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Govt 2.0: The Power of Mass Collaboration is Here

BY Micah L. Sifry | Thursday, April 3 2008

Go read British Cabinet Officer Tom Watson's speech on the "Power of information" and imagine a Member of Congress making a similar speech on how technology can radically reinvent government. Imagine one of our presidential candidates making it (even Barack Obama, who has done the most thinking on this topic.) You can't. But maybe, if we pay more attention to our cousins across the pond, soon someone will.

Five years ago, Watson was one of the first MPs to blog, and notes that even though it opened him up to daily abuse, "the blog broke down the walls between legislators and electors in a way that interested me. So I persevered." Now he says, "I believe in the power of mass collaboration.... I believe that the old hierarchies in which government policy is made are going to change for ever."

Watson's agenda makes me drool. He clearly sees the value in government freeing up data and engaging people directly using simple tools to catalyze new kinds of creativity and collaboration. This isn't your father's e-government, which has all been about making it easier for people to download forms from websites or file their taxes online. As Steven Clift likes to say, the best government websites are the ones that collect your taxes; the worst are the ones that supposedly ask your opinion or offer your a chance to participate in making policy. But Watson is part of a new vanguard of political leaders who understand that the real gains are to be had in enabling people to connect to each other to identify common concerns, come up with solutions, and organize on their own behalf.

Here are some excerpts [with emphasis added]:
-"Some have said that the Power of Information agenda is a geek manifesto. It’s not. It’s about making people’s lives and their communities better. As Clay Shirky would say, we’ve reached a point where technology is simple and boring enough to be socially useful and interesting."
-"Over 7 million electronic signatures have been sent, electronically, to the Downing Street petition website. 1 in 10 citizens have emailed the Prime Minister about an issue. The next stage is to enable e-petitioners to connect with each other around particular issues and to link up with policy debates both on and off Government webspace."
-"The challenge is for elected representatives to follow their customers and electors into this brave new world. Some of us have already taken that leap. As well as blogs, there are many more MPs using Facebook and Yahoo Groups to communicate their ideas and listen to other."
-"The 19th century co-operative movements had their roots in people pooling resources to make, buy or distribute physical goods. Modern online communities are the new co-operatives.
-"Mrs Watson is a regular user of Netmums. . It’s a great site. Parents chat, and offer, I’ve been there, advice on everything from baby whispering to school admissions. Except it’s not just a handful of mums and dads, it’s thousands of them, available in your living room, 24 hours a day. Sounds like hell well, it’s a lifeline when your baby’s screaming at four in the morning, you have no idea why and you just need to know you’re not alone. But my point is, imagine if quarter of a million mums decided to meet at Wembley Stadium to discuss the best way to bring up their kids. Midwives would be there dispensing advice. Health visitors, nursery teachers, welfare rights advisers would be there. Even politicians would try and get in on the act. But when twice this number chooses to meet together in the same place online, we just ignore them. That’s going to have to change."
-"I recently registered my local Labour Party with This is a new site provided by the MySociety people. It’s a site for people who run small scale community focused groups. Through the site, I found West Bromwich Freecycle. I’m the Member of Parliament for West Bromwich East and I didn’t know about an important recycling initiative going on in my own patch. This information now means that a bag load of clothing for a small child and a habitat sofa are about given a second chance to give pleasure. A simple, free tool enabled a small social good. Do this on at scale and you have a very good thing going on. Nine million people now pay their car tax online. Wouldn’t it be great if when they have finished their transaction they can be directed to a kind of golden page that lets them find small local community groups in their area or offers them a menu of things to do that are good."

I'm now hoping that we can get MP Watson to speak at this year's Personal Democracy Forum. Clearly, he'd be a great addition to our second day, which is focused on how technology is starting to change governance and civic engagement.