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.   

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What are some examples of G-Webs in action?

Williams: Negative press surrounding intelligence missteps prior to Sept. 11 and the Iraq War convinced leaders in the U.S. intelligence community that they needed a flatter organizational structure that would be better equipped to cooperate, coordinate and share information. The solution was Intellipedia, which is essentially the intelligence community's version of Wikipedia. It allows analysts and officials across the federal government to share information over the Web and plan operations.

About 35,000 federal employees contribute to Intellipedia, and there are some 4,800 edits made every day. It's a good example of how to use collaboration technologies to let experts pool their knowledge, form virtual teams and make quick assessments.

Politicopia is another good example of how Web 2.0 can enable more participatory and transparent policy-making. It's essentially a virtual town hall meeting that was initially developed by Utah state representative Steve Urquhart. Politicopia runs on a wiki that lets users provide input into some 30 bills that are under discussion in the state legislature. Urquhart's goals are to politically empower constituents, to encourage better dialogue in the legislature and to produce better ideas for the state.

Another quintessential G-Web example is Networked Knowledge Los Angeles, a diverse partnership of public and private organizations that empowers residents to improve their communities. The cornerstone of the project is an online tool that provides easy access to a vast collection of previously obscure public data about properties and neighborhoods facing urban decay.

Web-based tools transform this raw public data into formats that are meaningful to community residents and local policy-makers. The project looks for indicators of urban decay and plots the information on city maps posted on its Web site. Meanwhile, communities use the tools to map assets like community centers, libraries and local government offices.

Doesn't adoption also require a change in mindset?

Williams: The short answer is that most people are not ready for open-source government. There will be considerable resistance to change. A significant proportion of senior civil service is accustomed to the conventional command-and-control approach to management, and they won't change their work habits overnight. Some managers--particularly middle managers--fear that greater openness and participation in government may undermine their authority.

There's considerable skepticism about the role citizens should play in policy-making. Do they have the time and expertise to make meaningful contributions to complex policy deliberations? This debate goes back centuries. In the early 20th century, journalist Walter Lippmann questioned the competency of average citizens, comparing them to a deaf spectator in the back row. By contrast, [philosopher] John Dewey argued against "an oligarchy managed in the interests of the few" and was a proponent of greater citizen participation and democratic education. That debate continues.

What's different is that citizens now have unprecedented tools to inform themselves, to reach out to others with like interests and to organize as never before. Politicians have tools, too. There's no excuse not to use them. The infrastructure is there. It's about political will and a willingness to be open and to incorporate feedback and put it into practice. At the same time, digital communications make geography less relevant and reinforce the need to open up the policy-making process to global participation.

Governments that choose not to open up or those that fail to foster active participation in governance will eventually lose legitimacy and authority. Citizens increasingly self-organize to provide their own entertainment, media and services. Is it a stretch to imagine a self-organized open-source approach to government? Governments can either be active participants in this process or unwilling bystanders.

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