What is the role of government in a Web 2.0 world?

What will be the role of government in a post Web 2.0 world? I doubt it’s what a lot of us predict, given society’s poor track record in predicting it’s own future.

One thing I am reasonably sure of though, is that this future won’t represent the open source nirvana that some pundits hope for. When I’ve ruminated in the past about the changing role of government, I’ve pointed out that attempting to create the future by dictate is definitely not the right approach. As I said then:

You don’t create peace by starting a war, and nor do you create open and collaborative government through top down directives. We can do better.

There was an excellent article by Nat Torkington, Rethinking open data, posted over at O’Reilly radar which shows this in action. As it points out, the U.S. Open Government Directive has prompted datasets of questionable value to be added to data.gov; while many of the applications are developed as they are easy to build, rather than providing any tangible benefit. Many of the large infrastructure projects commissioned in the name of open data suffered the same fate as large, unjustified infrastructure projects in private enterprise (i.e. they’re hard for the layman to understand, they have scant impact on solving the problems society seems plagued with, and they’re overly complex to deliver and use due to technological and political puritism).

A more productive approach is focus on solving problems that we, the populace, actually care about. In Australia this might involve responding to the bush fire season. California has a similar problem. The recent disaster in Haiti was another significant call to action. It was great to see the success that was Web 2.0 in Haiti (New Scientist had an excellent article).

As Nat Torkington says:

the best way to convince them to open data is to show an open data project that’s useful to real people.

Which makes me think: government is a tool for us to work together, not the enemy to subdue. Why don’t we move government on from service provider of last resort, which is the role it seems to play today.

Haiti showed us that some degree of centralisation is required to make these efforts work efficiently. A logical role for government going forward would be something like a market maker: connecting people who need services with the organisations providing them, and working to ensure that the market remains liquid. Government becomes the trusted party that ensures that there are enough service providers to meet demand, possibly even bundling service to provide solutions to life’s more complex problems.

We’ve had the public debate on whether or not government should own assets (bridges, power utilities etc.), and the answer was generally not. Government provision of services is well down a similar road. This frees up dedicated and hard working public servants (case workers, forestry staff, policy wonks …) to focus on the harder problem of determining what services should be provided.

Which brings me back to my original point. Why are we trying to drive government, and society in general, toward a particular imagined future of our choosing (one involving Open Government Directives, and complicated and expensive RDF infrastructure projects). We can use events like the bush fires and Haiti to form a new working relationship. Let’s pick hard but tractable problems and work together to find solutions. As Nat (again) points out, there’s a lot of data in government that public servants are eager to share, if we just give them a reason. And if our efforts deliver tangible benefits, then everyone will want to come along for the ride.

Updated: The reports are in: data.gov has quality issues. I’ve updated the text updated with the following references.

Updated: More news on data.gov’s limitations highlighting the problems with a “push” model to open government.

Posted under: Business-Technology, Government 2.0

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