A while back I was rung up and interviewed by a student doing a thesis on Government 2.0. She asked lots of good questions and they brought out in me a bunch of things I’ve been thinking about regarding Government 2.0.
Since she sent me a transcript, I thought it may be useful to put it online. Please excuse some strange things that go on in the transcript. Sometimes words are clearly wrong. And elsewhere if it’s badly expressed that’s probably the difference between me extemporising and me with the opportunity to correct and qualify things. So apologies, but I don’t have the time to go through and correct it.
Anyway, some people may find it of interest and I’d be interested to know what, if anything people make of it. And I’ll be happy to try to elaborate on anything you want me to.
Phone Interview with Nicholas Gruen (20/7/10)
AB: To begin, I wanted to ask how you personally have become involved or interested with the ideas of gov 2.0?
NG: Well there is quite a nice diagram, which I can send you, which I now use in my slides, which is a curve that you follow when getting involved with web 2.0. It starts by reading a post, then you can maybe stick it in your favourites or you make a comment and then you make longer comments and then someone sends you an invitation to write a post and on it goes. So I basically got involved in blogging in about 2005. I’m an economist who is fairly critical of the way that economics works typically because it is obsessed with the measurable and the quantifiable and it used to be a system for thinking about our economy and society and how it worked. I had been arguing for a long time that information flows are much more important than economists were behaving as if they were. It was a very exciting development when I happened upon the blog of John Quiggin and saw three or four years of archives of him having written on any number of subjects and how useful that can be. So things like that and Wikipedia got me pretty excited. So I became a blogger and wrote about this sort of stuff and the applications of it to government. Remarkably enough the government then asked me to chair the enquiry. I say remarkably because normally our social systems aren’t anything like that responsive and it was pretty lucky I think for me personally. Well some people think that I was a well-chosen candidate because I was a new convert to this stuff. Of course there was nobody but new converts because it was a very new sort of thing.
AB: I’m just going to start by asking some really general questions regarding your ideas about how to define the idea. How do you define the concept of gov 2.0?
NG: The application of the collaborative possibilities and mores to all tasks in government. By all tasks I don’t mean that there will still be some tasks that we can’t apply those things to but for virtually everything it’s worth asking the question how much can we throw the switch in that direction.
AB: And in your opinion what do you see to be the relationship between gov 2.0 and the concept of web 2.0?
NG: Well one is a sub set of the other. The web 2.0 is a set of technical possibilities and a zeitgeist, which has an influence in many areas and government, is the most obvious area where it should have an influence.
AB: What do you think are the origins of gov 2.0? How do you think it has evolved into its current form?
NG: Well I guess in my theory I’m quite happy to follow Tim O’Reilly’s article: What is web 2.0? So it’s a set of technical possibilities that people stumbled upon. One of the interesting things you could say about web 2 is that it is the reality catching up with the hype. Before web 2 you had a hell of a lot of hype about how the Internet was going to change the world, make everyone their own publisher and all this sort of stuff. Apart from the fact that it ended up with lots of egg on its face at the time of the dot com crash, many of those things proceeded to come true as we spontaneously wrote encyclopaedias together and did all these extraordinary things. So the origin of web 2 is this phoenix rising from the ashes to show that once the focus suddenly turned towards this chaotic collaboration that was possible over the web and people started building platforms to facilitate it, many of these very star struck dreams of the hype people had been going on with about web 1 started becoming true.
AB: Government 2.0 is a complex idea with many different elements. What do you think is the most important aspect of government 2.0?
NG: A couple of really critical things are, that tapping of collaboration from anywhere and the possibility of turning an organisation inside out or simply re-drawing the boundaries of an organisation. For example the national library has a newspaper digitisation project in which it is digitising its historic collection of newspapers going back to 1802. Obviously getting those in text is very useful because it enables us to search the text and it gets computers to do the optical character recognition. There are lots of errors in that and then volunteers from outside the national library and indeed volunteers, who are not paid, correct all the character recognition flaws. So that’s the kind of re-arrangement of how it might have otherwise been done. I’ve argued that we should hope that in 20 years time, maybe 10 years time, we get our first secretary of a department who has been recruited as a volunteer and has worked for quite some time as a volunteer rather than as a recruit that comes in as a graduate and just works their way up the ladder in a normal way. One of the problems of public service is that you want people who are well motivated and the only ways we’ve had of doing that so far is to have codes of conduct and prevent people from having conflicts of interests. Another way of selecting people who really value the public interest is through the volunteers’ route because if they are volunteering they have no other reason for doing it, other than for doing a good job and to serve the public in doing so.
AB: You’re mentioning it, and I hear it a lot in the things that I have read, regarding the change that will be brought by government 2.0. In particular the potential it has to change and improve the quality of our democracy.
NG: I haven’t mentioned that so far. I’ve been talking about the quality of work people do. I think what it does for our democracy is a somewhat subtler thing to talk about and I think it is understood a little bit simple-mindedly. I’ve been talking about getting things done like newspaper digitisation, which is a task rather than governance.
AB: So you think the normative democracy elements are less important as opposed to the understanding of gov 2.0 as task based?
NG: Yeah, I do. I think that there is a real problem there. Wikipedia has shown us that the neutral point of view is a very powerful attractor. Something which people who disagree on many things can nevertheless agree on. Coming to the normative view about what should be the case, should we drive on the left or the right, should the speed limit be 60 or 100, that’s something that technology won’t help us to do all that much. It’s something that web 2 can make some contribution to but there is not going to be any Wikipedia of government. People watched in awe as Wikipedia assembled itself and blew other encyclopaedias out of the water, the same thing is true of open source software, and when you see what they do, they are just better than any alternatives, at least in the areas that they are in. Now a wiki government is not going to arrive and displace these other forms of deliberative democracy. But they can be of some assistance in certain specific respects.
AB: So just to clarify, you don’t think that the ideas of gov 2.0 advocate a really specific and explicit vision for how democracy should be?
NG: No, they offer a set of tools, which can empower and augment that vision but that vision might be representative, it could be participatory. But if it is participatory, how should participation be structured? If it is representative, how should representation be structured? The tools of web 2 don’t answer those questions they just create more powerful possibilities. They are their own political force in various ways because if certain things are possible then that is a political fact within itself, which is not just a neutral technical fact.
AB: I think it is really interesting that you say that.
AB: It is just something that I find interesting myself. I think that there is a lot people, who when talking about this idea use the language of democracy.
NG: Yeah, well it took people a while to drag me into the rhetoric of open government when I was doing the government 2.0 Taskforce. While I think they were definitely right to insist on the language of open government as a kind of over arching concept, I still cling to the ideas that I just expressed to you, which are that yes it is a powerful engine of openness, and I am strongly in favour of openness, but openness isn’t democracy, it can help facilitate democracy, and without a certain level of openness democracy can become more farcical but it isn’t democracy. I mean it is perfectly obvious if you give it a moment’s thought that what I said – modestly – is true. These are tools and they create technical possibilities, but democracies are structured by political action, by political words and by political behaviour. Paper gave us ballot paper but they had ostracons on pottery before they had that. Democracy came about through political ideas and actions and institutions and not through some technical possibility that presents itself. Well there are some pretty interesting questions about what web 2 might mean for the balance between representative democracy, direct democracy and participatory democracy and those are all pretty live and interesting questions as well.
AB: When you refer to the possibility of web 2.0 do you see that as something separate to the gov 2.0 questions?
NG: In many ways yes I do. I wanted gov 2 in this enquiry to be as large a possible set of things, which might make government better without being highly ideologically contentious. Because in some ways it is not really appropriate for a government 2.0 enquiry to be taking ideological stands that don’t have some kind of broad social support. But those issues about what democracy is and should be are very much up for grabs. I think gov 2 is very important for those things but it doesn’t determine them. The other idea that I wanted to drive the enquiry with was that this enquiry was a process about learning to walk rather than learning to run. So when the issue of privacy came up, though it is easy to get to that boundary of where you should worry about privacy, my way of dealing with the privacy question was to say that I don’t want these incredible possibilities to get sidetracked into what is essentially a side discussion about privacy or security. The things we need to do to learn to walk can take all the privacy stuff as written. That is basically how we should take our first steps. Then if we become confident enough at some stage when we are talking about health 2.0 and so on it would be entirely appropriate to take the step to say – well if we have health unit records we could get much better purchase into research onto how to treat diseases. That would compromise people’s privacy to the extent that one or two per cent of the population might occasionally get their health IDs stolen or intercepted in some way. Then you have to make a trade off between those two things and my feeling is that the trade off should be in favour of trying to cure diseases and treat people if there are huge benefits. Lots of privacy buffs would say that that is an inherently wicked and terrible thing and would campaign against it and that’s fair enough and that’s what democracy is about. But those are all questions that we can move onto when we have actually proved this thing up. So you don’t have to worry about breaking the sound barrier when you are building a car. Likewise that is my attitude to the democracy question.
AB: Are you saying that, for lack of a better phrase, deal with things in front of you, and when it gets legs move forward?
NG: Yeah, I think that is very much the case here. No one would have really predicted what web 2 looked like until web 2 presented itself to us.
AB: Well I think it is still an infant forming idea.
NG: Yes, exactly. It’s about forming possibilities. So I feel the same way about democracy. So gov 2 does have important implications for democracy but we don’t have to worry too much about them. Of course some people will and that’s good that they can enter the political contest in whatever way and try and realise their vision and persuade others of its wisdom.
AB: Just thinking about the narrative or discussion of government 2.0 in the public sphere, would you say this discussion is characterised by agreement? Or do you think that there are contradictory ideas that exist?
NG: Well that is an interesting question. I think it is characterised by agreement in form, so everyone is running around showing what good community members they are and how cool everything is and how great everyone is. I suggested that for me the gov 2 community had made the atmosphere around the Taskforce a bit like stepping back into the 60s. It’s a very confident social movement and sure that it knows all sorts of worthwhile and exciting things. That it, to use the jargon ‘gets it’ and there are lots of people who don’t get it and that history is on their side and that it is basically going to run all over those people who don’t get it. So there is that kind of agreement. But of course as the 60s wore on you know the peoples liberation army of this separated from the liberation army of that and all that sort of stuff. There is lots of potential disagreement between the surface and different values. You would expect that I guess. The other thing that I found quite intriguing was that I thought that like the 60s this would be very impatient, quite intolerant group or intolerant of us people who would be impatient of anything but decisive action and endlessly prodding us to do better. I actually ended up a little disappointed that they weren’t tougher on us. I expected them to be pretty hard to please.
This began with a competition to design our logo and I had the bright idea of not offering a prize to showcase the power of this thing. Then there was a huge fight started because the design community decided that I was exploiting them, which I disagree with. So I thought that this thing is really going to be like the 60s, people are going to be attacking us for this, that and the other and we’ll just have to try and stay as level headed as we can while listening to all the criticism. But in fact what happened was that so many people wished us well and were very keen to come on board and say that we were doing a good job. In fact I think they may have got more out of us if they had been a bit more intolerant.
AB: Right. Pushed you around a bit?
NG: Yeah, pushed us around a bit because it actually would have strengthened my hand in trying to get a bit more action out of some of the people who were holding us back.
AB: Just to clarify in terms of when you are talking about the consensus, are you saying that there is a general excitement about this issue with people wanting to get on board?
NG: There is also this key group sense that you get it or you don’t get it and we’re part of a cadre, a generation, that is sweeping away the old. So there is all that sense of potential and shared values but in fact you will find there is lots of competing ideas. You know, political ideas are complex. The movement is driven by somewhat in kind political ideas and if one questioned them, one would find that they were not entirely consistent with each other. Different people have different views and sometimes people hold views simultaneously, that are actually contradictory in certain respects and those contradictions don’t demonstrate themselves until some event occurs which requires concrete choices to be made or at least articulated. This isn’t a particularly good example, but right now the government has come out with a declaration of open government. It was a central recommendation of ours that the government make such a declaration. If you look at Kate Lundy’s blog post on this there is an absolute free for all of all these people coming on and saying – open government you’ve got to be kidding, this isn’t an open government. That’s all fair enough and that’s the spirit of the 60s I was talking about and may be quite useful. But if you read what they write it’s quite clear that the people who are writing these sorts of things think of open government as a sort of a cure all, in a way that is quite unrealistic. It ought to be possible to have private conversations in government. This came up last night in question and answer with Julie Bishop saying what did Julia say to Kevin. Well Julia and Kevin have a right to have a private conversation. I’m a believer in open government and I’m also a believer that Julia and Kevin ought to be able to go off in a corner and have a chat. If you think about it in a philosophical way, if it’s proper openness it requires privacy. If I want to write you a letter, it might be an intimate letter, I’ll be writing it, then I’ll be finishing it, and then I’ll put it in the post box or maybe I won’t put it in the post box. In the nature of it being a private letter certain executive steps are taken. I think a thought, I haven’t written the thought, then I have to write the thought, and then I have to lick the envelope and stamp it and send it to you. You can come weighing into that process saying that there is a right to openness here there, everywhere. But a sent letter is different to a drafted letter and as I am drafting the letter, something in my mind tells me this is a letter I am writing, possibly to you, certainly to myself. When I post it, stick it in the envelope that’s it, it has gone to you. So you can talk about openness there, but if you want to have a camera in my study, which replays what I write, you still haven’t opened up my mind. And you have interfered in the process of expressing something. That’s illustrative of my thinking about open government. It has to be constructed around some idea of what you are trying to achieve, and how you want to influence deliberation in government, rather than some very simple minded notion that everything (say for instance including cabinet submissions) are public.
I remember doing history at uni, and someone talked about this idea of objectivity in history and said well is objectivity having everything in your story that happened? Then of course, no, not just because it’s not physically impossible to have everything that happened. More fundamentally, if you had everything that happened then it wouldn’t be history it would be the thing itself. A map isn’t a map if it has everything on it; it’s reality. So it’s kind of a misunderstanding of what open government might mean to say that everything is open because that’s not open government that is just the reality of everything that is going on including what’s going on inside people’s head. That’s also impractical but it’s not a properly thought through idea.
AB: So you would use the example of open government as an idea within the government 2.0 discussion, which is defined by a lot of contradictory thoughts?
NG: Yes, I suppose so. I mean I don’t know whether that is quite right. Certainly government 2.0 creates the possibility of radically more openness than before and it creates a lot of very promising possibilities. But I still think that open government is not some simple concept in which you just troop through the archives and get hold of any old document you like. It’s a structured process, it requires some deliberation about how you make things more open with a view to strengthening democracy and government and deliberation rather than making it more capricious and more disoriented.
AB: I suppose what I’m getting at, is that when you looked at your submissions to the task force, did you get a sense of people having those different ideas?
NG: No. I didn’t. These are quite sophisticated political ideas and the people who wrote submissions to us were the odd department who weren’t going to really think about that too much, and enthusiasts who are all saying look at all this stuff. In fact I’ve really enjoyed talking about this stuff now but I don’t really talk about this much in presentations because what would it achieve? It would confuse everyone and make people think that I was equivocal about open government, which I think in a practical sense I’m not particularly. I regard myself as a leader in the area but I do know that this is a complex concept and in the process of advocacy one doesn’t spend a lot of time going over that.
AB: I agree with you. I’ve looked at a lot of the submissions and they are from very different people. Obviously not everyone is a political scientist so they are not going to speak to those things.
NG: Well political scientists don’t really think about this stuff much because they are all busy. Sadly academia is not very productive of deep thought anymore; it’s a footnote chase. It’s going through the forms of academia. So you can never make a claim without reference to some thing. It’s very weighed down. The most provocative and interesting writing in this area is by people like Clay Shirky, who is notionally an academic but isn’t writing academic things. You know people like Tim O’Reilly, blogs, Clay Shirky; I think some things in our report are better than anything I have read in mainstream academic literature on this stuff.
AB: Yeah, it’s an interesting point about academic and non-academic thought on this subject, because I think this topic is largely unexplored by academics.
NG: No, it’s not. I mean that’s the tragedy. Academia is just not set up to grab hold of new exciting things. It spends its time thrashing it’s wheels and measuring it’s practitioners against how many article they can get in international journals. Most of which are not focused on this stuff anyway. It’s strange.
AB: I want to talk now about the relationship between the ideas of government 2.0 and political participation. What role do you think citizens would play in the processes of government 2.0?
NG: Well I think that there is a completely uncontentious capability to allow citizens to contribute anything they have. That includes people who correct newspapers for the national library, it could include policy development, it could include absolutely anything that is essentially separate from how they are represented in the political process. In that area web 2.0 can go towards greatly improving our capacity to deliberate but it’s not otherwise transformative because ultimately those decisions require the legitimacy of majority decisions. Whether those majorities are secured in a participatory way or a representative way that is how we do things and that’s the only way we know. As Churchill said it’s a very bad way of doing things its just better than all the other ones we know.
AB: So just to clarify, you are saying that web 2.0 and the idea of participation in terms of representation is not related to government 2.0?
NG: Well you can say that. I’m not much of a one for defining words rigidly. I’m unusual in this respect because most people like to get a definition of a word and then off they go. What I would like to say is almost any one of these words, “democracy”, “government 2.0”, whatever you like, the meaning is often defined in the context. So I’m not unhappy with using government 2.0 to include ways in which web 2 can enhance representative democracy or participatory democracy but what goes on there is qualitatively different to what go on with gov 2.0 in the way that web 2 tools might enhance our ability to perform functions of government that are agreed upon.
So the newspaper digitisation project is going ahead, a decision has been made to do that, which is ultimately referable to some legitimate democratic structure. Then web 2 has a very powerful role to play in who is going to do it and what they are going to be paid, if anything and all that kind of stuff. That’s different to the decision should we spend a certain amount of money on the newspaper digitisation project, which is a deliberative decision of a democracy. Now it is fine because democracy has more or less delegated that to departments I guess. But it’s a democratic decision and it’s important that it remain legitimately a democratic decision.
AB: I just want to clarify, and if you feel like I am putting words in your mouth please tell me. Are you saying that there is the democratic decisions that legitimise things and then the processes of governing and that gov 2.0 is more in line with the processes of doing things?
NG: Well I would talk about the difference between deliberating and making decisions on the one hand and doing work on the other hand.
AB: So, this might seem wrong, but do you refer to the difference between politics and public service?
NG: Yes, that’s the sort of distinction I have in mind. But it leads me to make another point.What the public service tend to do with web 2 is say “this is a tool; how can we use it?” Which immediately puts them in the driving seat where I would say the question should be a much more far reaching, thorough going one. Which is, “how does this new technology enable us to reconfigure the structures of bureaucracy, and what’s delegated to bureaucracy and what’s done by the community and so on.
AB: Before you mentioned quite a few types of participation. You mentioned policy, you mentioned editing. Do you think that there are many different types of participation envisioned in the ideas of government 2.0?
NG: Yeah, absolutely. I have this idea that decisions get made and then work needs to be done, which as you say maps pretty well onto the distinction between what politicians do and what bureaucracy does. I think that the principles, which apply are quite different in each case. Although one of the sentences that I’m proudest of in the whole report was in my conveyance letter to the Minister in which I said that we see these things as not faddish but the opposite of faddish, these things refer to the time honoured and hard won traditions of modern democratic government. So whenever you’ve got a question about what’s the right thing to do here, it’s those traditions that you refer to, it’s not what Tim O’Reilly writes about. That’s politics. So the whole of the government 2 report is conceived in my mind as within the traditions of the Trevelyan North Commission and the great traditions of modern democratic government where you had government by patronage slowly being replaced by government by decision and by rational choice making, by meritocracy, by all those kinds of ideas. Government 2.0 gives new wings to those possibilities and principles. But it doesn’t change the principles.
AB: In terms, do you think that it envisions an individual type of participation or a form of participation by a collective?
NG: Well, collectives are collectives of individuals. I think that it envisions individual participation generally but that’s very protean in the sense that collectives can accumulate themselves very quickly in web 2. A bunch of people can just get together and you can put together an email group or a facebook group or whatever. It’s a bit theological to say is it individuals or is it a group. There are intensely interacting individuals, self-forming and dissipating groups if that makes sense.
AB: Thinking about the role of government with regards to this type of participation. Would you say that their role is to actively facilitate it or to simply remove the barriers, which currently inhibit this kind of participation?
NG: Well that’s interesting. What you’ve got is this thing called government and this government thing does stuff and that’s how the public service thinks of government. That’s why the public service is so anxious about whether civil servants are speaking on their own behalf or on the behalf of a department. If you’re officially communicating what can we say about this or about that? I think that that is a kind of fiction, which has outlived its usefulness. We have to retain it because government departments have to be an actor. But I think that a huge price has been paid by saying that individuals who work in the government departments, whether they be senior or junior, are really to have no identifiable personhood, they are just agents of this fiction that is called the public service. So I think one of the things we were saying and one of the reasons why I hope Andrea DiMaio, (a major Gov 2 consultant for Gartner) was so impressed with out report. is that there is too much talent, there is too much on offer from the individuals who are in these departments for us to weigh down their participation with this fiction that says that they kind of don’t exist, except as agents of the department.
AB: In terms of thinking about participation and also the risks that come with the changing nature of participation as understood within the government 2.0 reforms, do you think everyone is able to participate in these processes and applications created by gov 2.0 or does it envision different levels of participation and different types of contributions for different citizens.
NG: Yeah well, it’s a very important question. I’ve got this little tagline, I find these days if you use taglines, they get tweeted and passed around. My tagline is that if you think that the digital divide was bad wait till you see the participation partition. The vision of gov 2 is a participatory vision, that doesn’t mean it is necessarily displacing representative democracy with participatory democracy but its creating participatory opportunities all over the place and the participators will have much more fun, they’ll have much more influence.
One of the things that we know about this is that we are not in a neo classical economic world where work is dis-utility that has to be rewarded with money. Participation is a self re-enforcing thing. Participators participate with other participators. They have fun, they acquire power, they do things, they are purposeful, and it’s usually a pretty all-round positive experience. But if you’re sitting on the sofa watching the telly, watching the footy, drinking beer, you are not going to be part of that and your kids might not be part of that and that can be a source of further inequality and disadvantage and all sorts of bad things in our society. I don’t have any smart responses to that. I think that that is one of the things that is sort of being covered up in the very sunny vision people have of government 2.0.
AB: That’s actually where I wanted to go next. Do you think that these kinds of problems or possible problems of access and exclusion with regards to those who participate and those who don’t is considered within the ideas of government 2.0?
NG: Well they are not hardware problems. You can give people the access, the physical access, a phone line, an ADSL line. If they are using it to download porn or watch the footy that raises all the sorts of issues that you would expect it to raise.
AB: Just to finish I wanted to quickly ask you about implementation. What approach should be adopted for the implementation of government 2.0? Would you suggest something similar to the taskforce?
NG: Media people used to ring me and would say what happens if the government doesn’t implement your recommendations, as if the big question is what the government does, and I always used to say to them well obviously we want them to implement the recommendations but I’m not going to be in despair if they don’t because most of what is at stake here is really not stuff they are going to do anyway.
It’s stuff like the newspaper digitisation project. It’s all the projects that are going to break out. All we can do to ‘implement’ it is to move away some of the cobwebs and perhaps try and prompt and fund and do whatever you can to empower people and make these things happen. But that’s all we can do. So what do you do to implement it, well you realise that it’s a bit like saying what would we do to implement the English language. It isn’t a thing that we can implement, it’s a set of behaviours, its projects, its just a whole lot of things on the ground. Just talking about them, showing stuff to people., people will see something cool and say “that’s really cool, can we do some of that?”.
That’s what implementing is. It is a bit like implementing something like capitalism, capitalism is a set of practices by firms as much as it is a set of rules of the market place. All we can do is encourage the market place to move in that direction. We’ve got huge cultural impediments. There is virtually no senior public servant that I know of who freely comments on blogs. Just to make fairly factual statements. Now why is that? Why shouldn’t people in treasury drop into Club Troppo or Catalaxy or LP or Andrew Norton’s blog and say “look on that point you might be interested to look up what the government did in 1988 because they spent more money on this and less money on that”. Just participating.
AB: It’s interesting that you mention that cultural barrier. In terms of the change that needs to happen do you see it as a technical change or a cultural change?
NG: It’s a cultural change. And it’s not going to be easy. For instance, one blog recently responded to the election and the resulting caretaker conventions by simply removing itself from cyberspace, not, like some other blogs by being particularly careful about content, but simply by ceasing it altogether. Not only will it not operate, you can’t even look at its archives. This shows the power of silence as the default. And it also illustrates the way in which the relevant people were not thinking of their blog as a valuable public resource.
AB: Well that pretty much wraps it up. Thank you very much for your time…