Why Web 2.0 is still not pixie dust

Web 2.0 is great technology that has a role in all public-facing government Web sites and in the next wave of application development, but don't confuse its use with the less glamorous side of transparency.

In this column, I will provide a detailed analysis of the second of six items in my controversial article “6 IT trends government IT managers should be wary of.” The second item, titled “Web 2.0 is not pixie dust,” briefly questioned the wisdom of crowds and warned against looking at Web 2.0 as a panacea. I also recommended relegating Web 2.0 to areas that tap its strength, which is primarily nonattributed commentary and workgroup collaboration.

Unfortunately, some readers took my comment as a defense of the status quo and an attack against Web 2.0 technologies and their potential for reinventing government. That is not the case at all, and in this article, I will provide the rest of the story on why government IT managers should not confuse the fleeting hype of Web 2.0 for the difficult realities of institutionalizing information management.

As in my column on cloud computing, which was first on my list of information technology trends, let’s start with the positive aspects of the technology. Web 2.0 has transformed the Web from static, read-only HTML pages to full-fledged, interactive Web applications. It is great technology that has a role in all public-facing government Web sites and the next wave of application development.

However, I wanted to caution government managers about believing that Web 2.0, because of the buzz around its ability to engage people, was a substitute for the less glamorous side of transparency. A sprinkling of Web 2.0 here and there will not alleviate the hard challenges of government IT and, in some cases, could harm them by disproportionately redirecting resources better used elsewhere.

Specifically, let’s examine why Web 2.0 does not equal transparency. A Web 2.0 site is analogous to transparency just as pretty props on a stage are analogous to a hit Broadway show. The key distinction is that the fruit of the tree is not the tree. Instead, it flowers because of an intricate support system of branches, a trunk and deep roots. An industrial analogy for this is that when you get a drink of water from your faucet, your faucet is not the plumbing, sewer or treatment plant for ensuring that water is safe to drink.

Now back to transparency and participatory democracy: WhiteHouse.gov having a blog and posting videos is not participatory democracy. It is not a bad thing, but let’s not confuse the flash for substance. Need more proof? The No. 1 comment during the Obama administration’s transition on Change.gov advocated the legalization of marijuana. Did that affect policy? Not really.

Correlating this to IT, it is important not to prioritize Web 2.0 expenditures over the real source of transparency, which is records management, data governance and information sharing. Given that many government organizations are still at a primitive state with regard to information management — still dominated by standalone systems — setting up a blog on your public Web site does not erase those hard truths and certainly is not a substitute for them.

So what is the proper place for Web 2.0 in agency’s IT architecture? Web 2.0 can and should be part of the information value chain. It should be implemented as part of an overall information strategy to collect feedback from the public and internally to increase collaboration. Although the hype is focused on social-media sites, I believe the real breakthroughs with Web 2.0 for the government are in its use for collaboration on sites such as Intellipedia and the Defense Department's Techipedia.

Finally, in our enthusiasm for transparency, I hope we do not forget information sharing. We know that inadequate information sharing contributed to the 2001 terrorist attacks, and it is not nearly a solved problem. Because budgets are often zero-sum games, I would assert that solving information sharing is more important than using Web 2.0. Fortunately, the same infrastructure and processes required for information sharing provide the path to achieving real transparency.

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