Open government: a new paradigm in social change?

Rosie Williams: 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….(More)”