FutureGovForum, Australia

Australia is definitely in the lead as far as a Government 2.0 strategy is concerned. The Netherlands may have a lack of policy, but there is a lot of activity. Both countries face the challenge of implementing cross organisational collaboration. Because of its size, Australia may find it harder to reach consensus about implementation.

On invitation by FutureGovMagazine, I attended as an international guest speaker this conference held 26-27 July at the National Convention Centre in Canberra. The format was different from traditional conferences. Apart from three plenary speeches and two panel discussions, there where 12 round tables where delegates rotated every 40 minutes. The topics on the tables covered the whole range of technical and organizational matters in ICT and the public sector, from cloud computing to Gov2.0. I was asked to be international discussion leader for the table on Citizen Service Delivery. Participants were senior civil servants in Australian federal and state government.

Peter Harper, head of the Australian Bureau of Statistics gave the kick off with a strong plea for open government data, which means that these should be available, accessible and freely shared. Since the fixed cost of collecting the data is already paid for during the original process, the price of data depends on the marginal costs for distributing. In the internet age these are negligible. However, serious barriers do exist because data should be readable and understandable, and metadata has to be added. Moreover agencies that depend on selling data for their budget will experience a loss of revenue. Nevertheless there are sizeable economic and social benefits to be gained. It opens the way for pyramidisation, visploration and mashups of data.

The second plenary speaker was Nicholas Gruen, chairman of the Government 2.0 Taskforce, which presented last year a strategy that is widely acclaimed to be the world’s best. The basic assumption about open data is that you can’t imagine the difference between the reason for collecting data and the use that can be made of it. He gave examples of API’s developed on the basis of released data on public transport. The game changer is the idea that is behind the old suggestion box. For any organisation, the best minds are outside, so provide opportunities for engagement and feedback. This means that government should strictly act as a wholesaler of data, not as a retailer of information. As far as government blogging is concerned, the code of conduct for Australian civil servants advises that the focus should be on the area in between official and private conversation, i.e. professional views.

Ann Stewart, Australia’s CIO, whom I recently met at de WCIT2010 in Amsterdam, was the third speaker. Just last week the Australian government adopted the proposals of the taskforce and presented a Declaration of Open Government with three key principles: informing, engaging and participating. It urges agencies to develop an “action agenda” not only for themselves, but for collaboration with other agencies on common service areas and the Australian public. Public sector information (PSI) is central to public sector reform. A number of lead agencies are going to take responsibility for specific projects to overcome individual jurisdictions. When she asked the audience who was already involved in social media, just a small number of fingers were raised (including mine). Her reaction: civil servants should become “activists”.

My brief introduction at the round table sessions focussed on the 3-step Citizenlink approach for citizen centricity: standardising quality requirements, measuring customer satisfaction and promoting citizen engagement. Web 2.0 creates a whole new set of opportunities to practice this. The Netherlands and Australia having a population which is roughly comparable in numbers, but a surface that is certainly not in size (Australia being a continent rather than a country), creates a quite different environment. The general feeling of the Australian participants was that this makes collaboration between tiers of government harder to reach than in a relatively more compact society as the Netherlands. Just one example: Australia has 8 state car licence jurisdictions, a single federal licence plate is not foreseeable in the near future.

The panel on European Perspectives was composed of Austria’s CIO Reinhard Posch, Glyn Evans of the Birmingham City Council and myself. In reply to the question whether Europe, with the exception of UK, lags behind in PSI, I answered that it might look indeed as if less priority is given to open data. However that does not mean that nothing happens, on the contrary. First there is a long standing policy for creating basic registers in order to share government data. Unfortunately in their present form most are no reusable, for they don’t meet the requirements that Peter Harper stipulated. So that will take time. Not surprisingly many examples of reused data are in the field of public transport, parking reservations and the like, which are not the core business of government. But more importantly, whereas the Australian strategy seems to advocate releasing data and then “wait and see what happens”, in the Netherlands there is more focus on using the opportunities of Web 2.0 in the actual redesigning of public services. I gave examples of collecting data (e.g. feedback on public services), harmonising data (voting on decisions of city councils) and distributing data (performance and quality comparisons) to that end. So there might be a lack of policy, but there is a lot of activity.
The possibilities to create conditions for cross government collaboration differ in Australia and Europe. As a federal state, Australia has integration mechanisms which European Union lacks. On the other hand, European integration policy and law helps to set standards, such as the interoperability framewordk and the mandatory Service Directive.

The advantage of the conference’s format is a more personal conversation and interaction. At the same time it was challenging for the speakers to adapt their story to the different interest of 12 rotations. The groups of participants got to know one another so well that the second day I asked them to introduce a colleague in stead of themselves. It was a well organised event with high level participation, the sharing of knowledge and the awareness it created surely very helpful for Australian public sector reform.

Several of my fellow speakers I met on conferences before. During the speakers dinner I got to talk with Gerrit Bahlman, who was born in Rotterdam and emigrated to New Zealand at the age of 13. Presently he works as Director of Information Technology at the HongKong University. He and others are highly impressed by the rapid economic developments in the Asian and Pacific region, and at the same time wonder whether Europe and the US can adapt their societies in order to catch up.

Australia is due for general elections next August. There was quite some coverage in the press. But on television there was just one debate between the contenders for prime minister: Labour’s Julia Gillard and the Liberals’ Tony Abbott. Only journalists were present to ask questions, no audience. Quite different form the latest general elections in the Netherlands, with a preceding two week’s period of lively debates, daily polling and heavy use of social media.

Travel from Europe to Australia generally takes one and a half day. As there is no direct connection between Amsterdam and Canberra, the first leg in Europe is flying to Paris or London. As place of arrival in Australia one can choose any one of the larger cities: Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane. For a change a took the express train from Amsterdam to Frankfurt to board the plane to Singapore, with a connecting intercontinental flight to Brisbane. There I made a stopover to get rid of my jet lag and to visit the Great Barrier Reef. Was a very interesting trip by propeller plane and glass bottom boat, followed by snorkelling around a coral clay and swimming with turtles.

Matt Poelmans, July 30th