Government 2.0 as cultural labour and participatory government

Previously on this blog I’ve outlined a couple of themes of mine about Government 2.0.  In a comment on a draft APS Social Manifesto I elaborated on both things and so I thought I’d reproduce them here.

I think what you’re trying to do is worthwhile. However culture change is a difficult business. There’s not all that much difference between your manifesto, and the APSC guidelines and the declaration of open government. There are some concrete things in there which are a bit stronger and more directive (ie that access to social media should be actively promoted), but its feel is similar.

Essentially the conventions under which the public service operate are not at all easy to define and specify. What can a public servant say, and what can’t they say in public? Well that is always quite contested ground and people like Ken Henry adopt a fairly expansive view of the convention at times. Others like Terry Moran don’t.

Now it all has to be renegotiated and it’s only the beginning to issue new guidelines or even a ‘manifesto’. Then one must work through the cultural labour of things happening, those things being contested and then we find out how it plays out. In all this, those of us who value what Government 2.0 can bring to government will be hoping for expansive interpretations, but it’s simply not at all easy to specify in advance the nuances of the way these ideas will or even should be interpreted (except for making broad statements of what presumptions one might hope those making the judgements were making.)

I like this point in the draft manifesto: “support and encourage unstructured online conversations between members of the APS and other State/Territory jurisdictions.” In fact I’d like to see it go a little further. I would support a ‘principle of gregariousness’ or at least some major pushing of public servants towards a presumption that they can (and should) speak to others about their work with a view to communicating as much as would be prudent about what they’re doing, what issues and evidence would be helpful in doing their jobs.

As we argued in our report this:

  • Increases the value of their skills to the community – by giving better community access to it;
  • Helps to further develop those skills
  • Helps inform decision making and public sector activity with a greater awareness of what is happening outside the service.

But even setting this out is sufficient to make it clear that, in doing so, judgement is required – which calls for a cultural labour of some magnitude.

Of interest also is this statement in the draft: “In the last century managerialism predominated In the 21st century the social organisation is assuming that position.”  My response to those claims are:

  • Managerialism only really raised it’s (not too pretty) head from the 1980s on – not through the 20th century
  • I too dislike managerialism
  • But ‘social organisation’ doesn’t really mean anything – to me anyway. Managerialism is a ‘social organisation’.

One of the weaknesses of the Government 2.0 ‘movement’ is that it is not clear about what such things mean, though there’s a kind of flavour of ‘people power’ about it. Participation is seen as a self-evidently good thing. I broadly agree with this and I’m happy to use Kate Lundy’s expression ‘participatory government’ to refer to what’s desirable – which is to say that, wherever the community can participate in the work of the government (meaning generally the work that is legitimated by the – party political – government of the day that is to be presumed to be a good thing.

But I think it is critical to give this sensibility context and to distance it from ‘participatory democracy’ which I am (as a matter of presumption) broadly hostile to. I support representative politics as the ultimate source of political power in Australia. We have the ability to have a fairly pure system of participatory democracy in Australia – all Australian voters could vote online and in effect disintermediate parliament. I would view that as a disaster, but it’s clearly more participatory and in some fundamental sense more democratic.

I spoke about this in an interview which sets out some ideas I’ve since developed – though in presentations that are not yet up on the net. In fact one of the things that drives open source production methods is highly uneven levels of contribution and also hierarchy. So alongside the massive increase in the possibilities for participation which if there is any task to be deliberated upon and done is presumptively a good thing, the new online world also creates a new, alternative and in many ways healthier ecology of elite formation. One in which contribution trumps formal status. I’ve tried to expand these ideas in a couple of speeches, one of which is due for posting on the net, but it’s not there yet.

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Stephen Bounds
Stephen Bounds
13 years ago

Interesting Nicholas. One comment on the manifesto line “In the last century managerialism predominated. In the 21st century the social organisation is assuming that position.”

I get the feeling that the strongest Web 2.0/Gov 2.0 advocates truly believe that after the full adoption of 2.0 principles, management is no longer required — except in the most trivial “sign the paychecks” sense. Instead, we can just “leverage our social networks” to make the organisation work.

It’s taking the empowerment of knowledge workers in the organisation to its ad absurdum extreme.

Needless to say, I don’t buy the argument. But it’s a viewpoint I am encountering more often as the 2.0 mantra takes hold.

Stephen Collins
13 years ago

I’ve seen, and rather like, the Manifesto on OzLoop. But I’m with you – this is about long term, gradual culture change (as much as we’d like it not to be).

And along with everything else, it’s about trust, action, empowerment, teaching, learning, skills, familiarity, good leadership and good management, workforce planning, organisational capability and maturity and all the other complex (dare I say wicked) problems that come along with the existence of big, bureaucratic organisations with long histories of behavior that isn’t what we’re aiming for with Government 2.0.

All the pieces are in place already. What it’s going to take is will and action to change. A manifesto isn’t going to do it. But what might help is clarity of understanding about those fuzzy bits, such as how to define where on the official-professional-personal spectrum any activity in an online space might fall or what exactly the interpretation of the Code of Conduct means (because it’s widely (mis)interpreted in many agencies).

It also wouldn’t hurt for a whole-of-government declaration that agencies and their staff should participate online, rather than the disastrous mish-mash we have now where some agencies play openly, and others, such as Customs consider all social channels, including any blog, anywhere, as vectors for security breaches.

It’s understanding that’s causing issues right now. And it’s understanding that needs to be built and spread.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
13 years ago


to be honest, I dont ‘get’ gov 2.0. I read your examples of the e-library and I wonder how on earth we go from a wikipedia-style outsourcing of fact-checking to ‘participatory government’.

I read your hope that in 10 years time a dep secretary will be recruited from the ranks of the volunteers and I just laugh at the idea that the bureaucracy will give up access to its highest jobs to outsiders, however worthy. I also dont see what it has to do with gov 2.0. Is gov 2.0 about opening up the desirable jobs in government to outsiders? Hard to believe.

I read some of the sentences above (eg ‘it’s about trust, action, empowerment, teaching, learning, skills, familiarity, good leadership and good management, workforce planning, organisational capability and maturity and all the other complex (dare I say wicked) problems’) and I feel in Dilbert space.

What you/gov 2.0 need is a couple of flagship examples. Things that make sense in themselves and about which others would be able to say ‘ah, so that is what they mean’.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
13 years ago

Hi Nick,

I hope I didnt sound too negative about this. I simply profess my ignorance here and frustration at not being able to ‘get’ it. You clearly have put a lot of work in it, are excited by it, and I havent got a clue as to what it is. I feel I am missing out on something potentially worthwhile because I do realise that human organisations are capable of re-defining themselves and that they have done so several times in the last few hundred years. The way the bureaucracy works now is miles away from how it worked 100 years ago, so change is possible and it would be nice to see from inside the engine room how it comes about.

ps. The volunteer-recruitment line came from the 10/7 interview you link to above where you said “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.”.

pps. Saw the video.