Saturday, May 8, 2010

Eat your own dogfood

The New Zealand Labour Party have launched a new way of developing policy – out in the open, involving anyone who chooses to participate. They are starting by developing a policy on open and transparent government. Some might criticise this as a self-referential policy wonk, others would call it eating your own dogfood.

I have a preference for drinking your own champagne.

In Australia, Kate Lundy started her use of ICT and social media tools while in opposition, and last year launched the successful Public Sphere initiative, which built momentum behind the creation of the Gov2.0 TaskForce. In the US, social media tools were used by the Obama campaign to tap into what the public wanted, proving an effective tool for listening to a wide set of stakeholders. However, for yesterday's general election in the UK, social media seemed to be used more as a source of data on public sentiment than as a campaign tool.

It is probably not surprising that many such initiatives start from opposition parties. Being in government creates a lot of work, driven by daily operational imperatives, so there is less time to consider the fundamentals of the democratic process. In addition, the ruling government contains the people upon whom lobbyists spend most of their money and attention, creating a community that is protective of their insider position.

The risks of fake participation can be reduced by ICT technologies. The techniques used to give the illusion of participation have been identified as
  • Don’t publicize the meeting to potential opponents.
  • Schedule the meeting at an inconvenient time or place.
  • Stack citizen representatives on public bodies.
  • Signal the futility of participating to those most likely to participate.
  • Intimidate potential opponents by forcing them to reveal their identities
With these risks in mind, it is ecouraging that the Labour Party initiative was re-tweeted by the National Business Review, the publication of choice for business leaders. And comments on the policy are coming from across the political spectrum.

In 2007, New Zealand provided world leadership in the use of e-participation, through the Police Act wiki, the Bioethics Council and guidance from the State Services Commission. More recently, New Zealand has been overtaken by developments in London, Canberra and Washington. It is encouraging that the Labour Party has started this initiative and already there are discussions about some fundamental policy points. Should the Official Information Act cover commercial in confidence information, given that government is using public money? During the negotiation phase it is clearly appropriate, but once the contract has been signed, there is no good reason for withholding the details. Opening the operations of our elected MPs up to the same level of scrutiny as other parts of public life is another aspect of Open Government.

We have a way to go. Since early 2009, the Federal US government have led in the implementation of open government and open data. The Australian government have already accepted the recommendations of the Gov 2.0 task force and are proceeding to implementation And despite the absence of social media in the election campaign, the British government have introduced some real innovation in citizen participation.

New Zealand leads the world in good government, which has open and democratic policy-making at its core. We need to broaden and strengthen the dialogue, and accelerate the pace, to retain that position

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