The Government 2.0 taskforce and the origin of GovHack

The first GovHack arose out of the Government 2.0 Taskforce in 2009. To find out more, we spoke with the chair, Dr Nicholas Gruen an economist and public policy specialist.

Government 2.0

The Taskforce was created to seize an opportunity at the time known as “Web 2.0” which prompted the question “how could we reinvent Government similarly?” 

“Web 2.0 was the second iteration of the World Wide Web which was starting to realise what Tim Berners Lee had built it for – not just an information platform but a collaborative platform.”

“The government, if it was so minded, could think of its governing as being in close collaboration with communities which could be summoned up on the internet at very low cost.”

The way we think of social media now, unfortunately, is more of a campaigning platform which turns this open collaboration into something toxic as everyone turns up with their memes and abuse. It’s very dysfunctional. 

The Wikipedia miracle

At the time, everyone said “why can’t the world be like Wikipedia and open source software?”.

There was a story back then, often re-told in speeches, that the New Zealand Government had written the Police Act on a Wiki. 

“This is not quite true. While they had set it up on a site, and said they were open to suggestions, if you took the time to talk to people involved – which I did – it wasn’t the marvel that was described in TED talks”. 

Wikipedia works because of intense effort by a small group of people, but the actual miracle is that it’s a new way to find those valuable people and mobilise them. There are other differences between Wikipedia and government though.

“Government is about ought, and Wikipedia is about is.”

If you are having an online discussion about a polarising person, today it might be Donald Trump, you might discuss what school he went to, when was he born, or when he said something; those things can be sorted and you can get the article done. 

“It surprises me, to this day, how good Wikipedia is, just with the neutral point of view. Likewise, with Open Source Software – the fact that it’s of no use to anyone if it doesn’t actually execute properly provides objective discipline for everyone.”

Government, isn’t like Wikipedia. Policy is always implicitly about what we ought to do and it’s constantly evaluative, even if you’re not trying to change anything.

“I don’t know how to solve the terrible problems that we have on the net as far as political campaigning is concerned, but I have made some suggestions.”

GovHack origin

Mia Garlick, who was in the department of Communications, and Seb Chan, who was at the Powerhouse museum and had developed a number of interesting apps that used open data, suggested a hackathon and while Nicholas didn’t really know what it was, his management style was to try things suggested by people he respects. 

“GovHack was a fabulous way to illustrate the power of prototyping, improvisation… kind of the opposite of what people thought computers were about – where you design some automated process that you want to happen, you pay consultants a large amount of money to build an app that sits on your computer and is never used.”

Nicholas fell in love with the way computers were leading to a renaissance in human-ness, and tinkering.

“God! Couldn’t Government do with some Agile?”

There’s lots for Government to learn from hackathons but the sad thing is that there was a “fizz” of activity and possibility which can then die the death of “business as usual”.

Government departments should blog!

All Government agencies that are both independent and required to do some thinking should have a blog and their staff should be blogging according to the public service code of conduct, which are not very onerous. They require public servants to avoid party political comment. Blogs should be publicly discussing the research going on in the agencies, and the enthusiasms of their staff. The Bank of England does this marvellously. 

Gruen has written comparing the Bank of England with the Reserve Bank and describes the difference as “chalk and cheese”.

The Reserve Bank is a very respectable place with well qualified people but the comparison with the Bank of England is shocking because the Bank of England is “jumping with ideas”.

Data Science is a skill in high demand today, Gruen points out that “an awful lot of what you can learn doesn’t need a data scientist”.

“You need, access to data, linked data, and then you look at averages and go Gee! Look at this!”

Is Government 2.0 done?

The recommendations regarding data, and a lot of the really important things about the way governments work, in the Government 2.0 Taskforce were essentially replicated in the recommendations of the Productivity Commission inquiry into data availability and use in 2017. 

“The punchline is not that our recommendations were not adopted – they were adopted – but they had to be adopted eight years later – in other words, despite high level acceptance of the recommendations, the detailed and difficult trade-offs weren’t made and progress stalled. I expect they’’ll have to be adopted again in another eight years.”

Gruen points out that “amnesia” like this is true of many areas of government including policy and regulation. 

“The arteries are willing, but the capillaries can’t manage.”

While is an achievement – there’s lots of data but Nicholas asks why it isn’t linked. A good example of the work still to be done is the difficulty in getting basic data about how The Australian economy is going. During the GFC is was difficult for the Treasury to get hold of ATO data on the BAS. 

Nicholas Gruen, while always interested in open data, is also interested in greater openness in the public service in general. The way the public service works is that you get a University degree, turn up in Canberra, and work your way up the ladder. The web allows us to identify all kinds of amazing people doing all kinds of things, not for themselves, or their career, but because they see intrinsic value in it – and that gives them intrinsic satisfaction. These people are doing great work because they care, rather than for pay. An example is The National Library of Australia’s Trove where volunteers can correct the optical character reading errors in old newspapers. Julie Hempenstall , one of the top correctors, was recruited through her public work rather than by applying. 

“We’ll know that our enquiry has been a success when the first person who was recruited, for their good open source work, becomes the secretary of the department”.

Dr Nicholas Gruen

GovHack is grateful that Dr Nicholas Gruen’s management style allowed the idea of GovHack to emerge. These days he is the CEO of Lateral Economics and Chairman of the Open Knowledge Foundation (Australia). Lindsay Tanner has described him as “Australia’s foremost public intellectual”.

Story by Peter Marks for GovHack