Social Media Brings Collaboration, Transparency and Empowerment to Public Sector, According to IBSG
By Mike Stone
How to enable the state to effectively serve and gain the trust of citizens is a critical issue for the public sector. And, unlikely as it may seem, part of the answer may lie with Websites such as Facebook, YouTube and Flickr.
The suggestion that social networking sites and other Web 2.0 phenomena are playing a part in a revitalization of the body politic was made by Internet Business Solutions Group (IBSG), the consulting arm of Cisco, at the 2008 Public Services Summit in Stockholm, Sweden.
Cisco IBSG shared a preview of an upcoming white paper entitled Realizing the Potential of the Connected Republic in which it sets out the ways that governments and state institutions the world over are adopting social media, paving the way for what the authors describe as 'Government 2.0'.
"Our analysis shows that the most innovative public sector organizations are already using social media," says IBSG director Paul Johnston, one of the white paper's authors.
"The question is whether the public sector as a whole will embrace Web 2.0 values and grasp the opportunities to build new types of relationships with citizens while also increasing efficiency.
"YouTube contributors, blog commentators and Facebook users are all exhibiting many of the attributes of healthy democracy: actively creating rather than passively consuming content, interacting with one another and swapping ideas and views," Johnston continued.
The Cisco IBSG white paper provides many examples of where Web 2.0 and Government 2.0 (loosely defined as a more inclusive, open and responsive mode of governing) intersect.
"The question is whether the public sector will embrace Web 2.0 and build new types of relationships with citizens"
It also points to many recent developments of Web 2.0 within the public sector, such as UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband's blog, Sweden's virtual embassy in Second Life and the government of New Zealand's use of a public wiki to help draft a new Police Act.
These examples offer a glimpse of how technology is opening up the state and its functions to a wider audience.
In its white paper, Cisco IBSG identifies three major factors propelling these changes and allowing the state to take steps to re-engage with a cynical and demanding electorate. These, it says, are the basic prerequisites for Government 2.0.
The first is the ability to form groups spontaneously, which can result in a higher degree of collaboration than was previously possible.
A good example of this new form of free, peer-to-peer collaboration of individuals pursuing a shared goal might be as simple as the UK government's online petitions, or as wide-reaching as the CIA's Intellipedia, a series of three wikis allowing agents from 16 different agencies to share and discuss intelligence information.
"Collaboration can only happen when there is a widespread willingness to share information and participate in an ongoing project," noted IBSG's Russell Craig.
In this regard, the success of social networking sites is being mirrored in the public sector, where, for example, 15,000 UK civil servants now participate in their own Civil Service Facebook group.
And although the CIA's Intellipedia is restricted to intelligence operatives, and has little to do with open government, it, like many other collaborative systems used in the public sector, is making a contribution to more efficient and more effective governmentanother area where Government 2.0 can benefit citizens.
A further important feature of Government 2.0 outlined in the Cisco IBSG white paper is transparency.
While Web 1.0 started making information more freely available to the public, Web 2.0 approaches allow a deeper probing of the processes of government action and decision-making by turning the one-way provision of information into a multi-way dialogue.
You Choose, for example, is an initiative undertaken by the London borough of Redbridge that allowed interested members of the citizenry to select various funding options for the area.
Although the ultimate budgeting decisions were still made by councilors, the 3200 residents who participated online (plus 1900 more who posted responses) had the chance to make their feelings known.
Perhaps just as importantly, by opening up the entire budgeting process to public scrutiny the so-called Redbridge Conversation allowed the council to highlight the tough choices it was making on its constituents' behalf.
Whilst the transparency aspect of Government 2.0 might not guarantee participation, the third essential factor, empowerment, certainly does, as discussed in the Cisco IBSG white paper.
Participatory budgeting (PB) goes one step further than the Redbridge You Choose project by actually allowing communities to decide how their taxes are spent.
The first PB scheme was implemented in 1989 in Brazil's Porto Alegre, and there are an estimated 1200-plus initiatives currently in operation. One example of this form of genuine participatory democracy takes place in Belo Horizonte, the state capital of Minas Gerais, Brazil.
This PB is still implemented via community meetings called by local representatives, who seek to establish the priorities for public works in their areas and divide up a USD$43 million budget fairly.
But increasingly, the process is being facilitated online by an electronic PB system launched by the city administration in 2006 ($11 million is now allocated in this way).
In conclusion, the Cisco IBSG white paper highlights the many benefits the public sector can gain from adopting Web 2.0 tools and approaches. The early wins will come from using social media to establish more immediate and more personal forms of communication with citizens.
The greatest value, however, will come as government bodies embrace the Web 2.0 values of collaboration, transparency and empowerment.
"One way many public leaders are going to learn these lessons is through their experiences of political campaigning," Johnston commented. "With Barack Obama now president, I think we are going to see a whole new wave of innovation in this area."
- A working draft of the white paper that was circulated at the Public Services Summit is available at: http://theconnectedrepublic.org/posts/270.
Mike Stone is a freelance journalist located in Barcelona, Spain.
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