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Charcoal Factory a Black Mark on NSW Information Policy

By Karin Geiselhart - posted Saturday, 15 March 2003

The charcoal factory proposed for Canberra's playground on the south coast offers a local and current example of the best and worst features of the emerging information society. On the one hand, a community coalition is volunteering their time and effort to produce an integrated, useful and rich information source. On the other, the NSW government web site, partly funded by south coast ratepayers, returns 'no matches' for silicon factory or plant, charcoal factory or plant, or Broulee. For Mogo, there is one link to a health service.

This is a story of two technologies: one is empowering, decentralised, user-friendly and responsive to citizen needs. The other technology is glossy but cumbersome, lacking in transparency, and quite divorced from the democratic process.

Do we have a right to expect technology in the year 2002 to deliver a 'democratic dividend'? If so, in what ways can information and online engagement help to make government not just more efficient and cost-effective, but qualitatively better and more accountable?


This does not mean overlooking the considerable problems of the digital divide. Of course, many people do not have online access, and do not want to spend time before an often confusing computer. But it is more productive to take a broader framework for online government and the information policy that underpins it. Other electronic communications are well-integrated in our lives. The telephone didn't kill dinner parties and back fence chats, and television isn't the sole reason for changes in family structure. All technology initially fits into existing values and patterns of interaction. From this new patterns and interactions can arise that can transform relations and structures in unpredictable ways. The key driver is always shared values.

How well does government technology support the values of democracy? As citizens, whether on or off line, we would probably like extensive background information on important issues, such as the proposed charcoal factory. This helps create informed views. Many of us would also like to influence the decision making process. We would like to know when key decisions are being made, and on what criteria. Beyond that, we benefit from knowing what others are thinking and saying, so we can consider different perspectives and possibilities. Having a public record of what the public is saying is a value-adding form of transparency that can breed accountability. If the chorus of voices says 'no', and the government proceeds, there is arguably something wrong with the democratic process. And of course, 'state' issues that don't consider 'local' wishes breech a key tenet of democracy: sovereignty. In theory we would choke before letting Washington call the shots, in practice globalisation facilitates exactly this.

There is really not much to report on the NSW government provision of information about the charcoal factory. One activist laughed and said she wouldn't even bother to look there. But electronic democracy is my research area, and my email tray is full of best practice examples and initiatives from all over the world on how electronic communications are changing our expectations of government.

It was therefore startling to look at the NSW government web site and draw repeated blanks on how and where to send a submission, even though they hadn't closed yet. Only after several calls to Sydney was I able to find out where to send this. Nor is there any indication of the various departments and processes involved. I was unsure whether this was an issue to do with forestry, planning, environment, business, energy or regional issues. These departmental web sites also have no information about this issue. An officer in the deputy premier's department would only say that the guidelines for consultation and information had been followed. But in a turnabout of the digital divide issue, it doesn't help a resident of Canberra if the plans are on display in a library in Moruya. As a ratepayer there, I am disenfranchised from knowing, and thus participating.

After more phone calls, someone from forestry agreed to send me some files about the issue, but I could not discover why these weren't posted on the web site. The web site gives no indication of the complexity of the approval process, or the timing. Apparently, even hard copies of the Environmental Impact Statement are no longer available for purchase, much less electronically. Nor is the NSW government making the 1500 submissions on this issue available for all to see and search. They have announced that all but a small handful were negative. But we are unable to communicate with our fellow citizens about this, and are kept in isolation by a government charged with facilitating democratic decision making. Finding out the details of the energy pricing, road maintenance contributions, or any concessions government may be negotiating is even more difficult.

The community web site ( is a sharp contrast. It offers news, a site map, a full list of documents for download, information about the companies involved, and people to contact. There are also details on an array of issues relating to the project, such as wastes, jobs, water, transport, etc. There is a mailing list for keeping up to date, offering precious two-way communications. The site is simple, clear, easy to use, and updated regularly. From a citizen perspective, it looks like the community sector is 'carrying the can' on democratic information and engagement.


Some information is only accessible by expert searching, such as company backgrounds or financing arrangements. Admittedly there would be commercial in confidence considerations. However, the charcoal will be used to produce silicon, and this element is of increasing importance to modern, technology-driven warfare. How can we be assured that our beautiful coastal environment will not be damaged for the sake of even greater destruction elsewhere? This goes beyond 'not in my backyard' parochialism, and reaches to the heart of our responsibilities in a highly interdependent global environment. There is no escaping the mutualism of democratic governance: our elected officials are accountable to us, but we are also accountable for the actions of our governments. We need to know what our government is condoning. This means we should know the end purchasers of this product, and the uses to which it will be put.

Queensland and Victoria have announced e-democracy initiatives that will hopefully lift the game for all Australian governments. But rhetoric about e-government has to be matched by a commitment to openness and true empowerment. There is a long history which indicates technology use is driven by dominant values. It is a metaphor and a mirror for the accepted patterns of decision making.

The hype which surrounded the dot com mania resembled other techno-utopian infatuations. When radio was invented, educational stations sprang up and thrived with a vision of delivering information to their communities. But the lobbyists for the advertising industry prevailed, and the radio spectrum was largely privatised. Cable TV was also heralded as a boon to local communities. Some claimed it would allow greater local input and dialogue. Email's turn came in the 1980s, when it was still mostly limited to organisational applications. Then, some serious researchers claimed that because it reduced social cues, it made the workplace more egalitarian. The glow didn't last, as it became obvious that in real world situations the social and hierarchical structures determined who got to say what to who.

Today the role of the collection of technologies known as the Internet is hotly debated. Can we become a global village, using computers to expand accountable governance beyond the national borders? Or is the Internet to become a cesspool where the worst human vices are cultivated through communication with sick puppies everywhere?

Every week one government or another announces a new e-government strategy. We are told in glowing terms of the ways in which new technologies will streamline government service delivery, and make it easier to find essential information. And often, these strategies do result in better access to essential services. But efforts to use these technologies in the policy process are relatively recent. As a public servant my suggestions to provide better information about the policy process were greeted with disdain. Sincere efforts to seek better governance require money and an open, iterative approach to improvement. There are ample indications, including the charcoal factory, that good government may be expensive, but bad government is unaffordable.

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An edited version of this article was published in the Canberra Times February 25, 2002 (page 11).

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About the Author

Dr Karin Geiselhart has a Phd in electronic democracy and did post-doctoral research on e-business. Formerly a journalist in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, she has also lectured at the Australian National University in electronic marketing. Currently she is an Al Gore Ambassador for climate change, and involved in green property development and community green entrepreneurial activities.

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