Web 2.0 and Social Networking Ideas for Government CIOs

Online communities can improve social services and other government programs.

by / March 10, 2008

If they haven't started yet, they soon will.

They are your vendors and the twenty somethings on your staff who say you live in the old world with your quaint portals and ancient Web presence. They say you're behind the times because the next big thing is here: Web 2.0, or as it is being touted loudly, Enterprise 2.0.

You are hearing about mash-ups and wikis, and your overheated advisers take it for granted that this is all part of an open source effort. As someone who has seen trend after trend, you're forgiven for wondering whether this is just the next big thing.

Is anything really there?

I contend that there may be something there and that the kernel of cool in the middle of the hype is particularly suited for the public sector.

Web 2.0 is based on two primary principles: First, participation by a large number of people in an online endeavor can create many of the benefits derived from being a member of a traditional, nonvirtual, "conference room" community. Second, a Web 2.0 community can create valuable content that helps identify other like-minded folks who should be part of that community. The new folks, in turn, add richness to the content that originally attracted them to the community.

Isn't that the purview of the public-sector leader - to encourage and build successful communities? And as a CIO, isn't the online world your jurisdiction?

So what can we do? One opportunity might be to create an online locus for seasoned human services caseworkers to share their wisdom in a safe, anonymous environment. One reason new caseworkers burn out so quickly is that the training they get is just a base line. Even brand-new caseworkers must deal with myriad situations where a misstep may result in an injured child or even a criminal or civil case against the worker. Wisdom comes from experience not training.

Web 2.0 is about creating communities where the collective can benefit from the experience of other community members. Government workers are usually up to their necks in stress, caseloads and paperwork. Gathering in rooms to talk with one another is a luxury and usually limited only to field offices. Creating an online gathering place for interaction - and not just a place to look things up - is what Web 2.0 is all about. And one that achieves the goals of an organization is Enterprise 2.0.

Open source can be seen as both a precursor to this movement and a beneficiary of it. Open source is a community of developers participating in a mostly voluntary effort to build and improve upon a software program. In our CIO community, we have untold numbers of projects where people in several states, municipalities and counties are working simultaneously, but separately, on the same sort of software effort. Usually they are paid contractors who are motivated only by their company's lucrative contracts.

Many public-sector workers are motivated by their career choice to work furthering policy and program objectives. For example, if given the chance to join a community effort to build an effective foster care tracking system, these workers likely would jump at the opportunity. Sponsored open source projects within the scope of this nation's "human services enterprise" is open source in a Web 2.0 world.

We should try it. The old way of using the well meaning feds and their suboptimal advance planning document process to broker lessons learned across jurisdictions, and with the use of funding approval to cajole alignment, hasn't proven to be the optimal solution.

Perhaps it's time we learn from our young cohorts and join a community. We should put our faith in its members and let the public sector benefit from this most public of movements.

Larry Singer Contributing Writer