If government at all levels fails to develop a public network that uses the power of Web 2.0, it will be like leaving silver in the mine.

Political campaigns powered by Facebook, Twitter revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East, and the Wikileaks scandal reveal machinations of government worldwide. These examples point to the extraordinary power of Web 2.0 technology to mobilize citizens, usurp traditional power structures, and create the conditions for political change. The general public and social activists may be leading the way, but governments across the world are beginning to augment public services with blogs, podcasts, wikis, and social networking sites to meet citizen demands more effectively and efficiently.

But though the U.S. House has signed onto Skype and the President has tried the Twitter town hall, government attempts to use Web 2.0 technologies so far have been sporadic and small in scale, and have yet to deliver significant benefits. Those benefits that are likely to accrue will do so in haphazard fashion: Gartner Research proposes that more than 70 percent of social computing deployments in government that achieve cost or strategic benefits will do so in unplanned or unexpected ways. Why is the potential that is already being harnessed in the social and business sectors yet to fully materialize in the public sector?

Online Presence Doesnt Mean Online Engagement

Governments are often guilty of repeating past mistakes. Like the e-commerce bubble, the e-government movement of the 2000s led to the rapid development of government portals, online services, and electronic payment options. Whatever the function, some form of web presence seemed mandatory.

At the height of the movement in 2004, for example, it is estimated that the U.K. government had more than 4,000 websites containing some 5 million pages, according to The Guardian. When the Internet bubble burst, bankrupt businesses learned their painful lesson. Today, governments risk treating social media as ends in themselves. Rather than tailoring service delivery models around the new tastes and technological preferences of the public, attempts to use Web 2.0 technologies are often cosmetic and focused purely on public relations.

Unrealistic expectations have not helped. Political leaders, such as the U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, have promised Google for government or a Next Age of Government by simply adopting new technologies and open data standards. While some websites, such as www.ratemyteacher.com, have opened up previously closed sectors such as teacher performance to public external scrutiny, data alone does not solve practical problems. Government cannot be easily transacted in 140 characters, and notifications should not be published without thought for particular audiences or different consumption patterns.

Open Up the Idea Tent

Traditional culture of government agencies is often diametrically opposite that of the open, non-hierarchical and informal Web 2.0 world. Consequently, agencies tend to use technology tools to collaborate or share information only within organizations. For example, U.S. Army officers in Afghanistan are actively using Wiki technology supplied by the Department of Defense to capture and share lessons learned in the field with other officers both in theater and around the world. In the United Kingdom, a community of almost 200,000 medical doctors is using collaborative tools provided by the private website www.Doctors.net.uk to work together on research.

More Fulfilling Feedback Needed

However, there are few examples of direct interaction or collaboration between citizens and public services through collaborative media in which feedback is used in near real-time to re-engineer tools and processes around the needs of the user.

A notable exception is where cities have embraced mobile applications that take advantage of geographic data, such as www.seeclickfix.com, which provides the ability for the public to file location-specific service requests such as fixing streetlights. Essential to its success though is seamless integration of public engagement tools with responsive and consistent service fulfillment to live up to public expectations.

As new web technologies increase the bandwidth and scope for public engagement, the impact of the failure to fully integrate these technologies into government operations is magnified. Expectations for engagement and transparency are rising. Government will have to run faster to simply stand still, let alone keep pace.

Citizen Relationship Management

To turn things around, effective government use of Web 2.0 technologies needs to be part of a comprehensive citizen relationship management (CRM) strategy. A long-standing strand in the realm of corporate strategy (with a focus on customers rather than citizens), CRM involves opening up communication channels as well as reorganizing back-office processing to focus on fulfilling customer needs and requirements.

As author Alexander Schellong points out in his book Citizen Relationship Management, CRM is often immature in the public sector and has so far played a limited role in reform efforts. The public sector commonly fails to minimize website complexity, develop content standards, and most importantly, link new communication channels, such as the cities 3-1-1 public service hot-lines or websites for creating pre-defined service requests with effective service fulfillment. While there has been progress in some areas, the full potential of using web technologies to communicate with and redesign public services has not been reached. If governments are to realize the potential of Web 2.0 technologies through an effective CRM strategy, they will need to bear in mind three key concepts.

1| Theres No Such Thing as a Free Lunch.

In an age of fiscal austerity, governments should not be lulled into the false belief that effective use of Web 2.0 technologies is a zero-cost option. To use these tools, managers must understand the functionality, public relations, maintenance, security, and data ownership perspectives. Any one of these issues could present significant challenges to the effectiveness and appropriateness of a Web 2.0 solution or tool. To engage with citizens adequately, trained staff must constantly monitor and respond to communication tools, and must update and refresh content regularly. This takes time.

Governments must also recognize the costs to manage and update open data stores and application programming interfaces. Moreover, agencies must create and support an internal technical infrastructure, because it may be inappropriate for private and secure data, such as driving records or other licensing information, to be stored in the Cloud.

While the benefits of social computing could be provided by purpose-built tools managed by the public sector itself, there is little chance that any government will build a network to compete with the likes of Wikipedia or YouTube. Rather, governments will need to plug into existing networks when appropriate to do so and create new networks where there is public value to gain in augmenting sparse coverage or professional special interest.

2| Knowing Me, Knowing You First.

If governments decide to invest in social computing technology, they must maximize their return-on-investment by being obsessive about their relationship with citizens. Yet governments are often reticent to deploy meaningful feedback loops and use advanced data analytics to learn more about citizen views and needs.

The government equivalent of Facebooks like (and the much desired dislike) function might be a simple step in the right directionbut there is much more that could be done, Steve Kelman wrote last March in Federal Computer Week,Government Should Adopt Instant Feedback Features. For example, Asia Pacific FutureGov reported last fall the Singapore government has partnered with IBM to develop advanced software that trawls social media to help identify patterns in public sentiment toward specific government policies, helping them shape service design and delivery.

Furthermore, governments should take every opportunity to gather feedback, either in survey form or by comment. Indeed, as more and more transactions with citizens become digital, resources that once were devoted to hotlines and call centers should be transitioned into monitoring and responding to online inquiries and direct sources of feedback. As the costs of online chat and even online video are reduced by maturing technologies, government will want to explore these opportunities for more interactive online relationships (See Customer Service article on page 35).

Companies such as Apple and Southwest Airlines provide online interaction communities and use this data source to continuously shape and monitor their services using information directly from their customers. Public services should aspire to these same levels of interaction and engagement.

3| Put the Citizen at the Center.

Program and process design across government should refocus on how the public actually uses online technologies, rather than provide a single government way of using the web. Official web portals will still be useful, but new channels also must be brought into use.

Improving the use of online accounts with personal information access via multiple technology formats is an important step. For example, social security accounts could be available online with the option to turn off paper processing. Increased opportunity for online interaction with a contact center and advanced help options could help citizens navigate the complexities of retirement.

For health and human service programs, the federal government should encourage the development of online direct interactions, data access, and appointment setting. Agencies should provide customized notifications both in terms of content and contact methods, and ensure that citizens are able to receive and provide regular and informative feedback in their online interactions. These will be the kind of online services government must develop to meet new expectations.

Its the Public Network that Matters

Web 2.0 technologies have the potential to help governments manage some of its critical challenges. If governments and agencies can develop comprehensive portfolios of online services that both expand, and in some cases, eliminate their administrative and organizational boundaries, they can go a long way toward realizing those benefits. For example, agencies can use internal collaboration tools to reduce overhead costs, manage the retirement of aging workforces, and preserve valuable knowledge capital beyond each individuals employment. To those ends video conferences, wikis, and knowledge management systems are increasingly critical to public managers.

Furthermore, a shift toward paperless office software and records management systems managed in the Cloud via service providers can reduce government waste, and, by providing documents online, facilitate customer and contractor relationships. This portfolio approach also has the potential to revolutionize governments external relationships. Agencies can use effective social media strategies to harness the co-productive capacity of citizens and do more with less as budgets shrink.

On an individual level, technologies such as text messaging notifications for health services or online communities for seniors can change relationships between social service clients and government-funded providers in a simple yet deeply valued way. For communities, government can facilitate online forums to help address social problems such as crime and public safety and build connections across the public, non-profit, and private sectors. And at a national level, a network of information-sharing systems across government in areas such as homeland security and human services (for example, the tools provided by the national information exchange model) can inform efforts at all levels, from the micro to the macro.

Principles for the Public Network

It is time to shift emphasis from the social network to the public network. Government must move from an organic growth model that yields sub-optimal benefits to a more planned portfolio of applications and tools that fully harnesses the potential for service improvement and coordination. But what does this mean in practice? And what are the principles that should be followed to realize a public network?

First, government must help establish consistent principles of operation and standardization balanced with flexibility. For example, to select the most appropriate online tool for document exchange between government and the public, the system should provide for employing open source options, utilizing Cloud-hosting alternatives, and ensuring that there is scope for interoperability and data exchange. An example of this approach is the Department of Health and Human Services Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT, which is engaged in defining and certifying technical and functional standards for health information exchange and electronic health records.

Second, government must balance approaches including using existing private market solutions and developing public sector tools to fill gaps, provide unmet capabilities, and augment social media. Governments should adopt a total cost of ownership approach to ensure that even if software is free at the point of installation, it will assess all operational costs and benefits. This will require fact-based choices, such as eliminating existing e-government websites and tools when necessary as President Obama has required.

Third, the public network will require constant attention to promote a culture of relentless customer focus as well as ensure that laudable enthusiasm does not lead to superfluous innovation. Feedback loops and customer interaction should be sought as often as possible, but the fulfillment capabilities must be flexible enough to make good on that insight. This may require that governments reallocate investments to the most appropriate channels, including pushing resources and customers from traditional media (such as paper and phone) toward new synchronized media of the online chat variety.

Finally, the development of the public network will require strong governance at the enterprise level to prevent its promise from going unfulfilled. This will include representation from all sectors to promote innovation and development based on the principles presented above. Strategies will be required at all levels of government and subject areas. Additionally, all stakeholders should contributein a true crowd-sourcing approach to innovationbut with strong decision-making and asset allocation mechanisms.

Executive Orders and mechanisms such as the open government directive are setting an agenda, but will need to translate these into highly-functioning partnerships and action at all levels of government. They also must seek partners ranging from multinational organizations to community co-operatives, and perhaps most importantly, with individual citizens yearning to be connected.

Developing the public network is the key technology challenge for the coming decades. Governments must connect all of the disparate efforts to use technologies across agencies to focus on citizens needs and interests.

Continuous reassessment and measurement of progress will be required. The potential of the tools and technologies available is vast; failing to organize and develop a public network will indeed be like leaving silver in the mine.