Sunday, June 22, 2008

Government 2.0

Scott Horvath, who maintains Just a Govy, a blog focusing on social media and the government, sent me a fascinating email with thoughts and questions about how Web 2.0 may affect the way our Federal, state, and local governments communicate with citizens. Says Scott:
The government is, obviously, a very bureaucratic "company." It's a very top-down type of structure. But social media really eats away at the foundation of that structure and many government organization are very hesitant to really use social media tools for the purposes they're intended for. Instead they use them to continue pushing out messages in a one-way conversation...another dumping ground for information hoping that people will read it.
After giving this some thought, I wonder if Social Media and governing simply don't mesh. Those of us who work and live within Web 2.0 believe Social Media will change everything, but what if there are limits to the reach of Social Media (and to how much and how quickly we can expect government to adapt?)

There certainly are aspects of Social Media that may be difficult if not impossible to incorporate into organizations as bureaucratic as governments. The ideas that drive Web 2.0 and that comprise government differ substantially in several aspects:
  • Democratic: Social media is a pure direct democracy--the voice of the people, with each person representing themselves and everyone being equal. Our government, for reasons that are both practical and philosophical, is a representative democracy. Practically, it would be impossible for every law or policy question to be brought before the people, and philosophically, majority rule can trample rights of minorities.

  • Participation: Social Media isn't social without participation. Our system of government may seem participative, but it is so only at select and predetermined times in the electoral process. For example, while voters may get a time and place at which they may express opinions on bills, it is the actions of our representatives and not of the people that result in the creation of new laws.

    In fact, one of the three branches of government, the judicial branch, is purposely (but not entirely) distanced from direct participation of the people. Nor do the people get to affect change any time they want in the executive or legislative branches without specific and difficult processes. The system of government in the U.S. counts on citizen participation, but only within limits.

  • Dynamic: Social Media is inherently dynamic--it constantly changes as people interact, express themselves, create new content, combine media, add links, and further the discussion. Governments change slowly over time. While many citizens have grown frustrated with the pace of change at the Federal level, the caution and deliberation are not without reason. Change to laws and policies should come slowly and carefully and not based on today's popular opinion (which is prone to change tomorrow).

  • Opinionated: Some social media is factual, but what really drives Web 2.0 is the ability to express differences, opinions, attitudes, and beliefs. Governments are not in the opinion business; they are about laws, facts, and findings. When you have a question about an IRS form or whether a property is zoned for a specific sort of development, you don't care about the opinion of an individual; you want the right answer--an answer to which everyone will agree and one that will not change if asked to another individual.
I'm sure we could compile a substantial list of the reasons social media is difficult and challenging for governments, and we could even discuss the deep political implications of how social media is completely borderless and virtually exempt from the sorts of controls on which governments have relied since the first city-state appeared thousands of years ago. I'll leave the speculation about the social and regulatory ramifications of social media to others.

What is of interest to me is how, despite the challenges, social media might be of use to those who govern. After some research, I found and imagined several ways government might use Web 2.0. The problem is, while the following concepts use today's social media tools to bring benefits to citizens, none are truly social:
  • Alerts: In times of imminent danger, such as during severe weather, government agencies could broadcast alerts via social media. We've all heard the tests of the emergency broadcast system on radio stations, but think of how much greater the reach would be if governments could blast geographically vital messages via Twitter or Facebook. One moment a user could be commenting about a movie or song they like, and the next they could be receiving a life-saving message to take precautionary actions to avoid a tornado or flash flood.

    While this would be an interesting and powerful use of today's social networks, it is not really social--the purpose of this communication isn't to create dialog but to leverage Web 2.0's large, distributed, and constantly-monitored networks.

  • Customer Service: Many years ago, I worked with a school system to solve a problem: parents perceived that the school system provided very poor service, and the school system was interested in making changes to alter this perception. The first meeting between the consultants and the school administrators went very badly; we were able to get through only a portion of the agenda because a debate erupted over whether parents are "customers." Those who worked for the school system simply did not see themselves as having or serving customers. (The administrators were less interested, it turns out, in making parents happy than they were in getting parents off their backs.)

    So, this might not resonate with those within government, but social media could be used to improve customer service with citizens. For example, imagine an online ombudsman to whom you might ask questions. Not sure what tax form to use, which agency to turn to for licensing, or how to reach an elected official--ask the ombudsman.

    Of course, this isn't truly social either. Neither the citizens nor the government would want others seeing the personal and possibly sensitive questions and problems. The ombudsman concept works much better as a private email form than as a public Twitter or BB post.

  • Gathering opinions: Perhaps those we elect could turn to Web 2.0 tools to ask and receive input from their constituents. While this seems an interesting and pertinent use of Social Media, the challenges are easily apparent: Would such an online forum be completely open, or would racist, violent, or other inappropriate content be deleted? Who would do the monitoring? Would deleting a comment--so easily done at the discretion of a privately run blog or bulletin board--be a violation of constitutionally-guaranteed free speech rights? The legal and practical challenges of open discussions seem almost insurmountable for governments.

  • Monitoring Social Media: Our elected officials who want to keep their finger on the pulse of Americans could do worse than to turn to the blogosphere, Twitter, or Facebook for the current zeitgeist. Of course, as you already know, trying to discern aggregate attitudes from hundreds of thousands of blog posts, Tweets, or Facebook profiles is no easy task. And what about the opinions of those who are least likely to participate in social media, primarily older and poorer Americans?

  • Campaigning: The most obvious use of Social Media by elected officials isn't really governmental but private. Candidates are already using Web 2.0 for campaigning and fund raising. Many have noted the success Barack Obama has had raising money and fostering engagement with his supporters, and John McCain isn't far behind.

  • Internal communications: Perhaps the greatest benefits to our government may come not from connecting with citizens but from allowing employees to better communicate and collaborate with each other. The use of internal blogs, wikis, and other Web 2.0 tools could certainly improve communications, help retain workers, and increase the efficiency of governmental agencies.

  • Transparency and Third-Party Tools: Maybe the best our governmental bodies can do is to foster greater transparency by making data widely available and allowing private third parties to fashion the Web 2.0 tools that most interest citizens. Just a Govy includes a couple of interesting private sites that leverage government data for the use of citizens:

    • CapitolWords shares the one word each day that is spoken most frequently in the House and Senate or inserted in the Congressional Record. As Scott points out on his blog, a word cloud would be much more informative, but this still is an interesting use of Federal data. (Lots of focus on "oil" and "energy" these days inside the Beltway, which should come as no surprise to anyone.)

    • GovTrack.Us uses publicly available data to give site visitors access to the status of federal legislation and the ability to learn about the votes and activities of members of Congress.
Having spent several days researching and considering the idea of Social Media for governmental purposes, I think I'm glad I can focus on the private uses and benefits of these tools. I'll leave to Scott Horvath the thorny questions of how (or if) to drag the most bureaucratic of organizations into the age of Web 2.0.

What do you think? Are the rules, laws, and structure of our government simply not prepared to permit Social Media to be exploited? Do you believe government can change sufficiently to permit a more open and two-way dialog with citizens? Or is the government's use of Web 2.0 prevented by legislative firewalls that are appropriate and necessary to the operation of government?


Govy said...

Those are some interesting ideas that you've laid out. It is hard to think about how government can use social media tools effectively and for the purposes they're intended for. There are already Facebook groups, Twitter feeds, MySpace profiles, etc that the government is experimenting with or actively using, but to REALLY use them for their intended purpose will be interesting to see occur. I have no doubt that it will happen, but it's going to take time.

Traditionally government is always slower to pick up on trends, or change the way they function...for many of the reasons you mentioned already. That's how it has been in the past. But the face of today's government workforce is rapidly getting younger. As more and more career government employees begin to retire, the more they're being replaced by a younger generation. This younger generation (considering myself one of them) are the group that want these tools to be used and can see how government and the public can benefit from them. For that generation it's a daily ritual, or the common thread, that links they're friends, family, and lives together.

Because of that generation, I think the way government embraces these types of tools will happen more quickly than any other government change in the past. BUT, it will still happen slowly compared to the rest of non-government world. Personally, I would like to see government embrace some of these tools. I just hope that by the time they do embrace them that it won't be too little, too late.

Immediately, I can see making data more widely and easily available. That's already happening in many organizations. The more that social media/Web 2.0 tools use that data and reap the benefits of it then the more that government will realize how important it is to the public. If the government can fulfill the public's thirst for data, and the more the government works with the public directly, then that will ultimately lead to better government transparency, better communication between government and public and, hopefully, a better trust of the government itself.

Only time will tell.

Anonymous said...

There is a growing movement to simply make a new government which is directly controlled by the people. Previously, the only way this could be done is through some sort of direct democracy... read "mob rule."

However, the sophistication allowed by Web 2.0 is opening new doors for participation, collaboration, and communication. When these are applied to government, we have to ask why we would want to keep the old-school representative format. What possible benefit is there to keeping the politicians?

Please investigate the Metagovernment. They are starting at the lowest levels of representative democracy: school boards, softball clubs, condo boards, etc.: anywhere where people currently have to choose someone to represent their voice. Instead, they are making it possible for anyone to contribute to any community if they have the motivation to do so.

As these structures grow, they very well may start to replace the legal governments of townships, cities, and... why stop there? This looks to be the promise that old forms of democracy have never been able to fulfill.