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The Maginot Line For Social Software in Government Is Called “Accountability”

By Andrea Di Maio | January 15, 2009 | 1 Comment

web 2.0 in government

Anthony makes a good point in his reply to my earlier post, and stresses that “This particular effort may not be very effective. However, the Presidency is about leadership and he is showing leadership here. ” There is no doubt about that. My main concern – I am pretty sure the new administration is very well aware of this – is what sets apart any such social experiment in government from those in other environments. There are issues like transparency, fairness of access, and accountability, that can make the difference between success and failure. While one could argue that this initiative really is about transparency, and an opportunity is given to anyone to contribute, I suspect that the intricacies of accountability are the most challenging. Yes, there are ways to resolve the issues raised in my previous post, but would they be plausible in a public sector context?

Developing policies or selecting areas for priority investments are processes that require the different actors to be accountable for their choices and for implementing them). For how attractive it might look like, crowdsourcing does not replace accountability. Elected officials, be they presidents, house or senate representatives, are accountable to those they represent. And this is only the tip of the iceberg: there are plenty of government business processes and activities, such as procurement, auditing, performance management, that would benefit from a more direct engagement of constituents. However the ground rules for such engagement need to be set and, while experimentation is welcome and must continue, I suspect there might be a need for regulating social software in government, which – by its own definition – may defeat the whole purpose of societal engagement.

Also just looking just at policy-making, leveraging direct consultation could steer democracy from representative toward direct, with phenomenal implications on the way governments and parliaments operate and relate to each other. I am not sure our democracies, some of them still young, are ready for this. And history from ancient Greece shows that direct democracy has unsurmountable limits. I doubt technology is enough to overcome those (and defeat human nature).

My take, as expressed in a research note published last year (see How Government Can Use Social Networks– login required), is that government leaders may be better off by letting “political” opinion freely form in existing, non government sponsored social networks, as opposed to asking people to express those on a government-driven sites. A Socratic approach would be required: “I do not know what I do not know”, i.e. government leaders do not know how genuine opinions get formed in social networks, so they should observe and learn before acting.

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1 Comment

  • Eric Knipp says:

    @Andrea + Anthony – I have enjoyed this discussion thread between the two of you. Either I am misunderstanding something, or there’s room for both of your opinions.

    While I am somewhat cynical about the Obama administration’s motives behind their social networking activities, I would like to share Anthony’s optimism about the change that could be realized by asking the people what they want (with the understanding that a very small slice of the population is being represented here in cyberspace). On the other hand, “the people” don’t get to write law. Anything that the administration learns through social networks can be used to help guide policy and law, but ultimately those laws are introduced by congressmen and are voted on like anything else. So, I think that would make the proponents (and subsequent signer of the law, president Obama) as “accountable” as they would be with any idea that originated from elsewhere.

    Finally, I concur that observing political opinion in other networks would be a great idea for the administration, but it need not happen in the absence of a government-sponsored initiative.