Web 2.0 panel weighs in on risks

Web 2.0 experts

Frank DiGiammarino, vice president of strategic initiatives and business development, and Lena Trudeau, program area director of strategic initiatives, at the National Academy of Public Administration.

Anthony Williams, vice president at nGenera Insight, a think tank that investigates new business models. He is co-author of the book “Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything” and is currently leading a multimillion-dollar investigation named “Government 2.0: Wikinomics, Government and Democracy.”

Molly O’Neill, assistant administrator and chief information officer of the Office of Environmental Information at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Bev Godwin, director of USA.gov and Web best practices at the General Services Administration.

Federal Computer Week recently reported on various concerns that federal officials had expressed about the government’s use of social-networking technology. When we asked readers for their thoughts — is Web 2.0 worth the risk? — we heard similar apprehensions. So we pulled together a virtual panel of Web 2.0 experts, within and outside the government (see box), and asked them to address the most common concerns and comments. Here is a roundup of the panel’s responses (edited for length).

COMMENT: Web 2.0 threats are for real, and bad guys are using Web 2.0 vulnerabilities to penetrate government networks. Just as with any other technology, it should be used by agencies only after a thorough assessment of the security risk to information and systems.

DiGiammarino/Trudeau: It’s important to acknowledge the security difference between public data/information and issues of national security. There will always be tension between security of information and availability of information. Tension and/or risks should not be reasons to reject the technology but rather motivators to understand the vulnerabilities and adapt proper security measures to address them.

O’Neill: Security is not limiting Web 2.0. As with any new technology, government needs to consider appropriate security controls to ensure that the effort can be relied on in terms of maintaining appropriate data confidentiality, data integrity and availability.

Williams: It’s true that companies are increasingly using Web 2.0 applications, although they too have encountered security problems in the early stages and the business managers who want to deploy these technologies often face resistance from [information technology] leaders. The solution has been for IT leadership teams to bring Web 2.0 apps behind the firewall where they can properly maintain, secure and support them.

Governments can use Web 2.0 securely and a growing number of agencies in the United States and around the world are doing so successfully. Organizations need to realize their workforces already use these tools extensively in their personal lives and will increasingly expect to use them at work.

DiGiammarino/Trudeau: We completely agree. In fact during a recent discussion forum with a group of Young Government Leaders, YGL representatives said that young people will use collaborative tools no matter what. They have grown up with these technologies, and collaborative tools are the best and fastest way young people know to gather and share information.

Godwin: Government agencies work to prevent hackers from getting into government sites and to prevent data leakage from government, but those concerns should be and are being addressed more broadly than for Web 2.0. These security concerns should not be [the] sole reason to ban all access to all Web 2.0 sites.

One of the mitigation strategies for agencies that block all use of the Internet from their networks is to set up a separate network for the communications staff who need to have access to sites such as Wikipedia, blogs, YouTube, and other Web 2.0 sites in order to use these tools to distribute government information and services, see what others are saying about an agency, start conversations, and join conversations. Parts of DOD have taken this approach.

COMMENT: By NOT using these new Web 2.0 tools, agencies will continue to encourage the traditional silo mentality of government that is now becoming less and less effective when it comes to communicating with the public, and even with one another. The potentia l benefits for improved government/citizen communication, or better information sharing and productivity of project teams, almost mandates their consideration.

O’Neill: Web 2.0 technology offers the government opportunities to be more inclusive, transparent and agile. I also believe that most employees will use these tools appropriately. Some agencies are trying to find the right fit for these technologies — change is hard.

DiGiammarino/Trudeau: We totally agree. The essence of Web 2.0 lies in transparency, diversity of thought, and the wisdom of the crowd. Change is hard and it is essential that government changes now. Government leaders have the responsibility to embrace this opportunity and deliver for the citizenry.

Godwin: I am a firm believer in the wisdom of the crowds. Many minds are better than a few in sharing knowledge and determining solutions to the societal issues and problems which government addresses. These technologies make it easier to share knowledge across boundaries within agencies, between agencies and with the public. [And] most agencies are not sitting on the sidelines.

The commenter who suggested employees committed to their careers will continue to use Web 2.0 technologies appropriately hit upon something that is critical. Within government, there are already many rules, guidelines and practices on who can speak on behalf of the agency, what information you can and can’t share, how you represent your agency, and what you are allowed and not allowed to do while on the job. This is really a management and a trust issue that is not unique to Web 2.0.

COMMENT: The adoption of any technology in the federal sector should be based on an assessment of its impact on an agency’s mission. Blogs, wikis and other social networking applications are not central to the mission of most agencies, and their adoption represents an unjustified use of taxpayer dollars.

O’Neill: I agree that government shouldn’t roll out these new tools without purpose. The tools should be implemented to support the mission activities. [But] wikis can be a great way to engage a much larger set of experts on an issue and collect and present this collective knowledge in a much more efficient way. Blogs are good ways to seek thoughts on issues as well. To me, these complement existing activities or, in some cases, are just new ways of doing them.

Williams: No agency should invest in technology in the absence of a clear understanding of how that technology will be used to advance the agency’s mission. Many expensive IT projects have been doomed to failure from the start because project managers and vendors failed to align the capabilities of a given technology with the real needs of an organization.

But make no mistake in this case: Web 2.0 technologies are central to fulfilling your mission. What specific mission? It doesn’t matter. These tools must be adopted because they are becoming the dominant and preferred way in which we communicate and collaborate.

Godwin: I totally agree that adoption of technology in government or elsewhere should be based on a business need for using that technology. Blogs, wikis and social networks can most certainly be used by some agencies to achieve some of their goals, and can in some cases be used to achieve those missions more cheaply. In fact, they are being used in this way.

COMMENT: Do not use Web 2.0 terms, such as blogs, when using these technologies because many of them have become pejorative terms in agencies, and people who are still getting ed to the technologies often come with preconceived notions of what they are and what they can do. Instead, it’s better for agencies to simply consider them as tools, just as any other technology tool or utility.

Godwin: The language one uses depends on your audience. Sometimes people are afraid of terms they don’t know, and then worry more about understanding the technology than why it may be useful to an agency’s mission. We should not promote technology for technology’s sake, but instead define the need and see which technologies, if any, help meet that need.

When using terms like blogs, wikis, podcasting, virtual worlds, social networking, RSS feeds, mashups, widgets, social bookmarking, micro-blogging, etc., I find it helps to give a simple,
nontechnical definition of what that means.

DiGiammarino/Trudeau: Agreed! It’s not about the technology; it’s all about the problem, the community you are engaging and the value exchange with the community.

We need the wisdom of the crowd to successfully tackle the challenges that government is facing. Leaders need to adjust their thinking beyond the traditional vertical silos and look for ways to pull constituencies together across the organization and levels of government. This type of thinking is not about tools; it’s about fundamentally changing the game. 

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