Second Life for e-Government

Whereas Web 2.0 is democratic, creative and rapidly changing and is owned by the community, e-Gov is top-down, bureaucratic, risk-averse and is often painfully slow to deliver anything. The traditional ‘command and control’ e-Gov mind-set must be changed if the public sector is to treat Web 2.0 as anything other than Web-too-Risky.   
    
There are glimmers of hope. The Prime Minister, leading politicians and ‘e-democracy’ councils, such as Bristol, are championing new online approaches to citizen engagement. But in many cases, online media is simply being incorporated into existing corporate communications messages, which is more Web 1.5 than Web 2.0. Going beyond this stage requires a leap of faith. But if we fail to empower employees and communities to work together effectively, how else will we develop the next generation of online public services and public servants?  
    
For councils, the consequences of not engaging with Web 2.0 will be a growing digital divide. But this time it will be councils that are disadvantaged, marginalised and excluded from the collective benefits of Web 2.0. Digitally literate citizens and communities will happily colonise the new virtual world without us.    

Facing extinction?  
A quick Google search reveals that the term ‘Web 2.0’ was coined in 2004 during a brainstorming session at an O'Reily Media Conference. It was intended to refer to the sea change in complexity and interactivity of web applications. But even Google can’t explain what, if anything, local authorities should do now that citizens have taken to Web 2.0 in such vast numbers. For example, in January 2008 alone, nearly 79 million users made over three billion video views on YouTube. Where does this level of interest leave e-Government or indeed, local government generally?   
    
Imagine that local government is a planet and Web 2.0 is a series of asteroids labelled ‘user generated content’, ‘multi media’ and ‘personalisation’ etc. These asteroids are moving very fast towards us but before they impact they collide with each other, splintering into a storm of sub categories like wikis, blogs, You Tube, mash-ups, tag clouds, podcasts, webcasts and lots of little twitters. No matter how good our defences, it is surely only a matter of time before we take a direct hit from this Web 2.0 storm and then what? Should we fear for the future of local government because we may just go the way of the dinosaurs?   

Changing the e-Gov mind-set?  
Before considering the possibilities of Web 2.0 we need to understand why many in local government see it as a threat.   
    
Web 2.0 demands a nimble, creative, rapid, iterative and community-centred approach. Arguably, this is the antithesis of the project and programme management culture that has dominated government and council ICT over the last decade. When it comes to Web 2.0, by the time the council has established a programme board, hired a management consultant, logged the issues, mitigated the risks and approved the PID, users will have got bored and moved elsewhere. Speed and flexibility are of the essence.  
    
Understandably, it is far easier for councils to bury their heads in the sand, pretend the sun is shining and dismiss Web 2.0 as Web-too-risky. But councils need to understand that Web 2.0 can help re-invigorate tired e-Government programmes. Involving the community can only increase local ownership and stimulate take-up.Instead, councils regularly cite the same old reasons, or excuses, to justify their non-use of Web 2.0. For example, “we don’t have the bandwidth”; “the security of our systems will be compromised”; “council customers aren’t interested in this sort of thing” and “we need to focus on the real work”. Whilst such justifications may contain a grain of truth, none are insurmountable. The public sector’s greatest fear of Web 2.0 is really loss of control.  
    
Web 2.0 is essentially a democratic medium whereas e-Government isn’t. Communities and networks lie at the heart of Web 2.0. They create and share content and increasingly build open source applications, widgets and plug-ins for the benefit of the community as a whole. But who is at the heart of e-Government? Is it the Department of Communities and Local government (CLG), the elected members, the council’s CIO or web manager? Whoever it is, it certainly isn’t the community.   
    
So at a deep level, resistance to Web 2.0 is about retaining control of online public services. It is about who decides how services are delivered and how they are presented and accessed. Most authorities are understandably very comfortable with the status quo as they determine priorities and allocate resources (i.e. do the “real work”) but longer-term transformation requires a radical change in thinking.   
    
Can we contemplate a scenario where the community is allowed or even encouraged to collectively author a plug-in for a council website; take away council information, mash-it up and re-present it back to us, or provide their own citizen-journalist accounts of council meetings? Can we imagine a scenario where there is a community that is willing and able to work with us to do this?
Lipstick on the pig  
Many e-Gov professionals will find ideas of radical change too… radical. They will conclude that authorities don‘t need to fundamentally change their mind-set in order to adopt Web 2.0. They will believe that it is possible to keep everything pretty much the same and just dabble with a bit of cosmetic web2ification here and there… or can we?Web 2.0 is primarily the domain of the young (and the young at heart). Having woken-up to the fact that most local government employees are fast growing old, many council HR teams are rapidly adopting Workforce Management Strategies. These aim to entice fresh, young employees into local government. But this younger generation has grown-up with technology and they will expect to use it in the work place (“what do you mean you don’t have MSN, why would I work for you?”). Their exposure to technology also means that they possess a sophisticated view of how content is made, what works and what is authentic. As customers they can spot whether a council’s Web 2.0 use is real, or just cosmetic. And like your dad dancing at your cousin’s wedding, it is easy for councils to get Web 2.0 very, very wrong.   
    
Pity the council that is surprised when it publishes its expensively made PR film on YouTube, only for half a dozen users to post responses showing mobile phone videos of how dirty the place really is. And of course, there is the council PR team that celebrates a zero increase in council tax by writing and performing a song. Did the council acquire a cool Web 2.0 veneer simply by publishing the song and accompanying video on line, “No” was the resounding answer. And what about the council that offers its citizens the facility of e-petitions? Is it to be celebrated for invigorating local democracy, or laughed at for dolling-out hammers so citizens can inflict more pain? The last example is Bristol, so it is very close to my heart.   

There is success too  

Despite the challenges, many authorities appear to be making genuine attempts to use Web 2.0. There are now a whole host of blogging MP’s and councillors, including councillor Mary Reid of Kingston-upon-Thames, whom we might dub ‘Mary Queen of Blogs’ for her pioneering efforts. Prime Minister Gordon Brown is using YouTube to reach out, streaming video question and answer sessions. WebCameron caused something of a splash. The Queen has her own YouTube channel. The Cabinet Office Twitters, sending out a short message stream via SMS and e-mail. Even the country’s premier security service MI5 is using Facebook to recruit future operatives. And then, of course, there is the magnificent MySociety.  
    
MySociety appears to effortlessly build interesting and purposeful applications that people flock in their tens-of-millions to use. Particularly interesting is their use of maps as a primary user interface, rather than reams of text. There certainly seems to be more mileage in creating simple to use interfaces, than in attempting to ‘train’ citizens to do overly complicated things.   
    
The Web 2.0 agenda has also become inextricably linked to Freedom of Information and most recently, the Power of Information review (Ed Mayo and Tom Steinberg), which is looking at a range of opportunities that could be created by combining (or ‘mashing up’) public and citizen created data. Showusabetterway.com was created to elicit ideas about what might be the best ways to use this type or public and private data mash up. £20k has been made available to implement the best ideas and so far hundreds have been submitted.  
    
Tom Watson MP referred to the Power of Information agenda as: “The most important policy area in my role as a Cabinet Office Minister”, and it is clear to see that the government has begun to advance swiftly in the area of Web 2.0 style applications and interactions, with many local authorities not too far behind.  

Have we stalled at Web 1.5?

In many authorities, e-Democracy is the closest thing we have to Web 2.0. E-Democracy creates online civic spaces where citizens can engage with the authority, with Members and with each other. In some instances, authorities are choosing to use Web 2.0 spaces, MySpace, YouTube etc. rather than creating anything separate.  
    
Bristol City Council’s e-Democracy programme has grown organically over the past decade. Its development has mirrored wider transformations in the web generally.   
    
Bristol’s starting point was Consultation Finder, which effectively co-ordinate consultation information across the authority. The council soon learned that Consultation Finder also offered a significant democratic opportunity. Simply by placing consultation information in one place on the web, it became far easier for citizens and interested parties to find out what was going on. This first-step demonstrated the power of information.  
    
Officers were encouraged to be bold, experimental and innovative and the council became the first in the UK to offer e-petitions. When a petition is transferred online it changes in nature. If a citizen disagrees with the cause or issue on which the e-petitioner is seeking support, they can say so in an online discussion forum. They can also seek points of clarification before deciding whether or not to sign.               
Campaign Creator is another empowering Bristol e-Democracy project. It developed a suite of easy to use on and off-line resources to help communities run professional local campaigns. The Scarman Trust, a voluntary sector partner, trained 20 campaign coaches who worked in the community. During the nine-month pilot more than 500 would-be campaigners registered to use Campaign Creator, both from Bristol and from around the world.   
    
Most recently, the council has introduced multi-media and webcasting. A central feature is The Ask Bristol portal, a place where citizens can share their views by adding text, audio or video comments. Climate change is providing an important focus for Bristol’s e-Democracy programme, acting as a catalyst for greater online engagement.  
    
Whilst we remain very proud of what has been achieved in Bristol, there is still more to do if e-Democracy is to fully benefit from the opportunity provided by Web 2.0. For example, having created Ask Bristol, an e-Democracy portal, we now need to find a way to disaggregate it, responding to citizen and neighbourhood demand to download and use democratic content locally.
    
We can no longer pretend that the council has the monopoly on local web communications. As more and more citizens and community groups start to use the web to blog, campaign, discuss and debate, we have a choice. We can either find a way to join in, or watch dismayed as fewer and fewer citizens choose to visit the ‘official’ civic on line spaces that we have created.  

Where next?
We suggest three simple ways to help frame the change in e-Gov thinking that we have called for: Think feeds rather than hits; value experience and not just expertise; engage communities not just committees.  
    
Being outward focused; concerned about who is taking and using public service content rather than where it sits; appreciative of the community’s creativity and experience and willing to work outside of traditional organisational boundaries - these are qualities that will help organisations make use of Web 2.0. and of course, the willingness to take a few risks

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