I have been following Don Tapscott’s ventures into government for a while, after he wrote the very successful Wikinomics. Our paths crossed a couple of times: when he gave an excellent keynote speech at a Gartner Government Summit back in 2007, and when I participated in some EU and World Bank workshop on web 2.0 and I met his former colleague and co-author Anthony Williams. Last year I also met three or four clients in Canada, Australia and Europe who had participated in one of Don’s workshops.
I have to confess I have not read his new book yet, and he may have some excellent point about government 2.0 there, but reading a recent post, I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed. He makes reference to the Obama campaign and suggests and illustrates how government leaders may effectively engage citizens:
“…Here’s how it would work. The president would say, “We’re going to have a national discussion on revitalizing our cities. It starts on Monday at noon and ends the same week on Friday at noon. Anyone can participate through the Web 2.0 discussion community we’ve set up. If you don’t have Internet access, I’ve partnered with corporations, schools, libraries, community computing centers, and shopping malls to give you access. We’ll post background papers. We’ll organize the discussion by region and also by interest groups. There’ll be a business discussion, a discussion of public transit users, and so on. As you participate in the discussion rate the ideas that you come across and the best ideas will rise to the top. I’ll participate daily and give my views. At the end of the process we’ll explore our options for further action…”
Sure, this is fascinating. The modern version of the Greek agora, where people can participate through a variety of channels, so that no citizen is left behind. Then, why am I disappointed?
Well, this assumes that government retains control of how and where the interaction and participation takes place. All it does with respect to “government 1.0″ is to open more channels (corporations, libraries, schools) and organize consultations in a more citizen-centric way. Unfortunately this does not make them citizen-driven. Look again at the description above:
- “I’ve partnered with…”implies that I (i.e. government) remain in control. Why should citizens trust this particular choice of channels? What sort of agreements are in place between government, schools, corporations, community centers? These are all established entities, which have or may have close ties with government. What if citizens want to decide their preferred channels? What if they want to speak as a single voice through a social network of choice (e.g. a group on Facebook or Google, or a completely new online community) as rather than selecting a government-approved channel as individuals?
- “We’ll organize the discussion by region and also by interest groups”. Why by region? What if citizens feel like discussing an issue with their peers by age, political inclination, sex, race, religious belief, favorite football team, favorite color, and so forth ? Ah, right, there are also interest groups… but who determines those groups? Would there be a government-approved list? I suspect it would not be exhaustive to avoid the risk of being politically incorrect (polling people by race? no way!).
- “As you participate in the discussion rate the ideas that you come across and the best ideas will rise to the top”. Would citizens really trust an idea-rating mechanism that takes place under government control? it is like assuming that consumers would trust ratings shown on the web site of a consumer electronics manufacturer more than those on eBay or any specialized online community discussing about those products.
As I have said several times, there is little hope to stimulate sustainable citizen participation unless governments decide to let them organize, comment, rate the way they like. It is about the “wisdom of the crowd”: the challenge for governments is to accept that they cannot drive, nor control. They can – at most – help.