Web 2.0: What's a local government to do?

The promise of better communication with constituents must be balanced with security, privacy, other issues

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, said James Young, the associate vice president for information services at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology.

Young touted the benefits of Web 2.0 Monday at the Pennsylvania Digital Government Summit, sponsored by US Government Technology magazine, 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 said. "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 said, 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 said.

For governments, it can be as simple as creating a "mashup," or combining the Google Maps Web site with local real estate data so that 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 said. All these features are being used to expand communication between local leaders and their constituents, he said.

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 Web sites, Young said, "it's making it more user-driven, rather than organization-driven."

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

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

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

Accelerating the trend are residents who want information immediately not when the government office opens on Monday morning, Myers said. 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 Web sites that they're helping to create and manage. "The expectations are changing," Myers said. "That's changing your priorities."

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