One of the primary tasks assigned to the Government 2.0 Taskforce is to find ways for Government to use Web 2.0 tools to consult and collaborate with the public. At first blush, this sounds simple. It’s easy to point to dozens of innovative, cheap and practical Web 2.0 apps that could be employed to improve interaction between government and citizens. However, while Web 2.0 has lowered technical barriers to communication, there are still a series of just as significant social barriers that remain.
As we’ve learnt from previous Australian online consultation trials, Web 2.0 is great at aggregating an enormous number of individual contributions. It enables thousands of people to publicly have their say. However, Web 2.0 can’t turn Ministers into omniscient beings able to conduct thousands of simultaneous conversations. Further, there are both physical and professional limits to the capacity for public servants or political staffers to engage in these conversations as representatives of the Minister. While Web 2.0 has provided the technology for the public to have its say, social limitations remain that prevent it from being heard.
Government needs to learn new skills to be able to effectively listen to the public via Web 2.0. In particular, it needs to learn that the key to listening in the Web 2.0 world is to focus to the community, not individuals. If there’s no functioning community to sort and moderate the contributions aggregated by Web 2.0 technologies, it will be impossible for government to digest this information.
The good news is that if government creates an environment that allows them to emerge, there are likely to be viable communities of interest across the gamut of the Commonwealth’s activities. To quote NYU academic and Web 2.0 darling, Clay Shirky:
Every webpage is a latent community. Each page collects the attention of people interested in its contents, and those people might well be interested in conversing with one another, too. In almost all cases the community will remain latent, either because the potential ties are too weak … or because the people looking at the page are separated by too wide a gulf of time, and so on. But things like the comments section on Flickr allow those people who do want to activate otherwise-latent groups to at least try it.
People who interact with government via the web often have strong interests in the subject matter of the government website that they share with others using the site. Someone applying for a licence from the government may rely on this interaction for their livelihood. Citizens looking at a niche area of government regulation may share an in-depth knowledge of the subject. If they had the opportunity to talk to each other over a period of time, these common interests might sustain an on-going community.
Where an environment has been provided in which they can form, communities of this kind have emerged in the most unlikely of places. For instance, one of the most successful examples of government online community building was the US Transportation Security Administration blog which successfully activated latent communities revolving around travel security requirements and the administration of different airports. Once established, these communities can be extremely valuable sources of User Innovation, Eric von Hippel’s brilliant and increasingly important model of bottom up innovation.
However, these latent communities won’t become active unless government actively creates an environment that encourages their emergence. Unfortunately, as Steven Clift (the Founder of E-Democracy.Org) points out in his contribution to the Personal Democracy Forum’s fantastic Rebooting Democracy series, government is currently not very good at this:
Government websites don’t have sidewalks, newspaper racks, public hearing rooms, hallways or grand assemblies. There are no public forums or meeting places in the heart of representative democracy online … The typical e-government experience is like walking into a barren room with a small glass window, a singular experience to the exclusion of other community members. There is no human face, just a one-way process of paying your taxes, registering for services, browsing the information that the government chooses to share, or leaving a private complaint that is never publicly aired. You have no ability to speak with a person next to you much less address your fellow citizen browsers as a group.
If the government wants to effectively listen to the public via Web 2.0, it needs to find ways to allow these “fellow citizen browsers” to collaborate with each other and form on-going communities of interest. Luckily, it’s not in uncharted waters here. We already know a lot about how these communities can be nurtured from the experiences of the business and community sectors. In fact, the recently released First Report (PDF 1.51MB) of the Smart Services CRC “Social Media: tools for User-Generated Content” project (partly supported by my employer, Telstra) would provide an excellent starting point to inform government efforts at community building.
It’s all too easy to get caught up in the “cool” factor of Web 2.0. The potential of the technology is so amazing that sometimes we can forget that at the end of the day, it’s still people on either end of the tubes. It’s important to remember that Web 2.0 is all about people. As Michael Wesch has said, “The Machine is Us”. The Government 2.0 Taskforce could do worse than to follow the lead of one of the great political campaigners of our time and hang a sign in the group’s (virtual) war room constantly bringing it back to this fundamental theme. It could read: It’s the Community, Stupid!
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