Smart Government Australia 2010

For the third time in less than a year I visited Australia as an international key note speaker. This time on invitation by Terrapin for Smart Government Australia 2010, held in Melbourne 14-15 September 2010.

Being invited “Down Under” to talk about eGovernment actually is an honor, since Australia is widely acclaimed to be in the forefront of Gov 2.0 development. It was indeed stimulating to have Nicholas Gruen, who headed Australia’s the Gov 2.0 Taskforce, as a conference chair. In his opening speech he stressed the importance of open networks that grow without access fee. The increase in public value is far greater than the profits private the companies who run these gain (Google’s “crumbs”). As far as platforms are concerned, in his view government should not act as a wholesaler but as a retailer. By providing open data, government can trigger applications. He gave examples of predicting crime, social security fraud, identifying peer schools. In case some of these infringe privacy, the role of government could be building integrity by creating public private partnerships. Gruen urged civil servants to blog and tweet, however of those present only a minority did. He reminded them that only by participating in social networks, you’ll get response. Being an advocate for equity of access, he conceded that the Digital Divide might not go away, and could resurface as the Participation Partition.

The parallell sessions showcased several projects and developments in the Australian public sector. John Wadeson of Centrelink, the Australian Government Agency that delivers payments and services for a number of departments, explained the customer strategy. At present social media tools are not much used, e-forms take the load of communication. However, log ins on websites are now far higher than phone calls.

Patrick McCormick of Victoria’s Justice Department talked about their Digital Engagement programme. Yammer is used for sharing of information, social media for identifying trends and impact. In fighting the recent bush fires, twitter, widgets and geospatial apps for fire protection helped to manage information ans support volunteers in the field. The @VictoriaPolice is an active user of social media tools.

The conference took place in Melbourne, capital of the state of Victoria. Maria Katsonis of the Department of the Premier explained their new Gov2.0 Action Plan. Aim is to shift from the citizen as a spectator to the citizen as a participant. It deals with 4 focus areas: Leadership, Participation, Transparency and Performance. Like in the federal action plan, much attention is given to releasing open data. Unlocking public sector information is seen as a way to improve services. A Public Competition called apps4nsw attracted quite a number of initiatives. One of the winners actually deals with evaluating school performance, an issue at present in The Netherlands.

Senator Kate Lundy who was speaking before me, outlined the plan for a National Broadband Network. Just the day before, the new minority Labor government was installed. The 2 independent MP’s who are necessary for the majority, got a commitment to secure fast internet for each Australian wherever he or she lives. She also stressed the choice for data availability, by default open. Government will facilitate the use of social networks, by choice of the citizen. Citizen centricity means that government should better cope with the 3 levels of jurisdiction. The Australian strategy to align eGovernment Policy and Public Sector Reform results in a strong combination.

The Dutch Citizenlink approach to foster citizen centricity was received favorably. It addresses in an integrated way quality requirements, satisfaction measurement and citizen engagement. The eCitizen Charter is the cornerstone of this approach. It is also used outside The Netherlands in the EU and has been recommended by UN and OECD. The state of Victoria “discovered” this charter already several years ago and published it. As far as Gov 2.0 is concerned, Citizenlink focusses on upgrading promising civic initiatives. An example is the existing Petitions website which was completely “2.0 restyled” and now services local petitions counters for municipalities. A national pilot WeEvaluate offers citizens an independent, easy and standardized way to comment on public services. The winner of the 2009 eParticipation Award ImproveMyNeighborhood (an extended version of FixMyStreet) provides feeds on complaints or suggestions by citizens in a way that municipalities can manage.

Australia being a continent rather than a country, is not as homogenous as a nation state. Compared to the Netherlands which has almost the same population but is much smaller in size, collaboration between levels of Australian government is less easy. The 8 states e.g. each have their own car registration, which means red tape when moving, even if is digitized. A presentation by the Electoral Commissioner of Victoria about e-voting showed that for an inhabitant of a city like Melbourne, there will be polling situations differing per level of government.

The presentations over the two days either dealt with back office reform or front office change. In Australia too, projects in the field of Government 1.0 and Government 2.0 seem somewhat disconnected. An exception was CIO Peter Nikoletatos of Curtin University, who presented a strategy for major organizational restructuring. In order to attract the Millennium Generation, who will be students in 5 years time, they are redesigning the administrative and the educational processes. As all consumer driven technologies (social media, mobile phones) are cloud based, cloud computing is not a choice but a fact.

So during the concluding panel discussion I stressed my point that the real challenge for the next few years will be to bridge the gap between Gov 1.0 and Gov 2.0. It is absolutely necessary for government to play an active role to accommodate input form social media into the back end processes of government. In order to prevent government in the cloud becoming government in the fog, leadership is inescapable. The Australian Open Government strategy rightly mentions this as the first of the four focus areas.