In the space of two years, the “2.0” meme has risen from obscurity to mainstream in Government policy, as the comparison between the EU Ministerial Declaration of 2007 and 2009 shows. Yet much of the debate is still on the potential opportunities and risks of Government 2.0, with evangelists emphasising the great benefits of crowdsourcing and of leveraging collective intelligence, and skeptics pointing to the risks of wishful thinking, to the limits of transparency, and to the hype about its impact. The question is then: has government 2.0 so far really provided visible benefits for citizens?
The 7 articles presented do not present conclusive evidence. Rather, they provide relevant insights for a sober assessment of the actual implications and impacts, bringing together a diverse set of points of view and with a wide geographical scope. The very definition of government 2.0 is not commonly agreed, as some articles make reference to eParticipation, which may imply any kind of participative effort using ICT, others to Open Government initiatives, which tend to be more focused on transparency and access to a particular government’s process.
The first necessary step is mapping the typology of impact. Huijboom et al., based on a large-scale study, identify the key types of impacts of web 2.0 across public services: political, socio-cultural, organisational and legal. The article clearly shows these impacts in three case studies of government 2.0, which interestingly enough are not developed within government. Whereas these cases clearly show the potential disruptive impact on those involved, they remain small groups, such as the niche of 25.000 people for the Patientslikeme.org service. Furthermore, the article reminds us that the evidence behind these impacts remains largely anecdotal.
Participation and collaboration, so far, reach a small minority of users. Ferro and Molinari frame the debate in the context of the participation ladder theory, and remind us that European eParticipation projects reach an average of a few hundred users: this kind of government-led 2.0 initiatives very much share the traditional problems of low take-up of eGovernment. There is the risk of repeating the classic mistake of eGovernment initiatives, which too often have aimed for automating rather than innovating existing processes. Therefore, Ferro and Molinari propose a typology of participants which takes into account the different degrees of interest, showing that impact can also be achieved indirectly by the involvement of less-interested citizens. Ferro and Molinari propose policy options designed to reach different types of participants, including the so-called “Unplugged”, in order to avoid the often-cited risk of increasing social and digital divide.
Millard’s article takes the long view, seeing government 2.0 as the ultimate expression of the 21st century’s institutional change towards empowerment, after the establishment of respectively the civil, political and social rights in the three preceding centuries. The present surge in releasing public data, combined with the diffusion of computing devices such as smart phones, is enabling citizens to build, on top of government data, applications that are useful and used in the everyday life: “the new vision of everyday government” substitutes the provision of online services, which might well have reached its ceiling in terms of take-up. Europe is well placed to grasp these benefits, provided its institutions are able to adapt and respond to the challenge.
Ostling keeps a rather skeptical attitude, based on a comprehensive summary of literature on citizens’ participation, underlining how ICT emphasise existing trends, rather than determine changes. Even in success cases, government 2.0 initiatives remain scarcely representative, like the Open for Questions initiative by the White House, which reached 90.000 people. Using Gartner’s hype cycle, she suggests that government 2.0 might be at the peak of inflated expectations.
The US case is also analysed by Parycek and Sachs, who place the initiatives on Open Government carried out by the Obama administration in the historical perspective of Freedom of Information Acts (FOIA). They suggest that cultural and administrative attitude on Freedom of Information across country explains the different adoption of government 2.0. Accordingly, they underline the need for broader institutional change that simultaneously addresses transparency for government and for citizens, resolving the present asymmetry by letting citizens gain full control over how their personal data is managed by government.
Moving from the US to Asia, Kuzma reports on the experiences of Asian governments trying to deal with social media. He presents survey results that show that only a minority of these governments makes use of social media: interestingly enough, some of these at the same time are actively censoring the Internet in their country. This reminds us that government 2.0 might not be only about the adoption of tools, but rather also about trying (or not) to enact a profound change of culture. Instead, many governments (and not only in Asia) simply try to use social media as a new communication and propaganda tool.
Finally, Cottica and Bianchi clearly show the disruptive change brought about by web 2.0 technologies is not about what, but about how public policies are designed and implemented. They present the lessons learnt from Kublai, an Italian social network promoted at arms’ length by government to improve the quality of local development project through peer effects. They emphasise how government 2.0 should be firstly about involving the right people and letting them self-organise based purely on the basis of meritocracy and peer review. The tricky issue for governments is to learn at the same time to refrain from direct intervention and to maintain a clear strategic vision.
As a conclusion, the articles suggest a number of considerations be kept in mind to assess hype, hope and reality regarding government 2.0. The definition of government 2.0 goes beyond traditional eParticipation, including Open Government, citizens-driven services, and adoption of social tools.
There isn’t clear evidence on the benefits of government 2.0. Its increased policy importance in many countries is not therefore based on strong evidence of take-up and impact, but rather on a “trend change” aimed at answering citizens’ expectations and actions. This is nothing new: as Kuhn teaches us, even scientific revolution does not happen following the publication of conclusive evidence, but because of the gradual but irreversible change in cultural paradigms.
Take-up of participatory and open government initiatives is not large, especially for government-led initiatives. A project often is considered successful when it reaches the order of few thousands of users, and it makes a difference in their lives. Therefore, relevance, rather than representativeness, should be the aim of government 2.0 initiatives.
Too often, governments simply adopt social media tools, trying to replicate the existing communication and participation paradigm, rather than embracing more profound innovation – just as in government 1.0. As such, government 2.0 is destined to be little more than hype: the real impact is only enabled by institutional and cultural change. This implies the need for legal innovation, in particular in the field of Civil Service Code, Freedom of Information, Data Protection and Re-use of Public Sector Information. But most of all, government 2.0 implies a different way to manage public policies, based on openness, trust and meritocracy. Across public policy domains, governments have to learn to promote innovation and create public value not through direct intervention, but by leveraging and enabling the best capacities of citizens to be deployed and fully realised.
Never before have citizens had the possibility to make such a difference on the quality and effectiveness of public policies: it is now up to governments to create the necessary favorable context to the emergence of true government 2.0, turning hype and hope to reality.