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The challenges of Web 2.0 within the Federal Government


The Center for American Progress (CAP) held a panel discussion in Washington last week on the use of Web 2.0 technology by the Obama administration. The panel was chaired by Peter Swire (Senior Fellow at CAP, and former counsel to the Change.gov New Media Team). He led an interesting discussion with Tim O’Reilly (Founder of O’Reilly media), Alec Ross (Senior Advisor at the State Department on Innovation), and Faiz Shakir (Research director at Center for American Progress), on Web 2.0 initiatives at the State Department and the issues in its future use throughout the Federal Government. 

At the outset Peter mentions three papers on the CAP website in relation to the Federal Government’s use of Web 2.0. These are:

1) It’s Not the Campaign Any More – This memo documents the different approaches to Web 2.0 by the White House, and the challenges they face. It discusses the contrast between the new and fun things that could be done on the Obama campaign, versus the limitations imposed within the Federal Government. The primary reasons that things are more difficult in the White House include:

  • Scale: The Obama campaign had to cope with motivated groups of over 10 million individuals, while the White House has to cope with, and respond to the concerns of over 300 million Americans. This makes it difficult to respond to and manage individual comments. The White House Open for Questions initiative generated over 103,978 questions from 92,937 people in just a few days. This provides an idea of the scale of comments and questions the administration needs to deal with. Given the New Media team at the White House consists of just 8 – 10 people, it’s not feasible for them to interact or engage with so many individuals. Crowdsourcing initiatives such as the use of Google moderator (for Open for Questions) and IdeaScale (for Open Government brainstorming) suggest the administration is attempting to use the wisdom of crowds to filter comments and suggestions. Other organisations e.g. OMBWatch, are also providing analysis of comments, potentially helping the administration to deal with large quantities of feedback. 
  • The Clearance process:  Responses to questions need to be “cleared” with all of the relevant agencies, before they can be posted on blogs, twitter or social networking sites. Peter describes an analogy of where an incorrect response to an North Korea question, could result in missiles being launched. While it’s a rather extreme example, the comments and answers posted from the White House could be construed as official government policy or opinion. In terms of foreign relations even seemingly inconsequential comments could have major diplomatic ramifications, and so everything needs to be vetted and analysed before posting. 
  • Limits on Government authorizing actions: The White House needs to be careful not to endorse or authorize others to act on its behalf. While the campaign may have been able to take a lackadaisical approach to endorsing individuals or events, things are more nuanced and difficult in the White House. There could be charges of favoritism or politicization if the White House endorses individuals or organisations. The White House has to project an appearance of fairness and objectivity when discussing outside entities e.g. websites or platforms, and as such often says very little in response to it’s use of different technologies. 

2) Six New Media Challenges: Legal and Policy Considerations for Federal Use of Web 2.0 Technology

3) How to Buy Free Software: Procuring Web 2.0 Technology for the Federal Government

Panel discussion

The first part of the discussion focuses on Diplomacy 2.0 and the State Department’s efforts to engage and interact with an online audience to further its mission. Such initiatives include twitter, blogs, youtube and facebook.  An interactive travel map is available to track Secretary Clinton’s travels, while initiatives such as Ask the Secretary have  allowed the public to submit questions directly to the Secretary of State. The initiatives outlined by Alec Ross (including the SWAT campaign), provide a good indication of how social media is being utilized within the department. 

The second part of the discussion focused on the issues facing the adoption of Web 2.0 within government. These include privacy concerns, access for those with disabilities, commercial endorsement and advertising, terms of service agreements, regulations and security concerns. These are highlighted in Peter Swire’s paper on New Media Challenges, and overlap with many of the barriers to social media adoption outlined by the federal Web Managers council last year.

While the issues won’t all be solved overnight, it’s enlightening to see departments and agencies within the federal government taking risks in this area. The rollout of Web 2.0 across government requires risk and the acceptance that while mistakes maybe made, the greater risk is to not embrace these new forms of social software.

Tim O’Reilly talked about Government as a platform, in which users can easily access and mash-up government services to allow for a more transparent, open and participatory form of public interaction. Recent initiatives such as Data.gov, Open Government Initiative, The National Dialogue etc. all serve to highlight how far the administration is embracing the tenets behind Open government. While this movement is only at the beginning, the prevalence of discussions like this, recent barcamps and the upcoming Gov2.0 summit, serve to ensure the lexicon of Web 2.0 increases throughout the federal government.

If the video above is a bit too long there’s a 5-minute Youtube video in which Peter surmises Web 2.0 specific issues in relation to the federal government. There’s also a 23-minute audio interview with Swire available at Science Progress.

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