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Citizen Networks, The Next Big Thing?

Transparency. Efficiency. Accountability.

All are stated goals of federal, state and local government. All are embodied in the Economic Recovery Act. How will they be accomplished?

The Old World.

In the “old world”, government agencies approach each by building or modifying Web based portals. Government uses these portals as hubs to publish government documents and services. It also often uses them to launch Web based service delivery such as payment for state services. Old world technology models are built on assumptions that:

> Transparency is created through the act of publication.
> Centralization of information in portals is the best means of disseminating information to citizens.
> Dialogue between government and citizen is two way – government to citizen and citizen to government.

As in business, the old world is very linear. Information flows are predictable – a straight line from citizens to government and back. And it is also very mechanical. Government by definition is not very “social”. After all, being social may mean showing favor.

Also in the old world, technology systems that support communications are built internally, often with expenditures in the many millions of dollars, usually under specifications that are every changing, over long periods of time (sometimes beyond periods of functional obsolescence.) In other words in the old world, we procure and build technology systems in virtually the same way that we build systems designed to managed structured transactions to meet statutory requirements and adopted rules.

So both the design, and procurement and delivery of technology create linear, centralized experiences for users. These experiences are intended to serve the goals of transparency, efficiency and accountability.

But what if in fact, linear, centralized models fail to deliver on these stated goals? And how could we do it better? Is there a business logic that might help Gov 2.0 better achieve transparency, efficiency, and accountability? Yes.

The New World – Citizen Networks.

To achieve transparency, efficiency and accountability we may have to think differently about how communications models are designed, and how technology to support those models is procured. Government may consider what the “New World” looks like for business.

Many businesses are starting to understand how to use distributed communications models to create real business value. They are doing it by putting their customers to work. Customers help other customers with problems and solutions. Customers teach other how to use products. And customers often collaborate for purposes of product improvement.

Think about the example of Apple which extensively uses discussion boards where users answer technical questions on product problems and services. Hundreds if not thousands of customers help each other with everything from software questions to hardware recommendations. http://www.apple.com

Consider also the case of the Kodak Gift Center. In the Kodak Gift Center, customers teach other customers how to make gifts in a step by step approach. www.kodak.com

The point is that businesses are starting to embrace a “network perspective”. In other words, they view their customers as a network that can help their business by enabling customers to help each other. Businesses, in this case Apple and Kodak play pivotal roles as well by providing product information, organization of user interaction, and alignment between customers and needs. They reduce costs, increase customer experience and satisfaction. and better respond to customer needs, all by using the power of networks – than if they had to shoulder the burden of all communication on their own. They put customers to work for them – with limited expense.

Can government do the same? Can government enable citizen networks where citizens help other citizens in the delivery of services – thus creating greater transparency, efficiency and accountability? Can government agencies embrace “network perspectives” that lower the costs of service delivery? Why not?

Citizen networks

In thinking about practical low cost strategies to implement Gov 2.0, agencies might well consider transformation that puts network principles to work. Instead of simply building more government portals, agencies might integrate their portals with networks of citizens who can communicate with each other to support the mission of government and objectives.

What would the organizing principles and assumptions look like? Maybe this:

> Transparency is created by government publication coupled with network transparency created by citizens talking with citizens – citizen exchange.
> Citizens organize in decentralized networks based on common problems and experience.
> Dialogue between government and citizen is continuous and includes other citizens and citizen exchange.

Citizen networks might enable citizens to help each other answer questions re the delivery of services based on common experience. Reference states that have had to build additional call center capabilities to answer unemployment claims questions. Could citizens help other citizens to do the same thing taking part of the burden off of agencies?

States might also use citizen networks to spot common questions or complaints about service delivery – and then to use analytics and structured response tools such as CRM to answer those questions. States could also aggregate citizen response on common policy questions – clearly establishing priorities through alternative analysis with social collaboration.

The point is that as in business, government agencies can do better than high cost portals. They can use citizens as an extended work force, a community that enables efficiencies and transparency in government.

New world technology

In the “new world” technologies that connect citizens in networks do not have to result from lengthy and costly system builds. Citizen networks can function in the “cloud” with a much lower cost of ownership and implemented at a much greater speed. (http://tinyurl.com/d3xjh) They adapt as the business needs of agencies and user needs of citizens change, given different business problems.

Could this be the future of Gov 2.0? Not more big portals and massive IT built to serve linear highly centralized communications drawn from massive data bases of government produced content; but small fast citizen networks primarily designed to enable citizen exchange?

The Question
There is power in networks. And citizens reside in networks with their government. Can government leverage those citizen networks to build transparency, reduce costs, and create accountability? Are citizen networks the next most powerful transformation in government?

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June Breivik

This was a very interesting comment. In government we have to look for new opportunities in order. Citizen networks sounded like a good idea.

Mark A. Glover

Good idea……and good, clear thinking. Local governments have fostered citizen networks successfully for some time, look at neighborhood watch groups…..but the delivery has been F2F and low to no tech. There certainly is a need for government to adapt and adopt what has been learned from the private sector (Apple and Kodak as mentioned by Kim) and that will happen when government leaders and innovators step up and make it happen. But as with all innovation in the early stages, it’s messy and unpredictable and progress comes from making mistakes and learning from those mistakes. How many light bulb filaments did Edison go through before he discovered one that worked? But as we know, experimentation in government doesn’t happen without risk. It’s tough to innovate in the sunshine and that’s largely why the public sector lags behind the private sector in the use of new technology and break-through innovation. It would help if we (public sector agencies) had access to a Web 2.0 lab that allowed us to experiment and incubate our good ideas (like Kim’s citizen network idea) and do so without fear and restraint……in other words, simply be more business like……and through in a little seed capital too.

Lisa Nelson

The new Administration wants ideas from those of us “in the trenches” about how best to meet the goals outlined in the Open Government Memorandum signed Jan 21. Over the next 100 days, the Open and Innovative Government Community will convene a series of on-line conversations to brainstorm innovative strategies, evaluate their promise, and flag potential challenges (legal, technical, governance and operational) that must be overcome. ). If you have an idea — or an innovation you want to highlight — log in to MAX and let them know how you would make our government more transparent, participatory and collaborative: https://max.omb.gov/. Ultimately, these conversations will shape the President’s Open Government Directive to all executive departments and agencies. If you have a .gov address you can log in now at https://max.omb.gov. In early March there will be a publi-facing portal that the public and governments without a .gov address will be able to use. They are also looking for innovation projects of which they will analyze and select 10 to support.

Adriel Hampton

Kim, you and I are on totally the same page, and you have the patience to reason through and clearly present what needs to happen. The great thing is that gov does have a model, because many businesses already have years of this kind of success under their belts, as you point out. The two most revolutionary books I’ve read are from 2004 (Malone’s “The Future of Work”) and 2005 (Eggers’ “Government 2.0” – still working on it, actually), so there are myriad more examples both theoretical and in practice.
There has been discussion in the #gov20 community on Twitter about the need for an open source lab for developing social software for gov. That goes to @Mark’s point. Also, networks like GovLoop and State’s Ning experiment are great testing grounds. Each City should have a Ning attached to its citizen-interaction efforts.
Most of all, this means shifting from a constricting two-way culture to one of a “we” government. Just like we need full time staff to put out great journalism, we also need gov employees to deliver all kinds of services. But both of these professionals have a corrupted core that acts like it is separate from the rest of humanity. This is going to be a lot of work – not only to change the rules and regs, but the culture. I’d say the culture must change first.

Mark A. Glover

Thanks Lisa for the heads up on the Administration’s Open and Innovative Government Community and its upcoming selection of 10 innovative projects to further the cause of Web 2.0 application in the public sector. I like action. I do hope by “Government” we’re talking about more than the federal government. We also have state and local governments very interested in benefiting from Web 2.0. We also have foreign governments, especially Canada and Australia that have already stepped out on the Web 2.0 limb and are making good progress. Don’t be shy about keeping this a very broad playing field, innovation doesn’t like bounds and it’s unpredicable and even messy. Let us know when you open up the public portal for suggestions.

tracy haugen

exciting potential to bring citizens back into the government equation in a meaningful way. However issues such as the digital divide may unfavorably disadvantage those who are already under represented and under served. Having said that, Web 2.0 may have a better chance of reaching them sooner than traditional means.