Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Gov 2.0 at the Department of Education in Canberra

Pia Waugh introduced the Canberra Gov 2.0 lunchtime event, hosted by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations in Canberra. Damien Battisson, Director of Social Media at DEEWR, spoke first. He used the founding of Canberra as a metaphor, with many false starts and that exploring a little more would produce further results. He also put in a plug for the DEEWR hi-tech theater which is available for hire, as are the services of the DEEWR social media team.

This was followed by the next speaker, Keren Flavell from Wholesome Media, using the building of the Sydney Harbor Bridge as a metaphor for the NBN (attributed to Dr. Karl. She then introduced the topic of participatory democracy and the Victorian Parliament. Unfortunately the definition of "Participatory Democracy" used, was not one I recognized. What Keren described was education and consultation for representative democracy. In contrast participatory democracy has more direct involvement of the citizens in the process of government.Link
An interesting quad chart was presented with axes of empowering to educational and non-social to social. But it was not clear to me that empowering and educational were points on the same continuum.

Curiously after the discussion of high ideals, the details were about two Twitter accounts (@Parliament and @Participates). These Twitter accounts are used to report bills before the house and committees. However, these are basic housekeeping functions (pun intended), not really about participatory democracy. I suggest a more proactive approach would be to make Hansard live, that is rather than have to wait until the next day, the Hansard would be sent out delayed by only a few seconds. This live feed could have links and advice on bills embedded.
"Parliament of Victoria Explains: How Parliament makes laws" was created as an on-line video in the style of "Electing a US President in Plain English" to educate the citizens.

The claim was then made that no Parliament had worked out how to use Face-book. This seemed to me a strange claim to make. Face-book is intended for groups of "friends" to socialize. There is no reason why this would be useful for a parliament. The reason given for this not working was that Face-book was not being used to drive an agenda (but such driving an agenda would be the opposite of participatory democracy). The solution proffered was the "Town Hall" application. This seemed to be a US based solution where "town hall meetings" are common, but may not suit Australian democracy.

Many of the initiatives presented appeared useful, but missed the point of what participatory democracy is. This is not about the Parliament "educating" the citizens, setting an agenda and then inviting citizens to input to the issues selected by the parliament. Also this approach does not appear to allow for the political parties and factions, which are an important part of Australian democracy.

If the Victorian Parliament uses the Internet to bolster representative democracy that is worthwhile, but the Parliament should not claim this is participatory democracy.

Michael (Mick) Chisnall, Director of the Australian Capital Territory’s Government Information Office, then talked on "Government in a Connected Society". This was an interesting thoughtful talk on the nature of society, the Internet and government. Mick pointed out that the use of "networks" in support of society in not new, with the Roman empire using roads and sea lanes to form a society and the Internet was just the 21st century version of this. He showed a graph with social connections on one access and communications connections on the other, with web 1, 2 and 3 progressing from bottom left to top right.

Mick cited the book "Cyber Chiefs" by Mathieu O'Neil (when he was at ANU). He commented that on-line reputation is by contribution, not formal position. However, it seems to me that the Internet ethos was continuously derived from academic discourse, at the same time the technology was being built to support academic work. Also reputation in academia and on the Internet is built up into semi-formal positions. This reputational influence happens explicitly on some social networks: you must be authorized by your peers to have access to some functions. This is not that different to someone being appointed to an academic position or job, based on their reputation.

Mick then discussed citizen centric services (which seems to me to be the complement of democracy). The piece of the puzzle I see missing is the role of the private sector.

Mick argued for network empowerment, rather than hierarchy. This seems to me to be too radical for government to accept and not necessary. It should be possible to have a network for delivering services and a hierarchy for making decisions. It should be possible to build systems which cooperate to deliver services, hiding the complexity of government structure from the user, but still service the reporting and decision making process of that complex system.

Mick pointed out the success of virtual community cabinets. Also he highlighted the changes to the ACT public service. But is some ways the ACT Government is relatively easy to simplify, as it is just a city council. One aspect I think the ACT Government needs to look at is its relationship with citizens living in cluster housing. Flats and apartment buildings have a "body corporate" which is a form of privatized fourth level of local government. The important issues for local government are garbage collection, roads, street lights, water, power and the like. In the case of the apartment building I live in all these services are provided by the body corporate, not by the ACT Government.

Recording of the presentations will be available later.

1 comment:

Leigh Blackall said...

Good to see you in there, documenting and commenting Tom. I recall when turning up to some of these events myself, if I found you there I had a feeling of reassurance that at least one person in the room could be trusted as being reliable and level headed. It is chilling to hear that this attitude of needing to "educate" the "public", and better "inform", etc.. Is still prevalent. Couple that with some evidence of ignorance on the difference say between representative and participatory democracy, and I start to loose hope again. Not saying I'm perfect, far from it, just saying that humility is something that needs to be nurtured is these bright young stars...

I'm interested to hear why you think networked power is too radical, against a backdrop of idealistic rhetoric at least, of participatory democracy?