Friday, July 24, 2009

Society - maybe there is such a thing after all

Margaret Thatcher's famous observation in 1987 "Society - there's no such thing" provided a foundation for the market economy to become the basis for decision making for over two decades. In this year's series of Reith lectures "A New Citizenship", Harvard Professor Michael Sandel argues that the scope of the market economy has extended to effectively create a "market society", removing moral, spiritual or political values, and claiming economics as the only criteria. Government has focused on a core role to correct market failures, not recognising that public policy deals with values that can't be captured in monetary terms.

He provides some wonderful examples of the impact of ascribing a price (economic value) to everything - fees for late collection of children from pre-school in Israel, the option of a tradable quota for refugees, the outsourcing of surrogate motherhood to India, financial incentives in Singapore for educated women to have children and sterilisation for women without a college degree, and the ethics of genetic engineering.

In the final lecture he argues the rationale for keeping markets in their place - rejecting the "spurious science and value neutrality" of economics and "market mimicking governance" that underpin technocratic decision making. Politics has sought to distance itself from core values since the 1950s when Harold MacMillan said "if people want a sense of purpose they should get it from their archbishop; they certainly should not get it from their politicians". We've come a long way in the last fifty years, and Sandell sees the election of Obama as a signal that the American public at least have the hunger for a public life of larger meaning. He finishes by arguing for the return to a politics of common good, rebuilding the infrastructure of civic life - public amenities that create shared citizenship.

I found my way to the lectures through an article by Madeleine Bunting noting that the certainties that have dominated the last quarter of a century – that the market knew best, achieved efficiency and produced wealth – are no longer supreme, and there is a need for a new narrative. She quotes documentary film-maker Adam Curtis :"What we have is a cacophony of individual narratives, everyone wants to be the author of their own lives, no one wants to be relegated to a part in a bigger story; everyone wants to give their opinion, no one wants to listen. It's enchanting, it's liberating, but ultimately it's disempowering because you need a collective, not individual, narrative to achieve change,"

Social Media, within the technology and the tools, contains two forces that drive us in different directions - the voice of the individual and community created content.

Clay Shirky says in UsNow: "We are living through what economists have called an positive supply side shock to the amount of freedom in the world. More people can say more thing to more people than ever in history". This tower of babel creates a plurality, a diversity that is rich and fertile - an alluvial plain of ideas - but with no coherent story.

We have examples of endeavours such as Wikipedia, that are only able to be created by a community, working together to create something they could not create individually. The Open Source Software community is another example. Such community efforts deliver efficiency, but the primary driver is an ethical one; as Glyn Moody comments when discussing the General Public License "It is not trying to be “efficient”, it is trying to be ethical; ideally you want both – and in many respects, the culture that the GNU GPL fosters is extremely efficient. But if efficiency and ethics clash, ethics win every time."

Since the 1970s, I have used an example of the trade-off between economic valuations and other collective values that I got from Stafford Beer's masterpiece Platform for Change:

"Mr and Mrs Stubbs wrote to the Times about the Norman Church of St. Michael at Stewkley. The church stands in the middle of a possible runway of a possible Third London Airport. The complaint was that the Roskill Commission, studying alternative sites for the airport, and applying cost-benefit analysis, had adopted a wrong criterion for valuing the church. It seems that an irreplaceable twelfth-century work of art was being valued at the sum for which the church is insured against fire.

This led to considerable discussion. Can we indeed place a monetary value on a priceless heritage,? If it really is priceless, presumably not. Then why not have the cake and eat it - by moving the church, some said. The proper cost would then be the price paid for the move. But the Norman church at Stewkley is not the same church if it is somewhere else replied others. The correspondence was effectively closed by Mr R J Osborn, He said the $100 spend on building the church in 1182, when discounted at ten per cent to 1982, represented roughly $ 1,300,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. He did not add 'stuff that in your cost-benefit and compute it'"

If he was still alive, Stafford Beer would be delighted by this year's Reith lectures, and relieved that there may indeed be such a thing as society - emerging phoenix-like from the rubble of the financial crisis.

And just as I was about to publish this, I see that Tim O'Reilly is also musing on the values of our society - great post.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Government 2.0

"Government 2.0" is in danger of collapsing under the weight of semantic satiation - "a cognitive neuroscience phenomenon where intense repetition causes a word or phrase to temporarily lose meaning for the listener, who can only process the speech as repeated meaningless sounds" (Wikipedia). The phrase is burdened with so many expectations and meanings, that it may pass out of currency.

Which would be a shame, because behind the overuse there are a number of important concepts that challenge politicians and bureaucrats to think and behave differently, as they discharge their responsibilities as our employees. Here I will unpick some of the threads of Government 2.0, starting with a bit of whakapapa:

My first encounter with "2.0" was the Esther Dyson book - Release 2.0 - which I bought when it was published in 1997 (back in the dead tree era). The term Web 2.0 was first used by Darcy DiNucci in 1999. After that, we had the boom and bust, and it was not until 2004 that the term was resurrected by Tim O'Reilly and popularised through a series of Web2.0 summits and expos.

Government 2.0 was the title of a 2005 book by William Eggers, but the book is mainly about the application of technology , and there is little reference to the unique characteristics of a 2.0 world. The first time I came across a meaningful exposition of government 2.0 was in a presentation by Tara Hunt in May 2007; Tara took the O'Reilly tenets for Web 2.0 and applied them to government - coming up with nine concepts that are listed here as an anchor for the discussion. I refer back to them often in thinking and in presentations.

Web 2.0

The Web as a Platform
The Long Tail
Data is the next Intel Inside
Users Add Value
Network Effects by Default
Some Rights Reserved
The Perpetual Beta
Cooperate, don't Control
Software above a single device
Government 2.0

the government is my springboard
the long diverse tail of citizens
data is .. tricky
going to the edges for feedback
citizen community is about relationships
some rights reserved
evolution is an ongoing process
trust is the truest way to empowerment
government on the go

Since then, we have experienced the meteoric rise of social media, and the effect on the political domain, most notably in the election of President Obama on the back of an internet-savvy campaign, his early release of the Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, and the raft of open government initiatives coming from the administration in Washington DC.

So, armed with this background, what do we make of the smorgasbord of issues under the government 2.0 banner today? I would like to suggest that they fall into the following categories:

Open and Participatory Policy Development - by bureaucrats

I have earlier commented on wiki government as a tool to get better results from the policy development process. The traditional model for policy development is a hub and spoke model, with the public servant at the center, gathering comments and integrating them in a final policy position. However, we know that the best results come from building on the ideas of others in a rolling conversation, which has the public servant as a participant in a dialog with a broader and diversified community. The approach to public policy arising from the recent Public Sphere conference in Canberra is an example of this.

Connection with citizens - by elected officials

Elected politicians have always placed a special emphasis on connecting with those that they represent; this has been through electoral offices, letters and emails, phone conversations, and their daily interactions with individuals, both in an official capacity (when opening a new facility) or casually (for example taxi drivers or the person in the next seat on an airplane). For these purposes, the new channels of communications such as blogs and their related comments, Facebook, and Twitter, are no more than an additional way of interacting with the public. Successful politicians will listen and talk in these fora and incorporate the ideas in their positions and decision making. However, researchers in both Australia and New Zealand have found that politicians have been slow to adopt interactive and Internet based communication mediums because they are fully engaged with existing modes of interaction with constituents.

Participation by public servants in new media

Most government agencies restrict the use of the internet by staff in some form; blocking access to sites and giving a variety of reasons - security, inappropriate use, productivity drain and others. Clearly it is important that information collected and created by the state is protected from unauthorised access, and that confidential and personal information is held securely; but this needs to be balanced with the need to give people the tools they need to do their job. As digital natives enter the public service, access to social media will increase in importance. In the future, I think we are likely to see a separation between core operational systems, which are secured to maintain confidentiality, and knowledge and information systems, which have full access to global internet resources.

Access to government information - open data

Most western jurisdictions have laws that provide for full public access to information as a default, with exceptions to be subject to specific justification; while this legal position is clear, operational practice is far from compliant with the law. There are a variety of reasons given for this, some of which I outlined in my last blog post as government CIO, and all of the barriers can be overcome by public servants who want to deliver better value to citizens. While government collects and stores a lot of information, it rarely has the time or resources to fully use the data; we know that the public will voluntarily add value to raw data, whether it is MPs expenses, adding metadata to historic records, or creating a mashup of data on stolen bicycles. This area is the most exciting for me, and is a genuine example of we-Government.

Other related areas

There are a number of other topics that often get incorporated in discussions on government 2.0. Specific examples include the use of open source, kick starting the local ICT economy, on-line service delivery, ICT capability and skills, identity management and authentication, and better broadband. While all these are important factors in our use of ICT and are all neceesary to improve government performance, they are peripheral to the four key areas outlined in this post. of government 2.0.

Government 2.0 is about using technology to strengthen the connection between people and government activities (funded by taxation and exercised through the authority of elections).