By Lindsay Tanner
Earlier in the week I was lucky enough to give the keynote address to the e-Government forum at CeBIT Australia. I say lucky because I come to this debate with a longstanding personal interest in the connection between new technologies and democratic renewal.
I was among the first Australian politicians to use YouTube and Facebook to interact with my constituents, especially my 673 Facebook friends.
I must have been amongst the trend setters as now a significant number of Australian politicians are interacting with electors online. What's clear is that the relatively basic types of engagement we are currently seeing in Australia are just the tip of a very large Web 2.0 iceberg.
And the government is keen to work with Web 2.0 technologies and integrate them into our approach.
We've already developed frameworks and IT architecture to improve the capability of agencies to confidently retain, manage, transfer and exchange information.
But the Rudd Government is also keen to explore the ways technology can be used to establish more immediate and collaborative relationships between government and citizen. As you would all be aware, the rate of growth in recent times of collaborative platforms with potential application for government has been staggering. It is clear that in the long term the kind of output unlocked by Web 2.0 platforms will have a dramatic impact on policymaking processes and the institutions of government.
Making real gains in this area is not about theoretical or technological development. We have many examples of successful online projects built on collaborative principles. It is plain that wikis, blogs and social networks can be powerful tools for aggregating policy debate and deliberation. The challenge in this area is this: how do we adapt the static and process driven world of the bureaucracy to the more dynamic and innovative world of the collaborative web? This is a huge challenge in terms of cultural change, which can't be solved through technical solutions alone.
The prospect of greater online engagement also raises difficult questions around the openness, confidentiality, accountability and responsiveness of government policymaking. Unlike the previous government, we understand that developments in open standards and collaborative policy design are things to encourage. We don't fear the power and wisdom of the crowd. We are as excited as many in the industry are about the possibilities new technology creates for democratic renewal. This is a moment where, as Barack Obama has recently said, we are engaged in ‘midwifing a new kind of politics'.
Our immediate task is to begin to change the outlook of government so that the immense opportunities of online engagement are properly weighed against the risks. This will not be a quick or easy thing to do. Cultural change of this sort always happens incrementally. But this year we will make a start. In the coming months we will open up an area of policy review to online consultation and engagement through a trial government consultation blog. This blog will give the online citizenry a chance to interact with the bureaucracy and make contributions to an area of government policy review.
I am working through the numerous issues inevitably associated with such a trial. Who runs it, how it is resourced, and how the Government is represented are all challenging questions. As such we will also be keeping careful watch on e-government developments in other jurisdictions, noting best practice where it occurs.
Yet the prize is huge. We can change the way people relate to governments. The dividends in responsiveness, policy quality and accountability could be enormous.
Lindsay Tanner is the Minister for Finance and Deregulation and has represented the seat of Melbourne in the House of Representatives since March 1993. Prior to being appointed as a Minister in the Rudd government, Lindsay served as Shadow Minister for Finance and Deregulation and had also held portfolio responsibilities in Consumer Affairs, Transport, Communications and Community Relationships.