CIO

Web 2.0: Small Incremental Steps Needed

CIOs in government departments have no choice but to run small, incremental trials of Web 2.0 technologies, says Eric Wood, director of Ovum's government practice

The demand for new ways of interacting with government causes concern because it challenges established practice about who speaks for government and what they can speak about

CIOs in government departments have no choice but to run small, incremental trials of Web 2.0 technologies, given the massive interest in and rapid take-up of the next generation of Web applications and Web sites.

But the whole phenomenon is causing ministers and public servants considerable discomfort and government IT shops will need a major cultural shift to make it all work, according to Eric Wood, director of Ovum's government practice.

CIOs must first clearly decide what degree of control they want to retain over these technologies and get a realistic idea of the risks involved, Wood says. And their political masters must be prepared to override the public sector's traditional aversion to failure if they want to make any real progress in the area.

Wood, who addressed a public sector conference in Canberra last month, says there is now a small body of established best practice available for the introduction of Web 2.0 applications, and that the time to test them is now.

"There are some initial experiments, very low key experiments using wikis and blogs; there's a few high-profile examples — the American security services have a version of Wikipedia that they are using for knowledge sharing," Wood says. "But it's very, very early days and there's a lot of concern I think in the public sector particularly about the implications of taking up a model which intrinsically has less control.

"For IT the downsides first are clearly (that) it raises new security issues, it raises issues of compliance of course, but also it sets out a challenge for them in terms of how they potentially work with users, because one of the things this offers is a much faster way of offering functionality and services to users, who then get on and find their own ways of interacting.

"You can immediately see both positives in that, not only technically but also in allowing IT to be more involved in supporting immediate business requirements, but also a massive cultural change or shift for IT in terms of how it supports and works with users, how far it can let go in terms of both development and also in terms of information control."

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Wood says the demand for new ways of interacting with government causes concern because it challenges established practice about who speaks for government and the public sector, and what they can speak about. The "freeing of the reins" implied by these technologies does cause concern as agencies test the waters and define the boundaries.

But they also raise new issues for CIOs focused on ways to make government more effective, which most governments around the world have only just begun to address.

"I think the way forward for them is actually pretty obvious in the sense that the only way forward really is small, incremental experiments if you like to try and understand some of the issues," he says.

In some areas such as health-care professional guidelines already exist to make it easier to define rules, but those in policy setting areas feel much greater concern about the leaking boundaries, he says.

"On the other hand I think everyone is aware as well that the nature of policy making in government, the nature of communication in government, is already under strain in terms of those older models," Wood says.

"The use of e-mail to define and create communication exchange is already putting a lot of the older paper-based models under strain. So in some ways this is both exacerbating that change but also potentially offering solutions to some of these e-mail problems. Wikis, for example, can offer greater possibilities for auditing, for more control, for collaboration.

"So it is a mixed bag at the moment in terms of benefits and dangers. People are going to feel quite uncomfortable with many of these pieces, but it's the environment in which we swim now."

Woods says neither sticking your head in the sand nor pretending there is no need to engage with the new technologies will serve the public sector. Instead it must engage in a careful process of experimentation via small pilots, and recognize that success will only come to those who accept the need to relinquish some control.