Policy and technology: a "longue durée" view

Random thoughts on policy for technology and on technology for policy


September 2009

Back from ENISA summer school on security and privacy

Monday I presented at ENISA (European Network and Informaton Security Agency) summer school
It was very interesting to be mixed with the security community – while I know very little of it. I presented how differently security and trust are managed in government 2.0 applications, basically emphasizing the importance of self-regulation and soft governance. I also referred to the recent decision of the US government to allow third party authentication (e.g. OpenID) on government websites. This was perfect, because just before me, a representative of the Austrian government presented their eID system, super secure, available to all the population but used only by 3% 🙂
So I thought about the following visualization – which I did not have time to add in my presentation

Anyway here is my presentation

And here are 2 articles commenting it, on ITPRO and ComputerWeekly

it’s not about small or large government, gov2.0 is augmented government

CROSS POSTING FROM Open Declaration Blog

I see many metaphors on government 2.0 around. It’s a good sign we’re doing an effort of self-awareness and shared understanding – very much in line with the Open Declaration. We need to structure our thinking and to communicate it better to government. We need to go from cool project to policy proposals, as we write on the eups20 workshop report.
Here are 4 different visions I came across:

  • no government scenario: Andrea Di Maio argues that government should give up building interfaces, and concentrating on releasing public data and web services. Private sector will take care of interfaces and identity management. On the same line, Robinson argues that government “rather than struggling, as it currently does, to design sites that meet end-user needs, it should focus on creating a simple, reliable and publicly accessible infrastructure that «exposes» the underlying data”. Similarly, Sunlight Foundation argues that government should not visualize but only expose the data.
  • government websites as public goods: Tom Steinberg argues that citizens should be able to use public websites to connect to each other
  • Tao government: with my colleague Cristiano Codagnone we proposed the metaphor of the chinese symbol “Tao”. We recognize that private – community initiative is not a substitute of government: government has a subsidiary role to play to ensure that all citizens benefit from public services. On top of that, these are not alternative, it’s not a zero sum game. Just like the Yin and the Yang are necessary to each other, and permanently changing, government and civil society should both invest in providing services and continuously collaborating to innovate and provide better services and to address the complex societal challenges of our times. The idea has been taken up by the European Commission in its Orientation paper
  • Government as a platform: the metaphor of Tim O’Reilly suggests that government should imitate what Facebook, Google Android, and the iPhone AppStore are doing: to become a platform for value-added initiatives by developers. This is a powerful metaphor: it is appealing to government as it refers to similar initiative in the private sector where a mutual gain is realized (for the platform and the developer). Secondly, it reminds me strongly to a classical theoretical notion that sees private/nonprofit initiative as the “extension ladder” of the public welfare state, which was first proposed in 1912 by the Webbs

In summary: just as social software is not about replacing human intelligence with software, but augmenting it, government 2.0 is not a matter of substituting government with bottom-up initiatives, but augmenting its innovativeness and its impact by letting third parties build on top of government data and services.

And this is the point I emphasize in my latest version of the Open Declaration, entitled “what we expect from public services 2.0“.

Digital and media literacy is key for public services 2.0


My manifesto (author “osimod”, title “second version”) has a specific priority on skills and education, which is missing in others. I also wrote here on the topic. In my opinion, public services 2.0 can happen only with educated citizens and civil servants. Why?

On the supply side, you need educated people to create web-based services: technically savy, but also entrepreneurial with strong communication skills. In other words, a blend of soft skills which comes from a strong education basis. Only people with this mix of skills will be able to generate and benefit from collective action. To put it bluntly, web developers are in a position to generate services and influence policy much more than normal citizens. On the other hand, people with these skills are now able to gain influence, regardless of their financial capacity.

But the importance of education is even higher on the demand side. Conversation and collaboration require strong analytical and communication skills: this is close to what the EU defines as “media literacy“. Using public services 2.0 requires more sophisticated critical skills, in particular for managing trust and reputation. Understanding if the comments on your hospital posted by users on PatientOpinion requires good analytical skills in order to understand if the information is relevant for you, if it is genuine or driven by personal interests. Using Twitter to look for suggestions and tips on childcare requires the capacity to formulate clear questions and to select the information received. Looking at the different visualisation provided for example by Maplight requires sophisticated analytical capacity.

This is true not only for individual citizens, but for private and public organisations as well. Civil servants need to be equipped with the skills to use web-based application in a creative way for solving daily problems. Familiarity with web2.0 tools and culture is necessary.

In other words, the lack of digital and media literacy poses serious risks of:

– more divide: only skilled people will be able to co-produce and to efficiently use these services. Citizens and organisations lacking digital and media literacy will effectively become second-class citizens.

– populism: open discussion on governments can easily turn destructive or based on prejudice. While transparency opens the way to better accountability, there is a permanent risk that information is used for opportunistic and populistic reasons. This can be avoided only by a well educated population.

– less efficient services: public services 2.0 rely on users in order to self-regulate the services and filter the content. A good critical mass of users is needed for this self-regulation to work effectively.

While this calls for increased investment in training on web 2.0, it is clear that the required skills are not mainly technological, but refer to general education. Without a good, universal education, providing critical skills and civic sense, public services 2.0 are unlikely to have a positive impact. However, much of this learning happens by-doing: therefore the continuous emergence of new projects and services is in itself already providing a learning experience.

In conclusion, education and training are a fundamental requirement for public services 2.0 to have a positive impact in terms of quality of services and social cohesion, and should be part of the manifesto.

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