Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Open Governance: Running Organizations and Governments like an Open Source Software Project

The National Archives of Australia have asked me to help teach e-archiving to public servants from state governments and the federal government in November. This would use some of the material from the course I ran at ANU last November.

Apart from adding some new material on OOXML, I was thinking of suggesting that Open Source could be a model for government.

One thing I have been musing on is why it is so hard for organizations to do web sites. The technology is cheap and easy, but many organizations find it very difficult to maintain a basic web site and most find blogs, wikis and social networking beyond them. Another thing I have been thinking about is what all the different sorts of web based content management tools have in common.

I suspect this is because the governance structures of organizations do not match that of the web technology. The traditional approach to this is to adapt the web technology to the administrative and decision making processes of the organization. The natural response in a government organizations or a university to "how to we improve the web site" is "lets form a committee". The reaction to Wikis has been to ban them.

My advice in the past has been for organizations to avoid having social networking and online discussion forums. Government agencies can't cope with having a lot of people discussing what they are doing on an official government web site. Instead I suggested they get some non-government organization to host the discussion. This way when something is posted which is controversial, the agency can say: "not our web site, not our problem".

But perhaps it is time organizations learned how to use web based tools effectively. I suspect this will require the organizations to change their governance structures, not just their administrative processes. They could simply replicate current structures online, but they will then miss most of the benefits. A lot of what goes on in organizations looks like time wasting nonsense, to someone used to online working. Instead, some of the techniques of open source development could be used for running organizations and nations.

One thing which content management systems have in common is that they need some way to manage. Management is not just about being able to change the footer on all the web pages with one command, but about deciding who does what. Perhaps governance (management at a higher level) could be something open source software could provide as a separate service. The particular application the governance was applied to, such as publishing a journal, running a course, business or government, could then be a separate add-on function.

In doing a quick search on "Open Governance" I discovered this is something government people are discussing, using government web tools. A search found a discussion of government in the Australia Government's GovDex online collaboration forum. Much of GovDex is restricted to government people working on particular projects, but some is publicly accessible and indexed by web search engines. This is a refreshing change for government agencies.

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