Collaboration and Control

Web 2.0 meets government's desire to shape the message.

Social media and other innovations of Web 2.0 can greatly benefit private and public institutions, says Andrew McAfee, author of Enterprise 2.0: New Collaborative Tools for Your Organization's Toughest Challenges (Harvard Business School Press, 2009). McAfee makes a persuasive case that wikis, Facebook pages, blogs, prediction markets and even Tweets are effective tools for collecting the wisdom of the crowds.

In his book and also during a speech at the recent Excellence in Government conference, McAfee acknowledged it's difficult to justify investments in Web 2.0 because its benefits are hard to quantify. It's also not easy to persuade people to embrace and use the technology.

Indeed, full adoption of social media by government would seem to entail a particularly steep climb, given the strong desire by officials to control information and shape the message, and the harsh consequences that can befall those who stray from the narrow party line.

"Enterprise 2.0," as McAfee calls tech-savvy organizations, is all about using technology to bring together many brains for the greater good.

Different technologies work well to deepen connections and to share knowledge among people who already have strong ties, and to connect those with weak ties, potential ties or none at all. Wikis are strong tools for those already connected. They allow contributions by many people, and a process of constant editing and updating. The federal intelligence community's Intellipedia, for instance, has enabled much more information sharing than in the past. In a private sector example, McAfee writes about Vistaprint, a small high-tech company that needed to keep new and current employees up to speed on rapidly evolving engineering knowledge. A continually evolving wiki offered an answer.

Meanwhile, Serena Software faced a problem that many federal agencies share: a widely dispersed workforce. Eight hundred employees worked in 18 countries, with 35 percent working from home, so there was little chance to meet colleagues face to face. Serena's leaders worried about a diminishing sense of community among employees. So they promoted adoption of Facebook, connecting people with previously weak ties.

Writing in some detail about the intelligence community's adoption of Web 2.0, McAfee observed that beyond wikis, blogs also have proved important, especially in converting potential ties into actual ones. Blogs are easy to use and can create rich conversations, deepening knowledge on particular topics. In what's perhaps a hybrid of these techniques, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has just announced IdeaHub, a tool that will connect and collect the wisdom of his department's 55,000 employees.

Prediction markets, which Google and others use, allow previously unconnected people to bet on outcomes-of elections, for example-in what's proved an effective means of foretelling the future. Wouldn't it be interesting to know whether the collective wisdom of our huge intelligence establishment would predict success or failure in Afghanistan?

President Obama has promoted the ideals of openness, transparency and collaboration. Data.gov and various Web 2.0 initiatives are good starts. But a true culture of openness seems a long way off. It's just too hard to let 1,000 messages bloom in a government that grows ever more hierarchical.

Obama himself exerts unprecedented message control, with Twitter posts and Flickr photos the White House likes better than what might emerge from mainstream media. White House blog posts convey the image of openness while Obama resists the give and take of the formal news conference. Indeed, the perils of unauthorized comment were driven home in the case of Rolling Stone's article about "The Runaway General," Stanley McChrystal, erstwhile U.S. commander in Afghanistan. Nine days after McChrystal's firing, the Defense Department tightened restrictions on officials dealing with the media.

And so goes the yin and yang of government transparency.

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