Communication
May 7, 2012

Counting to 2.0

CGE Vol. 14 No.5 May 2008

You may be a generalist, you may be a CIO, you may even be the Deputy Minister. Regardless, you’re always in search of strategic templates to keep the ship of state afloat in your shop – or at least a few odds and sods to help you build one.

And if you’re even remotely grappling with e-government and such, there’s a pretty fair collection of those odds and sods freely available on the Internet (at www.gartner.com/it/page.jsp?id=509938). It’s courtesy of Andrea Di Maio, a Deep Thinking vice-president at the research behemoth Gartner Inc., and it affords a useful perspective on the much abused notion of transformation.

You’re doubtless familiar with the notion of transformation in this context. Its evangels have been preaching the word for the better part of 15 years, ever since a few farsighted folk at Industry Canada laid SchoolNet on a nation that was just barely equipped to appreciate what it was getting.

SchoolNet was followed by an explosion of departmental and agency websites at all levels of government. Some were good, some weren’t, but all – even the aggressively interactive, like the Canada Revenue Agency – were in some sense a cyber version of traditional paperwork-and-office operations. Or, put another way, they were perfect expressions of Web 1.0.

Now, though, Web 2.0 is upon us, and the likes of Andrea Di Maio have a lot to say about it. Like:
·     The one-stop shop that has been the notional goal of electronic service delivery in the public sector is actually a transitory phase, sitting between simple information websites and a brave new world in which government “collaborates” with “specialized intermediaries.” Those intermediaries could be banks, or search engines, or community centres, or retail monsters like eBay, or – anywhere that people go on the web. The point is to connect with them where they live, defining them in the first instance not as citizens but, right, as people.
·     The collaborative side of Web 2.0 means reinforcements for, by way of example, government caseworkers, who suddenly have access to a larger “community of problem solvers.” Ditto, on the technology side, for IT organizations and application developers.
·     Web 2.0 has enormous potential to free the policy process from the silo-driven discipline of departments and agencies. Internal wikis can involve more thinkers, from more perspectives, more quickly than the most adventurous exercises in traditional, desk-bound, interdepartmental collaboration.

All that (and much more) being said, Di Maio is skeptical about some aspects of Web 2.0. He sees little potential in, for example, its “public-facing” side; blogs, wikis, Facebook and other staples of 2.0 are enormously useful, but mostly internally, as a means of getting the best work out of the most public servants.

He acknowledges the potential value of Web 2.0 tools in public consultation – a dimension that continues to attract those with interests on the digital democracy side of e-government. But, he ruefully adds in a podcast accompanying his presentation, “you never know what you’re going to get out of a given consultation.” That’s a clear reference to the disposition of assorted cranks who hijack legitimate consultation projects, a problem which shows no signs of early resolution.

Di Maio also wants public sector managers to understand the implications of Web 2.0 in terms of architecture. They’re enormous, he says; 2.0 will often mean open source software, and in any event will sometimes depend on the creative use of mashups with enterprises located outside government.

Then there are the “social and business threats” of 2.0, including but not restricted to:
·     Revenue loss. How do you tax virtual wealth? What about cross-border taxation in borderless cyberspace?
·     Legal issues. Who’s responsible for a given instance of identity theft? What about criminal avatars? Privacy infringement?
·     Relevance. How do you keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen peer-to-peer? What do you do with government sites dogged by consistently low ratings?

Speaking of which, Di Maio happily borrows from the private sector with a plea for ratings systems on public sector websites. Amazon does it, he says, and so does eBay. Why can’t government?

Not a question for the ages, perhaps. But for the age of 2.0 – bang on.

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