As I have indicated both in a previous post and a research note (client access required), one of the main differences between open government and government 2.0 is that the former is based on government controlling the pace and place of engagement and collaboration, while the latter implies that government both creates channels or opportunities for collaboration, but it also reaches out to where people are more likely to engage.
A few days ago I visited an Australian agency that has conducted a formal online consultation about a new policy via a forum. They have outsourced the moderation to a service provider that ensures that comments get a response but does not engage commentators in a deeper conversation, in order to keep effort (and cost) at predictable levels and not to face the thorniest issues about how to conduct a complex exchange with individuals on line. The forum has been moderately successful, but has not drawn a lot of attention.
At the same time, people are welcome to comment about this same policy on Twitter, by using an hashtag proposed by the agency. Tweets are coming in in far greater quantities, exceeding one thousand per day, including retweets.
The agency uses tools to rank tweets by number of retweets, as a measure of relevance. However what the agency is not doing is to create any connection between the official online forum and the Twitter input. As they already analyze tweets, it would be a no-brainer to post on the forum a comment every day or so that summarizes the sentiment as emerging from the tweets.
Why aren’t they doing so? This is a symptom of a bigger problem, which I have seen most agencies are struggling with as they approach government 2.0. Doing what I just suggested would require government employees – those who looks at the tweets – to intervene in the discussion their agency is hosting. Would this risk polluting the consultation process? Could this alter the balance of engagement and corrupt the perception of transparency objectives of the whole process?
This reminds me of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, according to which the very fact of measuring something may alter the actual measure. Or the old Latin author Quintilianus, who used to say “Quis custodiet custodes”, i.e. who oversees the overseers?
One of the fundamental principles for many theoreticians and practitioners of government 2.0 seems to be an airtight separation between “citizens” (or constituents) and the machinery of government, including employees. Terms like “tapping into the ingenuity of the people” or “leveraging the wisdom of the crowd” almost automatically exclude civil servants, as if they were necessarily disingenuous or could not add any value to an engagement process.
My contention is that, while in certain areas it may be appropriate to run consultations or idea contests without involving employees, in most cases they have expertise that is critical to the success of a consultation endeavor or to better channel the wisdom of the crowd. They can be subject matter experts, or just experienced in processes, hence able to put external advice to fruition more rapidly and effectively.
Indeed there are risks. Government employees may see a consultation process as a means to disenfranchise them and threaten their role and potentially job security. They may not wish to be challenged or may just lack the passion or motivation for changing the way they operate. Therefore government 2.0 needs incentives for them more than for application developers or external idea creators. Also, it needs several employees to be engaged, so that they can look after each other, implement social monitoring, blend external engagement with internal collaboration.
Cases like the one I just mentioned would be the right starting point. Creating a connection between a government-controlled engagement process and a more spontaneous one, helping bridge formal and somewhat stiff processes and more spontaneous and chaotic community gathering and discussion.
But will we ever see this happen?