You don’t need to have a Facebook account or to have edited a Wikipedia entry to understand that the Web is in another highly disruptive period. Online tools under the rubric Web 2.0 are changing how information flows, with social networks letting people communicate directly. This is reversing the top-down, one-way approach to communications that began with Gutenberg, challenging everything from how bosses try to manage to how consumers make or break products with instant feedback.
The institution that has most resisted new ways of doing things is the biggest one: government. This is about to change, with public sector bureaucracies the new target for Web innovators. These include Don Tapscott, the business strategy consultant who, with his New Paradigm consulting colleague Anthony Williams, in 2006 popularized Web 2.0 with Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything. Tapscott’s next research project is called Government 2.0: Wikinomics, Government & Democracy. Its participants include the office of management and budget. The goal is to use Web-based collaboration to “reinvent government”.
The Wikinomics book tells the über-anecdote of a Toronto gold mining company, Goldcorp, whose geologists were no longer able to estimate the location of gold on its properties. The firm published its geological data, previously considered confidential intellectual property. Contestants applied math, physics, computer graphics, even military strategy. Goldcorp converted about a half million dollars in prize money into billions of dollars in found gold. Likewise, eBay and YouTube thrive by providing new ways for people to engage with one another and Wikipedia displaced the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
The recently expanded edition of the “Wikinomics” book adds examples of how collaborative tools are changing governments. Technology makes it easy to publish information that used to be inaccessible. Chicagoans track crime by neighbourhood, combining city crime statistics with Google’s online maps (Chicago.everyblock.com). In Los Angeles, Neighborhood Knowledge California identifies communities at economic risk by tracking tax delinquency, fire violations and other signs (Nkca.ucla.edu).
The federal government has launched several wikis, which permit staffers to post information and expand on it until a consensus is reached. Intellipedia lets 37,000 officials at the CIA, FBI, NSA and other US intelligence agencies share information and even rate one another for accuracy in password-protected wikis, some “top secret”. Indeed, the wiki format may be the best last hope for connecting the dots of intelligence across 16 different agencies. Diplopedia lets state department staff share information. It’s closed to the public, rated “sensitive but unclassified”.
Project Government 2.0 is based on the assumption that even governments can’t fight technologies that give power to the people. “If governments are to ensure their relevance and authority, they must move quickly to meet rising expectations for openness, accountability, effectiveness and efficiency in the public sector,” its outline says. Web 2.0 has promising implications for those who think the best government is the one that governs least, especially outside basic functions such as national defence and law enforcement. Can more direct participation by citizens in assessing policies limit government ambitions to what it can accomplish? Would citizen taxpayers put their collective faith in most spending schemes? Or is there a risk that the wisdom of crowds as reflected in Web 2.0 won’t turn out to be so wise?
The government is the ultimate institution retaining the traditional top-down structure, technologically backward, with big decisions almost always made with incomplete information on what works and what doesn’t work. Here’s hoping that Web 2.0 can make the government more effective by tapping information among officials and citizens, perhaps even finding a new consensus on where the wisdom of government begins and ends.
The Wall Street Journal
Edited excerpts. L. Gordon Crovitz writes the column, Information Edge, in WSJ. Comment at email@example.com