisting on a specific set of standards, I rather wish government officials would make a habit of putting a spotlight on a new initiative every day. It might be tiring, but it would make more interesting reading than the avalanche of speeches, reports and criteria that usually pour out of these groups, and it would certainly make public engagement more attractive.