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Web 2.0: Community Building for Local Governments

October 15, 2008 By

The following is excerpted from a White Paper by the Digital Communities CIO Task Force, entitled Government 2.0: Building Communities with Web 2.0 and Social Networking. The full white paper is available for free download from our Resource Center.

Much of what we now consider to be Web 2.0 technology had its genesis in the desire of young people for self-expression, peer communication and a new way to stay connected with friends. For example, blogs were originally created to essentially be online diaries. Simply put, blogging was a way to combine a personal Web page with tools that made linking to other pages and ultimately applications easier.

Tools such as MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, wikis and others, further automated the process and made inclusion of pictures, video, music and other customizations much easier and helped further create communities of interest by linking "friends."

So the question for government is: Do these tools that were originally created to further self-expression really represent and signal a fundamental shift in how we create and manage our relationships and interactions or are they just modern vaporware, interesting applications that have little practical or lasting value especially in the public sector?

Seattle's Chief Technology Officer Bill Schrier, one of the leading local government thinkers on the potential of Web 2.0 in the public sector and a member of the Digital Communities CIO Task Force, has taken a thoughtful look at this very question. In his personal blog, where he identifies himself as the "Chief Seattle Geek," he looks at the potential Web 2.0 tools have for building better communities. 6

In his essay, Schrier contends that social networking applications, such as MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn and even Second Life, have truly broken new ground. They allow individuals to establish a new, online presence to interact with other members of their online community. They provide the opportunity for government to further promote, organize and support small groups in communities like anti-crime block watches or neighborhood disaster recovery teams. In his opinion, having (secure) social networking sites for these community groups to interact, learn from each other and educate themselves has great promise.

He goes on to say that moderated blogs with interactive comments are, potentially, a good way for elected officials to receive input from constituents and interact with them. They might be a supplement to public meetings in the community, but are not without their challenges. For example, often blogs and even public meetings are monopolized by a few, self-anointed citizen activists, and moderating a blog is a lot of time and effort for a government agency.

Online surveys conducted with tools such as Zoomerang and SurveyMonkey are ubiquitous in the private sector and could be used to help elected officials gauge the mood of a city's residents on any particular topic. Like all online surveys, however, activists and special interest groups can rig the results by "voting early and often." Such surveys won't be statistically valid, but valuable insight may be gained by combining them with traditional surveying techniques conducted via U.S. mail or the telephone.

Wikis, a collection of Web pages designed to enable anyone who accesses it to contribute or modify content using a simplified markup language, certainly hold great promise as tools internal to government.7 Government is typically broken up into departments, each with its own unique functions. Departments tend to be siloed groups and cross-department communication is difficult to establish and maintain. Wikis or similar tools, such as Microsoft's SharePoint or others, could be used to standardize business processes, functions and terms across an entire government. Just simple processes such as "how to handle a public disclosure request" or "how to pay a vendor invoice" are candidates for documentation and improvement through a

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