The potential of Government 2.0 and participatory democracy


Radio National’s Future Tense last week covered the issue of Participatory democracy, Web 2.0 and the Australian Government 2.0 Taskforce with an excellent program. The program can be heard or downloaded on the website, along with a transcript.

During the program I was quoted talking about the potential and the underlying demand for participatory democracy:

I think that there is a growing interest in [Government 2.0], and it is very different in different countries and in different demographics, but absolutely people’s interest is growing in participating and having a voice and being able to impact smaller things in the environment in which they live, as well as larger things such as the political parties in power. And I think that trend will accentuate over time, as people get more used to the ideas and the tools provided by participation.

However the core of the program is an interview with Dr Nicholas Gruen, who chairs the Australian government’s Government 2.0 taskforce, discussing what is being done currently. He noted:

The government isn’t sort of just Kevin Rudd and Lindsay Tanner and those people, it is hundreds of thousands of public servants, and of course it’s also the citizenry. One of the things that the internet and what is called Web 2 now makes possible, is a much higher level of collaboration between some sort of central organisation like a large business and its customers, or government and its citizens, and I mean that’s one of the things that’s going on around the world. People are, to quote the song, doing it for themselves, in all sorts of ways, and it’s really tremendously exciting.

Cautious notes were struck by both Stilgherrian and Duncan Riley, who said:

There’s absolutely no commitment from government at all to actually implement the recommendations of the Taskforce, and I think we’ll get to the stage where in six months time or twelve months time, I’ll be sitting here in the studio again and we’ll still be talking about the pipe dreams of the Australian government when it comes to implementing really basic 2.0 principles, and ideas, which certainly our contemporaries in the United States, the United Kingdom, even places like Uzbekistan, I mean they do open blogging now. I could actually rattle off a list of Third World countries or Second World countries which are doing a better job online than the Australian government is. So I’m disappointed. I’m hopeful, but I could be wrong, and I really do hope that I’m wrong, because the Australian government does need to move in this area. But I’m not very hopeful.

Jeffrey Cole, Director of the Centre for Digital Future at Annenberg believes that the web is transforming politics.

In America, and I don’t think it’s a question we ask in Australia, but in America, we see now that two-thirds of internet users feel they’re gaining political power through the web, not just knowledge, but actually gaining power. The ability to influence or have some role. Now those numbers are always highest after an election. They’ll go down a little bit in between elections, but it really has become a device that has changed the entire political process.

Graeme Turner, Director of the Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies, University of Queensland, has a different view:

But the idea that this is an absolutely democratic movement where you’re actually going to see everybody, the whole of a democracy utter their thoughts via the web and be listened to (and that’s the crucial one; you know, it’s one thing to say something, it’s another thing to be heard), I think that’s just unrealistic. You know, when you look at who is on the net and who is able to speak and who is listening, it’s a pretty small fraction, and if you look globally, I think there’s a real danger that accounts of changes to the democratic function of the media emanate from a kind of Anglo-American centre, and what they do is normatise the idea of western affluence. It ignores that the rest of the world is without access to a telephone, let alone a computer.

The entire program is well worth a listen.