A Government 2.0 idea – first, make all the functions visible

Senator Kate Lundy’s Public Sphere forum this week was exciting, not least because amongst all the compelling presentations, the Government 2.0 Taskforce was announced. Its role is not only to help the government navigate into the future of greater transparency and collaboration, but also to fund projects to the same end. So what might the taskforce fund? Well, here’s an idea, and a fairly fundamental, simple one at that.

Last night I watched Us Now, a film that makes a great case for how a distributed, collaborative approach can trump a top-down approach in ventures ranging from commercial money-lending to selecting players for a football team to allocating government funds. (An aside: I was struck by how accepting the model railway guys were of the crowd-sourced decision, even though it denied them any council funding. As one of them said – I’m paraphrasing – he had had his eyes opened up to all the other worthy projects, and he was satisfied that the process had been fair. Key point: transparent, collaborative decision-making is satisfying, even when you don’t get what you want.)

Because there seem to be so many areas of government policy and service that might be improved by some citizen collaboration, I started to wonder where those possibilities end. What are the limits to Government 2.0? Of course, the best way to answer that question would be to ask the people. What do you want a say in? And how?

For me, there are many potential points of intervention. My first thoughts are rather trivial – we could ban sticky labels on fruit! And rid the country of those horrid robo-loos that have taken over where public toilets used to be. But I’d also appreciate a say in more serious and complex things like immigration policy, climate change targets, and so on. No doubt there would be many other issues that I’d like to vote on, if I was offered the choice. The tricky part is knowing all the options – being aware of all the ways in which governments shape our environments, cultures and experiences.

The thing is, in order for people to answer the question ‘What do you want a say in?’ – in order for us to collectively determine the scope and limits of citizen governance – we need to be able to peruse the full set of government functions – at federal, state and local levels.

What we need is a visualisation – a view that shows us government functions as a whole and enables us to explore the component parts. Then, we could add an architecture of participation – put it to users as to what issues should be put to the people.

Actually, such a tool could be multi-purpose. Imagine if, having found a function of interest, you could see which level of government performs that function, and which agency, and how to get in touch with that agency. For me, a browsable visualisation of Australian governments has greater potential value as a directory than any ‘enhanced’ australia.gov.au search service.

How the architecture of this model of citizen governance might work is of course open, but the way forward for the visualisation part of this project seems obvious. A starting point, at least in relation to the federal government, would certainly be information from the National Archives, which has a key role in keeping governments accountable – by keeping their records – and which therefore takes a lead role in keeping government information organised. For example, it:

So, how about it? Do you share my sense that making the functions visible is a critical first step toward Government 2.0?

73 thoughts on “A Government 2.0 idea – first, make all the functions visible

  1. Hi Catherine,

    I think this is an excellent idea!

    Richard Saul Wurman created a book called “Understanding USA” many years ago that strived to visualise how the US culture and economy, etc. really worked – see http://tr.im/q26g

    I think a modern and interactive version of this for Australia is well overdue.

    With USA developing http://data.gov they are in a perfect position to work on something like this. We should get to that position too.

    Also should look at http://www.gapminder.org/

    #publicsphere
    #gov2au
    #datagovau

  2. yeah, see my PublicSphere comment:

    http://www.katelundy.com.au/2009/05/29/public-sphere-2-open-government-policy-and-practice/#comment-496

    Obviously I’d want to be able to visualise the relationships historically as well!

    Perhaps activities, rather than functions, would be a more useful access point.

    I always have mixed feelings about functions, because they represent an idealised version of government. I want to be able to see dysfunction as well. Perhaps a crowdsourced functional analysis of government would develop a more complex and nuanced picture. One where something like ‘border control’ might be unpacked and opened up for analysis.

    • Tim, yes I wouldn’t want to advocate a single top-down ontology. And I agree that a historical view is important. I was assuming that because the data would need to be adjusted with every reshuffle and new government, there will (over time) be a history as well, so a time-based view is logical. But maybe a snapshot of the present is a more doable first step.

      I’m also assuming that activities are more common across agencies than functions are, but I could (easily!) be wrong there.

      And I like the idea of a more nuanced or contestable vocabulary, too. Perhaps a folksonomic thesaurus to accompany the official ontology?

  3. Great idea Cath! I once dreamed of mapping out an entire government (using people and what they are entasked to see / do as the key nodes) as a grand art project.

    My feeling was that Foucault’s discussion of the Panopticon etc in Discipline and Punish possibly provided a useful model to take up. It might be overly focused on a single ontology, but it might allow us to see lines of command, vision and responsibility.

    *Very* keen to hear more.

    • …still trying to work out what % of this comment is pisstake…

      although I like the idea of the government as utterly self-disciplined, aware that at any time The People might be watching.

      • None! Apologies for assuming prior knowledge.

        I think ‘discipline’ translated poorly in Foucault’s title (and my comment), but what he’s really talking about is systems for monitoring function – rather than people – that developed 2 or 3 hundred years ago. Systems like this were originally designed to monitor groups of people (soldiers etc) to see that they were all doing their drills identically… But because such systems are based directly on the relationship between visualisation and function (people doing things, people being supervised), I think it offers a way to visualise government as a whole.

        Anyway, yes, this marginalises a lot of the other important elements of a government bureaucracy – like relationships and informal connections – but it could possibly show areas inadequately covered (eg financial regulatory systems that missed Bernard Madoff), and might show dysfunction in relief.

  4. Fantastic idea, I’m adding it to a key recommendation for the #publicsphere topic with a link here. Nice one!

  5. Pia: cheers!

    Willo: well, gosh, now I’m feeling inspired to re-read D&P. It impressed me more deeply than most books have – and gave me conceptual tools to understand and embrace my personal resistance to authoritarian structures and people – but I can’t say I recall its functional focus. And my mind is boggling at the thought of a Foucauldian ontology for government functions.

  6. Unfortunately, we have a history of trying to force top-down ontologies onto Government data in Australia.

    AGLS metadata, still a mandatory requirement for government agencies despite the fact that no one has ever found a way to use it, epitomises this sort of behaviour.

    One issue that occurs is that the kind of taxonomy defined in AGIFT works for generalised information, but is rarely specific enough for use in individual cases. Any official ontology is doomed to failure – primarily because ontologies are planned from the top down, but used from the bottom up.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that trying to use a thesaurus in these cases is impossible, unless that thesaurus is capable of semantics and learning. http://www.OpenCalais.com, for example.

    That said, I’m not sure a taxonomy is required at all, and it if was it could be derived from the data automatically, not the other way round.

    Also, the Government deals both with functions and services, and most of the current strategy documents define endpoints according to the latter, when the mean both. The two are different however. Functions are things agencies do, and services are the endpoints which individuals can access. A map of functions and a map of services would look quite different.

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