The public service in a Wikileaks world - Part 2

To begin to understand the significance of Wikileaks for the public service we need to understand the dynamic at work. It is all to easy to fall into the trap of simply taking one side or the other - which pretty well sums of the behaviour of the institutional players so far.


And what better way to do that than look at some of what has been said.


“To radically shift regime behavior we must think clearly and boldly for if we have learned anything, it is that regimes do not want to be changed. We must think beyond those who have gone before us, and discover technological changes that embolden us with ways to act in which our forebears could not. Firstly we must understand what aspect of government or neocorporatist behavior we wish to change or remove. Secondly we must develop a way of thinking about this behavior that is strong enough carry us through the mire of politically distorted language, and into a position of clarity. Finally must use these insights to inspire within us and others a course of ennobling, and effective action.” From Julian Assange, “State and Terrorist Conspiracies”


"If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face -- forever." From George Orwell, "1984"


"This is democracy's Napster moment, the point at which the forms of governance that have evolved over 200 years of industrial society prove wanting in the face of the network, just as the business models of the recording industry were swept away by the ease with which the internet could transmit perfect digital copies of compressed music files." From A world after Wikileaks


"Relying on behaviour management techniques, libertarian paternalism aims to manipulate people into making choices that the powers that be consider ‘right’. Nudging people towards the ‘right direction’ has as its premise the idea that people lack the moral and intellectual resources to know what is in their interest." From Liberal paternalism gets public and private the wrong way around


"This idea that Assange is the great revealer of "hidden truths", like Moses descending the mountain with the commandments or Jesus offering pearls of wisdom on a hilltop, is widespread in the liberal media." From Left bows down to false WikiLeaks prophet


OK first to Julian Assange and Wikileaks. The key point here is that Assange, like many others, is an information activist. Add to that their technical background and what you really have is a bunch of people who understand how systems work and the important role of information in society. It work something like this:

  • Society is a system
  • We live in an information age
  • Therefore information needs to flow freely so that society can function
  • Individuals shape society through the use of information
  • Therefore information has to be accessible to all

And what is the tendency of existing regimes in society? To lock up information. In essence this is the 'government and neocorporatist behaviour' Assange is concerned about. And to see the consequences of that behaviour one only has to check out, for example, Collateral Murder - Wikileaks - Iraq


Consequently, the disclosure of information is a weapon. A weapon for social good and and weapon to change government and neocorporatist behaviours. In short regime change.

While the language used by Assange might seem strange at first the logic certainly stacks up from a systems perspective. Moreover, it certainly makes sense given the role of the internet and social media in society. It would be wrong, of course, to ignore the moral dimension to all this. How can citizens in democratic societies make informed decisions if information is hidden from them. Such practices encourage appalling practices and behaviours. Wikileaks has proven that.


The emotive reaction of politicians from various sides of politics is quite understandable. They do not want to change and are terrified that they will loose moral authority over their citizens.


And if left unchecked? That's where you start to contemplate the Orwellian nightmare of 'a boot stomping on a human face -- forever.'


And why didn't governments see this coming? That's where 'democracy's Napster moment' kicks in. Or to be more precise governments were caught napping. The reason for this, I suspect, is that for all the good work that has been carried out in relation to Gov 2.0 at heart governments see the driving technology - social media - as a communications channel.


Traditionally communications channels are used to influence and control citizens. To put it bluntly, many politicians and leaders just don't understand the role of the internet and social media in society. And the proof of this is, I suggest, is the fact that governments increasingly rely on manipulating 'people into making choices that the powers that be consider ‘right’. It might seem cynical, but this goes some way to explaining the increasing expenditure on communications campaigns.


So in terms of Wikileaks actions and subsequent storm of media and political activity Julian Assange and Wikileaks have certainly demonstrated that they 'understand what aspect of government or neocorporatist behavior [they] wish to change or remove.'


More than that, however, their actions are more aligned with the significant social changes being brought about by the internet and social media in democratic societies. Key among these being the free flow of information, connectedness of individuals and changing expectations of citizens. The considerable support that Wikileaks is receiving is proof writ large that they have tapped into these social changes. So it is little wonder that . . . 'Assange is [being seen as] the great revealer of "hidden truths'.


Note: While Brendan O'Neill's piece in the Australian highlights an interesting phenomenon, I do not agree with his portrayal of Julian Assange as a false prophet. The fact of the matter is that Wikileaks has become a social phenomena because its' actions resonate with members of the community. Julian Assange is very much the human face of Wikileaks so the reaction of people to him is to be expected. This far and away does not mean people are stupid or being blindly swept along.


The demonstrable fact that neither our politicians, political system or the way in which we treat information has kept up with significant social change is proof writ large that 'regimes do not want to be changed'.


The challenge now is for politicians to embrace what is, in effect, a critical element of enhanced democracy and for the public servants and the departments they work for discuss what all this means for their relationship with their political masters, each other and the wider community.


So far, most of the utterances from political leaders have, predictably, focussed on threat and risk. Many leaders and practitioners active in the Gov 2.0 space have repeatedly said the biggest hurdle to Gov 2.0 is cultural change. The work of Wikileaks is far from negative. Their work provides us with an opportunity to move forward in a positive way and, quite frankly, to ensure we all have a stronger moral compass when it comes to the free flow of information.


I don't know about anyone else of course, but I think there are critical and confronting conversations to be had in 2011. I suspect the three leading questions to discuss are:


  1. How open does our society and the public service need to be in order to enhance democracy?
  2. At what point does the withholding of information impede democracy and social progress?
  3. At what point does the withholding of information encourage ethically and morally flawed behaviours and practices?

Neither the internet, social media, social change or, in one form or another, Wikileaks are going to go away. And if we don't front questions such as these we will find it increasingly hard to integrate the work of our key institutions with the very community we serve.

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Comment by steve davies on December 22, 2010 at 7:37am

Thanks Craig. Will do after Christmas. I also figure that with a bit of reframing these questions apply within departments (if not the entire public sector) so I'll be doing that as well (links nicely to aspects of my day job).


For those of you with a philosophical bent you might care to ponder The Deleuzian Philosophy of Julian Assange from Fixing the Economists. You can read about Gilles Deleuze on Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.


Whether or not one agrees with Julian Assange and Wikileaks the philosophy and practical methodology are clearly most useful. It was the process of considering that philosophy, methodology and actions of Wikilinks that, in a very real sense, led me to the three questions. So I am going to build on that in 2011.

Comment by Craig Thomler on December 21, 2010 at 9:51pm

These are great questions - would love to see them responded to over at the Gov 2.0 Futures project at as well.

Comment by Darron Passlow on December 21, 2010 at 10:12am


Bravo. This is a very intense and thought provoking piece.

I compliment you on your fortitude and stamina.

Keep up the good work and your questions (and others) will be discussed and answered in the new year and beyond; and until governments realise they need to be more open, more honest and providing a platform for true democracy.

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