I did not have very high expectations for this activity. Given the confidentiality footer on the email invitation, I was expecting to first be handed a non-disclosure agreement and then have looks of horror from the organisers as I opened my laptop and used the wireless 3G to report a lack of transparency in government. Instead there was no mention of confidentiality, apart from assuring us the audio and video recordings were made for research proposes would be destroyed afterwards.
I found one of the participants happily making notes on their 3G enabled sub-notebook when I arrived. This was Pia Waugh, policy advisor to Senator Lundy. Also present was one of the most experienced web experts in government service and a government web master. This was a very opinionated group of people for any researcher to handle, but they handled us well.
There were two government Representatives observing from another room by video camera. Along with the plate of chocolate biscuits and the weak instant coffee, it was a little too much like an episode from the ABC TV comedy "The Hollowmen".
What we were there for was explained to us, we introduced ourselves and then were asked questions about the Web Publishing Guide. This was frustrating, as the questions tended to be about if we liked the web site, while we wanted to discuss policy behind the guidelines.
The Web Publishing Guide is fine, with a good web site. In terms of web site design, it would be useful if the site conformed to the guidelines it is advocating. As an example, the home page has the title tag of "webpublishing.agimo.gov.au". This is not very useful for the human reader, or a web search engine, and should be changed to something like "Australian Government Web Publishing Guide".
The web guide home page also has some ineffective and pointless controls for changing the text size and the colour scheme. If this provided a very large font and high contrast colours for people with limited vision it would be useful, but it just changes the size slightly and the colours from one muted scheme to another. This lowers the credibility of the content of the page.
In terms of arrangement of the home page, I suggested that the topics be grouped into about three categories. The section on e-Government Policy is not important and should be given less prominence.
However, many of the issues we discussed were problems with policy, not layout. As an example the Copyright Notices for government web pages are clearly articulated in the guide, but the policy itself is outdated and counter-productive. The Australian Government should adopt a Creative Commons style licence.
Similarly "Branding" is clearly stated, but is contrary to good web design principles, as well as wasting government ICT resources. The branding requires the use of the wrong version of the Commonwealth Arms and the inclusion of text in a graphic. As well as making the logo hard to see and the text hard to read, this wastes storage and bandwidth. A significant proportion of government ICT resources are likely consumed by unnecessary copies of this logo, caused by the flawed branding policy.
A problem with the web guidelines is that they are separate from other government publishing guidance. The excellent "Style manual" is now a commercial publication not available electronically. This reflects the lack of a coherent information policy in the Australian Government.
No doubt those undertaking this review are well meaning. However, it was an irony worthy of "The Hollowmen" that I could not comment on web publishing via the web and instead had to travel to the other side of Canberra to do so in person. The obvious first step in consulting about web guidelines is via the web.
Senator Lundy and Pia Waugh demonstrated how to do government policy in the Internet age last week with the "Government 2.0" event at Parliament House. We blogged, we Twittered, we streamed, we talked and now the results are being turned into government policy proposals via a Wiki.
More than ten years ago Geoff Huston gave a powerful presentation to government and industry in Canberra about the role of the Internet. He described the OSI protocol favoured by government as a small creature about to be squashed by the oncoming Internet juggernaut on the information superhighway. I was one of the public servants convinced that day that our policy and practice were wrong. It took more than a year for the OSI policy to be quietly dismantled and the Internet adopted officially.
However, while the Internet is used at the technical level, the Internet way of working has not been adopted by government. We still have old fashioned paper based processes for consultation and policy making. ICT policy makers are tying themselves in knots trying to write policy on consultation and working online, without actually adopting that way of working themselves.
The key to the Internet, the web and social networking for business, is that they are easier to do than to talk about. Just as the PC caused a revolution in how the computer is used, smart phones are about to cause a revolution in the way organisations are run, including government. I am teaching students at the Australian National University how to do this from 20 July in the course COMP7310: Green ICT Strategies (it is not too late to enrol).
A new analogy is needed for a new millennium. Perhaps we could say that government policy makers are big fish swimming around in a small pond of information. The pond is shrinking by the day, as the real information evaporates into the Internet cloud. The policy makers need to evolve or be left stuck in the mud.