Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

Conroy’s stillborn attempt at openness

Posted by Dave Bath on 2008-12-28

The aborted attempt at glogging by Conroy’s was a welcome move, but premature: something more important and less risky should have been done first.

The first step should have been to aggregate all announcements of consultations across government: parliamentary, departmental, and preferably covering both federal and state inquiries.  (Details over the fold.)

Conroy, who seems more like a typical headkicking manager, uncaring for nuance or detail, deaf to the advice of experts, more interested in making a splash rather than making a difference, was almost inevitably going to rush to seek glory as the first "interactive" minister, while being woefully underprepared.

Seriously, who thinks that Conroy has any "strategic foresight", considered critical by his department?

Strategic foresight plays an integral role in developing a better understanding of the future of the information economy.

The attempt was pretty much a failure because it was focussed on one department, in the middle of the stupid internet censorship push by Conroy (and the resultant angry, ill-considered response of protesters), rather than the less sexy, but more substantial, improved knowledge of consultations across the whole of government.

Perhaps the greatest barrier to citizen participation in policy development is the difficulty citizens face discovering what consultations are open.  This difficulty doubtless suits many politicians who want the ability to claim that they have consulted with the public, but prefer to have those consultations hidden as effectively as the hyperspace bypass plans in "The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy" that required the destruction of Earth.  (I cannot resist the reference, as the final note in the glog, "Thanks and so long" reminds me so much of "So long and thanks for all the fish".)

While the federal parliament provides halfway decent RSS feeds, including a new inquiry feed, announcements of departmental consultations are squirreled away in departmental websites or in media releases, with discovery requiring the citizen to grovel through a mountain of disjointed information.

It’s much worse in Victoria, where even parliamentary committee inquiries aren’t announced through either a single consolidated page or feed from the Victorian Parliament website (at least when I last looked).

With the existence of a consolidated source of information about open inquiries and recent reports about them, the infrastructure for improved participation by citizens would be in place, a stable foundation for building more complex service channels.

What information items should exist in the consolidated feed?

  • Consultation title
  • Jurisdiction
  • Committee or agency
  • URL to main consultations page/terms of reference
  • Email for submissions
  • Date open for submissions
  • Close date for submissions
  • Date report required
  • URL to final report (easily planned ahead of the report release)
  • Topic keywords
  • Privilege category (e.g. some consultations offer parliamentary privilege)
  • URL to latest draft of the bill (if relevant)
  • URL to submissions to this inquiry (perhaps as RSS feed)

Of course, this is merely a skeletal analysis.

How can these information items be presented?

In the first instance, a simple HTML table at a central and permanent URL could provide all the information items described above.  HTML tables are easy to read, are easily generated from a central database that should already exist in government, and can be easily converted to other formats (spreadsheets, databases), as well as allowing relatively easy munging by government or citizenry into Web-2.x formats such as tagged/filtered RSS feeds (which could be provided by the government in the near future).

If a database with such information does not already exist in government, then how can we expect government and ministers to have a handle on things?  For example, how can federal ministers keep track of state consultations that relate to a federal portfolio?

If such a database doesn’t already exist, it could easily implemented by AGIMO (the Australian Government Information Management Office) who have tech-savvy staff and a minister who has at least some technological literacy.  Indeed, AGIMO is the probably natural agency to create and maintain such information for use by other agencies and the citizenry.

Subsequent service provision:

After publishing the consolidated inquiry details from the database that should already exist, which provides an easy point for repeated checking by citizens, the next step should be to allow a subscription-by-email, filtered by topic sets (unions, intersects, and minuses), so that citizens (as well as agency staff and politicians) can be notified when consultations (with associated reports and submissions) of interest to them become available.  The same filtering capabilities could be used to create topical RSS feeds.

The same tools could even be used to assist development of the digital economy, especially for tenders (and even employment opportunities) across all agencies of government.  This would make it easy for Australian businesses, by subscription to complex-filtered feeds (including geographical restrictions), to identify business opportunities.

The bottom line is that however well-intentioned and tech-savvy the staff at and are, it is the political heads of those agencies who decided what was implemented first.  They decided wrongly.

I know that notification was high on the agenda of staffers and was a prominent discussion point in the original AGIMO consultation discussion paper and the subsequent findings.

Unfortunately, it seems that politicians, like many managers (perhaps "PHB" should have an alternative expansion of "Political Head-Banger"), ignore (or don’t call for) a proper dependency analysis.


One Response to “Conroy’s stillborn attempt at openness”

  1. […] "Conroy’s stillborn attempt at openness" (2008-12-28), the new blog is concerned with one issue as part of the "Government […]

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