Have been doing some thinking about how government relates to ‘the people’ via the internet recently, and thought I might put them up here and see if it generates any discussion. Now, when I say, “the government” I’m referring to the whole of government and especially the bureaucracy, not just the elected representatives in parliament.
What I’ve noticed by looking at various websites and the like put up by government agencies is that the web is usually little more than an extension of old styles of service delivery. Usually in the interests of savings, which is good for you and I the taxpayer, agencies will move services across to the web. The rationale is probably something like less overheads, 24hr access to services, easily available information, etc. But from what I’ve seen it’s unusual for an agency to try to really transform their services via the use of the internet.
Part of the problem could be people with little to no web awareness seeing ‘da internet’ as a portal to grow services and penetration without thinking through the possibilities the medium provides. This is of course completely normal, busy people with stressful jobs shouldn’t be expected to think outside the box too far. The good news is I know for a fact that there are also a number of people who are thinking outside the square and seeing the internet as a very important resource waiting to be tapped.
There’s a catch with the internet and government though, and that’s the need to maintain a degree of control over information and ideas. The internet is founded on the principle of freedom of information and the dissemination of that information whether you want it to be shared or not. But, unsurprisingly, this is not the case with government. What you have then is a fundamental conflict between this anarchic, open space, and the controlled, closed space of government. I should mention that this isn’t a criticism of government, it needs to be closed and controlled to maintain order. If it wasn’t controlled then running a capitalist liberal democratic nation of 4 million (or more) would be extremely difficult.
What you have then is a potential conflict between the needs of the government and the expectation of the internet. But I see this conflict as entirely artificial. Although good government requires order to function, this order does not need to be extended to all parts and sectors of the nation-state, and shouldn’t be driven outwards. Governments accept compromises about order all the time, and this acceptance makes governments more effective and efficient. The old idea of control economies are long dead, and “order with limits” is the way to go.
So how does this relate to the internet? What I’ve been thinking is that although a degree of order is necessary, there is a marked interface between the structure of government, and the absence of structure that is the online sphere. While many functions of government can be moved onto ‘dumb’ formats for simple tasks like information provision, form-completion and the like, ‘smart’ tasks like networking, socialisation and the other activities that occur normally in the public space can be managed by government if the right mode of thinking is adopted.
And that’s where I’ve been applying myself. I’ve thought up an analogy for ‘smart’ government-public-spaces, and wondered how it would fly being laid out here. ‘Dumb’ services are basically bulletin boards. Information is posted, citizen brings down and uses information. ‘Smart’ services are however very different. People are calling them web2.0, which kind of annoys me, but you know what I mean, social networking, online participation and organisation, etc.
Compared to the bulletin board web2.0 for the average person is analogous to going to a park, sitting down, and waiting for someone to walk up and talk. Sometimes a group will gather, sometimes not. Simple. But for government it is very different. You can’t have public servants or representatives taking info out into the public space and just airing it or discussing it. Too risky. And governments don’t like risk.
But, you could characterise web2.0 for governments as being like an arcade, or promenade.
An arcade is a big private space that has the appearance of being public. The bit where people walk about is ostensibly public, as are the shops in the arcade, but in point of fact they’re actually operating in a private space. The shop is owned by someone, but gives the shop the appearance of a public space to make it welcoming. It is actually a pseudo-public space.
My opinion is that web2.0 for government is a pseudo-public space, or at least should be to make it work effectively. Why? Because tapping the power of web2.0 is all about establishing communities, and especially communities of interest. If you have extreme control exercised by government over what is a social medium, then community will be stifled, or not appear at all. A limited amount of rules are OK (who goes into a shop and makes themselves at home? No one. You know you’re welcome, you chat, check out the goods, maybe buy something, and leave. It’s a structured public space). But too many rules are unhelpful and counterproductive.
By keeping in mind that pseudo-public spaces are the objective to make web2.0 work for government, agencies are more likely to experience successful evolution of beneficial and vibrant communities of interest. And communities of interest will allow nifty things like wikis and blogs to be used and applied by agencies.