If you were in or around Ottawa in mid-October, you might have caught the reincarnation of Abbie Hoffman.
It wasn’t really the late legendary icon of ‘60s counterculture, to be sure. Hoffman was being channelled by management guru Don Tapscott in an address to GTEC, the high tech conference and trade show aimed at the public sector every fall for the past 15 years.
But like Hoffman, Tapscott is given to sweeping pronouncements about the profound nature of social upheaval in our time. For Hoffman, they ran along the lines of “the key to organizing an alternative society is to organize people around what they can do, and more importantly, what they want to do.” And: “sacred cows make the tastiest hamburger.”
In fairness, Tapscott may not be quite as given as Hoffman to reverse metaphor – “free speech means the right to shout ‘theatre’ in a crowded fire” – but he nonetheless has a Hoffman-like way with the view from a million miles. “You can’t retrain, or train, or retain the Net Generation,” he told his GTEC audience. “It’s already got a sense of authority.” And: “self-organization is the new model.” And: “we need new models of citizen engagement.”
(By way of total digression, the ‘60s have been popping up all over. The White House, for instance, is occupied by a gent who famously opined, “you are either with us or against us.” That sounds like nothing so much as Black Panther extraordinaire Eldridge Cleaver, who Back In The Day taught, “you’re either part of the solution or part of the problem.” Eldridge Cleaver in the White House – who’d have thought).
In any event, what Tapscott was really doing for his attentive audience at GTEC was elaborating on where Web 2.0 might take us in all its user-generated splendor. The issue is, of course, problematic for government, where cyberspace has been pretty much a one-way extension of traditional bricks-and-mortar operations – Web 1.0, frankly.
But Tapscott was right on the money with GTEC, where 2.0 dominated seminars, workshops and corridor chat. It’s on government’s front porch, as former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed might have phrased it, and looking wistfully at the living room.
Public servants’ abiding interest in 2.0, best known for anybody-can-play “social computing” applications like Facebook, defies concerns about its obvious impact on privacy and security, not to mention its effect on the general question of just who’s in charge in the first place. “There’s a lot of concern in the public sector, particularly about the implications of taking up a model which intrinsically has less control,” muses Australian authority Eric Wood, who calls on CIOs to clearly decide what degree of control they wish to retain over 2.0 technologies and get a realistic idea of the risks involved.
Fair enough. But the world turns quickly; e-mail is sometimes shrugged off by youthful cybernauts as technology for “old people,” and social computing has even caught the attention of search engine colussus Google, which has responded with a project – OpenSocial – meant to generate new applications for any networks that choose to participate.
That’s more than enough to keep government CIOs and their staffs picking at the possibilities of Web 2.0 in a public sector context. Treasury Board Secretariat, for example, has enlisted 23 departments of the federal government to support public opinion research into the possibilities of new technologies. (Unsurprisingly, but helpfully, it appears that there are few if any expectations of government use of 2.0).
Elsewhere, even the military is interested; US warfighters now have a place, at www.troopideas.com, to swap ideas on what works and what doesn’t on the battlefront. It’s not Facebook – but it’s a page right out of the social computing handbook (or would be if such a text existed).
The US Office of Management and Budget, meanwhile, is signing IT managers on to a project dubbed Government 2.0: Wikinomics, Government and Democracy, and run by the aforementioned Tapscott. And the service network AmeriCorps, a collection of local, state and federal service programs in the US, is also taking a hard look.
That said, it’s early days. Most explorations of Web 2.0 in the public sector appear to be in the realm of internal corporate services – blogs and wikis to encourage the exchange of ideas in support of this or that program. But in government offices, where Facebook and its cousins are widely banned, that counts as one of the first steps in a journey of a thousand miles.