Open Government, how ready is Australia?

Open Government fundamentally aims to build and maintain a systematic approach to improving transparency, accountability and responsiveness to citizens. The shift towards Open Government emerged from the adoption of ‘e-Government’ in the mid-1990s. New technologies and computing platforms have already transformed the way communities, organisations and Governments communicate over the last ten years. It is now clear that Australians seek an outward looking Government that engages with communities when developing and implementing policies and service delivery solutions.

Agencies therefore have a unique opportunity and responsibility to leverage these new technologies to better engage with citizens and inspire them with more personally relevant experiences, while improving efficiency and generating budget savings in these cost-conscious times.

As the Government rapidly embraces these new approaches to interacting with customers, there will undoubtedly be unintended consequences resulting from ‘flinging the doors open’, and a number of critical gaps will need to be carefully considered. Firstly, it needs to be considered whether policy makers and Government agencies are actually equipped to respond to the results of greater levels of transparency, accountability and community engagement. Secondly, the goal of Open Government is to ensure that citizens have access to objective, relevant and reliable information to help them arrive at informed judgments. It is critical to examine whether the information that Governments provide is the right information, and whether it will be delivered in a way that supports Government’s vision of Open Government and improved service delivery. Finally, in an environment where agencies are receiving increasing pressure to do more with less, Governments that embrace the concepts underpinning Open Government need to determine whether agencies can or should continue to deliver traditional services, and whether to extract higher margins from fees or pass cost savings on to taxpayers.

Government data worldwide could unlock more than $3 trillion dollars in value every year. 

A 2014 report by Lateral Economics suggests that open government initiatives could add $16 billion dollars a year to the Australian economy.  The study documents examples of citizens in the US using data from open government projects to identify millions of dollars in potential savings, including uncovering improvements in procurement, and duplicated or obsolete contracts.  While it is possible to continue delivering services using traditional approaches, modern software methodologies used to implement customer service delivery now encourage iterative development and deployment approaches. Arguably, the private sector will often be best placed to develop and bring these new services to market, rather than attempting to adopt new methods and build skills within agencies. By giving private sector businesses better access to the Government’s data sets, deployment of new services is likely to occur far more rapidly and attract investment from the private sector, further easing pressure on Government budgets. As a result, Governments need to be ready to shift away from their traditional role of being the ‘sole solution provider’ to being ‘stewards of data.’ If Government aims to reach and engage citizens, they will need to target the information platforms people are using and deliver engaging, personalised experiences.

As our lives become more reliant on digital technologies, those departments and agencies that embrace digital service delivery will become the most convenient. They will have the opportunity to inspire citizens with engaging, personalised experiences and will reap the benefits of cost savings and efficiencies.   What is not yet clear, however, is how to best assess the impact of the programs and policies created in pursuit of Open Government. While these terms resonate in familiar ways, it isn’t obvious how to determine what actions and programs count as transparent, participative, or collaborative, and from whose perspective.  As technology has become more advanced, the utilitarian and unidirectional model of Open Government has become seen as limited, giving rise to new initiatives, which have focused on enhancing proactive citizen participation and collaboration, as well as openness and transparency.

When combining the citizen demand for mobile information with the agency demand to increase self-service as a means to lower agency costs, it is clear that mobility is the future of citizen engagement.

Over the next few years, Agencies will need to invest in recruiting and retaining top digital talent from the private and public sectors to expand services. These individuals – who have expertise in technology, procurement, human resources, and financing – will serve as digital professionals in a number of capacities across Government, as well as within agencies. These teams will need to take best practices from the public and private sectors, and scale them across agencies with a focus on the customer experience.

It’s clear that NSW Government recognises the need to work with the private sector to find ways to utilise open data, because non-government entities are in a better position to create innovative ways of engaging customers.  However, as nominations begin to roll in for NSW Premier’s Open Data challenge, the question that needs to be considered is whether new and creative ways to reuse or reinterpret Government information will actually improve services to citizens, or simply create more complexity and confusion in what is already a highly regulated sector. It remains to be seen whether NSW Government leaders are ready to truly partner with the non-government sector to transform NSW into a world leader in Open Government. Only time will tell. Read full report

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