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How Web 2.0 Can Reinvent Government

By Paula Klein  |  Posted 04-01-2008 Print

Innovation expert Anthony Williams says the Web offers the public sector tremendous opportunities to transform service delivery, make smarter policies, flatten silos and reinvigorate government.   

pagebreak title = 'Governance Webs'}

Define the phrase "governance Webs" and the role you see them having on societies.

Williams: The first decade of e-government was about moving services online and creating a single-window access where citizens could visit one Web portal to file their taxes, renew a driver's license or review their Social Security account.

It's no longer sufficient to simply provide one-stop shopping for government services. Single-window services constitute one-way information flows to the citizen. In today's social-media environment, these one-way conversations fail to build credibility and trust in government. More importantly, they fail to harness the knowledge, skills and resources that could be tapped by government by using a more collaborative approach to service delivery and policy-making.

Traditional structures of government--typically top-down hierarchical models and silo approaches--are being called into question. They're just not as compelling as they once were. With the new, function-rich infrastructure of Web 2.0, government no longer needs to work on its own to provide public value.

The Web provides a mechanism for collaboration between any combination of public agencies, the private sector, community groups and citizens. We call these networks governance Webs, or G-Webs. These G-Webs will deliver or perform activities that were once the exclusive domain of a single public agency or institution, thereby providing greater value and lower cost to the customers of government, and more engagement for the owners of government: the public.

G-Webs work because most organizations struggle to adjust to the pace of change and the complexity of the issues they face. Policy-makers are under pressure to respond to climate change, for example, and this has heightened the need to work in close collaboration with the business community and nongovernmental organizations.

The challenge in creating G-Webs is that there's enormous institutional rigidity. We won't see profound change overnight, but over time, there's an opportunity to change the division of labor in society. Governments will ask: "What is the best way to divide labor for the public good?"

What has been your research's biggest revelation?

Williams: The eagerness and enthusiasm for change runs all through the public sector--from the rank and file to senior leadership. They want to make changes, and there's excitement about Web 2.0 technology. We also were surprised by the number of efforts under way at the grass-roots level--especially by young people who are coming into public service hungry to make changes and sometimes have an opportunity to drive the agenda.

The Net generation's lifelong exposure to digital technologies has given them an intuitive grasp of how collaborative tools and processes can make organizations more innovative, agile and responsive. That being said, they often are dismayed to discover that many of the applications and devices they're accustomed to using in their personal lives are not available professionally. In some cases, young government professionals have organized their own ad hoc communities that transcend departmental and organizational boundaries using blogs, wikis and social networking tools.

Not everyone agrees that these nascent networks are a good idea. We hear about a lot of enterprising, under-the-radar efforts getting stamped out by senior managers who cite concerns about data security, legal constraints or fears that sensitive information could leak out to the public. This will have to change if governments are going to alter the perception that they are overly rigid and out-of-step with the rest of the world. Indeed, the ability to recruit young people into the public sector will depend on it.


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