While I keep reading enthusiastic tweets from all the government 2.0 believers that jump from event to event across North America to praise a new dawn coming, I feel compelled to highlight some of the early signals that this is going to be a much rougher ride that many barcampers actually think.
In earlier posts (see here, here and here) as well as in a presentation I gave at our Symposia in Orlando and Sydney I warned about the downsides of transparency and open government. Over the last fifteen months I have met several clients who get the concept of open government very clearly, who totally agree that the more data, the better, but also realize that if something goes wrong because data is not accurate or up-to-date or just because it gets mashed up the wrong way or even maliciously, government (and they personally) will be held accountable.
I have been writing about the so-called “asymmetry of government 2.0”, i.e. the fact that governments take a one-way approach only to government 2.0 (data from government to citizens and engagement from citizens to government), losing sight that that information and engagement flow in the opposite direction too (information is created elsewhere that government need to be aware of, and government employees engage with external communities).
I have been telling clients that gathering information from external communities and sending employees into those communities is key to successful and sustainable engagement, and here comes the proof that this may be fraught with risks too.
In fact, an article on Computerworld mentions that
the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the University of California, Berkeley’s Samuelson Clinic have filed a lawsuit (PDF document) against six government agencies, seeking information on their use of social networking sites for data collection and surveillance.
Of course this refers mostly to what organizations like the Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Agency do, as their interest in social media sounds like they are “spying on us” (which – I would argue – is part of their mission anyhow). On the other hand, agencies dealing with social services, health care, tax and revenues and the likes that look for information in external community are equally vulnerable to legal action or – in any case – negative reactions by civil liberty organizations as well as individual citizens.
So the bottom line for government 2.0 sounds like “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”.
I know that examples like this provide further ammunition to naysayers to slow down or resist innovation. But this is something that will happen anyhow. The emergence of a deep disconnect with citizens who self-organize using social media, the inability to identify early enough patterns that indicate a need for change, an inadequate response to the demands of new generations of government employee, are all much greater risks than the occasional incidents along the way.
What is key here is to be as transparent as possible in communicating why and how government organizations are seeking for engagement, to let people know that government is reaching out not to spy or oversee, but to connect, as much as possible on citizen’s turf and on citizen’s terms.
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