December 4, 2007 By Chad Vander Veen
Photo: Iowa CIO John Gillispie
Although questions about its veracity persist, the phenomenon known as Web 2.0 continues to command serious attention by analysts and insiders across all sectors, including government. In an attempt to get a better grasp on how government ought to operate in a Web 2.0 world, the National Electronic Commerce Coordinating Council (eC3), a consortium of leaders from the public and private sectors, recently held its 2007 symposium titled Government in the Age of YouTube. On Dec. 4, 2007, eC3 released an executive summary of the symposium, created with input from symposium participants. Contributors included high-level government officials, private-sector technology executives and other thought leaders.
The phrase "Web 2.0" was coined in 2004 at the O'Reilly Media Conference and since then, the term has been assigned myriad definitions. Some say Web 2.0 is a new generation of Web sites that foster user collaboration, creativity and connectivity, citing sites such as MySpace, Flickr, Wikipedia and YouTube. Others contend that 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.
Operating under the supposition that Web 2.0 is indeed a reality, the eC3 symposium asked fundamental questions such as how can government use Web 2.0 technologies and how will Web 2.0 affect government? The consensus seems to be that Web 2.0 can help government enhance its existing relationship with citizens.
"This whole suite of tools is far more participatory in its nature," said Iowa CIO John Gillispie. "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 be prohibitive 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 summary, it is 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 traditional 1.0 security requirements and the 2.0 desire for openness.
"The 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. 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 the 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 in order to connect with their constituents.
Since time immemorial, government has been perceived as a slow adopter. 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 a symposium titled Government in the Age of YouTube is proof-positive government is already behind the curve.
Hunt believes the era of Web 2.0 dictates government must work toward openness by facilitating collaboration with citizens. This will require government to share some control of content.
"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."
Web 2.0 is shaping up to be an opportunity for government to revolutionize its position in the lives of citizens, according to the summary. It emphasized that it's in government's best 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."