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Web 2.0: Is the public sector really behind the private sector?

In the first of what could become and ongoing discussion series I join Leila Sadeghi, Ph.D., to discuss a recent Harris Interactive poll. Leila Sadeghi, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor with the Center for Executive Leadership in Government at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. This first post has been interesting, a joint writing project. I enjoyed the process and I hope that the results are useful to you as well.

Governments around the world are recognizing, to various degrees, the importance of the web, social media, and other technologies that commonly fall under the government 2.0 umbrella. From public policy makers to managers, government is at a technological crossroads when it comes to implementing Web-enabled services and platforms to serve citizens. As these technologies becomes more ingrained in our daily lives, we recognize its value in collaboration and achieving openness. Altering government’s use of technology in a way that embraces web 2.0 is a fundamental shift that requires a more flexible and adaptable workforce.

A recent poll, conducted by Harris Interactive and Right Now Technologies in an article called Agencies Fall Short on Web 2.0, was conducted to assess the differences in how Web 2.0 is being used by the public and private sectors, in addition to gauging citizens’ views of government openness. The study reveals that of those Americans surveyed age 18 to 65, 43 percent said it will take the government one to five years to catch up to the private sector, while 22 percent indicated that government will never catch up. These are pretty alarming statistics and the focus for today’s blog post.

Leila and I share our opinions on a few questions, what are your thoughts?

1. Even though perception defines reality are the perceptions actually correct? Focusing on the Federal Government, is it behind Enterprise businesses in terms of engaging with citizens/customers?

Leila: Innovation across all levels of government is difficult to implement. Unlike the private sector which is modeled upon innovation to drive efficiency and increase revenues, the public sector utilizes outcomes that link to quality of life measures and overall citizen satisfaction. I think the perception that government is far behind the private sector in terms of Web 2.0 implementation is fairly accurate. The private sector is experimenting with and understanding the impact of these technologies at a much greater pace than the public sector does. The public sector doesn’t have the same resources to invest in technological experimentation, nor the relative ease when transitioning in new technology.

John: This is an interesting question. In the private sector the scorecard is often kept on a daily basis by Wall Street and companies count on their ability to beat quarterly profit numbers. This is a great incentive to innovate but also a great disincentive to building long-range strategic plans that put any risk to the short-term numbers. In some companies this fear of short-term failure actually stifles innovation in the private sector.

Now, look at the public sector where the daily drive to meet numbers is non-existent. The drive to innovate must come from individuals and managers. In some organizations this does lead to stagnation, innovation is non-existent. However, where the personal passion exists, you see innovation beyond most private sector companies. The State Department is a great example of innovation being supported at the top, clear passion at multiple levels, and innovation is occurring everywhere. Of course, since there is no clear monetary ROI there is a struggle to justify spending money on tools and more resources; a double-edged sword.

2. Assuming the Government is serious about being more open, what can be done to turn the perception around?

Leila: Making the call for open government is far different from implementing open government. Government’s ability to become more open is met by structural resistance making the jump to social media very difficult. We saw a lot of resistance with the birth of egov, but far more with Web 2.0 because of how open these platforms are. Government is viewed by many as bureaucratic, stagnant, slow and unresponsive. Part of changing these views is inherent to adopting new technologies that people want and like to use. People are at the crux of labeling government inefficient and ineffective. Government should provide services where the people are – this includes identifying online communities in The Social Ecosystem rather than requiring citizens to engage in traditional approaches. Government also needs to recognize that the recent growth in online communication is an evolutionary process and there will be failures as well as successes in its use.

John: Publicize goals. Deliver results. Publicize those results. Be human. Too many people still view the public sector as lazy, unmotivated, job-for-life types that are not delivering value for those tax dollars we all pay. Nothing is further from the truth. Publicizing your goals, how you are doing against these goals in an honest manner, will go a long ways towards changing these perceptions.

3. Playing devil’s advocate, does it make sense for the government to pursue a more open style?

Leila: We are at a pivotal time in history –the Web provides easier ways to connect and share with one another in an open manner. According to the poll above, nearly 70 percent of respondents believe that government should improve how they engage with citizens by prioritizing social media sites to engage with the public; so the simple answer is yes! On a personal level, we share our whereabouts, comments, and multimedia. On a professional level, many of us participate in online networking and events, blogging about our organization’s recent efforts and sharing multimedia about our organization. It is fast becoming part of our daily routine.

John: Absolutely. As I noted in my last response the public sector suffers from a fear of publicity. Citizens, in any country in the world, have a right to understand what value their government, and its related organizations, is delivering. This clarity of purpose combined with real human engagement eliminates confusion and frustration. It also provides budget holders with information, with data, to guide where investments are needed. It helps organizations to understand the effectiveness of strategies and tactics, and make changes as needed. In short, it is the key to success.

4. How is government advancing beyond e-government to adopt social media?

Leila: We need to stay current with technology and realize that e-government efforts are concerned with making information available online. This typically translates to making transactional services virtual—i.e., forms and documents, and registering for services, etc. But there is no conversation in e-government. The conversations are happening across a diverse set of Web 2.0 tools and platforms. I think part of the problem has to do with learning something new and taking responsibility for shaping it—i.e., many government agencies and public servants have a fear of technology or of maintaining the technology once it is established. Some of these folks are significantly older than the Net Generation and more likely to engage using traditional media outlets for communication. As the study points out, almost half of those surveyed felt that government has some work to do. I agree, but not without applauding those agencies and leaders at the helm of this transformation.

John: Social Media alone will not ever be the answer. For that matter, neither will e-government. While the use of social media is a great tactic that needs to be embraced, where appropriate, I advocate a more strategic approach.

As we explore and document The Social Ecosystem we will define a common language, a common understanding, across the public and private sector. As a result of this effort we will close these gaps together.

John and Leila

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