|Issue No 114||05 October 2001|
3.4 The New Governance
In the last instalment in their series on technological change, Peter Lewis and Michael Gadiel look at the challenges politics has yet to meet.
Government has been an institution of stability in the Industrial Age. In recent years, its been the target of conservatives saying their should be 'less' of it - while social democrats still want 'more' spending on programs, more intervention in markets, and more state ownership. But there are broader questions, like how does its functions change in a networked society? How does government reinvent itself while continuing to meet the demands and expectations of the populous whose mandate it serve? Is it enough to pass sympathetic laws - or is a more fundamental rethink of the State required.
The challenges for government at a time of such significant change are manifest. Not only must the State preside over the changes, it must necessarily be part of the change. It must facilitate change and regulate it, at the same time as metamorphisising itself in ways that it can not predict until the change begins. And it must do so, at a time when the significance of the nation-state itself is being eroded by the very changes it is expected to preside over. As the structures of the old society collapse, government must transform itself into a network-enabler, an agent that allows society to discover the networks that will bring it maximum prosperity in this new economic system.
There will always be a place for a nation state identity, and it will be a part of our lives. But we are going through a transition phase where a nation is becoming less about economic identity. As markets converge around the world the nation state is being asked to cannibalise its traditional institutional functions, while at the same time reasserting its cultural identity. This is a change that most governments are struggling to manage. The basic problem is that government have focussed too narrowly on the notion of economic manger and are missing the broader role that is emerging for them, in defining the place of their citizens in this new global world..
This is a fundamental public policy challenge - how can a government enhance the prospects of its citizens in a world where most borders, apart from the physical, are breaking down? How do you avoid spiraling along this conveyor belt of change and see your very culture dissipate into a homogenous pastiche of nothingness? This is the risk for Australia under the weight of the USA's cultural hegemony.
The first step is to recognise that cultural identity is a significant asset in this global world. We must look at what is Australia's culture and how we present ourselves to the world and identify what advantage to us is there in our 'Australian-ness; to what extent it give us a market advantage in a global world. Because it a global world, the only thing that differentiates us from any other market is the culture. It is a question of differentiation in the global marketplace. We need to be able to sell ourselves to the world, whether it's in our artistic endeavours; in our cultural content; or what we have to offer as a business environment.
In this way, the State moves from being the economic manager to more an economic entrepreneur, out there in the global economy trying to help the people within its borders to suck in as much money as possible out of that global pool. It's challenge is to enable our people to participate in this economy, keeping in mind what the social and economic benefits are to the collective mass of people who comprise Australia. Secondly, the government has a role in making Australia an attractive base for capital, an appealing place to stay if you are living here; or better still investing in local industry. Thirdly, government has a role in maximising the number of individuals who have the skills and access to participate in this global economy. Finally, it must foster social cohesion by ensuring the benefits of engaging on the global stage is shared across the community.
Identity, Patriotism and the Republic
Promoting cultural identity is actually the antithesis of the sort of jingoism we saw during the emergence of One Nation. It's about looking at what are the symbolic demonstrations of identity we can make - like becoming a Republic, rather than having to resort to this sense of introvert and nationalism which comes with saying "we exist within these borders and everyone else is the Other." It's interesting that the same themes that fueled One Nation - disengagement, distrust of politicians, even xenophobia - also defeated the Republic.
The Industrial Age allowed cultural isolationism along geographic lines, it encouraged very strident economic borders that were tied up with our identity. Through the 80s - under Labor - with the emphasis on economics, our sense of wellbeing and place in the world were measured by economic indicators. We still need to pay attention to these things, but it's got to have an outward looking focus. The Information Age breaks those geographic constraints; which makes the whole nature of an economy more complex and inter-related, with both other economies and other parts of our own society.
The failure of the Republic, was one of the great lost opportunities in establishing a sense of Self as a nation, with a forward and out-looking perspective. This might be just symbolism, but the minor structural changes that were actually proposed in that referendum were the antithesis of nationalism, protectionism and everything else. The issue of standing alone was linked to Australia's engagement with the rest of the world. It was a chance for us to re-assert ourselves in a very multicultural way in that global economy. It's unlikely the Republic campaign even recognised the absolutely incredible importance of the timing of the referendum. But we can now see in retrospect how useful that would have been in the short-to-medium term. All we needed as a political leadership that saw the value in re-badging who we are within that global environment.
The role of economic entrepreneur is unique for each society. It's not just a matter of looking at what the Europeans are emulating, say, the French by trying to create some form of high-Aussie culture with lots of arts festivals and wine-tastings. "Australianess" is not the same as "Frenchness" . It's not really a question of cultural elitism of Australia, because our strength is in the opposite direction. And it's more than just brand differentiation, it's about a strategic national marketing plan. We need to play to our strengths: particularly our multi-cultural society, which is a huge asset in the global environment. It's about cultural diversity; and those other values like our easy-going-ness and accessibility..
We need to work this into something that gives us a marketing edge over our global competitors. Australian content and Australian culture is immensely saleable and popular in the global marketplace, and whilst there has been some exploitation of some disappointing stereotypes of what it is to be Australian, there is also a sense of potential there. We've shown ourselves to be leaders in many areas of the new media in both our technology and the way we actually pull ideas together and present them and can deliver a product. We also have a natural advantage is our largely literate, English speaking population. We need to develop those innate advantages to enable Australian communities, both at a business and social/cultural level to participate in the global marketplace. Moreover, we need to be seen as a place where we 'get it'.
The initial challenge for the State is to set the framework for an information economy through the development of electronic commerce frameworks, laws, regulations, dealing with some of the serious challenges that underlie jurisdictional issues. And we also need to tackle taxation and revenue in a global economic environment, because that leads to a whole series of serious questions about what the State will be capable of in a fiscal sense in the global economy.
We need to get these fundamentals right and position ourselves as a dynamic society ready to embrace this change. Dynamism is not an introverted thing. It is about ebb and flow within that global economy and positioning ourselves with some strength, building on this cultural identity as a focal point as to why Australia has some sense of self in the scheme of things. Because at the end of the day in the information age, what carries value on a global scale is not real product, it's not tangibles, it's intellectual product. And if your intellectual product is going to be different and marketable globally, you must have a strong culture from which that intellectual product can grow.
The Communications Policy Disaster
For all this to work we can't be isolationist. We have to have a sense of positive engagement with the rest of the world. To do this we have to fund ways of freely communicating within and without our national borders and engage with the possibilities the new technology offers us. In this sense, the Howard Government's decisions on digital Television are retrograde. They are trying to put another layer of bricks around the wall, building a Fortress Australia for our big media moguls to guard from the foreign invaders.
For far too long - and this goes across both sides of politics - decisions have been made on communications policy from the perspective of the vested interests as presented to those in power at the time. We need to step outside these types of deal and take a broader view. The Labor Party needs to remember what the public policy outcomes are in this new environment and work out what those priorities become.
And that means the digital TV legislation - the restriction on the data casting definition - is not only look completely retrograde, but in fact actively disadvantages our capacity to move into new area of content development and position Australia in a place of strength. Why? Because it works directly to the vested interest in the marketplace at the moment, and it stops us from positively engaging with the rest of the world. It will also harm innovation and development here - we should have a healthy, strong, data casting industry in six years time, but we won't now. We've seen a beautiful opportunity that's already been squandered.
You could isolate the actual decisions made along the way that have led us here. First of all, the concept of having to support the existing broadcasters already in retrospect looks ridiculous because everyone is investing in their digital infrastructure. Whether the existing networks engage or walk away should be of no-one's concerns except their shareholders.
Secondly, the restrictions on datacasting actively pits the established media and the State against new participants. One of the ironies in the high definition and standard definition debate was that its inevitable outcome is even more spectrum is consumed as part of the exercise. So there's still a win in it for the incumbents despite the good outcome of SD suddenly being available. HD was never going to be able to do it on its own because it was too elite; it was too top level and not enough people were going to be able to afford the hardware to receive the content in the first place. So the debate about high definition digital content is not really about the high definition digital content per se - it's about locking other players out of that digital spectrum in the first instance.
But it's also about almost taking what is a network technology and trying to keep it as a broadcast, broadband technology. It's taking something that should be unlimited and trying to control it for established commercial - and subsequent political - reasons. What it's done is to take the terrestrial spectrum out of the picture for Australia in terms of bandwidth. What are we left with? We are left with satellite, we're left with cable; we're left with copper; wireless local networks and the internet.
The sad irony is that we are one of the most free countries in terms of this spectrum. Most other countries - the densely populated, UK, US, European continent - actually have a big problem with their terrestrial spectrum because so many people are using it. We have loads of it and it is one of our greatest inherent strengths in terms of having the space to have a diverse number of participants in that particular market - providing quality digital content across the spectrum. Now it's gone. It's like we found our greatest strength and then completely disabled it.
What we are left with is this industrial age broadcast technology, mixed in with this 80s hybrid Pay TV technology and we call this the modern communications system. What we are ignoring is that the ultimate end point is the Net - the Net will eventually carry the bandwidth to delivery full picture and sound. The issue is how do we get there? Do we jump from the industrial age technology to the Net or is there something in between?
Perhaps the transition point is datacasting. But what the vested interests and the government - the regulator of the day has done - is try to bolster up the industrial age technology at the expense of making the transition properly to the information age technology. This is why the most significant amendment ended up being thes success in shifting the timeframe by a couple of years. For Labor there was a very late dawning realisation of the implications of this decision. So they moved to tighten up those timeframes.
Access and the Virtuous Circle
One of the most strategic things a government can be doing at the moment is develop ways to maximise the number of citizens who have access to this information economy. While the 'Digital Divide' has almost become a cliché - it is still a very real phenomenon. The latest statistics show that while the percentage of people online is still growing steadily, the digital divide is getting wider. This means new policies are required if Labor is to halt the growing gap between the information haves and have-nots in Australia. With access comes understanding, with understanding comes skills with skills comes participation and, the higher the level of participation the greater the share of the action for the nation.
There is a dawning realisation of the innate value of access by some of the big corporates. Ford and Delta Airlines are two examples where they're actually putting their workers online at home. This is not just about the computers, it's about exposing their workers to the new technologies, the access to information, as an investment in their futures. Who knows what this will create at the micro level? But one thing's for sure, these two companies will have a more flexible and literate workforce, more able to change with them. In this light, the computers appear a very sound investment. The trade union movement has also taken up this challenge, with the ACTU and Labor Council of NSW both launching their own computer access ventures.
Why shouldn't government take a similar approach. Shouldn't its priority in raising the level of its citizens - particularly those who are missing out on the benefits of the information age, be in skilling them up? It's a very simple concept that covers off so many policy bases from access to services, to education, to industry policy, to regional policy, the whole gamut of current policy objectives could be served by getting all citizens online.
The big question is how?
One option would be to provide a computer and connectivity to anyone who is receiving government services. In order to deliver services like a social security payment, Governments need to have meaningful interaction with citizens. The internet a medium which allows the level of intelligent communication needed for high quality service delivery. The policy aim would be to ensure that recipients of government services are able to have affordable Internet access in their home if they choose, and are equipped with the skills to be able to access meaningful services from the relevant government department or agency. The recipient's responsibility would be to acquire the skills to access the government service online - thus reducing the administration costs involved.
A government 'portal', a public space online would be the vehicle to present meaningful information to citizens. For example, a feature could be an online, interactive civics education program, designed to stimulate interest in democratic participation. Fedinfo is the Coalition's attempt at creating a ubiquitous Federal Government entry point. After years of lip service, it was finally launched in June 2000.Another important feature of a government service delivery initiative would be high level of scrutiny and public accountability for issues such as privacy and data protection.
There is the opportunity for a progressive Government to actively close the digital divide from the bottom up. A government internet connectivity initiative would factor socio-economic status and other indicators of inequality for the purpose of establishing socially progressive priorities, giving substance to the objective of closing the digital divide.
Such an intitiative would include:
- An emphasis on universal connectivity, the aim of closing the digital divide by halting the growing gap between the information 'haves' and 'have- nots.
- Further development of a 'Virtual' Government, designed to deliver tailored government services to the home or convenient public access point through an internet-enabled computer.
- Create opportunities for improving internet and general IT skills to facilitate participation in the knowledge economy.
- Create opportunities for improving internet and general IT skills to facilitate participation in the knowledge economy.
Like other connectivity initiatives, hardware, software and service suppliers would need to be involved giving rise to yet another opportunity to ensure that regional deployment of the initiative had maximum possible benefit to local jobs and businesses. Lessons learnt from having massive contracts designed to harness economies of scale, such as those used for outsourcing information technology infrastructure by the Coalition, demonstrate there are no real savings to be found. Given that multinational companies end up with most of the contracts, local Australian IT companies have lost opportunities for growth and export.
Using local businesses to service the ongoing demands of such a scheme would assist in stimulating the critical information and communications sector in regional Australia would complement much of the effort already undertaken by local councils and regional development organisations. The information and communications sector is one of the fastest growing both in terms of jobs and strategic importance to both new and existing industries.
The associated supporting skills development programs could be run through the regional education institution to encourage a relationship between the person studying on-line and their local education provider. It would also serve to provoke, if the interest was not already there, the institution to develop their capability to serve their local community.
Earlier this year, Labor identified the important role of Australia Post outlets as providing the physical presence to house internet-enabled computers and hence the public space online. This would build on the range of services offered by an existing culturally acceptable institution that is highly valued by the community. Important telecommunications infrastructure, in particular the internet Points of Presence, already exist throughout Australia Post outlets. These outlets would build on an enhanced public library internet access program.
In a rapidly environment however, there is little wisdom in attempting to specify the technology that will underpin initiatives of this nature. With hardware prices falling and a new range of internet devices being introduced to the market, how internet services reach the home could vary dramatically depending on the type of telecommunication infrastructure and the bandwidth capability of a region. Or maybe just the preference of the user will determine the technology. For example, the recent parliamentary debate regarding digital television and datacasting raised the spectre of the set-top box and TV becoming the universal delivery mechanism for accessing the internet in Australian homes.
The range of communication infrastructure, including satellite, optic fibre, terrestrial spectrum, microwave, cable and plain old copper (spiced up with compression technologies, like DSL - digital subscriber line - in lucrative markets) technology, it is clear there are more and more options for delivery. It is critical to ensure that limitations are not constructed to reduce future opportunities.
There is one school of thought that sees the role of government diminished to a point where it only intervenes at the point of market failure. This is the view championed by the New Right through the eighties and nineties, the assault on the State, But there is an alternative view that sees that with the breakdown of the individual economic identity of each nation the role of government in defining and promoting our identity will actually become more important.
In a virtual world, we need to think about the notion of virtual government. In the same way that corporations and community organisations and trade unions are reorganising their businesses and re-engineering their information management strategies, government needs to do this as well. It's about creating a new interface between THE GOVERNMENT and THE CITIZEN. This is where the internet again comes into it. It's about understanding in the first instance, that government will always have an important place and that governments can actually choose how close they want to be to the citizens. How many layers do they want to put between themselves and the citizens before they realise that the service delivery is the main game and it is getting too tangled up in outsourcing and privatisation policy?
The other problem with the government's role solely as regulator is that the world it is attempting to control is just becoming too complex. How can any central agency fully comprehend and codify all that is going on. Instead of controlling, the government really needs to pull back and set broad frameworks to make things work. Look at the tax regulations as an example of where everything has tried to be codified where it has now just dysfunctional.
And we are getting that way in some of the areas where there is still a relationship between the government and the citizen. Take Centrelink as an example. We know there's a role for government there but we know the solution is not about complicating that through tiers of outsourcing and privatisation. It's about bringing back the service to the individual and actually engineering how that relationship with citizens developed. The digital interface - the internet - is a part of that solution, and obviously related to connectivity and being asked to reach people and re-train people in that environment, and that's an area which provides a massive challenge which we'll explore shortly.
But the key point is to acknowledge that government is less about ruling over the subjects and more about opening new bases of possibility for the citizens of this country at a grass roots level. There are some great examples about what the Victorian and NSW governments are doing in getting the service delivery mechanism honed and flattening the layers to actually create some substance and feeling amongst the citizens; instead of this vortex of negativity where the service level declines and citizens interpret that as a declining role for government in their lives. It's not that the government does not have a role, it's just a bad delivery model.
A New Model of Government
A nation's government is the democratic expression of the collective. Often, it's economic collectives as well as societal collectives, increasingly the two are fusing into the same thing. The rise of stock ownership creates a new overlay in the relationship between citizens and the state. The citizens are shareholders as well as subjects. This is an interesting twist on the notion of the socialisation of capital and how individuals buying into a collective sense of what is the corporate world.
The current structures of government could not be less appropriate for the changes that are occurring. They do not suit what we are currently experiencing and the depth of restructuring that is going on around us. I don't like to apply corporate analogies but you can't but help see a very non-integrated management structure over a very large challenge in all the portfolios and all the roles that a government has. It's probably the worst way of actually doing what we need to do. A priority must be to reassess the portfolio and administrative structures that are sitting across our nation, our country, our nation's fate in the global economy - to see how we can position ourselves better.
Government is going to have to think about the way that it exercises power, and maybe start thinking about trading power for influence, accepting that it can't lay down the law; it can't just intervene and disturb people's lives with no repercussions and no consequences. That government has to accept that it can influence the outcomes of change but it can't always directly intervene and force change.
It is about strategic use of the policy tools a given government has to work with. What will become of grave interest and concern to government of the future is what are the policy tools that they have in their tool box. The sad reflection on the last ten years is that they have systematically disempowered themselves through this economic imperative of privatisation. They've thrown out all their tools, they've either broken them or they've given them away. Telstra is a case in point.
Telecommunications per se fades into the background as we enter this new phase of re-engineering society, as being a fundamental tool of access. By playing with that, and even now making it the focal point of public policy of the information society, we are still missing the point. The first and foremost base to cover off is actually allowing the citizens of this country to participate through their business, through their homes; through their community organisations; or through their employment. And that should be the focus of any communications policy that we have. Yet still we persist with this sort of raw economic analysis of what's going to provide a better service. Because the best service that needs to be provided to the citizens of this country is decent, affordable access to the internet, the more families the better.
The Political Teams
Re-conceiving government raises the question of whether our political parties are up to the task of managing this fundamental change Once there was a party for capital and a party for labour. But there will be new fault lines in a new economy. The challenge for Labor is to position itself as the party that gives expression to democratic participation in the information society, the new economy. It's about creating an environment for everyone to be actively engaged regardless of where the interests are for those participants.
The Liberals have shaped themselves up quite specifically to be the party of the existing players, and thereby representing the vested interests. And whether it's the GST servicing the top end of town; whether it's the current Communications policy supporting in their convoluted and very manipulative way of actually entrenching Telstra's place in that particular marketplace, or the digital TV legislation. They are acting on behalf of the vested interests.
But they are also in a way taking a more populous line, because the vested interest has also got a commonality of interest with those who are scared of change. This is part of the big challenge for Labor. To break outside of that. And we are not going to do it while our policies continue to serve those vested interests either. We are not going to do it without actually talking about the role of government in the future and surfacing what is an underlying massive amount of insecurity that's very hard for people to articulate. It seems to relate back to employment security and all those types of things, but in fact those feelings of insecurity are a result of the environment that the vested interests create, which is about exploiting those insecurities.
Right now the Liberal Party looks like the 19th Century pastoralist/corporate robber baron party that it always was. In the Labor Party we've got lots of vested interests too, and our challenge is to position Labor as the party that promotes and embraces changes. The scary is that that there is nothing to say it's a sure thing that Labor will be the one of the two parties that makes this step. Because the Liberals are the party for business, there will be a huge push by enterprise and money to push them in the direction that we want the Labor Party to go. The tragedy is the orientation will be in the interests of capital rather than working people. This will remain the basic differentiator - and the sooner Labor gets into the debate the sooner it can do what it's there for - representing the interests of working people in these most complex of times.
But the debate is still to be framed and pole position is up for grabs. It's quite a daring move to make that shift. It's a lot safer on a lot of levels to stick to your traditional constituencies - your traditional issues and use your influence as a political leader to make people scared of the change. This is the tactic that One Nation cashed in on so.
The necessary steps are:
(i) recognition of the change that is occurring
(ii) active engagement with community
(iii) rebuilding of trust and
(iv) strategic embracement
It's also about education and the presentation of opportunity that is equitable. It is about empowering economic regions in Australia to make some decisions about their own future themselves and being prepared to let go and flatten some of these structures within the bureaucracy itself, to let people take over. It will require the party leadership, the Party faithful, and also citizens out in the community, to understand that the environment we are in is not going to serve us well in the future. We must seriously engage.
This chapter is based on discussions with Labor IT spokeswoman Kate Lundy
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