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
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
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
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
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
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
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.