There’s been a fair bit of interesting reading about government 2.0 initiatives (the new ‘branding’ for what used to be called e-democracy or e-government) lately; probably prompted by a summit on the topic in Washington DC and the Australian government’s initiative in this area (and, no doubt, in some instances, by a confluence between the two).
It’s all too easy to get caught up in the “cool” factor of Web 2.0. The potential of the technology is so amazing that sometimes we can forget that at the end of the day, it’s still people on either end of the tubes. It’s important to remember that Web 2.0 is all about people. As Michael Wesch has said, “The Machine is Us”. The Government 2.0 Taskforce could do worse than to follow the lead of one of the great political campaigners of our time and hang a sign in the group’s (virtual) war room constantly bringing it back to this fundamental theme. It could read: It’s the Community, Stupid!
Watts’ argument, with which I would agree, might be summed up by the short paraphrase, “if you build it, they won’t necessarily come”. Or perhaps, as I’ve been arguing recently, some decisions have to be made about which populations are being incited to come, and for what purposes; I’ve previously written on some issues around the digital divide in discussing the Australian iniatives.
It seems to me, analytically, that a number of issues have to be sorted out which haven’t always been well thought through in much of the discussion of government 2.0:
(a) Is government 2.0 (in its ‘engagement’ mode) the same thing as community consultation? In other words, is it just a quicker and perhaps more efficient mode of guaging reaction to decisions which have largely been made already, or to tweaking them in the implementation phase? If so, does it have some advantages in potentially enabling a more representative sample of opinion?
(b) Is government 2.0 something which can open up policy debates to a wider range of voices? If so, is this better conceived of as expanding the reach of distributed expertise rather than citizen empowerment per se?
Both questions have political as well as policy answers, I hasten to add.
But the key point, I think, is that we need to think through the social and cultural uses of such tools by government. And to understand that engagement or open information strategies do not either necessarily transform government and decision making nor elicit more interest and participation in politics as such.
As a footnote, for those who are in Brisbane next Monday morning, the Eidos Institute is holding a breakfast with British creativity guru Charles Leadbeater:
THE USER-GENERATED STATE: PUBLIC SERVICES 2.0
On Monday the 21st September 2009, The Eidos Institute Board and Education City will be hosting a breakfast with Charles Leadbeater, a leading authority on innovation and strategy and one of the most influential creative people in the world. He has advised companies, cities and governments, and is former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s favourite corporate thinker. Charlie will be discussing radical innovation in the public services, including the role of co-creation and user-generated services.
Charlie’s presentation will be followed by comments from Dr Nicolas Gruen, Chair, Government 2.0 Taskforce (TBC); and Professor Brian Fitzgerald, Professor of Intellectual Property and Innovation, Queensland University of Technology.
The two discussants, both of whom are probably well known to a lot of LP readers, should have some interesting things to say, I would think. The Eidos Institute is doing some interesting research around questions of public services and citizen involvement, so it would be worth a look in should you have an interest.