When William Eggers wrote his landmark book, Government 2.0, in 2005, he predicted that governments around the world would have to embrace the information age, abandoning industrial age management concepts of hierarchy, specialization and control in favour of openness, collaboration and community. The growing interest in, and acceptance of, Web 2.0 strategies and tools not only validates Eggers’ prediction, it holds the potential to become a truly transformative force.
That transition to a more interactive form of government is already underway as agencies begin to leverage this newfound capability. For example, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, in an attempt to deal with an overwhelming backlog of patent applications and pressure from the hi-tech industry, agreed to pilot a wiki – a Web page or site that allows anyone to contribute – that would allow citizens to comment on prior art. This is the first time in the more than 100-year history of the USPTO that citizens have been able to directly share input on patent applications. Moreover, the wiki provides patent officers with access to intellectual capital from around the world.
Similarly, the District of Columbia has put the procurement of a police evidence warehouse online, with the bidders conference available on YouTube.
This trend extends to sensitive government areas formerly thought to be off limits to such openness. The Central Intelligence Agency’s Intellipedia wiki is available to any intelligence employee with classified clearance. It facilitates more efficient and rapid cross-agency collaboration and analysis, and has already proven its worth in high-profile situations. For example, when New York Yankees player Corey Lidle accidentally crashed his private plane into a Manhattan apartment building in 2006, CIA analysts used Intellipedia to rapidly pool their efforts and conclude that it was not a terrorist act.
Other governments around the world are creating wikis to obtain citizen input to proposed legislation; mashing-up information to map everything from traffic congestion to disaster relief and creating inter-agency collaborative sites in an effort to eliminate decades-old information fiefdoms.
The key advantage of this new generation of online tools and processes lies in its transparency. Because a wider range of stakeholders can view and be involved in the process, the government benefits from significantly improved levels of participation. It’s difficult for anyone to ignore, which in turn helps fuel the transformation.
For governments asking why they need to move to a Web 2.0 environment in the first place, the answer is simple: the world around government is changing. This is what it means for government leaders:
1. To be relevant you have to be connected. The Pew Research Center, a leading opinion research group, tells us that 33 percent of young Internet users have rated the performance of people, products or services, making this group a powerful force in setting consumer opinions. Facebook, with 70 million subscribers, is the sixth-busiest website on the planet and a hotbed of activity for new, interactive applications. Social networking is also going mobile: over half of Research In Motion’s two million new subscribers in the last quarter were from the consumer market. This reinforces how rapidly citizens are moving online. U.S. newspaper companies have lost approximately 30-40 percent of their market value in the past three years as consumers flock to online information sources and advertisers follow. Since governments need to be in contact with citizens to be effective, they must enter the online world. This means much more than the “one-window” strategy of e-government, where it was assumed that citizens would come to government. Now, government needs to go where citizens are meeting – online.
2. Historically successful solutions are no longer adequate. Web 2.0 is about Internet speed in communications, collaboration and performance. It’s about open source solutions and transparency of information. The State of Louisiana has combined Google Earth-based mapping technology with digital aerial photos and other data to create a statewide mapping capability that supports emergency response and disaster relief. This was completed with online community participation and minimal software licensing costs. The new IT world is about leveraging, networking and connecting – a process that extends far beyond earlier attempts at complex, holistic solutions. The U.S. federal government’s approach of “letting a thousand flowers bloom” reflects the new order.
3. Everyone’s an intermediary. In today’s world of bloggers and information services, government’s approach to information sharing needs to change. Whether it is private firms such as Earth911.org or Nature.com that provide public services or grass roots communities and soccer moms that are spearheading involvement, governments need to understand the communities that serve as conduits of information for the public. Agencies are also relying on these tools to raise the level of conversation with their customers. The Toronto Transit Commission, for example, is using feedback from transit users frustrated by the lack of customized trip guidance to implement changes to its 10-year-old website. Local bloggers solicit input on behalf of the TTC, which the Commission subsequently incorporates into plans for the next major version of its site. This partnership allows the TTC to provide real-time information on service delays and help disabled users schedule trips online. Future services will include personalized maps to help riders get to their chosen destination.
4. Local is global (and vice versa). Avian flu, SARS, the war on terror, cyber-threats, financial meltdowns and a host of other concerns are both local and global in nature. The new generation of online tools can help governments collaborate on a global stage. Many of the challenges that societies face today have global origins and implications. Government leaders need to collaborate on a global scale if they are to be effective in addressing local concerns. For example, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is using its Evolution of Security blog to encourage communication between the TSA and passengers. By sharing background on the complex and rapidly changing security regulations in place at the nation’s airports, the agency makes its processes more transparent and maximizes the potential for compliance. The website also allows the TSA to more easily act on suggestions from travelers to improve workflow and increase security.
Overcoming fear of the unknown
Government leaders who are embracing Web 2.0 strategies and tools consistently say that the biggest hurdle to further adoption is fear of the unknown. Normally when governments embark on what they see as transformational changes, they begin with extensive planning, massive budget submissions and lengthy approval processes. This has the advantage, or perhaps illusion, of providing comfort that most of the unknowns have been considered and the risks mitigated.
Web 2.0 solutions don’t offer or require the lengthy pre-planning periods of traditional information technology projects. They can be up and running for little cost. But they are transparent and citizen acceptance can’t be predicted or contained in the way that e-government portals have been in the past. Governments will have to evolve their expectations accordingly if the resulting radically different interactive landscape is to survive and thrive.
At the same time, these are not unguided or unmanaged citizen interactions. Rather, they are intended to complement and support other more tradition