Last month we witnessed a clear demonstration of the power of web 2.0 organizing. On November 16, 2008, the Ontario Government introduced a number of restrictions on young drivers, one of which would have prohibited drivers in the first year of their licence from transporting more than one unrelated teenaged passenger. Within a few days a Facebook opposition group – Young Drivers against New Ontario Laws– was formed and it quickly grew to 150,000 members. On December 8, a mere three weeks later, the government rescinded this proposal.
The politicians, particularly the tech-savvy (at least in his own mind) Premier Dalton McGuinty, saw this episode as a wake-up call posing the question of what their government should do about web 2.0. In this case, seeing 150,000 members and 15,000 wall posts, the government simply backed down. In other situations it might not want to. If so, how would it read, analyze, and respond to 15,000 wall posts? How would it establish a dialogue with a 150,000 person group?
I was recently sharing a draft of a paper on The Digital State Revisited to a number of Net Geners, and I got a variety of views about Web 2.0 in government. First, they think it is ludicrous for some governments to block public servants’ access to web 2.0 sites such as Facebook because they are considered a potential distraction at work when politicians have establishing Facebook pages. Second, there is a concern that having a high profile online, especially one that is controversial, is seen by the public service culture (if not the federal public service Values and Ethics Code) as inconsistent with traditional values of anonymity and non-partisanship – potential career suicide.
But despite these negative signals, there is a growing realization – now Dalton McGuinty gets it – that, because the social networking sites are where the citizens are, they cannot be ignored. For example, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade – which is among the most liberal in terms of staff Internet use policy – has developed its own YouTube Channel and Facebook groups. While internally oriented, a number of departments have developed wikis for staff dialogue, the most notable of which is the Natural Resources Canada wiki, which is used by approximately 2000 of its 5000 person staff. There is also an interdepartmental wiki titled GCPedia.
And some individual public servants are posting their thoughts about Web 2.0 on the Internet for all to see. Mike Kujawski, a Net Generation “marketing specialist and social media expert,” has compiled a list of federal, provincial, and US government web 2.0 initiatives, posted at http://government20bestpractices.pbwiki.com/FrontPage. Nicholas Charney and Mike Mangulabnan have launched a personal blog at www.cpsrenewal.ca.
The Harper and McGuinty governments present an interesting contrast in that the former has exerted tight central control over its message, while the latter has often encouraged open public dialogue as an important component of policy development. But both governments will be grappling with Web 2.0 over the next year. And the Net Generation members of the public service will be moving forward, proposing innovations, and pushing the envelope – as they should be.