Open government: a new paradigm in social change?

OpenAus is an exciting project in financial and political transparency for Australia, that sees open data as a way forward "to create both a better informed citizenry and also better informed policy evaluation."

It's a sole operation by Rosie Williams, who is a generous contributor to public debate on Twitter at @Info_Aus. Read how her work began and, in this article below (cross-posted with permission from her blog), the potential and challenges for open data and open government in Australia.

OpenAus will focus in coming weeks on homelessness & housing.


Rosie Williams writes:

In a recent speech to the Australian and New Zealand School of Government (ANSOG) annual conference, technology journalist and academic Suelette Drefyus explained the growing 'information asymmetry' that characterises the current-day relationship between government and citizenry.

According to Dreyfus:

'Big Data makes government very powerful in its relationship with the citizen. This is even more so with the rise of intelligent systems, software that increasingly trawls, matches and analyses that Big Data. And it is moving toward making more decisions once made by human beings.'

The role of technology in the delivery of government services gives much food for thought in terms of both its implications for potential good and the potential dangers it may pose. The concept of open government is an important one for the future of policy and democracy in Australia. Open government has at its core a recognition that the world has changed, that the ways people engage and who they engage with has transformed in ways that governments around the world must respond to in both technological and policy terms.

As described in the ANSOG speech, the change within government in how it uses technology is well underway, however in many regards we are at the very beginning of understanding and implementing the potential of data and technology in providing solutions to many of our shared problems. Australia's pending membership of the Open Government Partnership is integral to how Australia responds to these challenges. Membership of the multi-lateral partnership requires the Australian government to create a National Action Plan based on consultation and demonstrate our credentials in the areas of Fiscal Transparency, Access to Information, Income and Asset Disclosure, and Citizen Engagement.

What are the implications of the National Action Plan for policy consultation formulation, implementation and evaluation? In relative terms, Australia's history with open government is fairly recent. Policies on open data have seen the roll out of - a repository of data published by government agencies and made available for re-use in efforts such as the author's own financial transparency site OpenAus.

In this way citizen activity and government come together for the purposes of achieving open government. These efforts express a new paradigm in government and activism where the responsibility for solving the problems of democracy are shared between government and the people as opposed to the government 'solving' the problems of a passive, receptive citizenry.

As the famous whistle-blowers have shown, citizens are no longer passive but this new capability also requires a consciousness of the responsibilities and accountability that go along with the powers newly developed by citizen activists through technological change.

The opening of data and communication channels in the formulation of public policy provides a way forward to create both a better informed citizenry and also better informed policy evaluation. When new standards of transparency are applied to wicked problems what shortcomings does this highlight?

This question was tested with my recent request for a basic fact missing from relevant government research and reviews but key to social issues of homelessness and domestic violence. My request to the Australian Insitute for Health and Welfare (AIHW) for the total number of homeless shelters across Australia was met with the advice that this information was so difficult to extract from the system (set up specifically to capture data from specialist homelessness services) that it would have to form part of a very time-consuming custom request with a cost to me of well over $1,000. I have since heard from service providers who are similarly unable to get hold of the basic statistics required to inform their work. With such basic information missing from research, policy and discourse it demonstrates that transparency itself has an important role to play in successful solutions to social problems.

The good news is that the government is now moving in the right direction. After stalling the National Action Plan for two years, swift changes have been underway in recent times. Both (formerly administered by Finance) and the Digital Transformation Office (formerly administered by Communications) are now within the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet. In their own words, the Data Policy Branch sees these changes as an 'opportunity to prioritise better sharing and publishing of government data by putting data policy at the very heart of the public sector'.

Such changes augur well for setting the groundwork to transform not only how data is collected and used to solve social problems but the role of government itself in providing solutions. Open government brings with it enticing visions of social and cultural change. Client groups once silenced by their vulnerability and distance from the policy and political process may now become active players in both. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a solution to social problems that does not include this as a pre-requisite. New ways of collaborating also mean new ways of distributing power. The question is not whether we can figure out how to do this but whether we really want it, whether that change also requires a change for us that we are willing to accept?

You can follow Rosie Williams on Twitter at @Info_Aus and best support her work by making a donation at this page.