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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.   

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Can Web 2.0 technologies live up to these promises and scale to a national level?

Williams: Software developers have already figured out how to scale up collaboration technologies to support global business enterprises, so I see no reason why Web 2.0 could not support hundreds of thousands of people in a real-time policy debate. Security is rightfully a concern, but the lesson from early corporate adopters is that security can be addressed if Web 2.0 applications are brought behind the firewall.

E-voting may eventually have its place among a variety of digital engagement tools, but there are hurdles to jump. One is reliable identity management: How can we be sure that Citizen X is who he says he is? In the United Kingdom, there's an e-petitions process on the prime minister's Web site that allows citizens to organize petitions and add their signatures electronically. In 2007, one petition against a government road-pricing proposal attracted 1.8 million signatures, but it's not certain that they were from 1.8 million unique individuals.

For citizens, Web 2.0 tools offer an opportunity to get more engaged in the process of governing. Over the last half-century, we've seen a gradual drop-off in the level of political participation, such as declining voter turnouts, less engagement in civic organizations and so forth.

On the positive side, the 2008 U.S. election seems to be galvanizing the population in ways that we haven't seen in decades. What's particularly encouraging is that Barack Obama seems to have brought a lot of young people into the political process. My hope is that all citizens will flex their democratic muscles. Rather than being passive spectators, they will become genuine participants in democracy.

On a big-picture scale, what does it mean to society when organizations use Web 2.0 technologies?

Williams: Web 2.0 technology isn't a silver bullet, and it will not deliver world peace. But the upside is that Web 2.0 provides a platform for bringing different stakeholders together to have discussions and forge alliances. Resource scarcity and religion, among other things, will still divide people, but I'm optimistic that Web tools will allow people to share ideas on issues such as how to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Communities committed to solving these problems are springing up to coordinate the efforts of people and organizations around the world.

On the other hand, terrorists use the same tools to inflict massive damage. Technology is widely available in a free society, and I'm afraid there's no putting the genie back in the bottle. The military has long recognized that the best way to fight a terrorist network is with a networked response. We'll have no hope of confronting organizations like al-Qaida if we throw up walls and limit communications across countries. Defeating terrorism will require unprecedented collaboration and information-sharing across national and organizational boundaries.

Are you being overly optimistic about how quickly Web 2.0 will take hold in government?

Williams: You can't expect radical change too fast. Governments are large, complex beasts subject to a number of constraints. In fact, the institutions of democratic government were deliberately designed to induce stability and prevent radical change. Stability can be quite healthy, but implementing change is difficult and onerous when deep and resilient traditions combine to frustrate progress.

It will take five, 10 and perhaps even 20 years for these changes to take place. But in the short term, we can demonstrate that G-Web models in government are possible, healthy and have good outcomes. Leaders who adopt them will distinguish themselves.

We've arrived at an important moment in history. Governments can play an active, positive role in their own transformation, or change will be imposed upon them. The transformation process will be exhilarating and sometimes painful, but the price of inaction is a lost opportunity for government to redefine its role in what could be a new golden age of democracy.

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