Web 2.0 & Government – Helping us to Just Do It!

“With the adoption of social computing and social media by citizens under the age of 25 already exceeding 75 percent, government organizations now need to plan and implement initiatives to engage and service the citizens of today and tomorrow.” This is a statement taken from “Leveraging Web 2.0 in Government,” a recently released paper published by the IBM Center for The Business of Government that summarizes the results of a study undertaken by Ai-Mei Chang and P.K. Kannan. The study, which focused on understanding social computing, developing the framework, understanding citizen perceptions, and figuring out how to measure engagement and effectiveness, came up with the following findings:

• Government needs to meet citizens where they are online.
• Citizens are willing to interact with government agencies online. (enhance trust, increase transparency, increase citizen influence)
• The role of intermediaries will increase. (feels they must employ and leverage intermediaries but this decreases control)
• Government will need to rethink content and service design.
• Government will have to find ways to embed authority in its web-based services.
• Some citizens are concerned about equal access.
• Citizens trust the government with personal data but not for service efficiency.
• Government will need to measure the effectiveness of its Web 2.0 initiatives.

These findings led the researchers to develop the following recommendations:

• Just do it
• Develop a government-wide inventory of common Web 2.0 issues.
• Strategically rethink how to deliver on your mission.
• Reconfigure your Internet information and services to be more component based.
• Ensure authenticity of government information and services.
• Learn and keep an open mind.

As a government worker myself, I agree with most of the findings except for the idea that government requires an intermediary to pull off successful implementation of social media. I find it a paradox that people still spread this myth that somehow private management is better than public while all these major, private businesses continue to fail due to poor management and possibly questionable practices. How many states, counties, or cities with the same monetary value have failed and then showed up on the steps of Congress hoping for a bailout?

Another issue is that intermediaries usually have never had any experience in government and do not understand the policies, procedures, and laws under which government works. They also do not understand that the purpose of government is to serve the people in the most effective and efficient manner possible. I realize that some agencies are better at achieving this than others, but if they are ineffective or inefficient, people have an opportunity at the next election to try to remedy that. Also, unless serving as a volunteer, an intermediary is in business and therefore must be driven by profit and not the best interests of the public.

The other issue with an intermediary is the loss of trust. As pointed out by the study, people do trust government with personal information, and this trust would probably not extend to a non-government entity running the show.

Additionally, the use of an intermediary could cause people to feel someone has more control than they do. The concern expressed by people in this study about ensuring equal access reflects this. Everyone in a community wants to be considered equal. They can accept someone in government moderating because in the end they have control over that person’s participation, but once a private citizen steps into that role, they want to know “how come that person is so special?” This risks losing buy-in and participation.

Overall, the report provided important information and guidance for governments as we transition to these new methods of communicating with our constituents. I like the “Just do it” recommendation, but after talking with some other government workers, I find that is easier said than done. Even if someone in government is ready to go forward, there is a learning curve with and possibly resistance from others in their agency. We are at the threshold of drastically changing the way we do business, and not only within government. What we need now is some good promotional materials we can use to take back to others in our agencies to get everyone on board. And then we need good guidance documents with some best practices and ideas for implementation that fit within the rules, policies, procedures, and laws under which we work.