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Networked government services: Emerging Australian policies and development

Eric Wainwright
National Library of Australia


The aim of this paper is to examine how government is being affected by developments in the converging computer, communications and multimedia industries: to trace some recent Australian developments in government policies and planning in this area; and to suggest some ways in which Australian governments might effect medium term developments to the overall national benefit.


It may be reasonably argued that a very large proportion of technological developments over more than 3,000 years have been directed to one problem - that of enabling people to have influence over a larger area over a shorter period. Two quite distinct technological thrusts have been evident : We have steadily increased our capability to interact with others over greater distances. The thrust for some of these developments was improved military capability, with the invention of the bow and arrow and the gun, but other developments related to pure communication. Methods such as writing, heliographs and loud hailers have been added to steadily, through analogue radio and television to the present converging digital communication which combines elements of virtually all previous methods of communication, written, oral and visual, and on a global basis.

In Naisbitt's terms, this seems to me to be the ultimate mega-trend, because it has affected everybody and every form of organisation, including governments. The effects of the latest leaps forward - that is, the combination of quality satellite based broadcasting of TV and radio and low cost global voice and data networking, remain unclear. While trans-national communication and use of electronic based services has been and still is very limited for the great majority of people, it has been possible for the 19th century model of the nation state, limited as it was largely by physical and linguistic barriers, to remain virtually unaffected. But it seems very likely that as trans-national electronic communications and services provision tends towards a zero marginal cost, the effect on national institutions and systems of organisation will be profound.

It is tempting for each age to regard itself as special, and those who talk about the current electronic changes as a "revolution" will, I believe, be proved wrong over the medium term. Change has always been with us, and major societal change occurs much more slowly than one might expect from the rate of technological change, as it is limited by delays in understanding, in the acquisition of new skills, and in behavioural changes. After all, print replacement has been predicted for at least five decades and it has not occurred. This is not the place to go into details of why electronic information has not yet taken hold - suffice to say that print replication could not be expected to occur until:

Clearly, we are still some way from these conditions being achieved. But because no extensive replacement of print has taken place to date, it is tempting for sceptics to suggest that print is safe from electronic predators. In my view this would be unwise - the six critical technologies needed for widespread use of electronic information are reaching the stage at which they are now becoming available to a significant number of people: Few people have yet really understood the overall effects of global interactive networking. These include the demise of local monopolies, from the corner store through to national governments, the rise of virtual organisations and greater empowerment of more junior knowledgable staff, and role blurring for all organisations in the information chain, including those in the educational sector.

But the "communications reach" mega-trend is associated with other significant economic changes relating to information use:

This combination of technological and economic pressures is likely to lead to a very significant change in all information handling organisations, over the next ten years. I think that we can now reasonably assume that for Australia in ten years time, anyone who is in a position which involves any significant use of information on a day to day basis will have convenient access to a global network which provides information access, messaging and electronic publishing facilities as well as the traditional broadcast receipt capabilities of radio and TV - students, researchers, public servants, professional workers (eg, lawyers, therapists) and a significant range of small business. (Note that this does not include everybody, and this fact will raise some significant issues of public policy).

Information and communication channels

Before coming specifically to issues of government policy, I want to comment briefly on the mass media. Most of us have led our lives in times in which we have been subjected to a very limited number of mass media channels. Many Australians read no newspapers at all, and of those that do, very few read more than the same newspaper each day. Until recently, no Australians had access to more than five television channels, and many still have access to only three or four channels. In few places are there more than about six acceptable quality radio stations, and in many country areas people are restricted to one or possibly two stations. It is arguable in any case whether any sizeable audience uses these broadcast media for more than pure entertainment plus, possibly, keeping in touch with happenings of major news interest (which is not the same as events of major significance nationally or globally!)

Until recently, libraries (and other information oriented services such as education) have operated quite separately from the major communication services used by the majority of people - the mass media of radio, TV and newspapers delivered directly to homes (including "home extensions" such as cars). These channels have been considered as in a quite different category, as being under very limited individual control, and being broadcast. The economics of the mass media have been such that very few channels could be supported by a given population - hence the tendency to entertainment and lowest common denominator programming.

But we are in the early stages of moving from an era in which we have had only a relatively small number of broadcast channels controlled by a small number of organisations, to one in which people will be able to choose amongst a very wide range of sources of entertainment and information - sports channels, news channels, weather channels, talk show channels, etc, etc. While a small number of major media interests will attempt to continue to control the content across all channels, the move from broadcasting to narrowcasting is based on a continuing reduction in the costs of communication, a trend which is inexorable, as it rests on continuing advances in the efficiency of use of increasing cable capacity, and the ability for the radio spectrum to be split up digitally into many more non-interfering channels. Given that this development is also just another example of the move to mass customisation and niche marketing for all products and services, ie, a steady rise in consumer choice expectations, and given that content can now be created much more cheaply by small organisations and even individuals, I doubt whether the fragmentation of broadcast industries can be prevented in the longer run. Nevertheless, this issue remains a significant area for public policy decision in Australia, if an undesirable concentration of media ownership and therefore policy influence is to be avoided. It clearly has significant implications for the diversity of multimedia outlets.

The move from broadcasting to narrowcasting can also be seen as resulting from one of the many current convergences resulting from the spread of communication and information technologies. The previous separation of mass media communications from information channels such as libraries rested on the fact that the entry capital required for running television and radio stations, newspapers and mass circulation journals was very high, thus limiting the number of publishers and broadcasters. The significance of information networking, now that we have tools such as the World Wide Web, is not that it improves access to information (although it has a huge potential to do just that) but that it makes everyone a potential publisher. For a cost of about $3,000, I can now personally transmit not only text, but hypertext documents containing images and sound (and soon, with Hot Java, animation and other programmed actions) to anyone on the Internet, a community of around 25 million people, doubling about every nine months. As television and radio stations start to use the same physical distribution channels as voice and data transmission, as long as there is a separation of ownership, or at the very least, influence, between carriers and content providers, current network developments will inevitably result in a massive proliferation of individuals and small organisations acting to provide information as well as share it. The rapid moves by small groups in the pop music industry to articulate their music over the Internet, thus bypassing the major distribution organisations presently controlling the industry, is an example of what will happen in many other areas.

Governments have traditionally been comfortable with a limited number of communication channels which they can influence directly through government provision of the service, or indirectly through regulation of, or political influence on, a small number of service providers. As digital division of an increasingly available communication spectrum allows more and more channels of "broadcast" capability at an ever lower capital entry cost, and as network access begins to provide network publishing capabilities for all organisations, and eventually individuals, then government influence on electronic content must inevitably decline as control becomes economically and technologically less feasible. This is likely to provoke, as it has already, continuing debate over issues of intellectual freedom and community standards, as one of many issues of public policy.

Public policy

In any society where a government has neither the will nor the power to act in an authoritarian and arbitrary way, the existence of that government rests on, acceptance of its validity and utility by its people. But what is government for? Here I make a number of assertions, which some may wish to question : In practice, in a modem economy, government and the commercial sector have become increasingly linked and interdependent. In many countries of the world there has been a move to reduce the scope of direct government activity. But paradoxically, this move to smaller government has in fact tended to increase the total interactions between the public and private sectors, as governments increasingly outsource the provision of services and development activities previously conducted within public services. It is also the case that, in those countries which are experiencing a rapid move from subsistence agriculture economies to industrial and services based economies, a substantial proportion of people are experiencing for the first time more direct transactions with government through contacts involving regulatory activities and various taxation and benefits transfers.

One of the problems of modem democracy has been the development of balanced public policy. In many countries, and certainly in Australia, most ongoing national public policy has had very little significant input to it from outside the relatively few active members of the governing political parties, senior business people, organised lobby groups and the public bureaucracy. The feedback that government obtains through the mass media generally has significant bias, and an ad hoc nature to it, as the mass media inevitably tread a careful line between communication and entertainment, with some penchant for the sensational, together with a wary eye on the views of both their proprietors and governments. The lobbying process is also generally unsatisfactory and biased.

I contrast this process with my experience on the Internet, where ideas and policy proposals can be posted at an early stage to a wide range of people, and through cross-posting to an open cross-section of interested individuals. Feedback is invariably sensible and helpful in building on the initial ideas, and if the nature of the process also attracts occasional diatribes or replies that are simply silly, this seems a small price to pay, and reflects the nature of the human condition.

It seems to me that for the first time we are beginning to have the technology available to link effectively governments and the people they serve. In the Internet, we have an open two way interactive user driven technology. This may mean that we can move beyond primarily representative government, to forms of government in which specific policies are more directly based on feedback and input from significant (and valid) cross sections of the public. Interaction can be initiated not only by the government simply as a provider of information, policy or educational opportunity to a passive public, but also by anyone with access to a networked work station and sufficient skill to be able to use it.

Government objectives

As I have said earlier, an interactive network of the Internet type is crucial in giving voice to everyone connected to it. It not only provides the power of the telephone to reach friends and colleagues anywhere in the world on a one to one basis, but it provides all of us with a narrowcast publishing capability.

But why should government take special notice of the Internet? What does the Internet offer which is attractive to governments? The Internet clearly represents the beginning of a global intercommunication network through which all remote voice, data and multimedia will eventually travel. The key to its success is its continuing development of field tested standards which are gradually increasing its range of functionality and interoperability, so that more and more applications can be used remotely from anywhere across the world.

Why should this be important to government? Within governments' broad public objectives there are several which seem obviously affected by interactive networking. These include:

However, I want to concentrate on the issues within the direct area of government operations.

Efficiency of transactions

The use of the Internet as a communication mechanism relies on the facts that: This efficiency of government issue is certainly one which has been exercising our minds in the Commonwealth government, and no doubt this is true in other governments. To quote the United States' study on electronic delivery of government services, "access to government is uncoordinated, cumbersome, complex, slow and confusing". Government has become increasingly complex, and some lack of trust in government in many countries can, I believe, be put down to this complexity. Traditional government bureaucracies have been organised for the purposes of efficient policy development and program delivery in particular areas - that is, vertically, with each agency concentrating on its particular area, such as education, health, legal services or social security. Each department tends to have its own channels for distribution to the public. But with the growth of the Internet, there is a need for government to reconceptualise its approach, recognising that as communication capabilities spread to local community access points and homes, and across government itself, there is an urgent need to enable individuals, business. and government itself to obtain efficient interaction from a single remote location to wherever in government is most appropriate to meet the requirement of the moment. It should not be up to an individual or even a commercial organisation to understand the complex structure of government agencies and programs, but for the government to organise its electronic access system so that it permits the effective flow of information and conduct of transactions between: In the Commonwealth government, we do not yet have even electronic mail across all government departments, let alone World Wide Web access to government documents and data bases. The number of interactions between the commercial sector and government is rising all the time, for reasons associated with taxation, government procurement, government incentives, research and development grants and many other factors. As in many ways information is becoming the business of both government and the commercial sector and as we move into information intensive economies, the efficiency of the interactions between government and its individual and corporate clients becomes a matter of national importance.

Effective public information flow

But the efficiency of government relates not only to transaction efficiencies. Governments are major collectors and creators of information on behalf of the public. Traditionally, a very large part of the information within government has not been available outside government, indeed often not outside the particular agency, or even the section of an agency, responsible for its collection or creation. Almost all government documents and databases are now created in electronic form in the first place. Once an effective access infrastructure is in place, in the form of Internet connections to and from each government agency, the marginal cost of making that information publicly available is very small. While of course some government information needs to be restricted for reasons of privacy, national security or occasionally special commercial advantage, that is no reason to restrict access to the vast bulk of government information, collected at public expense. As I have said above, once Internet connections are in place, it is reasonable to expect a government to behave as if all information is open to the public unless restricted for specific reasons of privacy or security.

Certainly there is a very significant amount of government information which could be available for useful analysis to the benefit of the private sector. For government information to be useable conveniently and easily will require most governments to think very carefully how related information created in different departments and agencies can be presented effectively, and a whole of government approach will be needed to the development of good resource discovery and retrieval mechanisms through the adoption of common standards. Government must have a leadership role in the promotion of standards which make information retrieval and government/business transactions as transparent and seamless as possible. Proof of concept pilots supported by both government and the commercial sector across a range of commercial applications are needed for this to occur.

Another aspect of public information flow is access to cultural materials. The role of governments as long term keepers of our national heritage has been overlooked until relatively recently. In part this is because galleries, museums and research libraries have been regarded as elitist interests. In part this has been because such cultural institutions are often not perceived as organs of government, even though they are funded wholly or very largely by tax payers. Indeed, their staffs seldom see themselves as bureaucrats, as opposed to professionals in their cultural specialities, neither are the physical structures they occupy typical of government buildings generally. Even the idea of cultural heritage being a focus of government policy is a relatively recent phenomenon (although long recognised as a tool of authoritarian regimes). The advent of interactive networking and government policy interest (partly fuelled by issues of national identity) means that the cultural content Of government can for the first time be brought to a for broader audience, both in Australia and internationally. (The creative ways in which this may best be done is the subject of many other papers at this conference).

Market reach/equity

Until relatively recently, relative geographic advantage/disadvantage has been a significant factor in determining commercial success - the more remote customers are from the source of product and supply, the harder it is for the supplier to compete with other closer sources of supply. In the case of governments, delivery of services to people in smaller and more remote communities, in areas such as health, education and social welfare, has been costly compared with delivery in areas of dense population. But a national interoperable communications system, once in place, enables many services to be delivered to remote areas as cheaply as elsewhere.

For many governments, this market reach issue is seen as a totally different one, that of equity, ie, that all citizens are entitled to have a similar standard of access to essential services. In Australia, in the past, this .,community service obligation" has been interpreted to mean basic telephone access. Now there is much deliberation as to whether this concept needs to be extended to include Internet access, and the Australian federal government has a whole series of initiatives in train to enable schools, public libraries, community centres, and other community organisations all to be connected within a very short time frame.

Governments equity objectives for their people are thus essentially the same as those of commercial organisations. Both are highly dependent on communications reach. If governments are to deliver services efficiently, and their citizens are to transact with government efficiently, Internet reach is required. Likewise for commercial organisations attempting to advertise, market services and enable efficient retail transactions. (The fact that neither government nor the commercial sector yet knows how to interact successfully with their clients over the Internet is another issue - but one which is the subject of other papers at this Conference).

This interdependence of government and commercial objectives means that there are a number of national objectives which could be met through greater Internet access, and the development of the necessary associated skills and applications. These include:

National competitiveness

The Internet not only extends market reach nationally, but also globally. This makes all our businesses vulnerable to external competition. Local monopolies are likely to become a thing of the past, when even small businesses situated anywhere in the world can sell directly into our markets. The balance of import and export is likely to be affected very strongly by Internet based marketing, and unless our commercial sector is able to use the Internet effectively to market world wide, local businesses are likely to suffer from external competition.

But the Internet also presents a wonderful source of current information of useful competitive intelligence and assessment of world best practices. In my own field, I simply could not keep up with the pace of advance in research and development without continual use of the Internet. Increasingly that is becoming true in every field - not only for the academic and research communities for whom the Internet was initially built, but for the whole of the commercial sector.

The Internet has also become the driver of the information and communication industries, for the same reasons referred to above - market reach. Unless software and hardware allow the applications running on them to be run remotely over the Internet, there is little chance of them now becoming widely used. The sheer size and vitality of the telecommunications, information services and information technology industries now mean that overall national competitiveness is likely to hinge on Australia being amongst the world's leaders in research, development and innovative applications.

Rural and employment stimulation

In Australia the problem of rural stimulation is a real one. How do we prevent the economic and social costs of the continuing drift to the cities from declining agricultural and mining areas? Extending Internet type services offers the potential for business and government in rural areas to offer a similar level of capability as in urban areas. For government this includes the cost associated with health and education, but there are many quality of life factors affecting groups like the disabled. If the disadvantages of distance are reduced through external communications, then perhaps the cost advantage of cheaper land in rural areas may actually allow some kinds of business to have a competitive advantage from outside city areas. There can be no conclusion on this issue at present, but it is certainly arguable that the apparently expensive extension of the Internet into rural areas at present represents a very sensible national strategy when total infrastructure costs are taken into account. Teleworking via the Internet may well be significantly cheaper for society as a whole than forcing workers to travel over ever larger distances into city locations for work purposes.

Recent Australian policy developments

In almost all the western democracies, there is a strong move towards a reduction in the scope of direct government activity. In part, this results from a belief in the merits of market driven economies contrasted with the apparent failures of various communist and socialist models, in part it reflects the rise of a significant number of post-Keynesian trained economists to the higher levels of government bureaucracies, in part it results from the reaction of middle and upper income sectors to the higher levels of taxation usually levied in systems of progressive income tax, and it also represents a realisation by governments of the long term effects of deferred maintenance of infrastructure and generous unfunded superannuation schemes for government workers. The result is considerable pressure on all governments! ability to invest in infrastructure developments, and to sell off of utilities and other natural monopolies such as telecommunications.

It may therefore be difficult to persuade governments in Australia, of any political persuasion, to invest in the kind of communications and information infrastructures which are likely to be necessary to deliver the capacity of our people as a whole to participate fully in society and to have a real say in its directions. But can we afford not to have clear public objectives in this area, as with roads, electricity and water? Are telecommunications developments really to be left to market forces to determine? Are we to have two or even three companies' cables laid down city streets? To have three incompatible pieces of home equipment to view the various pay TV offerings - with none of them also providing Internet access without extra equipment?

We can, I think, set two reasonable public objectives:

If this is to be achieved, then a key issue is the telecommunications architecture we develop over the next decade, what has been defined in the United States as the "National Information Infrastructure" ie, the combination of public and private networks that connects people with people, and people with information. The challenge for the country is to shape the architecture of these networks so that it meets not just short term commercial objectives but also long term societal needs.

In practice, if effective interaction between government and the community is to be achieved, I believe that there are three key considerations :

Recent progress in Australia

So how well are we doing in Australia? If I had asked that question in 1994, the answer could only have been "very badly". There was little realisation in the federal Government of the importance of interactive networking and its potential for providing real benefits to the community, there were no government policies regarding telecommunications development other than of a regulatory nature and commitment to an undefined "deregulation" in 1997, there were no government objectives regarding community or educational uses of networking, and no mechanisms in place to coordinate government developments as a whole.

Since then much has changed, or rather perhaps, there is now much potential for change. There have been a plethora of government enquiries in this area over the past year, and several are still in progress. Undoubtedly, the major catalyst was the report of the Broadband Services Expert Group (BSEG) released in January 1995, which was accepted almost as a whole by the Commonwealth Government. This had the effect of convincing the Government that policies were needed in this area, and fortuitously came soon after the Government's "Creative Nation" Cultural Policy Statement in October 1994, which projected multimedia as a potential major industry of the future. as well as indicating a government commitment to linking all public libraries to online networks. Shortly afterwards the Government also received the report of its Information Technology Review Group (ITRG), which recommended much improved collaboration across the Government in the development of IT based services.

Multimedia initiatives

The Commonwealth Government's multimedia initiatives, announced in the Cultural Policy Statement in October 1994, are well known and do not need to be detailed here: The BSEG and ITRG reports also created a climate which resulted in government commitment in April 1995 to several major community oriented network developments, including: More recently in the December 1995 announcement of the National Strategy for Information and Communication Services and Technologies, these initiatives have been built on further with the announcement of several new programs including: The final forms of these proposals were significantly modified in the light of feedback from the networking community. Indeed, the CIN and EdNA developments were amongst the first uses by the Commonwealth Government of network feedback techniques, in that proposals were made available over the Internet on World Wide Web sites established by the two government departments concerned. The combined effect of these developments is likely to be significant over the next two or three years, not least for the Australian multimedia industry. Before the year 2000, we can expect that at least 10,000 points of public presence across Australia will exist - in public libraries, in schools, and in a range of other government supported local access points, quite apart from an increasing proportion of work places. Access from Australian homes is harder to predict. While most personal computers sold to the public from now on will be network and multimedia capable, and while the introduction of the Microsoft / Telstra Consortium on Australia has been forcing down the cost of home network use, it remains to be seen how quickly Australians as a whole will embrace networking.

Much depends on government telecommunications policy, which has yet to be fully determined in detail, although announcements in August by the Minister for Communications and the Arts, following the Telecommunications Policy Review, suggests the government's intent to ensure both the interconnectivity and interoperability of carriers, and the open access for content providers that is needed to maximise the spread of access into the community. These announcements have been given greater weight by the Telecommunications Bill 1996/Trade Practices Amendment (Telecommunications) Bill 1996 Exposure Drafts and Commentary' paper released on 20 December. The Optus / Telstra duopoly period has not yet resulted in reasonable pricing of data transmission, and in particular the ISDN capability needed for effective use of network services such as the World Wide Web. There are few signs at present of sensible arrangements regarding compatible technologies in the home to enable integrated access to both interactive use of Internet based multimedia and broadband developments such as Pay TV and video on demand services based on cable roll out and satellite access.


Reaching the goal of an Australia which is more educated, more competitive, more informed, more supportive of diversity and those in need and simply more democratic, through improved use of network services, will not be easy. Widespread public use of interactive multimedia is likely to be crucially linked to government initiatives affecting the roll out of public network access, the extent to which this can also act as an incentive for network and stand alone multimedia capability in homes (Perhaps driven by school level education developments), government leadership, in itself using interactive networking as a means of improving delivery of government services, and releasing to a much wider potential audience the many treasures of the cultural institutions.

But the existing initiatives of the Commonwealth Government are not as yet underpinned by clear strategy for the Government's own use of electronic information and networking. Several of the States, notably Victoria, South Australia and Queensland, have made considerable progress towards the integration of policy objectives for government information involvement. With the establishment of an external advisory body to the Commonwealth, the National Information Services Council, overall communications and information policy development within the Department of Communications and the Arts, a cross-government planning mechanism in the Government Information Services Policy Board (GISPB), and the appointment of a Chief Government Information Officer supported by an Office of Government Information Technology, there now exists for the first time mechanisms capable of more coordinated Commonwealth Government policy in this area.

The GISPB has before it the first draft of a blueprint document "Framework and Strategies for Information Technology in the Commonwealth of Australia" and has established an Information Management Steering Committee to coordinate government information access. But until these mechanisms actually result in changes in behaviour across Government and between the Commonwealth and the States, it is likely that the very substantial investments in communications and information technologies by Australian governments, including the higher education and school sectors, will not assure the longer term public benefits that might result from a clearer focus on public objectives, backed up by effective mechanisms for achieving change. Electronic networking and interactive multimedia have much to offer in the economy, in culture, in education and in equity objectives. It is essential that the recent flow of government interest in this area now be carried through to in embedding use of these technologies throughout our communities. It is up to all of us to see that the chance is not wasted. To quote Mitch Kapor "it's all ones and zeros folks - and acts of faith".

Author: Eric Wainwright
Deputy Director-General
National Library of Australia

Please cite as: Wainwright, E. (1996). Networked government services: Emerging Australian policies and development. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Proceedings of the Third International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 38-45. Perth, Western Australia, 21-25 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1996/ry/wainwright.html

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