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Truth vs. Trust: The Far West of Government 2.0

By Andrea Di Maio | March 08, 2010 | 3 Comments

web 2.0 in government

On Friday I attended a round table of government CIO in Brussels. The topic was “Toward Government 3.0” and the purpose was to discuss where open government and government 2.0 are leading us.

People presented different views of how far the impact of socialization would go. There was a common understanding that rather than creating virtual avenues for people to participate, government should be were people are, reach out to them, understand and join social networks. Everybody also agreed that the management challenges and the cultural shock for control-freak governments may be unbearable, but there is no way back. Denying the impact of social networking on the way people will exercise their democratic rights, consume services and discharge administrative obligations is no longer possible and may well worsen governments’ inability to leverage rather than being overwhelmed by these phenomena.

The discussion became more intriguing when touching on the government’s role in all this. Some stated that governments will remain the authoritative source of authentic information, in essence the holders of the single version of the truth. From citizen registries to pilot licenses (somebody made reference to a recent case where a pilot was found not having a license after having flown passenger aircrafts for several years), from land property data to drug licenses, people will always turn to government to have assurance.

But will they? A colleague of mine observed that the unlicensed pilot had caused no accident, so there were good reasons for people to trust him. Social networking is deeply changing where people put their trust for increasingly critical decisions. What if a community of thousands people I trust tells me that an unlicensed drug is excellent to cure a condition I am suffering from and I have not been able to cure with licensed drugs? What if a social network gives a different teacher rating than those officially published by government? What if a web-enabled crowd fabricates and supports evidence (including pictures and videos) showing a politician or a corporate executive or just any of us do something illegal? What if a Google map’s mash-up provides different information about real estate property than what is in the government files?

Will we trust government as the holder of the truth or will we trust people like us? And, if so, how can government reposition itself, and police this in order for people not to be damaged or even risk their lives?

When looking at government 2.0, the argument that this may shift toward direct democracy, where  everybody potentially has a say in everything, is countered by the observation that government accountability will not change. According to this line of thought, which I have always agreed with, crowdsourcing is a useful tool, but government employees will ultimately determine, select or construct the problem solution or the policy.

But what if social behaviors just make that solution or that policy irrelevant? What if social rules as determined in social networks replace policies and laws?

We may be heading toward a future where looking for somebody holding the truth is replaced by trusting somebody’s acceptable reputation.

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  • You’ve asked: “Will we trust government as the holder of the truth or will we trust people like us? “. Don’t forget that a government has means to enforce its vision of truth including laws and courts, police and army, national bank and tax service etc. etc.

    And just imagine for a second, say, the EU really ruled by a direct democracy – right now :))

  • Congrats for the article! Really interesting…
    About 2.0 direct democracy, have a look to this petition of a young european network. In a few days they reached 1,600 + signatures.

  • I think that the progression towards Gov 2.0 offers governments the ability to improve their accuracy – thereby making them more reliable sources of truth (if not the only source).

    For example in Australia we’ve seen instances where OpenAustralia has identified mistakes in Hansard, the official record of our Commonwealth Government. Where states have opened up GIS data to companies and the public there has been an increased ability to identify and rectify data errors. The National Library has collaboratively engaged the public to supplement OCR techniques for digitalising old newspapers – with humans voluntarily checking and adjusting content where OCR software has converted printed text to digital characters incorrectly.

    Provided governments provide mechanisms for reporting and correcting data alongside releasing it, I think we’ll see improvements in data quality, and thereby decision-making, through Gov 2.0.

    Whether government remains the ‘single source’ of truth or not – opening data to the public allows more eyes to check it and can significantly reduce both error rates and the incremental costs of having humans perform additional data checks.