Analysis: Risks of an Open Government

John Hilvert | Nov 2, 2011 1:01 PM
Gov 2.0 activists counsel on liability and cultural concerns.

The Federal Government has flagged legal liability and a long-standing risk-averse culture as areas of concern as it moves to implement aspects of its Declaration of Open Government, launched last July.

At the Cebit Gov 2.0 conference held in Canberra last week, AGIMO's energetic first assistant secretary John Sheridan spoke candidly about the risks and benefits of making available more Government data and information about its operations.

The Government's eight-month-old data.gov.au now featured 700 data sets that could yield new commercial opportunities for outsiders and industry, he noted.

Sheridan said there were about 14 applications that used data.gov.au data, most of which was provided in raw XML format. Two of those applications were offered on commercial or fee-for-use basis.

But for agencies and departments, public disclosure came with new risks.

Sheridan highlighted concerns that troubled insiders about releasing the National Public Toilet map issued as part of the National Continence Management Strategy.

Significantly, the map and underlying data was one of the few datasets not issued in the public domain.

Government concerns included: What if the toilet was closed and somebody was relying on it -- could the person sue the Government for providing that information?

What if somebody caught some disease from using that toilet? What if there were offensive words inside the toilet and someone felt offended by those words? Where was the responsibility going to lie?

What if someone used geolocation data for some nefarious or malicious purpose that wasn’t intended by Government? Would the Government be liable?

Towards an open culture

Sheridan argued the answer was “to create a culture where it is expected that this sort of information can be used by people”.

He compared the disclosure of information to sending a bicycle to the local tip for recycling, arguing that the bicycle owner should not be obliged to provide a helmet, a book of instructions or warning that the bicycle should only be used by those with the relevant know-how.

The point, Sheridan said, is that it is better that bicycle be re-used than sit underneath his house.

Sheridan said Gov 2.0 initiatives will likely bring mobile and personal applications that will interact with citizens to deliver services when and where they are needed.

He noted that the hitherto concerns about using Twitter in Government were being gradually overcome, though there was still a degree of caution and risk aversion over its use.

Many agencies tended to use Twitter as another form of publicity rather than engagement with their constituencies.

Meanwhile, ABS Census 2011 and Queensland Police -- which used Twitter to communicate with the public during the Queensland floods -- were hailed as important victories in the battle to make Gov 2.0 a mainstream aspect of their operations.

Australian Federal Police online services director Rob Crispe said it was important to form alliances to drive change and cope with occasional resistance within agencies.

Crispe’s personal blog uses an illustration of a tight rope walker navigating over a stream of hungry crocodiles to make his point.

“I believe the government needs to encourage the ‘normalisation’ of proactive and regular dialogue with the community, so that senior government officials ultimately aren’t afraid to admit mistakes or shortcomings to the people whom they serve."