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Getting Government's Wiki On

Collaboration and creativity in the new commons.

by / September 30, 2005
The word collaboration is ubiquitous in public- and private-sector strategic IT plans. That doesn't make it easy, just desirable. McKinsey and Company reports that many expensive collaborative efforts fail when partners "can't identify new sources of value ... or fail to establish the necessary internal coordination."

Failed collaboration is not an option, or at the very least, it narrows the available options when one considers the future of public service in a continuously changing society. In April 2005, John Eger, the Lionel Van Deerlin Endowed Chair of Communication and Public Policy at San Diego State University -- and longtime friend of this magazine -- reminded us that collaboration can produce the kind of leadership required in the digital age. The catch is we have to embark on the deliberate building of the creative community -- one that exploits the vital linkages between art, culture and commerce.

A few months later, BusinessWeek declared, "The game is changing. It isn't about math and science anymore. It's about creativity, imagination, and above all, innovation."

The game is changing even more than that. It isn't about pitting math and science against creativity and imagination. It's about bringing these qualities together in people, and as Eger suggests, communities.

New Renaissance men and women will not emerge overnight, nor will these communities spring into existence fully formed. In the interim, the laboratory of state and local government can play a role, but not without changes.

State and local government Web sites stretch a single, virtual skin across various agencies, creating the impression of government integration for users -- for the first few clicks at least. The organizational independence, however, remains intact -- and fiercely defended -- just below the surface.

Department webmasters and central portal authorities reinforce bureaucratic tendencies, curbing meaningful collaboration and creativity -- all of which defies the Internet's DNA, because the Internet resists centralized control, and provides a platform for action and innovation.

Enter wikiGovernment, a modest proposition to bring the collaborative habits of one of the Web's most creative and prolific communities to the way the public's business gets done.

As devotees of Wikipedia, the community-maintained online encyclopedia, would look up in short order, wiki is a derivation of the Hawaiian word for quick. The term was appropriated by collaborative online wiki communities to define a group-created Web site, or a Web application that allows users to add and edit the content.

The mutation does not end there. Another concept, that wiki is an abbreviation for "what I know is," is widely used in collaborative networks.

Seen this way, wikiGovernment appeals to the highest ideals of public service. It again makes the edges relevant in important public discussions, public policy-making and even the delivery of public services. At the most rudimentary level, wiki would eliminate bottlenecks in implementing mandates to write public documents in plain English by letting a community of people who know about the subject matter edit it for themselves, rather than letting deputized English majors do it.

A pure wiki would transform public records into living documents. This radical redefinition of government transparency does not place trust in technology so much as in communities and their collaborations. In anticipation of resistance to a pure wiki, it may be more practical to consider a managed or private-label wiki for government, where editorial access is widened and narrowed as needed, determined by some combination of role and functional criteria.

Wiki is at least a prototype for the kind of vital links anticipated in connected creative communities. If collaboration is a favorite strategy -- and it is -- and if strategy is about risk -- and it is -- then getting government's wiki on may be a risk worth taking.

It's the stuff of quick win and long-term victory.

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Paul W. Taylor Contributing Writer

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.

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