Blog post

Why Government 2.0 Has Little To Do With Government

By Andrea Di Maio | October 06, 2009 | 2 Comments

web 2.0 in government

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 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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  • Stephan Borau says:

    I’m not quite sure what point is being made… but I’m pretty sure it isn’t quite right. Saying Gov 2.0 is not about government is like saying Web 2.0 is not about the Web. In a sense it’s not — it’s about collaboration and user-generated content — but that behaviour wouldn’t exist without the technological infrastructure.

    Gov 2.0 is being used to describe how gov’t itself can work differently, both as an organization and with how it interacts witht the public as a public service and a legislative institution (many public servants are hopeful this will lead to a better ways of working).

    However, the behaviour of gov’t is carried out in the context of its organizations and institutions. You can’t separate the two, any more than you can have Facebook or Wikipedia without an internet.

  • @Stephan – Thanks a lot for sharing your views. The point I am trying to make is that as web 2.0 is basically a peer-to-peer phenomenon, it is difficult for organizations to play an institutional role. For instance, if you have a community of individuals discussing – say – welfare issues, you cannot have, as a member of that group, an entire government agency, but you ned to have individuals from that agency.
    I agree with you when you say that Gov 2.0 is about how govt can work differently, but this difference is mostly based on the empowerment of public employees as opposed to a top-down transformation (such as those attempted with e-government).
    The reason why government organizations struggle so much to devise effective social media strategies is exactly the inextricable link between government objectives and its organization. However, as most innovation stories happened inside government clearly show, there is ample room for maneuver for grass root innovation from empowered employees within the boundaries of policies and codes of conduct. This is a topic that I have covered several times in this blog: take a look at posts tagged as “employee-centric”.