Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
The Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
Alice: I don’t much care where.
The Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.
Alice: …so long as I get somewhere.
The Cat: Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.
Federal Computer Week reported last week that the US General Services Administration (GSA) has continued the Federal government push into Web 2.0 by signing agreements with four mainstream social media service providers – blip.tv, Flickr, Vimeo, and YouTube that resolves the unique legal issues for government. The use of Web 2.0 technologies isn’t a new thing for government, but this agreement will accelerate its use by agencies, which is great. The problem is that government may be falling down the proverbial rabbit hole.
What do I mean? If you work in a government agency and hear things like “we should start a blog” or “we should build a wiki” or “we should start tweeting” before you hear about the audience for the effort and the purpose, than you have fallen down the rabbit hole of technology.
Any effort should begin with determining your target audience and what your desired outcome is – your purpose. I have already written a bit about your target audience, so I am going to focus on the purpose.
Sure, you have your high level objectives – interact with and listen to citizens. But if I had a dime for every time I heard that answer I would be a wealthy man. But that answer is not specific enough. You need to be much more precise by clearly defining what you are doing (breaking down channel, message type, and more) and what you expect your constituents to do with the content. You accomplish this by asking and answering the questions why are you doing this and what do you want to accomplish.
What are some good purposes for government starting a Web 2.0 effort? The four primary purposes in order of lowest to highest level of development are:
- Talking. This is the most common form of government communication (government speaks and citizens listen) and the most likely end result of most government Web 2.0 efforts. It doesn’t tap all of the potential of the technology or environment, but that doesn’t make it any less important or correct.
- Listening. This is the second most likely form of government Web 2.0 implementation. Efforts at listening will range across a continuum that stretches from one-way input (for example citizens using twitter, a wiki, or some similar technology to provide input on a policy) to an almost two-way dialogue (for example agencies posting on a blog and allowing citizens to comment, but never responding to the comments).
- Engaging. This is a true two-way conversation. This could include responding to comments by citizens to an agency blog posting to actually engaging in a digital conversation such as in a digital town hall meeting. The sad fact right now though is that implementation of this on a large scale is not likely in the near future.
- Supporting. This is the most uncomfortable to agency policy makers – providing a platform that allows citizens to engage each other digitally to discuss the issues and policies that they are interested in or concerned about.
There are other potential purposes, but these are the four broad categories that generally apply to government. It is possible to overlap these and use a single channel for more than one purpose, but I wouldn’t suggest or encourage it.
If you are thinking about starting or improving a current Web 2.0 effort, after you have determined who your target audience is, put some thought and discussion into the purpose before you focus on the technology.
The bottom line: Know your audience and purpose before you think about technology.