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Opening Up Government for Citizen Engagement
Source: http://www.futuregov.asia/articles/2013/jan/09/opening-government-citizen-engagement/
Source Date: Wednesday, January 09, 2013
Country: Australia
Created: Jan 10, 2013

Mick Chisnall, Executive Director of the Government Information Office, Australian Capital Territory, explains the government’s moves towards an integrated service agenda through recent ICT initiatives. 

Over the past year, the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) government has begun efforts to restructure the ACT Public Services (ACTPS) into a single ‘one-government’ organisation. The government has also launched several initiatives in open government and shared services. Mick Chisnall’s talks to FutureGov about the reorganisation and the new services being launched.

Reorganising government

The release of the ‘Governing the City State: One ACT Government – One ACT Public Service’ report in February 2011 recommended that all administrative units within ACTPS be replaced with ‘directorates’ under a unified ACTPS organisation. The subsequent reorganisation also led to the creation of the Government Information Office (GIO) in the ACT government.

“My role is a new one,” says Chisnall. “We moved from disparate departments into a single one-government structure, whereby departments affected became directorates reporting to one organisational structure within the APS (Australian Public Service). That’s a very significant move towards an integrated government service agenda”.

This new structure helps the ACT government manage several challenges it faces today. The reorganisation also raised new challenges for the traditional, Westminster-style ACT government: “Many of the issues that we struggle with don’t fit into the machinery of government structure,” Chisnall explains. “For example, when we design a new suburb, we have to consider not just the land aspects but transportation, educational, and environmental aspects too. The government needs to respond to these challenges with a concerted cross-directorate, cross-government approach.”

Open = Engaged?

The ACT government is also working on a number of Open Government initiatives. Chisnall elaborates: “We’re seeing a strong push from the new Chief Minister towards open government. The provision of government information is now the default rather than the exception.”

The data.ACT portal and the Open Government web site give users access to datasets of government information, as well as government reports and results of enquiries under Freedom of Information legislation. The ACT government is also the first in Australia to release a summary of their Cabinet outcomes online.

Chisnall believes that there is more to Open Government. “Open government is attitudinal and cultural. A move towards openness requires a degree of soul-searching, cultural change and dealing with issues. We’re on the path to that.”

Chisnall, however, adds a cautionary note. “It is easy to say that government information is a public asset, but there are other considerations to take account of. You have to make sure that while you’re releasing as much information as you possibly can, you’re not breaching privacy regulations and important commercial confidences, or raising security issues.”

The government has been making consistent use of social media platforms to engage citizens. The GIO launched a Virtual Community Cabinet in which a five-person cabinet responds to tweets which use the #actvcc hashtag. Additionally, emergency services are also taking advantage of the ability of social media platforms to communicate with a large percentage of the population very quickly.

At the same time, Chisnall adds, “We have to understand the difference between what I call the ‘Fire Brigade’ message and ‘Fred the Fireman’ message. One is an authoritative message from the government and the other might be an opinion from an individual. Understanding the correct way of thinking about the differences between those two is very important.”

How many web sites is too many?

“Regardless of whatever structure the public service might currently have, fundamentally, we have to maximise the service to our citizens,” Chisnall says.

The ACT government is enhancing and modifying the services it provides to make them more citizen-centric. “The ACT government has developed nearly 200 websites. We accept that it’s confusing for the public. It represents the way we understand ourselves, but not the way the community does. So, as a first step, we created an open government website to focus access to certain types of information and our efforts towards openness.”

The ACT government is rolling out the Single Public Face project to make the government’s presence in cyberspace more citizen-centric. The project creates common templates which all ACT government websites will follow to be more consistent, accessible and engaging for citizens. Additionally, the government rolled out ‘Mobile Canberra’ to make the government more responsive to the changing needs of citizens of Canberra, and intends to engage mobile and app developers to enhance mobile access to government services and information.

Shared Services success

The ACT government uses shared services to provide a range of corporate services to government directorates and offices. “The ACT runs one of the most successful shared services organisations in Australia,” says Chisnall. “I believe that any move towards shared services should be done with very strong business acumen, with a realistic view of chances of success, and an enormous respect for the organisations that are going to be affected and integrated. Changing the culture of organisations is a long-term and often complex exercise that requires a very good business case to be successful.”

In addition to enhancing savings and reducing duplication within the government, shared service ventures can also provide a good integrative structure for citizen-centric services. Chisnall says, “If one is not dealing with 20 different ways of doing things in order to provide an integrated service, it’s a whole lot easier to make that service coherent.”

The new administration has made a good start in working through the recommendations of the ‘One ACT Government’ report and developing ICT solutions to challenges it faces. These initiatives are already successfully enhancing government transparency and citizen engagement, and more efforts are expected in the future.

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