Book excerpt: What does web 2.0 mean for the government?

Recently, the Dutch Civil Servant 2.0 books have been translated in English. Steve asked me to post some excerpts from my books on Govloop. This is the beginning of chapter 5 in the first book (from 2008!), where I try to project the web 2.0 change onto government, governmental organisations and civil servants.

What does web 2.0 mean for the government?

A while ago someone asked me if I thought attempting to use web 2.0 to increase interactivity and public engagement in the government’s approach to work was a hopeless task. He suggested that the strong hierarchical structure, political sensitivities and the large number of older workers meant government was not an ideal place to introduce the web 2.0 approach.

We could of course have a lengthy discussion on this topic, but this is ultimately a moot point. Change comes from the outside. As society increasingly embraces the principles of web 2.0, the government will be expected to do the same in its approach. In short, it is not a question of making a choice, it will happen with or without you.

Search for your added value

This made me think about the music industry and the press. Ultimately, web 2.0 will have consequences for everybody, and for every sector. Look at the examples in mining (Goldcorp), footwear (Nike), development (1% club) or toys (LEGO). But some organisations have to cope with these changes earlier than others. The music industry and the press were the first that had to change their methods as a result of the internet. The choice was taken out of their hands because their customers no longer went to them to get their music or news – they used the internet.

It is only logical that these sectors were the first to suffer the consequences. Their products can be digitalised and therefore easily distributed over the internet. There was still a need for these products, but there was no more use for the middleman. Before the internet the music industry decided what music could be sold and the press decided what news to publish. They have since lost these positions as the internet allows everyone to publish or download the music and news they want.

Time Warner and papers such as The Guardian were among the first to respond to these developments. They had to come up with new concepts and business models to strengthen their position in the sector.

Where are the actual benefits for the organisation, and how can they be exploited? The Guardian, for example, has become more multimedia-oriented, involving people with the site in an effort to create a broad platform for debate. The music industry is also looking hard for new concepts to preserve its position.

Government is quick to realise the consequences

Government is of course very different from the companies referred to above. The government is not selling a product, and does not have to deal with legal issues surrounding copyright. But there are also similarities:

  • The government’s ‘product’ is largely digitisable: it is engaged in seeking and gathering knowledge and information, writing texts and documents, reports, collaboration, harmonisation and networking, which are all things that can be done digitally.
  • The government has a very valuable ‘product’, namely, how the Netherlands is run. Many people are engaged with the areas we deal with, and have ideas about how to approach them. Our activities are also in the media spotlight and new developments can spread quickly and easily;
  • The ‘customers’ can also perform activities themselves: various activities performed by civil servants can also be performed by others, and if these activities are digitisable, they can also be done online.

Of course there are some functions that are inalienable to a government. That is not the issue. But there are also examples of government tasks that are already being dealt with online by the public. One example is the UK site www.fixmystreet.com where you can report cases such as litter or broken street lights. This site, which was set up independently, then passes these reports on to the local council. The Netherlands has sites such as www.ikregeer.nl, which posts parliamentary questions. Or have a look at the wiki for a Wind Energy Act. This may just start as one person’s idea, but the potential is much greater. When will the first wiki laws be enacted by parliament?

There are also parts of government that will have to face the consequences of web 2.0 before others. For example, take the ministries and departments that deal with public participation and communication. They will be among the first to be confronted with the implications of web 2.0 for their work. Yet ultimately, everyone should ask themselves the question, just as the music industry and newspaper publishers. What does web 2.0 mean for my work, my role and my added value? This is a hot issue for government, and one which I think can be resolved through active use of web 2.0.

What areas of our work are affected by web 2.0?

The internet has become an integral part of Dutch society: nearly the whole population can go online, and it has become a platform for services, social contacts and collaboration. The advent of web 2.0 significantly increased the number of possibilities for using this platform to communicate and exchange knowledge. Also for government, the possibilities for working in a more flexible, interactive and more transparent way have grown, both within the organisation and with the outside. There are opportunities for a smarter approach, to do more with less people. How can the government interpret this new task over the coming years?

The influence of internet on how government works is now beginning to take shape in various policy areas. It has not only created new forms of interaction amongst citizens, but also between citizens and the government, and internally among civil servants. These new developments offer new opportunities to work in a different, more efficient and altogether better way within government and outside it, but they also present new threats and uncertainties. Furthermore, all these developments place new demands on the role of government and civil servants.

This of course raises many questions. Is government prepared for the new situations these developments will produce? What are the opportunities and risks? And how can government exploit the opportunities offered by web 2.0 to increase awareness of their environment and to work in a more efficient and more interactive manner? What does this mean for the internal organisations of government and for the position of the civil servant? The consequences of web 2.0 can be seen in the following interrelated areas:

1. The relationship between citizen and government;

2. The government’s internal organisation;

3. The civil servant’s approach to work.

I have outlined these three areas in the rest of chapter five. Continue reading!

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