In a conversation with the CIO of a parliamentary organization, I discussed the role of social software in supporting some or most of the parliamentary processes, both purely internal to the organization, and involving specific external stakeholders (such as union representatives, university professors, domain experts, and so forth).
While it appears that some of these processes have clear boundaries in terms of who participates and the information accessed and required, this is not necessarily true. For instance a bill could be drafted by a group of members from a particular party or party coalition, engaging stakeholders of their choice, to then appear into the parliamentary processes for internal and formal discussion. One could argue that once the bill enters this process, the workflow could be supported by an enterprise platform, providing the collaboration functionality that is required by the formal process. On the other hand, during the formal discussion proponents may be willing to submit evidence gathered during the preparation of the draft. All they can do is to re-enter or import such evidence into the enterprise platform, as opposed to creating discussion spaces that allow a seamless conversation to occur. While this is nit necessarily a showstopper for the enterprise platform, the more such cases, the less the perceived value of the enterprise platform with respect to – say – email.
Since this parliamentary organization is in the process of developing the requirements for their new internal portal, which should presumably provide a full range of social computing options, the discussion geared toward how to determine which functionalities would really make the difference and increase the value for members and other stakeholders.
The traditional approach would be through talking to users and engaging a consultant in synthesizing the findings in a requirement document, prior to a proper tender. But do they know exactly where they want to take their processes or – better – where the use of social software by various stakeholders will take them? While the concerned jurisdiction is certainly not amongst the most advanced in terms of technology uptake in government, most MoPs are exposed to technologies like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube on a personal as well as political basis. Their children and grandchildren use those regularly, their communications staff scan social media to perform sentiment analysis and find supportive as well as negative opinions expressed about their political persona, and so forth. Their adoption of social media for critical processes may happen more quickly and abruptly than expected. As a result, an enterprise collaboration platform that looks like the most reasonable solution today may become inadequate very soon.
So the alternative is to be in a state of perpetual beta, to make pilots and experiments the normal course of business, to build a very simple and open architecture around which to enable experiments with open source or consumer tools, allowing individuals to make their choice about the particular collaboration space they want to build, giving them control of the boundaries, of the definition of what is internal and what is external.
Of course this requires certain tenets, about information security and confidentiality, and the ability to distinguish official documents (which could be digitally signed) from drafts for discussion. It should allow the background information supporting the MoPs in the discussion of a bill to include internal elements (such as the records of previous discussions) as well as external elements such as wikis, Facebook groups, YouTube movies and more, at their discretion.
Are parliamentary and government organizations ready to be in perpetual beta mode? I doubt it. Can they get value out of social software with a more traditional, waterfall approach? I doubt that too.
That’s one of the main challenges of government 2.0, one that makes it far more difficult and far less friendly than it looks like.