Speech by Senator the Hon Ursula Stephens

Australian Government Libraries Network Forum – Canberra

Location: Canberra

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Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet this evening, the Ngunnawal people, and pay my respects to their traditional elders, both past and present.

I note that the theme of today’s forum is Tough Times: proving you value to stay in the game. You don’t have to prove your value to me, I’m sold. I am a strong supporter of libraries and the critical work they do as knowledge managers and community institutions.

In fact, a few months ago I came and spoke at the conference of the Australian Library and Information Association, which represents the broad community of libraries in Australia. In my presentation, I spoke about how central libraries are to the government’s social inclusion agenda, providing access not only to information but also to community services that build connections between people and build social cohesion in our communities.

So it’s a pleasure to be here again to share some time with people in the library sector.

So thank you Kym for the opportunity to open your national forum this morning.

As many of you would know, as well as being the Executive Convenor of AGLIN, Kym is also the Library Manager in DEEWR.

So I would also like to make a more personal “thank you.” Because, as one of the DEEWR portfolio parliamentary secretaries, everyday I receive briefs and minutes many of which have been informed by the work of Kym’s library team.

So I’d like to thank the DEEWR library team for their important work in assisting departmental officers to provide high quality advice, which is what ministers and parliamentary secretaries like myself rely on to do our jobs. Kym, please pass on my thanks to your team.

Within Parliament House itself, we have a much-loved and highly respected library in the Parliamentary Library.

I know that there wouldn’t be a members’ or senators’ office who hasn’t many times thanked the heavens for its existence. The precision with which your librarians track down the desired information and the incisiveness with which you lay out the key points of this information, is at times daunting. Your librarians know how to get to the heart of a matter – with full referencing and end notes!

So, Roxanne, thanks to your team who have provided my office with invaluable support over the years, particularly during our time in opposition.

What these two anecdotes highlight is the central role that government libraries play in crafting government policy.

We have gone far beyond the “information age” to the “information overload age.” And we need the guidance of librarians in not only tracking down the knowledge, but also in helping us to quickly reduce it to the principle points that we need. Because librarians have antennae that are finely-tuned to discerning the veracity of documents and the integrity of different sources of information.

I know that none of this is news to you. Your strategic plan and SWOT analysis clearly recognise that the world is changing around us. And that libraries and librarians will have to continually adapt to this ever-shifting environment in order to stay relevant.

I note too that several of the sessions on today’s program reflect these themes.

So as a discussion starter to these conversations, I thought I might open today’s conference by putting forward what I think is one of the largest changes in the policy-making environment.

The election campaign of President Obama was a landmark moment in the very short history of social networking technology. Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, Flicker, Youtube, webcasting – were all used in a way that enabled the individual to be linked into and contribute to a political process in a way that we had never before seen.

It was powerful and profound – a clear demonstration that people do want to be involved in the government decisions that affect them and that this technology had encouraged and enabled that engagement.

The Australian Government has been quick to see the possibilities of these technologies for our own environment. We are a government that is intent on taking a citizen-centred approach to developing policy, we want to hear directly from people about what they need, and where and when they need it.

I often talk about “wrapping the services around the person” – referring to a new form of developing policy and delivering services that takes the individual’s needs as a starting point rather than the convenience of the delivery mechanism.

But to be effective in this, we need strong connections between government and the people – a connection that has been difficult to forge in the past, where distance and formality has generally typified the relationship between government officials and the Australian people.

Seeing the possibilities this technology holds for a new way of relating, we’ve been “early adopters”. We have a Prime Minister who tweets, we have “national conversations” with our young people via live web chats, we host un-moderated online forums – like the one DEEWR recently hosted for me around the development of a national compact between government and the non profit sector.

I found my experience of overseeing this online forum to be a fascinating one. This new way of consulting – which is un-orchestrated and allows only minimal controls – ran right up against the traditional public service ethos of risk minimisation. I decided against having a forum moderator, despite the risks, which as it turned out were nil given the constructive discussion that emerged on the forum.

This, for me, was an affirmation that most people want to engage with their government in a meaningful and constructive way about the issues that matter to them. And that because this technology enables less formal discussions to be had, it may attract people who may previously have been put off by the traditional methods of consulting, such as submission-writing and appearing at formal hearings.

The other key issue that arose out of the national compact forum was how to manage this new kind of data – data that wasn’t written submissions or hearing hansard. How were we to categorise and analyse the forum posts, and what would be the best way to capture and archive the information and make it easily accessible in the future?

This, of course, is one of the downsides of being “early adopters” – there are no examples to follow and there is an element of “making it up as you go.”

As is mentioned in your strategic report, the government has appointed the Government 2.0 working group to work through many of the issues associated with greater government use of web 2 based technology. But we will also be looking to you, as professionals in information management, to help us answer many of these questions.

Questions like: how can we capture the knowledge that emerges from these new ways of consulting and interacting with Australian citizens?

What will the protocols be for archiving, accessing and analysing the information that emerges from online forums, web chats and simultaneous video forums? And how about video comments and webcast presentations?

Working in this space demands all of you to be pioneers – not finding better solutions to old problems, but having to forge a new path, guided by proven principles, but travelling over new ground.

This will require professional development, through events such as today’s, to maintain Australia’s position as a leader in innovation during this new era of knowledge without borders.

Today’s forum is a rare opportunity for the kind of collaborative work and innovative thinking that this will require.

So I hope that you will relish this challenge and make the most of the opportunity today’s forum provides to share your ideas, think creatively and continue your role as critical supporters to the work of government.

Thank you for playing this important role, which is critical to keeping the government at the cutting edge.