Earlier today I had a very interesting conversation with an executive from a local government about their digital society initiatives. These include the development of broadband infrastructure to provide Internet access to residents, and the development of a number of web applications to visualize information about traffic or real estate use as well as to make tourists reserve and pay for hotels, public transportation, access to museums and other amenities online (this jurisdicrtion gets significant revenues from tourism).
Individual components of their strategy are quite intriguing, as they have a clear vision about citizen engagement and participation, and in their various applications they have used (or plan to use) quite a few Web 2.0 characteristics, ranging from mashing up external content to supporting non-moderated comments (something very bold for a public sector entity).
I thought I had found the perfect example of a local government that was getting it right: approach based on small pilots, willingness to take risks, vision about to combine political priorities with citizen service. Admittedly, most of what they’ve done is still tagged as “beta” and they claim they worked following intuition rather than a fully-fledged strategy. This also seems wise, as it is difficult to anticipate how information and services will be consumed (how many e-government programs fell short of expectation in terms of uptake, although their managers thought they knew it all?).
The only aspect that made me raise my eyebrows was that all the web applications they showed were carrying the local government logo. Nothing wrong, of course, but I asked how they were expecting to make this evolve so that people – both residents and tourists – would be able to access these through their channels of choice (such as a travel site or a social networking one). I made my point – which I know is still controversial with some more traditional constituencies – that a government-owned web site or portal is unlikely to be the most successful conduit for such a wealth of information and services. People may wish to combine (indeed mash-up) information in different ways.
So, while the local authority had focused on building applications that would mash up external content, I was not sure whether they were planning to have their own information “mashed-up” and their web services invoked by external web sites.
At that point, the executive took a slightly more defensive attitude, in striking contrast with the openness shown until that moment, and started citing “numbers” about how many daily hits their web sites receive. i do understand that he was very proud of his accomplishment so far (and rightly so). but he could not accept that whatever they have developed would be more successfully leveraged through different aggregators and intermediaries than local government itself.
He seems just too smart not to know that the secret for a sustainable success of their initiatives is to just “give up” channel control and rather focus on information and service quality. But, pretty much like in e-government 1.0, it is not easy to let it go. Government web sites or portals carry a brand, and assemble information the way the administration likes. Of course some widgets or gadgets can still be branded, but web services providing back office functions, such as reservations or access to local information about traffic or environmental data that are then mashed-up with somebody else’s data, would not.
This is one of the basic problems with Web 2.0 and citizen-driven government, and particularly so with democratic-labor-left wing administrations. A constant dichotomy between using the public sector lever (information, services, technology) to stimulate private sector initiatives, and the willingness to retain control and be visible. After all, what’s the political return of a mashup? Users who get value from a mashup will recognize the brand who actually did the mashup (the masher) much more than the brand of the “mashee”.
Let’s think about a future where all it’s left of the city portal are a set of widgets and web services that can be used in whichever context intermediaries as well as users see fit. This would probably lead to the ultimate user experience, overcoming many of the issues that government portals still have as they struggle with fictitious “life-event” or “one-stop-shop” model. Assuming those widgets provide access to services that actually work and deliver constituent value, the “invisibility” of government should become a political asset.
But, then, how do you brand it politically? How do you put your mark, as the politician who made this happen, once the channel is no longer yours, once people don’t see your city, county, state, or agency logo any longer?