Should local government tackle Web 2.0?

One advocate says it can increase knowledge about the community

Online constituent services, security, privacy, data integrity and 24/7 operations are already on the lengthy to-do lists of busy government IT workers. Should Web 2.0 features be added to those lists and become another integral part of the online services government provides?

It's an issue that governments at all levels, local, county, state and federal, should at least be paying more attention to, says James Young, the associate vice president for information services at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology.

Young touted the benefits of Web 2.0 at the Pennsylvania Digital Government Summit this month, telling about 70 local and state government officials that by adding Web 2.0 features they can increase the ways they interact and communicate with residents.

"I'm not here to tell government to just jump in," Young says. "It takes a while to adopt this stuff because we don't know what is going to work and what's not going to work."

The idea, he says, is to bring in Web 2.0 features, such as blogs, wikis, mashups and RSS feeds, where residents can get more information about what's going on in their municipalities and where they can offer their feedback as well.

"What do they like? What do they want? You can communicate with them and create a buzz," Young says.

For governments, it can be as simple as creating a "mashup," or combining the Google Maps website with local real estate data so the data pops up when a user points a mouse over an address on the map.

Some government agencies are even creating policy wikis where local policies can be posted online and debated and discussed by residents, Young says. All these features are being used to expand communication between local leaders and their constituents, he says.

One innovative Web 2.0 project was built in Missouri, where a Second Life virtual community was built to attract prospective IT workers by giving them a place where they could explore the IT job opportunities available in state government. By adding Web 2.0 features to government websites, Young says, "it's making it more user-driven, rather than organisation-driven."

Another presenter Mark Myers, director of government and education solutions at Cisco Systems, says adding Web 2.0 features to government websites will broaden the reach of community residents.

"Think about what this is teaching the next generation about how they can communicate with government," Myers says.

Local leaders can also post video of meetings or other events on YouTube, where residents can catch up on what they missed or find out what's happening locally, he says. "Nobody waits until they watch the six-o'clock news anymore to see the video," he says. "They go to YouTube."

Accelerating the trend are residents who want information immediately — not when government offices opens n Monday morning, Myers says. And new, younger IT workers will continue to replace retirees, bringing their own ideas for Web 2.0 features that they'd like to integrate into the websites they're helping to create and manage.

"The expectations are changing," Myers says. "That's changing your priorities."

Local government officials had mixed views about how they see Web 2.0 meshing with their needs, however. Mary Benner, CIO of the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, called it "something that we need to pursue, but it is not an immediate priority".

While Web 2.0 can help residents communicate better with their governments, she says, offering those kinds of features is becoming a key way to lure younger IT workers to take jobs in government where they can build innovative Web 2.0 applications.

"They use it every day at colleges," Benner says of the next generation of IT workers. "That's their way of communicating. If we don't offer those technologies, they will see us as being in the dark ages."

More Web 2.0 integration will happen over the next one to three years inside her department, Benner says, as interest and demand builds from residents. A handful of residents have already communicated their interest in features such as live chat with agency officials, she says, and those requests are being evaluated. Security, privacy, use and other policies need to be established to make it work, she adds.

Michael Gallagher, a newly elected township supervisor in Newtown Township in Bucks County, says he started his own website and blog to better communicate with residents. "I ran on a platform of opening the lines of communication," he says.

Gallagher, who is a software developer, says he'd like to see the township look at Web 2.0 applications to better serve its residents. One problem is that there are only two full-time IT staff in the township offices and they are there to maintain the system's servers and other tasks. But "the public is asking for more communications," he says.

Not everyone is ready to jump onto the Web 2.0 for government bandwagon, though. Ron Mont, an application developer with the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, says Web 2.0 features can be great, but he's not sure where they can benefit residents across the board. Mont says he's specifically not sure there are beneficial ways to use such technologies in his department.

Part of the problem, he says, is that security and privacy issues with data maintained by the state would be hard to reconcile with Web 2.0 features that could endanger the data if it were accessed by hackers entering through Web 2.0 applications.

Another problem, he says, is that department policies on Internet use often preclude using and even Google Earth because of security and licensing issues. That can stymie many potential Web 2.0 uses, he says.

"I don't do anything virtual world," Mont says. "I don't have time for that. My day is filled with building applications that are mandated by my higher-ups."

In Pennsylvania, he says, a more important IT focus could be getting all government agencies onto the same hardware and software platforms to increase productivity and system integrity. Some agencies are still using Windows 98, while others use Windows XP, while various agencies have different versions of key applications.

"I think the biggest issue is not Web 2.0, but getting all these agencies on the same page," Mont says.

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