Challenging public sector ethos

The phrase ‘Web 2.0’ means many different things depending upon who you talk to, so last year’s Socitm Insight report ‘Web 2.0: what it is and why it matters – a briefing for public sector managers’ is providing a welcome guide.
The report explains that ‘Web 2.0’ is an umbrella term for a series of technology enabled web developments facilitating user-generated content, ‘mash-ups’ or re-use of information, advanced search facilities, the sharing of photos, video and ‘rich content’, and business (and social) networking. Taken together, these developments represent a step change in exploiting internet technology. Many have likened it to the re-invigoration of the industrial revolution when steam power replaced the water wheel, and have predicted that the impact of Web 2.0 will be at least as profound as that of the development of the Internet itself over the last ten years.

Exploiting capability
There is no commonly accepted definition of Web 2.0. Whilst Web 1.0 was characterised by WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get), WIMP (windows, icons, mouse, pull-down menus), and pushing information at users, Web 2.0 is a significant advance. It is about exploiting broadband capability; interaction, and exploiting advanced use of a broad range of web facilities. These include folksonomies; mobile web applications; podcasts/webcasts; advanced search; really simple syndication (RSS); software as a service; weblogs (blogs); and widgets – to name a few.
Web 2.0 solutions are small or ‘lightweight’ web-based processes that can be easily reused, and most Web 2.0 applications will (co)operate in a service-oriented architecture. To explain the new technologies and approaches, Socitm’s Web 2.0 report allocates them to eight groups that, taken together, typify the Web 2.0 phenomenon (see p.58 for details).
Understandably, public sector organisations have legitimate fears about the security of these new web 2.0 facilities, as well as their potential for employee time-wasting and engagement in discussions that, being conducted ‘in public’ bring with them reputational risk. Such fears are reflected in answers given to the survey of local authority managers carried out as part of the research undertaken to prepare the report. 76 per cent of respondents believed that concerns about time wasting were preventing greater use of web-based networking facilities, whilst half considered that security issues were also an inhibitor. 39 per cent had concerns that the additional demands that electronic networking and intensive Web 2.0 applications make on network bandwidth and desktop processors would challenge their organisation’s technical infrastructure.

Business tool
Despite this perhaps natural reaction, clamping down on web access is not the answer to such worries, says the report. Organisations should be encouraging employees to see the Internet as a valuable business tool, not a source of risk that they should avoid. Denied the opportunity to use social networking, time-wasters will find plenty of other outlets, while private sector experience shows that reputational risk is more likely to stem from not getting involved.
Public relations and communications people should be actively monitoring social networking sites in addition to traditional media, and responding positively, neither denying nor responding defensively to any thread that is critical of the organisation’s behaviour or services. This is very much the view taken by the Cabinet Office on behalf of central government, which has recently published a code of conduct for civil servants participating in blogs.

Involving communities
For those that take this positive view, Web 2.0 provides a fresh opportunity for public sector organisations to build community involvement. Either by engaging with local community blogs, or by encouraging participation from service users and local businesses or residents on their own websites, public bodies have the opportunity to rebuild a sense of community. The London Borough of Redbridge, for example, has the specific aim of using Web 2.0 to increase engagement and draw people into using the more efficient web service channel than to use either the telephone or face-to-face transactions. Residents can even adapt the appearance of the ‘Redbridge-i’ home page to suit their specific needs.
Redbridge noted that websites such as TripAdvisor that publish user-generated content build a greater momentum of use and carry more authority than many organisations’ own sites. For example, a comment such as ‘difficult to find, but worth it’, or ‘noisy neighbours’ are more valuable than what a hotel might say about itself. The ‘Redbridge conversation’, engaged the community in a detailed online discussion about their capital-spending programme. Not all public sector organisations have the immediate resources to invest in Web 2.0 on the scale of Redbridge, but that does not mean they cannot take advantage of some of the new ways of doing things. Stratford-on-Avon, for example, has incorporated Twitter instant messaging feeds into its website, and even has its own Flickr album where people can post pictures of places and events in the area.

Surprisingly, perhaps, given that Web 2.0 is enabling people to become more involved in the design and delivery of public services, and is forcing public organisations to become more transparent and less controlling and paternalistic, central government is embracing the phenomenon. In 2007, the Cabinet Office, recognising the explosive growth of the Internet, and the way in which a small group of mothers (NetMums) had reached an audience of thousands with their parenting support without either the backing of a large organisation or extensive technical help, commissioned the Power of Information report.
In its response to the report, the government recognised among other things that the public sector needs to engage in partnerships with user-led online communities and that public bodies need to take the necessary steps so that the information they hold (excluding personal information) can be readily re-used. Other outcomes have been establishment of the ‘Power of information’ taskforce and the ‘Show us a better way’ competition, designed to promote the re-use of public information.
These steps to embrace Web 2.0 are to be welcomed, because despite legitimate fears and natural caution, the public sector must engage or else get left behind, leaving citizens to make inferior comparisons with the approaches adopted by commerce.

Web 2.0 at a glance
User-generated content is one of the defining phenomena of Web 2.0, since instead of organisations using websites to present information and services that it wishes to promote, users are encouraged to provide, and even organise, website content. Examples of user-generated content are weblogs (or ‘blogs’), wikis and folksonomies. All of these enable individuals to contribute their knowledge or opinions to a selected community quickly and with the minimum of bureaucracy.
Interactivity is an entry-level requirement for a Web 2.0 website. Developers can use these tools to deliver online services as part of a compelling experience for visitors so that they will not only return to the website, but choose to conduct transactions, thereby migrating from other channels that are more expensive for the public sector to operate. The technologies involved include AJAX, real-time interaction, web services (including software as a service (SaaS), and widgets.
Re-use of information explains some of the power of Web 2.0, since the ability to combine knowledge, information and perspectives from many separate individuals and websites is compelling. At the simplest level, a website can increase its utility for visitors by collecting and combining information from another site, obviating the need for the visitors to do it themselves. In more complex implementations, multiple websites and aggregated opinions from multiple visitor contributors increase the value and credibility of the information. Technologies include mash-ups (hybrid web applications that combine data and processes from more than one other application) and representational state transfer/plain old XML, also known as REST/POX.

Rich content
Use of rich content effectively increases the bandwidth of communication between the organisation operating the website and the community of visitors that it serves. The ability to capture sights and sounds on mobile devices and to publish them easily dramatically expands the potential for providing and exploiting the sort of content that will attract and satisfy visitors. Technologies involved include 3D, mapping, podcasts, webcasts, shared images and video. Familiar examples include Flickr (photo sharing), YouTube (video) and Google Maps.
Business and social networking covers web facilities that enable people to interact with one another in a virtual environment that mirrors everyday social or business/professional contact. Websites like Facebook and My Space are seen as social phenomena, and yet they are increasingly used for business purposes. Sites like Linked in are dedicated to business and professional networking
Search and retrieval of information is a ‘must have’ for the world of Web 2.0, in which, with so much information now available on the web, any search is likely to generate thousands of results. Advanced search, signposting techniques and personalisation help people to find what they want from a surfeit of information. The objective is to reduce the amount of time that people spend searching for the information they need. Theoretically, web technology delivers it within a few seconds. However, without advanced facilities, the sheer volume of irrelevant information obscures the gem that the enquirer seeks. Relevant technologies are advanced search; personalised portals; RSS and Atom feeds; and tag clouds.
Mobile access to the Internet at high speed but low cost is becoming available thanks to WiFi, 3G mobile telephony, and the impeding auction of 4G spectrum, as well as the availability of cheap, but very capable, mobile devices. The indications are for ubiquitous connectivity; mobile internet access is available in urban areas and frequently on public transport. The indications are for ubiquitous connectivity: an ‘always connected’ future that requires fresh thinking about how citizens will expect to connect to public services.
E-learning predates Web 2.0, but limitations on bandwidth and user engagement have inhibited take-up outside of academia. The rich facilities now available, including virtual reality spaces like Second Life, open up opportunities for use in vocational training as well as further exploitation in mainstream education. In the public sector work context, learning is often more about hearing and understanding other people’s perspectives than it is about predetermined content and learning by rote. The rich learning environments that Web 2.0 provides suits the increasingly dispersed and virtualised working environment.

Please register to comment on this article