Sunday, March 29, 2009

Redesigning the Australian Government Online

On Saturday, March 28, 2009 I attended Bar Camp Canberra 2 in the famous Room N101 at ANU. This event was broadly about Internet, web and open source software, but being in Canberra, the theme evolved into using the technology to improve government processes. This free event was far better run and useful than most of the professionally run conferences I attend.

BarCamp is a series of user generated conferences, also described as "un-conferences". The venue and broad theme is set by the organisers, but the speakers and topics are volunteered by the attendees on the day. After getting a name tag, which you adorn with your blog or twitter tags, you can write a proposed topic on a post it note and stick it in a slot on the timetable on the wall. The early slots tend to fill up first, so a tip seems to be to get in early. There were two streams in two rooms and the primary room (N101) filled up first.

The organisers provide a minimum of structure to keep things moving, cutting off discussion to keep to time and making some rearrangements to the timetable. The audience is encouraged to interrupt the speaker at any point and there is a lively discussion at the end of most presentations.

About a quarter of the people seems to have a laptop or some sort of hand held device and be engaged in some sort of discussion of the presentations. There is a twitter tag for the event (#bcc2) and the list of these comments was put up on screen between speaker presentations. Also several people seemed to be preparing or modifying there presentations during the day. I only decided to speak after I got to the event and then prepared my talk in the next hour or so.

The quality of the presentations was mostly very high, with good slides. At some points I had difficulty understanding some of the twiteresq jargon used. One presentation from another ANU lecturer on Internet marketing was so full of unfamiliar terminology I had no idea what the presentation was about. Perhaps I will need to purchase their forthcoming book on the subject to find out what it was about. ;-)

I had a feeling of déjà vu when several speakers discussed how to get the Australian Government to adopt new ways of working using Internet based technology. This was very much the geeks saying: "this is so obvious why don't they get it, do it or get out of our way and let us do it". I recall taking part in such discussions about introducing Internet, email and the web to government, starting about 13 years ago. What was a little disappointing is that this batch of young Turks have not learnt from history and have not looked at how we managed to get Internet, email and the web into government a decade ago. A more subtle strategy is needed than just telling people to do something.

In 1995 at the AUUG Sixth Annual Canberra Conference in a presentation of Internet in Government I proposed a strategy for introducing the Internet into the Australian Government. This was essentially that we implement it at the working level and then, once proven successful, allow our executive and Ministers to take credit for it retrospectively. This strategy proved so successful that few realised what happened.

The "Internet conspiracy" was not exactly a secret, with a loose coalition of public servants, company employees and academics discussing the issue online and at computer conferences. Some later phases got more controversial, such as resistance to the regulation of the Internet. However even here the cabal was reasonably open, as document by Peter Chen in his PHD thesis "Australia's online censorship regime : the advocacy coalition framework and governance compared". Also I talked about it on ABC radio in "Filtering Porn on the Internet: Imperfect by Necessity".

While I was worried about speaking at BarCamp on as serious a topic as web for bushfire emergencies, I found I was not the first such speaker. One of the Google staff talked about the mapping system they provided for the Victorian fires. It would appear there is sufficient interest, expertise and resources to build a coordinated Internet based emergency system for Australia. This could be done be the web community, with the government needing to provide little more than endorsement of the finished product.

My advocacy of the use of email, mailing lists and Web 1.0 in government probably seems very quaint and old fashioned to the twitter users a decade later. I look forward to attending more BarCamps and learning new ways to do old things, if not new ways to do new things. ;-)

1 comment:

James Dellow said...

Tom - it was great to meet you in person at BarCampCanberra. There is definitely some truth in the need for us to build on past experiences and I valued your input. Simply telling people to do it will fail, but I'm not sure the past strategy will work either. Hopefully a Government 2.0 BarCamp in Canberra will help to progress this thinking. BTW There is nothing wrong in proposing the use of Web 1.0 technologies - a lot of Web 2.0 is Web 1.0 being used in new ways. Have you read Clay Shirky's book?