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I watched this debate a few weeks ago, but only manged to make some notes recently. The discussion was organized by the New American Foundation and took place at Google on 9th January. The tag-line was Can Obama Use Technology to Transform Government?

It’s a thought provoking debate with contributions from  Nicholas Thompson (mod), Craig Newmark, Mindy Finn, Ellen Miller, and Sascha Meinrath. The debate has been discussed on various blogs, and I’ve listed some of the discussion points below.

Federal Web Managers Council

The debate refers to two reports – from the Federal Web Managers Council – that are important in the context of the current regulatory/cultural difficulties in harnessing the web’s potential throughout government agencies. The reports include:

1) Putting Citizens First: Transforming Online Government (PDF) – This focuses on initiatives needed to make online government data and processes more user friendly. The initiatives include:

  • Establishing Web Communications as a core government business function
  • Helping the public complete common government tasks efficiently
  • Cleaning up the clutter so people can find what they need online
  • Engaging the public in a dialogue to improve our customer service
  • Ensuring the public gets the same answer whether they use the web, phone, email, pint, or visit in-person
  • Ensure underserved populations can access critical information online

The report concludes with vision of how the Administration can benefit from using the web:

By harnessing the collaborative nature of the web, the new Administration has the potential to engage the public like never before.  The web can foster better communication and allow people to participate in improving the operations of their government.

2) Barriers and Solutions to Implementing Social Media in Government (PDF) – This details the barriers to the use of social media in government. These include:

  • Cultural issues and lack of a strategy for using these new tools
  • Employee access to online tools
  • Terms of service
  • Advertising
  • Procurement
  • Privacy
  • Persistent Cookies
  • Surveys
  • Access for people with disabilities
  • Administrative requirements during rulemaking

Solutions are proposed to the issues above and the report also highlights good examples of Web 2.0 and Social Media already in Government.

Government 2.0

Gaurav Mishra (blogging about the debate) outlines five different levels of government 2.0, where level 5 is the most radical:

Level 1. Allowing government employees and elected officials at all levels to access and use social media tools like blogs, wikis and social networks to connect with their constituents.

Level 2. The strategic use of social media tools like blogs, wikis and social networks by government agencies to achieve their objectives and solicit citizen feedback to improve their processes.

Level 3. A participatory platform that engages citizens in policy debates and voluntary service at all levels of the government.

Level 4. Open availability of all non-sensitive and non-personal government data so that citizens can use it and third parties can build web 2.0 mashups on top of it.

Level 5. Crowd-sourcing the government, party by institutionalizing a process that directly uses the aforementioned participatory platform as an important input into government functions, including policy formation.

He outlines how Level 1 and level 2 government 2.0 initiatives are already happening e.g. social media initiatives by US government agencies (PDF), active and archived US government blogs, and US government agencies and employees on Twitter.

Levels 4 & 5, however, are not in widespread use through government. While there are initiatives e.g. Peer to Patent, that exemplify a Level 5 crowd-sourcing approach, these are isolated instances which are not generally representative of the government websphere.

The internet changes expectations

Ellen Miller identified 3 principles for the Obama Administration to abide by:

  • Transparency is government’s responsibility – government should be open by default and not as a response to Freedom of Information or public lobbying. In the first 100 days of the administration there should be an executive order on the use of social media/software to engage and communicate with the public
  • Public means online – the internet is the only medium in which information can truly be in the public sphere
  • Data and presentation matter – the contextualization of data and it’s visualization are critical to enabling easy understanding of patterns and trends e.g. see stimulus bill

Notwithstanding these principles, however, Craig and Mindy noted some obstacles in using the internet as a medium for public discourse. These include issues with trolls, and how they can manipulate voting mechanisms and introduce inflammatory rhetoric into discussions. Also, it often tends to be the loud and opinionated comments that direct the course of conversations, while the moderate and fact-based opinions are neglected. There is also a issue over how representative the participants in online discussions are, and how their views are weighted. There is a great potential for pressure groups to become involved in online conversations with the effect that their views can drown out minority opinions. While this is not inherently a bad thing, it can provide a context in which people are afraid to express opinions that go against the prevailing orthodoxy within a discussion.

Scrutinizing the stimulus

Ellen Miller highlights how government should engage opinions on the economic stimulus package. It’s important when the stimulus document is posted online and in a fashion that allows for easy annotation. A PDF document is not an appropriate medium in which to place texts requiring feedback.

The http://readthestimulus.org/ site is an excellent example of how the text of the stimulus bill can be brought to life through user comments and discussions. The UK’s recently released Power of Information Taskforce report (beta) is structured in a similar way allowing for easy commenting and conversations.

Regulation

An interesting example of how laws can prevent good things happening online was discussed. The text of a Presidential speech as put on the White House website with a link to the Red Cross. However, the White House staff were told to remove this external link as it could be thought they were sponsoring the organization.

Also, it was noted that Youtube videos could not be embedded on government sites in California because of the American disabilities act and a terms of service law mean content has to be in text and video form at the same time.

Ellen Miller also noted how members of Congress had been unable to use social media in any form until recently. Needless to say lots of members used these media outlets illegally and so the Democrats decided to revisit the rule. They came out with a new rule which they thought tried to loosen the restrictions. Republicans, however, thought the Democrats were trying to nail the restrictions in place. In the end the Sunlight Foundation launched a Let our Congress Tweet campaign gathering several thousand followers within 48 hours. A few weeks later the rule was reversed and now members of congress can use social media sites such as Twitter and Youtube.

The demand to change the rules came from the public through the use of social media. The public wants to hear from elected representatives on twitter, and there is now a fascinating list of Members of Congress on Twitter at Tweetcongress and MPs on Twitter at Tweetminister.

Progress

The points outlined in the discussion – along with the concerns raised by the Federal Web Managers Council – may paint a bleak picture for social media and web2.0 services throughout government. This is not the case, however, and there are many successful online participatory platforms managed by the government e.g. usa.gov, whitehouse.gov, grants.gov etc. There is also a good variety of examples of agencies using online content and social media to achieve goals.

The level of government 2.0 that needs to be embraced is that requiring transparency, trust and openness i.e. Levels 4 and 5 outlined above. Social media platforms can be used to facilitate these levels of government 2.0, however, much more important is the change in mindset required to accept the consequences of such changes. We’ve seen from President Obama tentative steps to embrace this new paradigm e.g. with recovery.gov, however, we’re still awaiting an example of where online citizen involvement changes policy or proposed legislation. There have been a few hiccups already, but as long as the objectives in the Memorandum on Open Government is embraced the public can look forward to greater online recognition and involvement sooner rather than later.


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