Government at La-Z-Boy Speed

Web 2.0 can help governments interact better with citizens.

by / September 24, 2008
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I was talking with my son about a paper he's writing for a summer school course at the University of Arizona. He was sitting in our family room holding his laptop and collecting research from the Internet using the wireless connection that, I must admit, he helped me set up. He was telling me about the various Web sites he was visiting, the material he was collecting from around the world, and the project team members he was collaborating with via instant messaging and Facebook from the comfort of my La-Z-Boy recliner. I couldn't help but think back to my own experiences researching and writing school papers. I'm sure many of you, much like myself, remember a vastly different experience.

Not long ago the search for information required multiple trips to the library and a hard-earned familiarity with the card catalog and Dewey Decimal system. Successful navigation often resulted in a National Treasure-like search through rows and rows of books with the hope that we'd stumble upon the right book that held the potential for making us look smarter than we probably were. More often than not, I arrived at the cryptically defined location only to discover that I couldn't find the book I needed. Either I had misinterpreted the clues somewhere along the way or someone else working on the same project had beaten me to the prize.

It amazes me how fundamentally our world has changed. Almost without noticing, we've moved from a world of information scarcity to information overload. Our challenge now isn't finding enough information about a particular subject, but making sense of and qualitative judgments about the almost limitless variety of data and information that's available.

At a recent gathering of the Digital Communities CIO Task Force, members spent a good portion of the day talking about how social networking and collaboration tools are affecting local government operation. Pressure to change the way information flows and is managed within an organization is coming from newly hired employees (some practically born with digital devices in their hands) and citizens who have come to rely on mobile communication devices and free-flowing information to manage their day-to-day lives. Even so, some CIOs believe they have more than enough to worry about with existing systems, ever-changing security requirements and expensive infrastructure demands.

To many in government, the Web 2.0 stuff - social networks, blogs, wikis, instant messaging systems, viral videos and virtual communities - may sound cool, but it's more appropriately left to college campuses and consumers. They say there's really no place for Web 2.0 tools in government; I have even heard them described as "technologies in search of a problem."

I disagree, and a look at government across the country shows Web 2.0 technologies in some places quietly becoming foundational components of what government is now calling Government 2.0. It's bringing a new kind of order to the information turmoil all around us - and just in time.

As all levels of government face an unprecedented wave of retirements, especially among program supervisors and key management staff, the need to tap workers' knowledge and get information out of their heads and into databases has never been greater. There's also a necessity to create new working relationships among people in various departments and business units that previously may have developed over years of water cooler conversation. Social networking tools can do that. They are being used for project tracking, information sharing, cross-departmental or jurisdictional collaboration, and even community engagement.

The fact is: Approximately half the states are already using Web 2.0 in some fashion, including the Missouri Office of Information Technology's Second Life presence and YouTube videos explaining government services and policy alternatives in California and Washington.

The General Services Administration has a comprehensive blog written by Office of Citizen Services

and Communications employees that discusses diverse topics, such as home and family, health, money, fun and travel. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a Second Life island designed to share health information interactively, and the Transportation Security Administration has an active blog to "facilitate an ongoing dialog on innovations in security, technology and the checkpoint screening process."

Many local governments, from Honolulu to Boston, use social networking technology and other tools to engage citizens in transportation planning, neighborhood watch support, community redevelopment prioritization and requesting government services like street repair and graffiti removal.

Changing the way government operates is never easy, and the move to implement new technologies has its challenges. Social networking tools must first be understood, and even that's difficult in some organizations where. As one large-city CIO recently said, the first question is, "What possible business reasons do government employees have for being on MySpace or YouTube or any of those sites during work hours?" It's hard to know if you lack knowledge about the tools or how others are using them.

This is the time for government to explore and embrace the technology changes surrounding us, and those who are actively doing it should be congratulated and followed as they lead the way toward the future. Yes, employees sometimes misuse the technology to simply waste time and go places they shouldn't, but to paraphrase a familiar gun policy argument, "Technology doesn't waste time; people waste time." If employees aren't productive, managers need to call them on it and tell them to get back to work.

Without the courage to try new things and explore the potential of participation by new constituencies engaged through social networking technology, government runs the risk of becoming less relevant and more frustrating to those it serves and seeks to attract to public service.

Over the course of our careers, we may have come to love the Dewey Decimal system, the musty smell of books, and the policies and procedures that have served us well, but it's time to take a few risks and try new things. Otherwise, we will be meeting at the library while the world passes us by in a La-Z-Boy.

Todd Sander Executive Director, Center for Digital Government

Todd Sander is Executive Director of the Center for Digital Government, and is responsible for driving the strategic direction and development of the Center's programs and for providing thought leadership and hands-on expertise in expanding the Center’s services to both government and industry.