Governing in a Web 2.0 World

April 2008
By Maryann Lawlor
E-mail About the Author

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will soon have a greater presence in the Second Life virtual world. Plans call for interactive features that engage visitors in scientific activities.
From blogs to virtual worlds, innovation technologies boost citizens’ ability to shape their governments. This is the third in a series of five stories on Web 2.0 capabilities and their effects.

U.S. government agencies recognize the effect that Web 2.0 technologies are having on society, and some are eagerly incorporating them into their operations. However, unlike previous eras in which government embraced new capabilities routinely, today’s efforts go beyond merely adapting to innovative technologies. The Web 2.0 revolution is impelling cultural change faster and to a greater degree than ever experienced in recorded history, and democracies that answer to their populaces already are feeling the effects of that change—and ignore those effects at their own risk.

If Sir Francis Bacon was right and knowledge really is power, everyone willing to use Web 2.0 technologies will be the most powerful people in the world. Innovative capabilities are not only delivering content but also are enabling all people with a computer to speak their minds, take action and impel change. U.S. government agencies realize this e-revolution includes nontraditional influences, and some are doing everything they can to harness this power of the people.

From presidential candidates to individual agencies, government leaders are tapping into Web 2.0. Politicians in both parties are embracing these new channels to get their message out and to interact with potential constituents. And earlier this year, the General Services Administration introduced a newly designed Web site,, that is more than twice the size of its original one and encourages users to join communities of interest and to share best practices.

Agencies are not the only organizations that recognize the value of Web 2.0 technologies to government; capability providers do as well. Recently, Linden Labs, creators of Second Life, introduced two tools to facilitate communication. The “Real Life Government in Second Life” wiki is designed for international government agencies to collaborate, share and find information. The “Real Life Government in Second Life” mailing list offers government personnel the opportunity to communicate with each other and to find new colleagues.

Although the influences of Web 2.0 capabilities on the U.S. government are just beginning to be revealed, they are far from defined, according to William Vajda, chief information officer (CIO), U.S. Department of Education, and co-chairman of the best practices committee, CIO Council. He proposes that from campaigning to acquisition, their effect will be far-reaching. “This speaks to the core of our constitutional democracy. How will all of this socialization really get away from the command and control structures that have served us for the past 80 years as we go to these far flatter, interest-based associations of people—these informed mobs?” he submits.

The influence of the Web on government already is blatantly evident in the current presidential campaigns, he points out, and its use is not likely to subside once a candidate is elected. “I think it’s pretty clear that both sides of the aisle have set an expectation that when they’re in office, they’re going to want to continue to lean on the same tools and techniques that made them successful. ... I think the first person who tells the successful candidate that he can’t do them because they’re not secure is going to get his head handed to him on a plate, because ultimately, these tools facilitate business processes, not information technology processes,” he says.

Vajda believes Web 2.0 technologies buttress several activities that up until this point were impossible. Rather than relying on the traditional media of newspapers, radio or television to receive the news, the Internet delivers information to individuals, and Web 2.0 technologies allow them to choose which items they want to receive. In addition, expressing their opinions no longer requires citizens to trek to the local, state or even national capital; speaking one’s mind is only a click away, and speaking as a group is only a blog away.

Whyville, a virtual world for children ages 8 to 12, is one way the CDC’s National Center for Health Marketing is spreading the word about the importance of flu vaccinations.
The Web 2.0 environment also includes many more of what Vajda calls intermediaries—entities that are willing to step in and give the people what they want. For example, organizations such as Google that have access to the questions people ask are in many ways better positioned to know what is on the public’s mind than some government officials are. “They know in advance what market trends can be. They know in advance what people’s interests are vis-à-vis political campaigns. By using their services, people in effect trust them with that information more than they trust the government. Beyond that, these people [such as Google] are for-profit. It’s knowing what people are looking at that drives the ad revenue and drives the way information is presented through the services,” he notes.

The implications of this trend for government are sobering. “If government fails to step aggressively into this challenge and respond to citizens and their new demands for interaction ... well, you’re already seeing the growth of these intermediaries. It’s that fundamental element of trust and authority that empowers these intermediaries, but [it] also should give government a clue about what kind of things we need to do to address their influence,” he states.

Vajda anticipates that Web 2.0 technologies also are going to have a significant impact on the future of rulemaking. Not only will they influence government-citizen interaction for developing policy but also they will change internal government processes for developing policy. With the ability to customize which channels they tap into, citizens will choose the messages they want to focus on and associate with a group of like-minded people. “Ultimately, this means that there will be a lot more direct involvement by human beings, right down to the individual level. For those of us who are in our midlife, this is a decidedly different view of how policies were established and the transparency of government,” he explains.

Some fundamental issues will have to be resolved as the government and Web 2.0 capabilities move forward because of both law and cultural norms, Vajda says. For example, a significant point of discussion must be the government standard for privacy in light of new social expectations.

Another topic that will have to be addressed is what Vajda calls branding. “Traditionally, how government positions have been communicated has been fairly dispersed. In the future, citizens’ view of the federal government and how it should speak are going to be different. I call it branding, but it’s really ‘how do you establish or do you establish the distinctions between governmentwide policies in the communications, those of departments and those of programs?’” he says.

In addition, while coordinating overall government policy will continue to be challenging, communication capabilities that reveal disconnects between different departments will make those disconnects far more visible far more frequently and far more quickly, he points out. “So there’s a different ‘command and control’ involved,” Vajda proposes.

Data ownership is yet another issue that government agencies will have to address in a future rife with Web 2.0 use. Although information sharing is viewed as positive, agencies’ Freedom of Information Act offices will have to determine which department would respond to a request. Beyond that, they must agree on which organization is responsible for the validity of the information, he notes.

Vajda does not view security in the same way as most CIOs. To him, security is as necessary as breathing. From a technical aspect, security solutions ultimately will come from the private sector. As soon as a company loses a contract because it could not deliver a secure product or a court case results in holding a firm liable for damages from a nonsecure solution, industry will deal with the issue, he offers.

Among the government organizations Vajda cites as fully embracing Web 2.0 technologies are the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, Atlanta. As director of the CDC’s Division of E-Health Marketing, Janice Nall is responsible for ensuring that the CDC is using the appropriate tools to disseminate health, safety and preparedness information. “Most agencies want to think that everybody’s going to come to your site. But increasingly, things like blogs and social networks are where people are going for health information, so we want to be there and give them the information,” she states.

Nall explains that her group started out very small, in July 2006, with podcasting. “About 600,000 downloads later, it’s a real success story here to the extent that even the most change-resistant folks see podcasting almost as mainstream now,” she says. Currently, the organization offers approximately 300 different podcasts.

Soon after its debut with podcasting, Nall’s group decided to expand its use of technology to promote vaccinations for seasonal flu. In fall 2006, Erin Edgerton, content lead, interactive media, Division of E-Health Marketing, organized a campaign that Nall says jettisoned the organization into Web 2.0. For content, Edgerton explains, the interactive media team looked throughout the CDC’s departments to determine how it could leverage existing information and either repackage it or gather the right content and present it to a target audience. The goal is to tap into expertise as well as to ensure that a consistent message is being communicated, she says.

During the first year of this flu vaccination campaign, the team created clickable images that were placed on the CDC Web site and were provided to its partners as well as to state and local health departments. The button linked to the flu page. During the 2006 flu season, the button was clicked approximately 20,000 times; during the 2007 flu season, this number rose to 30,000.

Another activity involved a webinar with blog writers. “We knew that blogs are having a huge impact and many people were reading them. We wanted to be involved in the space, but we wanted to do it in a strategic way so we could reach the greatest number of people,” Edgerton explains. To this end, the interactive media team enlisted blog writers who had a general interest in health and posted messages on their blogs about the importance of flu vaccination.

One exciting and unforeseen consequence of using blog writers was how this activity resulted in expanding the CDC’s Web 2.0 reach. “The interesting thing is not only did we reach the blog writers and their audiences, but one of the bloggers who attended the webinar took screenshots of his favorite slides and posted them on Flickr. Then, more than 80 people on Flickr viewed that series of slides as well. What’s great is that we’re starting to track the viral spread of the information through the different types of social media. It is growing exponentially without us really having to put in the man-hours to try to create a buzz in each of those spaces,” Edgerton relates.

One of the creative team’s favorite activities is Whyville, a virtual world for children ages 8 to 12. Built around science and education, the site is a safe environment that features simple two-dimensional graphics so that it can be accessed by a dial-up modem and outdated computer.

The first activity launched in Whyville was based on research conducted several years ago. The goal was to inspire children to talk about flu vaccinations so they could act as intermediaries and convince their parents and their grandparents to be vaccinated. Beginning the day before Thanksgiving 2006, each Whyvillan could go to the virtual town hall for a virtual vaccination for the Why Flu. Slightly fewer than 20,000 children were virtually vaccinated in six weeks.

About two weeks after the initial call to be vaccinated went out, the Why Flu was released in Whyville. The faces of Whyvillan avatars that caught the Why Flu had red spots, and sometimes words they typed while chatting were replaced with “achoo.” The flu was passed from person to person, so avatars that had not been vaccinated and had come in close contact with a flu-ridden avatar also became infected.

Based on the success of and feedback from the 2006-2007 Why Flu activity, Edgerton’s team decided to repeat it for the 2007-2008 flu season, but this time with a little twist. Realizing that many Whyvillans were communicating with their grandparents in-world, the interactive media team seized the opportunity to remind the older generation to be vaccinated, too. Upon signing into Whyville, children were not only urged to be vaccinated themselves but also were given information about how to invite their grandparents to be vaccinated in-world against the Why Flu. From the beginning of November 2007 through the beginning of January 2008, approximately 41,000 Whyvillans were virtually vaccinated. In addition, nearly 7,500 vaccination invitations were sent to grandparents, and about 1,800 participated.

In response to children’s excitement about the information, this year’s virtual experience in Whyville also included a party. The guest of honor was a CDC flu expert who answered 150 different questions from the 380 Whyvillans in attendance.

But Whyville is not the CDC’s only virtual experience with Web 2.0. The organization currently has a small space in Second Life, and it is in the process of building on an island it purchased. “We’re looking at doing some very creative interactive activities, like a virtual lab,” Edgerton explains.

And Whyville is not the only place where the Division of E-Health Marketing is emphasizing the need for a flu vaccination. Earlier this year, the interactive media division piloted the CDC’s first widgets, which also focused on promoting vaccinations. A Really Simple Syndication, or  RSS, reader features a scroll bar that automatically updates with information feeds from the flu site, as well as an abbreviated version of the CDC’s weekly incidents reports that features an interactive U.S. map.

In addition to using the virtual world, blogs and widgets, CDC’s viral marketing strategies include free e-cards. After reviewing industry data and discovering that more than 45 million e-cards had been sent in December 2006 alone, the interactive media team designed a Valentine’s Day campaign in 2007. The success of the campaign led to expanding e-card offerings topics, which today include holiday, emergency preparedness, pregnancy congratulations and several other special occasions and topics.

As part of its social networking efforts, the Division of E-Health Marketing collaborates with other CDC groups on a MySpace page. This gateway into CDC information features regularly updated content, and the blog section changes as often as four times each week. Between November 2007 and February 2008, the CDC had befriended 285 people.

Key to expanding in the social networking realm is partnerships, Nall says. The division recently partnered with Daily Strength, a health-focused consumer social network that comprises more than 500 e-support groups. Together, the two organizations are launching a group page that will resemble a MySpace page in content. In addition, it has been discussing a partnership with Sermo, a physicians-only social network that focuses on sharing findings and seeking advice.

In December, Nall and Edgerton met with members of the National Institute of Standards and Technology security board and described their Web and Web 2.0 projects. Nall stressed to the group that Web 2.0 capabilities are here to stay. “We have to find a way to do this because it’s too powerful a medium to ignore. After giving them the data on usage and the ways we can use these channels to promote health and safety, there was a lot more interest in trying to figure out how to use them instead of ‘You don’t need to do that,’” she relates.

Next Month: Web 2.0.4—Industry explores new media

Web Resources
CIO Council:
School 2.0, U.S. Department of Education:
GSA Government Customer Service:
CDC National Center for Health Marketing:


Web 2.0 Intelligence

The U.S. intelligence community is employing many of the same kinds of Web 2.0 capabilities and techniques as the commercial sector by mitigating risk. Tasked with building information bridges between agencies, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) has made these technologies part of its information-sharing acceleration campaign. While security is crucial, the office is not allowing it to stop the decision advantage today’s many-to-many communications capabilities afford policymakers, leaders and warfighters.

Dale Meyerrose, chief information officer, ODNI, explains that for the intelligence community the latest technologies increase people’s productivity. “It all has to do with how you connect people as seamlessly and transparently as possible, allow them to do whatever they intend to do and have little spillage. Spillage in an economic sense is wasted effort; spillage in a security sense is needless risk or exposure to unintended consequences,” he says.

While the uniqueness of the intelligence community’s mission challenges traditional information-sharing avenues, it makes it ripe for Web 2.0 usage. Meyerrose maintains that sharing has a deeper meaning within intelligence agencies than “‘you show me yours, and I’ll show you mine.’ The connotation there is that I have a finished product to show to you, and you have a finished product to show to me. In fact, it is about collaboration. People must be able to come together to work on a concept, a problem, a threat, a need, a requirement or a concept of operations.” This process of collaboration—the very core of most Web 2.0 capabilities—creates a decision advantage for U.S. leaders, he adds.

Intellipedia is the intelligence community’s well-known Web 2.0 replica (SIGNAL Magazine, October 2007). Similar to Wikipedia, contributors—known in the intelligence community as “peds”—drive content. Unlike other wikis, however, peds must include attribution with their input. “In my world of intelligence and national security, attribution is how you add credibility,” Meyerrose notes.

While the ODNI has not deployed Web 2.0 technologies to every nook and cranny of the intelligence community, Meyerrose allows that there have been some early adopters. In addition, the capabilities have been infused into areas with compelling needs. “Many of our time-dominant situations are totally controlled by our intelligence people using Web 2.0 technologies like chats or blogs and mash ups and at other times with relays and facilitators. Those can be taking place on our classified networks every bit as much as they would take place, say, in the private sector,” he relates.

Some forms of these capabilities are used all over the world every day, with thousands of intelligence personnel taking part at “the speed of the enterprise.” For example, when one agency detects an event, where and how the event was detected creates the center of gravity for the richest information environment. Various organizations collapse around this environment with a series of connections.

 Meyerrose says that it has been interesting to watch how the first tier of blog or chat sessions’ active participants comprise 5 percent of the group, whereas the remaining 95 percent constitute what he calls “flies on the wall,” observers who are not necessarily participants. However, this 95 percent then become the facilitating 5 percent of the discussions at the second tier, and so on.

While national intelligence organizations are prohibited by law to work directly with local first responders, many of their blogs and Web pages in the unclassified realm can be beneficial at the local level. For example, California firefighters used open-source intelligence information while combating wild fires, Meyerrose allows.

In addition, the intelligence community is in charge of portals at the top secret, secret collateral and unclassified levels of the U.S. government’s pandemic response planning mechanism. “We’ve been told by various authorities both inside and outside of the government that this portal for pandemic planning is the single best source of information across the government,” he notes.

Although Meyerrose concedes that security is a priority, it cannot be the showstopper for Web 2.0 technology use, he says. “Unfortunately, too many of our people put up the security card as a means to stop doing something. They say, ‘You can’t do any of this until you solve the security problem.’ I would submit to you that this is not only naive but very, very shortsighted. They say, ‘I played the security card. Why didn’t you stop?’ Well, I didn’t stop because I become irrelevant if I stop,” he maintains.

 “For clandestine operations, you have to live where the sources are. What that means in the virtual world or in the burgeoning information age is that if you don’t live in the network, if you’re not a part of it, then the relevancy of the value-added that you provide is down,” he states.

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