I participated in an enjoyable discussion on open government on Late Night Live last night. If one has been thinking about things for a long time and wants to get certain ideas across, it can be pretty challenging doing this effectively – which is to say without misunderstanding – on a panel program, though I can’t complain. Phillip Adams was moving the discussion along, as is his job, and I wasn’t usually the victim of being cut-off.
Even so, the one thing that concerned me when I’d concluded was that I wasn’t able to directly discuss the idea that one of the panelists – Andrew Podger – seemed to suggest. I’d preface what I’m saying by saying that I’ve met Andrew on a number of occasions, and, like many people in Canberra, I have a very high regard for him. Andrew seemed to think that the idea of public servants blogging was really a bit alarming, perhaps flip. He was concerned that there was no room for public servants to be blogging about what they were briefing ministers about. I would generally agree. But then this really illustrates my argument – articulated briefly on the show – that when we debate this issue we don’t really deliberate on where and how social media like blogging could add value. Rather we focus on the extremes, and on what can go wrong and the default rapidly becomes a silence that is in no way compelled by the public service values we’re trying to defend.
There is much more that public agencies do, and much more that public servants do other than offer confidential and potentially politically contested advice to ministers. What I was at pains to try to point out was that the default right now is silence and that that foregos a lot of exciting opportunities.
I generally agree that there needs to be some government ‘privacy’ if you like around what public servants are advising governments. In a world of confrontation between Opposition and Government, all played out in the context of a media hungry for the only story they really want to write about – conflict – not doing so would compromise the advice. On the one hand it would tie the hands of politicians and make it harder for them to come to their own decision on what to do if it did not accord with their official advice. On the other, and in response, a lot of pressure would be put on public servants to provide the ‘right’ advice – the advice the ministers want to hear.
But there are so many other ways in which blogging and other uses of Web 2.0 could be useful. Especially in a small country, there’s a limited pool of people with real expertise about any number of things – say a technical matter like the management of tropical rainforest. Say provisions of the Tax Act. Now it is quite possible to imagine discussion about such things that is politically partisan. And so it should be avoided as contrary to the aspirations of the public service.
But it also possible to imagine professional discussion of such things that is focused on information sharing and professional discussion and that is not politically partisan.
Most obviously one can do this when one is running an inquiry and we did it in the Government 2.0 Taskforce. We avoided political partisanship and we did so easily and I would have thought with minimal risk. And it was highly successful in involving people, having them feel listened to, in spreading the word of our inquiry and in drawing in experts from around the world. So I can’t see why those bodies which are charged with conducting independent public inquiries – such as the Australian Law Reform Commission (which is probably our leading policy inquiry body in its attempts to explore online engagement), the Productivity Commission the ACCC and any number of other bodies that currently are not using blogs to help inform their (independent) deliberations or not doing it much.
Now in fact any large organisation is running inquiries all the time. They’re trying to sort out this or that, considering changing the way they do something, doing policy research into one thing or another. This is quintessential knowledge work. And they are also doing things that it can be beneficial to let people know about. Sometimes senior public servants will reasonably take the view that saying that one is doing a whole lot of new work on something might be politically contentious in itself. But there are any number of relatively mundane reviews of things where this is not the case.
In some areas one would need to be more constrained – for instance in talking about taxes – and one’s level of circumspection might have to rise when political partisanship was particularly strong around a particular matter – say the efficacy of fiscal policy right now. But there are still plenty of things one could talk about. One could for instance have technical discussions about the tax statistics and how they could be improved, the thin capitalisation rules, practices in other countries or any number of discussions.
In my deliberations on government bodies, I’m frequently struck by the necessary limitations on our knowledge and how useful a bit of blogging would be – and how rarely it would raise any risks of being perceived as politically partisan. To take one example, a subject that often comes up is ‘how do we measure what we’re doing?’. Now how would blogging about such a thing jeopardise public service values? It would simply make it clear that the public service was curious and keen to get in the input of those who might have some really good ideas, expertise or experience.
So there are lots of ways in which public servants could blog. And yes, there are ways they shouldn’t blog.