February 19, 2009 By Christopher Dorobek
For months, we've been hearing a mantra of change and hope. But it can be difficult to turn the optimism of a campaign into the reality of running such a large organization as the government.
With the federal government in transition, there could be some real hope for real change in the way agencies operate. For the first time, there's a host of tools -- broadly grouped under the umbrella of Web 2.0 -- that can provide agencies with real ways to share information.
There are nearly as many definitions of Web 2.0 as there are blogs. The most workable definition I have heard is that they are tools that allow people to tap into the theory that all of us together are smarter than any of us independently.
Web 2.0 tools are particularly well suited for government, which is an information organization. And citizens feel increasingly disenfranchised from their government. Many of them feel that they don't know what government does, that it's controlled, in part, by others and that the average citizen can't influence decisions.
The advantage of Web 2.0 tools is that they are inherently transparent. After all, if you're sharing information, it's probably being done transparently. Therefore, these tools are generally inclusive -- one could even say democratic. Suddenly the value one adds depends on the value of the data that's added.
There are several reasons these tools are likely to proliferate in the coming years. One is that President Obama won the election by using these tools effectively. And during the transition, on the innovative Change.gov Web site, we have already seen how Web 2.0 tools can be used to govern.
We're also seeing a changing of the guard among the government work force. The generation of citizens who answered President John F. Kennedy's call to public service is being replaced by another generation who also seems to be answering a similar call. This incoming generation -- the so-called "born digital" generation -- shares information by nature.
There are also significant challenges ahead. Culture is difficult to change, and the government's culture is risk averse. There's little payoff to trying something new and different -- and there's an enormous risk if something doesn't work, particularly in an era of oversight and accountability, where no mistake is tolerated. Government officials have a keen understanding that information is power, but rather than seeing data as being worth sharing, they tend to keep it close to their vest.
Furthermore, government is often a very hierarchical organization, and Web 2.0 depends on allowing -- in fact, enabling -- people to speak their version of the truth to the powers that be.
There are real examples of leadership. Agencies are wisely testing the waters to see what works and what doesn't. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Navy are among the leaders. Just like any tool, there are cases where Web 2.0 is appropriate -- and where it isn't.
There are real opportunities to make great strides for government and governing. It requires that agencies try something new, but there are opportunities to rebuild the public's trust in government. This could lead to more transparency -- and better management. In the end, the potential opportunities far outweigh the risks.
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