The Obama administration is appointing “Directors of New Media” for most agencies, to develop Web 2.0 strategies, and more open, online government. The U.K. government is proving to be similarly aggressive. Indeed, 2009 is a pivotal time across the pond.
The year began with the release of a wide-ranging report on Digital Britain produced by a special task force that was led by Lord Stephen A. Carter, Minister for Communications, Technology & Broadcasting. Taking a broad perspective on all sectors in Great Britain, the findings sketch out what Business Secretary Peter Mandelson described as “a strategy for building a knowledge economy where our most valuable assets are the skills and innovation that underpin our digital industries.” The report stresses the importance of universal broadband Internet access and the need for a model public service to partake in and help accelerate digital development in terms of both service and democracy.
Spurred by this review and the growing enthusiasm for the potential of Web 2.0 to transform democratic engagement, the government last year created a Power of Information Task Force. Their March report calls for action in a number of key areas affecting public sector participation in the digital domain including better sharing and usage of public sector information and new ways to consult the public.
In welcoming this report almost immediately, the government released a follow-up strategy later the same month, “Working Together,” which states: “The Government welcomes the task force’s vision, accepts its overall messages and will be responding with detailed recommendations shortly.” The government further promises to deliver on four objectives in 2009, namely the fostering of:
- more open information;
- more open innovation;
- more open discussion; and
- more open feedback.
With such political backing, U.K. officials have forged ahead in the development of a detailed strategy to guide the public service in its usage of new media. Nick Jones, the director of Interactive Services in the Central Office of Information, points to a widening platform of Web 2.0 experimentation aimed at both internal and external constituencies. Recognizing the tensions between the traditional government communications apparatus and the more open and consultative ethos of social media, Jones and his colleagues work with departments and agencies across the public sector to support new technological platforms, business models and human competencies in order to both experiment and manage risk.
The group’s efforts are the realization of key recommendations put forth by the Power of Information Task Force that emphasize the need for the public service to become fully engaged in online governance, backed by the infrastructure, skills and training to do so.
The government has responded in kind stating that: “We will promote great engagement with the public through more interactive online consultation and collaboration. We will also empower professionals to be active in online peer-support networks in their area of work.”
These national efforts are complemented by an emphasis on e-democracy at the local level, where councils such as Bristol have fostered studies and initiatives aimed at exploiting the potential for wider democratic engagement – especially for young people. A recent report by the Local E-Democracy National Project, commissioned by the Bristol Council, explores this nexus between democratic renewal and youth engagement, providing a range of recommendations and guidelines, notably closer collaboration between schools and local governments in fostering democratic conversations.
In Canada, cities and towns are also beginning to explore Web 2.0 potential. Our model of federalism means that local initiatives are shaped by likeminded federal and provincial efforts, for better and worse. A more holistic approach to digital governance in this country – one recognizing the importance of community empowerment, bottom-up initiative and a more engaged federal government – are urgently needed before we can once again claim to be at the forefront of e-government.
Jeffrey Roy is Associate Professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University (firstname.lastname@example.org).