Over the last few months, in client conversations or blog discussions, it has become apparent to me that some of us look at the impact of web 2.0 on government – also nicknamed “Government 2.0” – from the wrong perspective.
Many think about how government as an organization (or actually a set of organizations and institutions) can leverage technology to improve effectiveness and efficiency and to better engage constituents. This leads to very interesting conversations about what to do with public information (now renamed “open data”), how to deal with personal data protection (otherwise known as “privacy”), how to bend existing rules to accommodate the blossoming of blogs, wikis, social media and other tools, and whether new laws and regulations are needed to police all this.
The problem is that government 2.0 is not about organizations and institutions. It is about the way in which constituents aggregate and socialize knowledge in ways that change their expectations and how they relate to government institutions.
Some of this knowledge will be facilitated or nurtured by open data initiatives (such as Data.gov and the likes), but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Ways in which open data will be used, mashed-up, rated and transformed by online communities as well as individuals will already challenge existing policy boundaries. While legal entities (such as enterprises or professionals) are liable for misusing or misrepresenting information, will people be able to sue a community or an individual for an incorrect mash-up? Will law enforcement authorities be effective in pursuing a myriad of potential wrong-doers, who may have inadvertently violated rules in their personal rather than professional capacity?
If this looks already challenging, think about the vast amount of knowledge that gets accumulated by people themselves, ranging from Wikipedia to pictures on Flickr, from tutorial videos on YouTube to health-related groups and communities on Facebook or MySpace. As people start trusting more and more these sources as an alternative to – or to complement – official government sources, the role and clout of some government institutions will be inevitably challenged.
Recent history shows that institutions cannot easily deal with peer-to-peer networks. The best example is the never-ending fight between P2P music networks and music labels: how many thousands people keep downloading and sharing music for every single person who gets charged for pirating music? As music sharing sites get shut down, people move to different sites and platforms and pursuing each and every one of them is impossible or just not cost-effective.
Things are even more complicated when it comes to publishing and sharing information that people themselves have generated. The boundaries of ownership and privacy get blurred, let alone how to assess the quality of that information. Would any government institution ever be able to police all social networks dealing with health care, or social services, or how to find loopholes in the tax systems, and so forth?
While there is no easy answer, there is a starting point for an answer. If challenges come from groups of individuals who dynamically self-organize according to their purposes and values, the only way to face it is to engage individuals within and across institutions, and empower them to reach out, mingle, sense, help, and basically act as the institution’s sensors in this increasingly complex web of peer-to-peer relationships.
It boils down to what government employees can and cannot do, to whether and how they are equipped to face these challenges in their respective domains of activity. Be they teachers, nurses, tax agents or social workers, they are the best assets for institutions to understand how to morph in the future and still be able to exercise basic “governance” in a world where relationships are deeply transformed, forever.
It is, once again, about citizen-driven employee-centric government.
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