Web 2.0: Community Building for Local Governments

The following is excerpted from a White Paper by the Digital Communities CIO Task Force, entitled Government 2.0: Building Communities with Web 2.0 and Social Networking.

by / October 15, 2008

The following is excerpted from a White Paper by the Digital Communities CIO Task Force, entitled Government 2.0: Building Communities with Web 2.0 and Social Networking. The full white paper is available for free download from our Resource Center.

Much of what we now consider to be Web 2.0 technology had its genesis in the desire of young people for self-expression, peer communication and a new way to stay connected with friends. For example, blogs were originally created to essentially be online diaries. Simply put, blogging was a way to combine a personal Web page with tools that made linking to other pages and ultimately applications easier.

Tools such as MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, wikis and others, further automated the process and made inclusion of pictures, video, music and other customizations much easier and helped further create communities of interest by linking "friends."

So the question for government is: Do these tools that were originally created to further self-expression really represent and signal a fundamental shift in how we create and manage our relationships and interactions or are they just modern vaporware, interesting applications that have little practical or lasting value especially in the public sector?

Seattle's Chief Technology Officer Bill Schrier, one of the leading local government thinkers on the potential of Web 2.0 in the public sector and a member of the Digital Communities CIO Task Force, has taken a thoughtful look at this very question. In his personal blog, where he identifies himself as the "Chief Seattle Geek," he looks at the potential Web 2.0 tools have for building better communities. 6

In his essay, Schrier contends that social networking applications, such as MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn and even Second Life, have truly broken new ground. They allow individuals to establish a new, online presence to interact with other members of their online community. They provide the opportunity for government to further promote, organize and support small groups in communities like anti-crime block watches or neighborhood disaster recovery teams. In his opinion, having (secure) social networking sites for these community groups to interact, learn from each other and educate themselves has great promise.

He goes on to say that moderated blogs with interactive comments are, potentially, a good way for elected officials to receive input from constituents and interact with them. They might be a supplement to public meetings in the community, but are not without their challenges. For example, often blogs and even public meetings are monopolized by a few, self-anointed citizen activists, and moderating a blog is a lot of time and effort for a government agency.

Online surveys conducted with tools such as Zoomerang and SurveyMonkey are ubiquitous in the private sector and could be used to help elected officials gauge the mood of a city's residents on any particular topic. Like all online surveys, however, activists and special interest groups can rig the results by "voting early and often." Such surveys won't be statistically valid, but valuable insight may be gained by combining them with traditional surveying techniques conducted via U.S. mail or the telephone.

Wikis, a collection of Web pages designed to enable anyone who accesses it to contribute or modify content using a simplified markup language, certainly hold great promise as tools internal to government.7 Government is typically broken up into departments, each with its own unique functions. Departments tend to be siloed groups and cross-department communication is difficult to establish and maintain. Wikis or similar tools, such as Microsoft's SharePoint or others, could be used to standardize business processes, functions and terms across an entire government. Just simple processes such as "how to handle a public disclosure request" or "how to pay a vendor invoice" are candidates for documentation and improvement through a

wiki. Certainly such processes can be documented and put on static Web pages on a government intranet today. But the advantage of a wiki is that many more employees are involved in creating and editing the content, so the process happens faster and employees actually read it and use it because they are involved in it.

According to Schrier, external wikis also offer significant utility for local government. For example, they can be used to deliver information to community members and answers to frequently asked questions including: "What is the best way to recycle a used computer?" or "How do I apply for and use food stamps?" or even "Whom should I call about a refrigerator found in the median of a major street?" Again, much of this information can be posted in a more traditional fashion online via public Web pages maintained by government employees. However, by taking advantage of the wiki structure, government is able to include others who may have alternative or even better ideas than the government itself. For example, there may be many ideas or programs able to help for recycling the computer from recyclers, environmentalists, nonprofits, education groups or others. The collaborative and interactive nature of the wiki gives everyone an opportunity to participate in identifying the best possible solution.

Local government's fundamental role is to create public policy and deliver public works within a defined geographic area. Public works can include public safety, social services, and development and maintenance of streets, parks and other public facilities among many others. A developing technology tool well suited to support local government is the "mashup." A mashup is a Web application that combines data from more than one source into a single integrated tool. For example, geographic data may add location information to crime or vehicle accident reports, or provide greater location information about where the need for social service programs may be greatest based on current requests for assistance. Information from program databases can be displayed on a map giving policy makers and community members a much more complete picture of their community.

Schrier not only has the courage of a pioneer willing to explore the unknown, but also the realistic perspective of someone who knows that successful exploration requires that you survive the journey. He points out that while Web 2.0 technologies may hold great promise for local government, they also present some significant challenges.

Increased citizen participation in the public policy and governance process can be a proverbial double-edged sword. Most would agree that adding voices, perspective, opinion and ideas to public discourse is a good thing, but whether it is done by bringing more people to the meeting or creating new electronic avenues of participation, the process is susceptible to being manipulated by a vocal minority. Web 2.0 technologies are also susceptible to being commandeered by such people, but as Schrier rightly points out, "normal" constituents also have additional paths, mechanisms and opportunities to interact with their elected officials.

The possibility of a digital divide in some communities that separates those with easy access to information and communication technology from those without it also must not be overlooked. In such communities interest and investment in creating electronic participation opportunities must be balanced with more traditional communication methods to ensure everyone has an opportunity to participate and a way to request and receive the services they need from their government.

Electronic communication may be a door many will choose to pass through on their way to increased civic participation, but maintaining an appropriate level of civility in such communication can often be a challenge. There is something about the relative anonymity of electronic communication that causes some people to express themselves in vulgar and generally offensive ways that would not be considered in a face-to-face encounter. Monitoring and filtering such things is necessary

to maintain productive and public communication, but if it is done without a clear policy and explanation of what is and isn't allowable it may open a government to charges of political censorship.

Increasing communication with constituents through the Internet also increases the type and volume of data and records that are subject to Freedom of Information Act type requests covered by state sunshine or public record request legislation. By increasing the number, type and complexity of public records being created, governments will likely need to invest more in data storage, archiving, search and retrieval technologies.

Finally there is an "if you build it will they come" question that only time will definitively answer. Elected officials traditionally seek and value input from constituents on a broad spectrum of public issues. And as an active, local government practitioner, Schrier points out that most often the overwhelming response is silent apathy. Obtaining an accurate picture of what constituents think, want and need, even with benefits of Web 2.0, will be difficult. Officials in every community will have to decide for themselves if the benefits of perhaps modest increases in participation are worth the necessary investments.

To see the full White Paper by the Digital Communities CIO Task Force, entitled Government 2.0: Building Communities with Web 2.0 and Social Networking, visit our Resource Center by clicking here. Note: This paper is available for free download. Registration is required for first-time Resource Center access, but this too is free.