Web 2.0 tools promote greater public involvement

Web 2.0 technologies could bring new meaning to government by the people

The General Services Administration's landmark agreement to allow government agencies to engage citizens with YouTube, Flickr and a host of other social-media sites underscores the Obama administration’s focus on using the same Web 2.0 technologies that made Obama’s election so historic. At the root of that success was a multiplier effect that nobody could have imagined: citizen-to-citizen networks.


What it is: Wiki site for government information, developed and maintained by a private-sector team with no government funding or involvement.

The Glance: User-submitted information subject to editing and modification by other users.

Citizen-to-citizen networks allow people to use Web 2.0 capabilities to accomplish goals, self-organize and self-police. The government can use this capability to its advantage by providing avenues for citizen-to-citizen interactions and then moderating those interactions to gain insights and even advice that improves service to the taxpayer.

Generally speaking, there are four basic models of citizen-to-citizen networks:

1. Social  networks.
2. Wikis.
3. Ad hoc information networks.
4. Peer-to-policy communities.

Social Networks

Social networks are leading the pack in terms of citizen-to-citizen communications. They serve as a "second space” — a stage for continuing debates on topics of interest to citizens. The focus of all social-networking sites is open interaction, but the question at the heart of these tools is more basic: How does government give up control of the conversation, seek input and thoughtful commentary from outside, and ultimately make use of that information?

Hurricane Information Center

What it is: Ad hoc network set up so that people could post up-to-the-minute reports on Hurricane Gustav in 2008.

The Glance: Includes news feeds and hurricane tracking maps along with user content.

Current models have had little success. In a recent survey by GSA, only 15 percent of respondents knew that the government Web portal USA.gov existed, and fewer than 2 percent knew that they could call 1-800-FED-TALK for answers to critical questions.

Recently, USA.gov has expanded its Web presence to include Twitter. It also has embedded useful tools like live Web chats into its network and now features a list of mobile-phone friendly agency Web sites. As a result of these and other efforts, when you google the word “government,” USA.gov is No. 1 in your search results. However, the Web is still dominated by another model, and a search of the word “USA” — or almost any other word — leads you straight to Wikipedia.


Wikipedia’s 12 million articles span 262 languages, and the site averages more than 55 million unique visitors a month. Rules and standards have proven that Wikipedia can be almost entirely self-policed, allowing individuals the opportunity to pool their knowledge around common themes.


What it is: Peer-to-peer site that allows real-time evaluation of patent documents by anyone interested. Users can file “prior art” to challenge patent claims, and the site will forward a top 10 list of the prior art references to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which is a partner in the venture. It also hosts discussion forums.

The Glance: Patent applications subject to review through the site are limited to computer architecture, software and information security, business methods and e-commerce.

The government has taken the lead by building its own wikis — including the much-discussed CIA Intellipedia and the Defense Department’s Techipedia. Following on President Barack Obama’s campaign platform, the federal government should make citizen-centric data accessible through a public Wikipedia portal to provide details on frequently asked questions, policies and rules.

For example, the portal could allow private tax experts to write explanations of how tax rules work. In turn, citizens would be able to contribute recommendations, questions and even answers to help others better understand the process. This could be moderated by the government to gather feedback for potential policy updates.

A potential model for this type of portal, GovITwiki is an industry example of the types of content and degree of collaboration that a federal wiki might encourage. Although its contributions are primarily from private-sector organizations, its material is generally balanced, timely, and growing in scope. GovITwiki demonstrates the public demand for relevant, accessible, up-to-date information on the federal government.

Ad hoc information networks

Although a Wikipedia-type government portal is good for pooling information, there are several instances in which a dedicated social-networking outlet with real-time updates is necessary.

When Hurricane Gustav threatened the Gulf Coast, one of the most useful resources was the Hurricane Information Center (HIC), an online networking site designed to aggregate citizen data in real time. This ad hoc information network was not a government-sponsored site but could serve as a blueprint for similar government capabilities. In disaster relief and response efforts, top-down information management is less effective than open forums like the HIC.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and similar organizations should take note of this type of network and develop its own information resources to encourage public collaboration and self-organization during a crisis. In this model, citizens are empowered to aggregate, share and make updates based on their firsthand knowledge of affected areas. This not only benefits the citizen by allowing access to real-time information but also helps first responders and other coordinating agencies to understand the situation at hand, assess resource allocation and provide a means to broadcast official updates. Citizen-to-citizen capabilities will serve as a perfect compliment to the already established Ready Campaign and Federal Hurricane Response Widgets used to distribute — but not necessarily collect — information.

The Amber Alert Program is another powerful candidate for Web 2.0 public collaboration. Amber Alert makes updates available through a widget that can be downloaded on social networks, Web sites or blogs. Expanding this capability through Web 2.0 tools can help citizens map search areas, coordinate leads and alert authorities based on a broader platform of information, potentially increasing the find rate.

Peer-to-policy communities

Public contributions can also be a tool for policy-makers. The Peer-to-Patent project is a pilot program at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office that engages industry and citizen stakeholders in the patent review process. In the program, 250 software-patent applications have been made available for review by an online community. Fully self-organized, the community reviews the patent application, submits “prior-art” documents relevant to the topic, rates that prior art and sends the top 10 references to the patent examiner. A peer-to-policy network, the project engages citizens to turn information into a meaningful product.

These examples — some operational, some conceptual — can help form the cornerstone of a new government strategy for citizen engagement.

  1. The government must use Web 2.0 tools to effectively communicate with the public.
  2. The government must be willing to open data to public contribution and build rules that help to govern and make sense of those contributions.
  3. The government must also write laws requiring agencies not only to gather but also to analyze and make use of public contributions.

Having the government open up citizen-to-citizen communications via Web 2.0 is the first step in enabling a government run by the people, for the people. The next step is to ensure that the government is using these capabilities. President Obama is poised to set his legacy as the first administration to actively pursue citizen-to-citizen contributions.

About the Author

Don R. Brown, PhD., is founder and chief executive officer of Partnet Inc., and an expert in online marketplaces for government.


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