Government and Web 2.0 “grew up in different neighborhoods—they don’t play by the same rules,” said Andrew Sherry, Senior Vice President for Online Communications at the Center for American Progress at a CAP event on Monday. Barack Obama’s campaign embraced the participatory nature of Web 2.0, but using social media in the federal government is a different proposition, with different rules.
The event’s expert panel included Peter Swire, CAP Senior Fellow and Ohio State law professor; Alec Ross, senior advisor for innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; Tim O’Reilly, founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, Inc.; and Faiz Shakir, Research Director for The Progress Report and ThinkProgress.org at Center for American Progress Action Fund. The event coincided with the release of several papers authored by Swire exploring the White House’s use of Web 2.0 technology and challenges facing its implementation.
The Obama administration has done more than previous administrations to experiment with new media and Web 2.0 technologies, but it has still been timid in some applications. "A government is a means of collective action," said O’Reilly, especially as the Founding Fathers envisioned ours. "Technology,” he said, “gives us an amazing chance to update that vision." Indeed, the Obama administration has already begun to use technology to engage the public despite some initial hurdles.
Those hurdles are what differentiates governing with technology from campaigning with it. Three major challenges to implementing Web 2.0 technologies are scale—the large volume of communication to small number of staff ratio; clearance—the issue of getting an accurate and useful response that has been “cleared” with all relevant agencies; and limits on how the government can delegate outsiders to act on its behalf. As the lawyer for www.change.gov and www.whitehouse.gov during the Obama transition, Swire helped the transition team address these issues.
Ross has led the State Department’s foray into engaging the public through what he called “21st-century statecraft.” The goal is to move beyond just government-to-government relationships and enhance the relationships between governments and people around the world.
The State Department has already been at the forefront of the federal government’s innovative engagement efforts, from releasing an online video featuring President Obama speaking directly to Persian speakers to mounting a text-message campaign to raise $110 million to help internally displaced persons in the Pakistani region of Swat. These campaigns and others like them will “expand and enhance the way the United States government and its citizens can engage with the world,” said Ross.
Ross said that one of his goals at the State Department is to empower people around the world to participate in the global economy. This is already happening, mostly through mobile devices. In the future, mobile phones and smart phones will be even more common as a way to access the Internet, and they will help to bridge the digital divide, said O’Reilly. For now, government can’t wait for ubiquitous access to broadband, or even to the Internet, to take advantage of web technologies. It’s gratifying, said Ross, to “see the government moving at Internet speed.”
Web 2.0 means “harnessing collective intelligence” and “building a system that gets better the more people use it,” said O’Reilly. And he should know. O’Reilly is credited with popularizing the term "Web 2.0." Government can harness this collective intelligence and create a new partnership with the American people. “Technology is a two-way conversation that government is leading,” said Shakir. The main strength of Web 2.0 is allowing for greater participation that adds value to news and policy. What’s more, said Shakir, the first opportunity the administration now has to shape its relationship with the public online is so critical.
Yet there is no legal framework for managing government adoption of web technologies. The underlying statutes are outdated, and “analog-age laws are attached to things we’re trying to make happen in the 21st century,” said Ross. “Social media is a messy space, and government doesn’t always lend itself to messy spaces,” said O’Reilly.
We are entering a “messy, exciting time with a lot of potential,” said O’Reilly. “Let’s figure out how to use this opportunity to build a better country.”
For more on this event see the events page.
Read more on Web 2.0 and the federal government from CAP: