Do Second Life and Google AdSense represent a fundamental shift in how we conduct our online lives? Does Wikipedia really signal that the age of Web 2.0 is upon us? Or is it all just modern vaporware - interesting applications that have little practical value?
Depending whom you believe, Web 2.0 is
the launch pad for a brave new online world, or another in a long line of made-up phrases describing what some choose to perceive.
While questions about its veracity persist, the Web 2.0 phenomenon continues to command serious attention from analysts and insiders across all sectors, including government. In an attempt to better grasp how government ought to operate in a Web 2.0 world, the National Electronic Commerce Coordinating Council (eC3), a consortium of leaders from both the public and private sectors, recently held its 2007 symposium, Government in the Age of YouTube. Participants included high-level government officials, private-sector technology executives, and public opinion and thought leaders.
In December 2007, eC3 released an executive summary of the symposium - created with input from symposium participants - which notes that barriers to participation in government's Web-based, citizen-facing applications will begin to diminish any appeal a government site may possess.
2.0 Be or Not 2.0 Be
The phrase "Web 2.0" was coined in 2004 at the O'Reilly Media Conference, and since then, has been assigned myriad definitions.
Some say Web 2.0 is a new generation of Web sites that foster user collaboration, creativity and connectivity - sites such as MySpace, Flickr, Wikipedia and YouTube. Others contend Web 2.0 is little more than the natural progression of Web technology. There is also a contingent that condemns Web 2.0 as nothing but a clever marketing ploy that has already suckered a good number of people.
The difficulty in trying to define Web 2.0 is evident in a document written by O'Reilly Media's Tim O'Reilly. What Is Web 2.0 spans five pages and tries to separate fact from fiction. O'Reilly believes Web 2.0 is embodied by applications that deliver richer user experiences and harness collective intelligence - two things most government Web sites don't do well.
Sites like Flickr and Amazon - which permits users to create tag clouds to categorize photos and thrives on user reviews, respectively - foster a loyal user community. Their success goes a long way toward dismissing the skeptics' claim that Web 2.0 is a flash in the pan.
Operating under the supposition Web 2.0 is indeed a reality, the eC3 symposium asked fundamental questions: How can government use Web 2.0 technologies? And how will Web 2.0 affect government? The consensus seems to be Web 2.0 can help government enhance its existing relationship with citizens by creating new avenues of interaction.
"This whole suite of tools is far more participatory in its nature," said Iowa CIO John Gillispie, president of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO). "So clearly, getting more participation by citizens with their government is an objective that is very worthwhile."
Symposium participants found that virtually all of government's Web-based, citizen-facing applications tend to fall short in terms of participation. According to the summary, "Most 'government 1.0' applications, such as licensing, e-voting, online tax filing and search tools, are based on straightforward transactions that are bounded. That is, an online form, structured by a government entity, replaces an analogous, traditionally paper-based process."
In the symposium summary, it's argued that barriers to participation will begin to diminish any appeal a government site may possess. One such barrier, said symposium participant John Komensky, senior fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government, is often manifested by government CIOs, many of whom are befuddled by the nexus
of traditional 1.0 security requirements and the 2.0 desire for openness.
"CIOs in a lot of government agencies talk about security and privacy and all this stuff, and people are saying, 'We've got to get information out to our citizens,' and they're just going out and doing it," Komensky said. "So in a way, some of these Web 2.0 technologies are end-running things like citizen records access. Not because people want to end-run laws, but because they want to get stuff out to citizens, and their agency or state CIOs are blocking them from using the technologies everybody else is using."
Komensky added that elected officials in government tend to have a better understanding of Web 2.0's value because, in many cases, they needed to take advantage of 2.0 tools to connect with constituents.
Government has been perceived as a slow adopter, and in the case of Web 2.0, the reality is no different. In fact, trendsetters like Tara Hunt, symposium participant and co-founder of Internet consultancy Citizen Agency, would argue that even having an event called Government in the Age of YouTube proves government is already behind the curve.
"The more information you put out there, the more opportunities you give for citizen engagement," Hunt wrote for a presentation on Government 2.0. "You really must loosen the grips of control. Nobody wants to collaborate with a control freak."
Hunt's outlook on Web 2.0 has made her a sought-after speaker: She's appeared at several government conferences, including NASCIO's Annual Meeting. Her provocative presentations - most are available online - seem to strike a chord with audiences who relate to her liberal use of pop culture and Web-related references. Speaking at the Government Information Systems conference in New Zealand, Hunt told the crowd, "We need to change the way we approach service, viewing the public not as a recipient, but as more of a partner."
Web 2.0 is the next great opportunity for government to make inroads into citizens' lives, according to Hunt and other advocates. The public, they note, wants their experiences with government to be like those they engage in with leading private-sector sites - sites that encourage and thrive on user-generated content.
Early (or Late?) Adopters
One such example can be found in Virginia, said Paul W. Taylor, senior fellow for the Center for Digital Government, knowledge-management and research division of e.Republic Inc. The state is developing TurboVet - an application modeled after Turbo Tax, the online tax filing software.
"They're taking some Web 2.0 stuff and a TurboTax-like approach to help veterans figure out which services offered across various levels of government are available to them, or for which they're eligible," Taylor said. "Then they combine that with a peer-to-peer - veterans helping veterans to figure out how to navigate bureaucracy or what other services are available.
"It's an incremental bite and it solves a problem. They didn't create Facebook for Veterans. They created something that solves a particular problem veterans have."
Virginia is not alone in its move toward creating richer user experiences in government. Kamensky said he believes efforts in the federal government and in agencies such as the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) also represent an increased acceptance of Web 2.0 philosophies. One of the hallmarks, Kamensky said, is when government begins to take advantage of applications that exist outside the public sector.
"Look at the California DMV. They're putting up training videos on how to avoid accidents
on YouTube. The idea is to direct people there. Governments are starting to use this stuff. They're not using government-owned technology; they're going outside."
This doesn't mean government itself can't develop its own Web 2.0 applications. One of the core principles of Web 2.0 is the Web now exists beyond traditional definitions and established boundaries. It can be considered akin to the long-time vision of government to effectively interoperate among separate agencies. Only in this case, the silo needing elimination isn't between agencies, but between an agency and the citizens who engage it.
Web 2.0 may also help government face one of its most critical issues - the coming wave of retirements and the challenge of recruiting new workers. According to the eC3 summary, "government agencies are facing a wave of retirements as the baby boomers reach a certain age. Answering this human resources challenge means new approaches to recruitment, education and promotion. While this may not require some reincarnation in Second Life, it will require giving younger generations some virtual place simply to carry along the technological practices and habits on which they are learning to rely."
As Government Technology has reported, Second Life is now home to the first state recruitment island, thanks to pioneering efforts of Missouri CIO Dan Ross. Even if Ross' experiment in the virtual world doesn't pan out, it only cost him $4 and a few hours. And it's this sort of nontraditional thinking that the eC3 symposium addressed.
Web 2.0 is shaping up to be an opportunity for government to revolutionize its position in citizens' lives, according to the summary, which emphasized that it's in government's interest to give real consideration to Web 2.0 tools: "... Nobody can ignore the potential that Web 2.0 represents. If it is a tipping point, then all the 2.0 tools - civic networking, blogs, wikis, simulations, testbeds, etc. - are key to reaching the stakeholders to every function of government."