HIV Australia | Vol. 10 No. 1 | June 2012
Jason Appleby traces a cultural shift that is occurring as governments adapt to new modes of communication.
Background and introduction
Online communication has undergone a paradigm shift within the last decade.
This shift, collectively referred to as ‘Web 2.0’, is characterised by a set of principles and practices1 that have seen dissemination of information online move from a ‘read only’ model using static, centralised websites (a ‘one way’ or ‘top down’ approach) to a more decentralised, collaborative model of sharing that privileges user generated content alongside the opinion of subject matter ‘experts’.
Over time, Web 2.0 has been used more as a marketing term than a computer-science-based term. Blogs, wikis, and web services are all seen as components of Web 2.0. For example, the website YouTube attracts not only people wanting to view content which has been professionally produced, it also allows for the immediate sharing of videos by individuals who wouldn’t otherwise produce content.
This proliferation of Web 2.0 technologies and the growth of the internet have changed the way many people live their lives. As the exchange of information and ideas becomes easier, and as people become connected in ways undreamed of twenty years ago, expectations around the accessibility of information have reformed to reflect this.
While entire industry practices have evolved in step with these technologies, the reticence of government (and government agencies) to harness the potential of the web has been often noted. The concept of ‘Government 2.0’ is about government departments making use of Web 2.0 technologies to encourage a more open and transparent form of government, where the public has a greater role in forming policy and has improved access to government information.
Government and the Web 2.0 paradox
As the Australian Government itself has noted, the concept of Government 2.0 is based around a paradox2.
All the most popular collaborative Web 2.0 platforms – including blogs, wikis and social networking sites such as Wikipedia, Google, Facebook and Twitter – function like community assets, given that they are available for public use without charge. Although the platforms have been developed by commercial companies they conform to the technical definition of public goods because3:
- they are freely available; no-one is excluded from enjoying them, and
- one person’s enjoyment of them does not hamper others’ enjoyment of them – indeed it typically enhances it.
Early changes to government practice, largely focusing on enhancing service delivery and communication to the public using Web 2.0 tools, have been lauded as increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of government agencies.
For example, in many countries, up to 70% of tax returns are filed via the internet, and many transactions can be purchased or paid for online.4
However, further engagement by government departments with internet-based technologies and services (particularly those displaying Web 2.0 characteristics such as user generated content) has been slower to develop.
Partially this is because government, and the bureaucratic practices which support it, require environments of accountability and control. The internet and particularly the much vaunted Web 2.0 technologies, act to connect many to many. Government communication relies on more authoritative one to many broadcast regimens. The internet removes and reduces the ability to censor or control which creates a tension between government needs and broader social desires.
Government 2.0 in Australia Since 2008, there has been significant cultural pressure for Australian Government agencies to utilise web (and similar) technologies to improve and increase the way in which governments communicate (and become accountable) to society.
The Government 2.0 movement (known more widely as Gov 2.0 – a reference to the .gov domain names associated globally with government agencies) has embodied several key principles, mainly relating to increasing accessibility to government held and maintained data.
During 2009–2010 the Australian Government formed a Taskforce to provide advice and evaluate evidence for embracing Government 2.0 values.
It was formed against a backdrop of increased interest by governments worldwide in the potential uses of public sector information and online engagement. The formation of the Taskforce coincided with the completion of a six month trial of online consultation in government.
The Taskforce provided a full report to government (which is available online at http://agimo.govspace.gov.au) during 2010.
The Taskforce’s report recommended changes to a range of areas, including coordinated leadership, guidance, support and recognition for agencies and the important considerations of accessibility and security.
In response to the findings of the Government 2.0 Taskforce, in May 2010 the Australian Government provided a response which embraces the findings and recommendations of the Taskforce.
Australia joins countries such as the United Kingdom and United States in having clearly articulated principles which describe a commitment to more open government.
Declaration of Open Government
At the heart of the Government 2.0 Taskforce’s report was the recommendation that the Australian Government makes a declaration of open government.
Lindsay Tanner, as head of the Government 2.0 Taskforce, made the following declaration in July 20105:
The Australian Government now declares that, in order to promote greater participation in Australia’s democracy, it is committed to open government based on a culture of engagement, built on better access to and use of government held information, and sustained by the innovative use of technology.
Citizen collaboration in policy and service delivery design will enhance the processes of government and improve the outcomes sought.
Collaboration with citizens is to be enabled and encouraged.
Agencies are to reduce barriers to online engagement, undertake social networking, crowd sourcing and online collaboration projects and support online engagement by employees, in accordance with the Australian Public Service Commission Guidelines.
The possibilities for open government depend on the innovative use of new internet-based technologies. Agencies are to develop policies that support employee-initiated, innovative Government 2.0-based proposals.
The Australian Government’s support for openness and transparency in Government has three key principles:
- Informing: strengthening citizen’s rights of access to information, establishing a pro-disclosure culture across Australian Government agencies including through online innovation, and making government information more accessible and usable;
- Engaging: collaborating with citizens on policy and service delivery to enhance the processes of government and improve the outcomes sought, and
- Participating: making government more consultative and participative.
Challenges particular to health promotion
The unique nature of health data, and the laws which restrict access to it (to the Commonwealth Privacy Act for example) have frequently been seen as obstacles to Gov 2.0 in the health promotion arena.
Key data collections which may have other uses are restricted by law, or principle, and are not easily accessible. To date, efforts to release truncated versions of these data sets for broader use are generally unsupported.
In addition, health related data sets tend not to be designed with consideration to Open Access principles. There are significant differences between and within State and Federal government agency data collections that inhibit the useful aggregation and common use of this data.
There are also significant challenges to enabling the open release of government maintained information. The Government 2.0 Taskforce notes that6:
If governments are to become part of this world – as contributors and users of the vast potential of Web 2.0, their culture must encourage it. Right now it does not.
Before government engages – whether it is by way of communicating with the public or releasing information – a panoply of permissions is required.
In any but routine service delivery roles, officials are typically not authorised to speak to the public without substantial clearance processes.
Instead of being immediate, government announcements and actions can take some time to be forthcoming while all possible stakeholders are consulted and points of view are considered. Instead of being informal, governments tend to speak formally with each word chosen very carefully. Government processes are intended to minimise the chance of making a mistake with little regard given to the potential costs this imposes on innovation.
Health (and health promotion) services are yet to fully explore and realise the potential of internet based technologies such as Web 2.0. This is largely due to traditional government processes which focus on accountability and control. The Government 2.0 philosophy may act to enable and extend health promotion as information traditionally managed and owned by government becomes more accessible.
2 Australian Government Information Management Office – Department of Finance and Deregulation, Engage: Getting on with Government 2.0 – Report of the Government 2.0 Taskforce, 2009.
Jason Appleby is the Treatment Editor for HIV Australia.