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The great promise of Web 2.0

2009 August 10
by Martin Stewart-Weeks

Conversation is the great promise of Web 2.0.

Whereas the early days of the web and the initial applications in government especially of the new Internet tools were all about an essentially “broadcast” model of communication, the more recent experiments of the “participative web” are characteristically interactive. Or at least they should be.

The whole point of social networking is not so much to send a message as to get one back. While it’s always nice to tell the world what you think, if you do it on a social technology platform, you are inviting others to join the conversation. The whole idea is to listen, to talk, to debate, to agree and disagree, to create communities of influence and practice, to share. Somehow we are fumbling our way towards a more conversational model of governance in which everyone in the conversation, citizens as much as governments learn to listen more carefully to each other. I hope it isn’t too naïve to suggest that in some way or another, the social networking experience is all about listening and therefore learning as the necessary condition for a style of governing that is altogether more nuanced and responsive than perhaps we are used to.

If that is true, what kind of evidence should we expect to see about changes in the way people and communities engage with government? What would be some of the ‘green shoots’ of conversational government, signs that both sides are using these new tools and processes to become ¬more adept at listening as well as telling? Presumably we should expect that the design and delivery of public services, as well as the more involved policy development processes from which they derive, should both betray at least some signs of deeper knowledge of the needs and aspirations of citizens and growing understanding of the complexities and constraints of governing.

Of course, in the end the quality of the conversation at the heart of good government is not about technology or clever websites, although they should help. Online engagement creates at least the potential to ‘democratise democracy’ by offering a much richer mix of spaces in which people can talk, listen, debate, argue and contribute their ideas and aspirations to the public conversation. In that sense, this is all about underlying habits of mind and heart that commit to an open, inclusive and ethical relationship that builds trust and confidence.

Do you have personal experiences that suggest we’re starting to see that evidence? Especially with reference to the gradual introduction of Web 2.0 tools and techniques, what have been some of the ‘good, the bad and the ugly’ of your recent engagement with government?

9 Responses
  1. 2009 August 11

    I helped take part in giving some exposure to the call for submissions to develop proposals for a new motorsport facility on the NSW central coast. This was on a local government level. The LG in question was fantastic and I thought did a very good job with this very early stage of the process.

    It got me thinking about these sort of functions of government to put out calls for submissions and the like. The capabilities of the web were used to extend the function of the government, to advertise the call for submissions. It seems to me that new relations could have been created, however. For example, instead of merely using the web to advertise the submission process, some kind of ‘project forum’ could’ve been set up on a less formal level than an actual submission. This could serve as a space for discussion for interested parties, who could’ve helped each other shape and improve submissions. I am not talking about ‘debating’ issues, but more about sharing resources and the like to help people who may not have experience with the more formal process, but have a keen interest in the topic.

    So my more general point is best expressed as a question, is this Gov 2.0 iniative about extending the already existing function of government or about figuring out ways to use new communications technologies to enable citizens to participate in the process of government?

    • 2009 August 12
      Martin Stewart-Weeks permalink

      What a good question! And a great examle too, by the way.

      My own view is that Government 2.0 is primarily about the latter, that is, about exploring the opportunities of the social web for new forms of engagement – new conversations, if you will – between citizens and government and between citizens themselves as part of a larger governance process. That isn’t to say that the former focus, that is on using these new tools to do some of the traditional work of government better, is not also important.

      But your observation is spot on, I think – we have an opportunity to do some rethinking about how citizens and governments connect and, in the process, invent some new ways for expertise and commitment to be discovered and used well.

    • 2009 August 13

      We are just about to hand over a new site for an ACT government department which is beefing up the submission process with online submissions and publication of all submissions.

      We did discuss going a bit more casual but it was me more than the department that was worried about it turning into a shoutfest between interest groups and political operatives.

      So, we moved back from my initial idea of a free for all.

      So, Glen’s comments resonate with me and I think his post addresses something that is going to take a lot of thinking and some trial and error before getting it right

  2. 2009 August 11

    In my experience, government is all for what’s generally termed consultation. What they’re often not ready for is:

    - the scale on which it can occur through social tools
    - the level of activity required to aid that scale

    They’re also often not equipped with the skills to participate online in this way. It’s too far outside the bounds of familiar models.

    There’s also the problem that either organisations figure that “this social stuff can’t be that hard”, or someone gives them advice to that end. Not true. It’s as hard, or more so, than any other form of consultation.

    More than anything, governments need to get good advice and build strong skills, either through internal or external sources. They wouldn’t do any other task unprepared, the same goes for this.

    • 2009 August 13

      Again, another good post from SC.

      He is right to stress that this web 2.0 will all be pretty hard yakka for government

      Of course, rather than just government coming up with solutions, we need government to be using tools to listen in and understand what is already being discussed in social media

      this attention to the conversations already underway will only help pollies and agencies get it right more often on any number of issues

  3. 2009 August 11

    “Listening” is certainly something that is overlooked a lot when talking about online communication. However, every one-way communication is a bad one – and government has to engage in a two-way conversation: share ideas and information, and listen to what people can contribute.

    Then, the cycle of conversation has to continue: share plans and intended processes, and listen to what people give as feedback.

    And again, when decisions have been made, during execution, it is important to keep people up-to-date on what is happening and receive their feedback.

    So, it’s a three-faced beast: share information, listen, and act. If the action is not seen, you will soon lose the feedback. It’s a very important part of a successful conversation and the most important one that encourages people to continue with the conversation.

    • 2009 August 25
      asa letourneau permalink

      If all this comes to fruition what we will hopefully end up with are more and more government (whatever that means in 10 years time!) services/products not only being informed by the public but developed and driven by the public. Look forward to the ‘death of the survey’ (i.e. tell us what you think about this Government idea on a scale of…) and the birth of community spaces/projects/policies created by communities. Who knows, maybe we’ll turn the world inside out and end up with a Public Service minus the Public Servant.

  4. 2009 August 25
    Rob Crispe permalink

    I agree in principle with Silvia and others, in regard to the need for greater effort in driving Web 2.0 from the ‘inside out’, among Australian government departments and agencies. The technology is important, but is of little benefit unless we clearly understand what we want to achieve in terms of interaction, communication, information gathering, and so on.

    We all know that the immediacy and reach of the Internet provides government with unprecedented opportunities to connect with stakeholders and communities, but – from my experience – there’s still lots of ignorance within government about what it means to be ‘Web 2.0′; needless to say, it is going to take far more than just a technology and/or functionality upgrade to government websites…we need strong leadership and vision, good governance, sound online communications strategies and adequate internal resources in order to realise the potential that Web 2.0+ can bring.

    This Gov 2.0 initiative looks like an excellent step towards the latter, and it’s my hope that government agency heads will support it and have the courage to help influence cultural change within their respective agencies.

  5. 2009 November 13
    andy permalink


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