Govt 2.0

11 Jun 2008

The phenomenon of Web 2.0 has taken the internet by storm but what does this development mean for the culture of governance and will it impact on how government conducts its business?

A year or so ago, I was invited to a discussion on Web 2.0 and I went along to find out what exactly it was, what it looked like and where I could get it. Well, it isn’t a new product or sudden phenomenon. It’s just how people use the internet as a collaborative tool rather than the postcard websites of old. While Web 2.0 has been made possible through continuing advances in software applications and growing use of broadband services, all you need to know is that the internet and computers are getting smarter and better and that there’s no end to what will be possible in the coming years.

This new level of internet activity is changing the way people are socialising and collaborating in all manner of activities, from commerce to culture to education to administration. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), for instance, is “unlocking knowledge, empowering minds” with its MIT OpenCourseWare facility, where anyone can access lecture notes, problem sets and lecture videos on its vast array of courses, which number 1,800.

For instance, MIT’s CMS.998/CMS.600 New Media Literacies course is very relevant in that it introduces participants to “the practices and concepts of: fan fiction writing, online social networking, video gaming, appropriation and remixing, transmedia navigation, multitasking, performance, distributed cognition and collective intelligence”. This is a considerable array of tools that have to have an impact on how communities, societies and governments work and inter-work in the internet-enabled world of mass collaboration.

Wikinomics, by Don Tapscott and Anthony D Williams, details how Goldcorp ‘open sourced’ its mining difficulty through the Goldcorp Challenge with a prize of US$575,000, putting all of its geology information and data in the public arena and inviting the public to come up with a solution. The process eventually led to the identification of previously unidentified deposits and it eventually led to the company growing from a US$100m company to a US$9bn operation.

A fundamental principle of Web 2.0 is that knowledge and information can be shared and are amenable to change. Wikipedia has, in a very short time, outpaced the Encyclopedia Britannica. Wikipedia is largely self-correcting in that knowledge owners and improvers are constantly honing the entries and it’s a prime example of open source knowledge.

Different tools of thought
What does this mean for government? Well, it depends on how you look at it. Most organisations consist of a number of people operating processes using tools in a culture that dictates how they should behave. A significant change in any one of these elements can have a profound impact on the organisation. The degree of the impact depends on the significance of the change. In the case of Web 2.0 the change is primarily in the area of the tools that people are using and how the tools are impacting their performance and behaviour.

The essential quality of Web 2.0 is that it has spawned a whole new world of mass collaboration. It has meant that the obsession with intellectual property or the power of information that was the hallmark of the traditional business and government model is coming under pressure to change. Information sharing is becoming the norm and many companies and research establishments have realised that by revealing their knowledge and information sources to outsiders it is having a very good impact on their own activities and is opening up new global opportunities to do business.

What if the health authorities were to ‘open source’ the difficult problem of having an efficient public health service that responds to the needs of people and their communities and is affordable? Clearly it is a complex issue, but who is to say that there are not many people across the world that could come up with a workable solution? Is it foolhardy to think that all of the wisdom on this is contained in one organisation? In Flanders they are closing down nursing homes because they have proved that people can improve and stay active and alert if they remain in their own homes. To put them into institutions where they become rapidly dependent on staff for their every need is actually counterproductive. In that situation the emphasis (and money) is on supporting people to stay at home.

Government is complex and covers a whole spectrum of activities. Other people in other countries are dealing or have dealt with similar problems. People in local communities are now being ‘empowered’ by access to a universe of knowledge. The culture of governance needs to reflect that change – not just in the tools that officials and politicians use in their own work – but in the way they relate to those whom they serve. That’s really about starting off with a new level of trust.

By Colm Butler