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RSS 2.0

Government in the age of Web 2.0

By Nicholas Gruen - posted Tuesday, 11 October 2011


For the uninitiated what is now retrospectively dubbed Web 1.0, was a platform for point to point communication by e-mail and hub - between websites and their visitors.

Web 2.0 now permits collaboration between all and sundry. Thus, if you visit Wikipedia or Facebook you can read what's there, but you can also find, converse and collaborate with others.

The world is full of hype about the web. I think one needs to pick one's way through this hype with exceeding care. But I too have found myself an awed hype merchant. Let me give you a very simple example of just one extraordinary phenomenon of Web 2.0 – the Twitter hashtag. Since the ABC's program Q&A, I've imagined that everyone knows what a Twitter hashtag is. Yet I discovered when speaking to an entire meeting of agency heads and deputies in one state government portfolio recently, that none knew what it was.

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The hashtag is simply a string of letters or other symbols prefaced by the hash sign. Twitter allows anyone to view all tweets that contain a hashtag that they nominate.

Now consider for a moment how extraordinary that is. The existence of the hashtag enables anyone, anywhere in the world to tune into a conversation as it occurs. This might not impress you much, but it might if you were a tin pot dictator whose rule the hashtag has just rendered more precarious, or even redundant. It might if you were a resident in Christchurch the day after the earthquake had struck as volunteers around the world sifted through tweets carrying the hashtag #eqnz.

For two hours after the quake, New Zealander Tim McNamara in Wellington had enlisted Crisis Commons volunteers around the world to sift through the 300,000 odd tweets carrying the hashtag to identify the 15,000 odd that contained vital information – like which gas stations still had diesel, which pharmacies still had insulin.

What we saw happening in the case of the Christchurch earthquake was the assembly of a made-to-measure global public good whipped up like a Masterchef dessert. It was initiated by a single person with the knowhow and inclination to contribute to the greater good. But that person's contribution could be massively leveraged because we are now in a new age of public goods.

The internet itself is a classic public good from the economic textbook – government funded, and available to all on equal terms. Yet a few decades later the backbone that is the internet now houses a massive collection of public resources and virtually none of that was government funded.

On top of industry agreed standards and the hardware that we supply when we connect to the internet are a host of free public goods that perform incredibly specific information tasks. Platforms like Google, Twitter, Facebook and Wikipedia. I spent some time at the commencement of the Taskforce pointing out that none of these Web 2.0 platforms – none of these public goods – had been built by governments. Then I realised that even with existing computer companies like Microsoft scouring the world for the Next Big Thing with multi-billion dollar coffers, not one major Web 2.0 platform was built by an existing organisation. They were virtually all founded by one or two entrepreneurs – some for profit, some from philanthropic drive, though as the Google motto 'don't be evil' suggests, most have some mix of both.

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Economics teaches that the provision of public goods is a problem. Why? People won't build public goods because they advantage everyone. Except that Tim McNamara and hundreds of people around the world wanted to help out and we had the technology to let them.

So one way of taking on board the import of Web 2.0 is to recognise that it has changed the game of many public goods from being a problem for our species to being one of its most exciting opportunities. The task for Government 2.0 is at the very least to get out of the way of such endeavours but preferably to adapt the culture and practices of government to embrace those opportunities.

If Tim McNamara was a Government 2.0 entrepreneur sitting outside government, there are plenty within government. As the Government 2.0 Taskforce sat, a cadre of such entrepreneurs made themselves known to me. But not only were they not getting any help or recognition, their life was being made more difficult.

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This is an edited version of the 2011 David Solomon lecture.



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About the Author

Dr Nicholas Gruen is CEO of Lateral Economics and Chairman of Peach Refund Mortgage Broker. He is working on a book entitled Reimagining Economic Reform.

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