Digital media looms large in Labour open govt plans

Party workshop discusses the importance of digital technology

Digital technology is assuming a central role in the Labour party's debate on an open government policy. This reached a landmark on Saturday with a day-long workshop to discuss areas where openness should be increased and ways of achieving those objectives.

The party has committed itself to exploring more open channels for policy development in all areas and the evolution of policy for open government itself is, not surprisingly, first off the blocks, with Opposition ICT spokesperson Clare Curran as a leading light.

The Wellington-based event was webcast, comment and discussion flowed plentifully on Twitter and a wiki has been built, which now incorporates the six core ideas and more detailed suggestions canvassed at the workshop.

There were a large number of technology specialists among the 60 or so who attended the event in person and others online. Part of the debate focussed on digital aspects of open government -- from a citizen's basic right to participate online through the role of open digital interfaces and open-source code to recommendations for a makeover of government websites to make them more interactive. Government agency websites should not be afraid of linking to digital sources outside the .govt.nz domain, even though some may have their own slant on affairs, speakers suggested.

Some of the more general suggestions for greater openness will clearly only be possible with the help of digital channels. It was suggested, for example, that the Official Information Act's mode of operation be reversed; that instead of citizens having to request release of information on particular matters, all information be made available by default, unless there is a good reason for keeping it confidential.

This would clearly result in a hugely increased volume of information, only manageable online.

But technology is, of course, not sufficient in itself, contributors pointed out; education and encouragement are needed to persuade people to take up the opportunity.

Other identified risks include the rise of more efficient "astroturfing" -- professional lobbying misrepresented as grass-roots input -- and the danger of government being "polled to a standstill" through excessive public consultation.

There was also a push for the OIA to be extended to Parliament, which currently does not fall within its ambit.

One of the champions of OIA liberalisation, David Farrar, was present at the event, allowing Curran to trumpet its politically unbiased nature. Farrar is a well-known National party member, as well as a blogger, and a past vice-president of InternetNZ.

The workshop was addressed by Labour leader Phil Goff and, on recorded video, by Australian Senator Kate Lundy, a former Federal government spokesperson on ICT.

The Australian government has made a formal declaration on the desirability of open government "sustained by the innovative use of technology".

Lundy's assistant, Pia Waugh, attended the workshop in person, making a major contribution to the discussion as well as fielding questions for Lundy.

Goff painted a picture of a recipient of government services not only being able to fill in and submit necessary forms online but also communicating through Skype with staff at the pertinent agency and participating in an online forum with other citizens who have similar needs. "There might be representatives from the department trawling the forum and responding to questions and following up complaints," he said.

The wiki will remain available for further contributions for a month and the results will be fed into a regular party-policy forming process, Curran says.

There will be a workshop on open government issues at the party conference, in October.

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