Web 2.0 and the public service: the column

Here’s today’s column in the SMH which was slightly edited back from the original.

Who is Julie Hempenstall? She lives in Bendigo and she likes reading Australias historic newspapers. The National Library has hoisted its collection on the net and had them digitised by computers. I can see what keeps her there. Hard at work drafting this article I just spent the last hour reading about early Sydney about the Governors plan for a school for aboriginal boys and girls to improve the Energies of this innocent, destitute, and unoffending race. It wasnt a raging success.

Anyway, the computer digitisation of that article was full of mistakes. Why? Optical character recognition isnt perfect even with clean print and certainly not with two hundred year old, stained, yellowed newspapers with antiquated fonts or fontfs as it was printed in 1788. But people like Julie have pored over the articles and the Librarys clever crowdsourcing website allows them to correct mistakes they find.

Its addictive. I found the obituary of an extraordinary Englishman William Stanley Jevons who was an architect of modern economics. He turned up in Sydney in his teens in 1854 and was a busy fellow. He became assayer to our mint, was newspaper photographer in Australia (strictly a hobby) and the first to document the El Nino effect. Reading all the digitised mistakes I just couldnt help myself. He didnt gain an honorary degree from the Umversity of Odinburgh. It was the University of Edinburgh. Anyway its fixed now.

This bit of crowdsourcing has been a huge success. Without so much as an official launch:

  • In the first month in 2007 over 200,000 lines of text were corrected in 12,000 articles. By the six month mark 2 million lines had been corrected in 100,000 articles.
  • At no point since the first few days has there been a time when text correction is not taking place. It goes on 24/7.
  • Over a fifth of users log in from offshore with growing communities of participants from the United Kingdom, United States of America, New Zealand and Canada. One of the top ten correctors was based in the US.
  • The top ten text correctors were correcting significantly more text than all other users spending up to 45 hours a week on the activity.
  • No vandalism of text was detected in 6 months so no roll back to previous versions or moderation was required.

Oh and our Julie from Bendigo emerged as a leading contributor from early on in the project. When I last heard shed corrected over a quarter of a million lines of code.

All this is a microcosm of how the worlds governments are starting to get with the vibe of Web 2.0. Web 1.0 comprised websites and e-mail. Today Web 2.0 is a platform of blogs, wikis and social networking tools for collaboration between all and sundry – often people whove never met and never will. Who knew that weve had an encyclopaedia in us just waiting to get out on a wiki? We all know now.

But weve only just begun thinking about what Web 2.0 might mean for the business of governing. Julie Hempenstall gives me a way of explaining just one set of possibilities considered by the Government 2.0 Taskforce.

For there are a two things we know about Julies work. We know she does it for its own sake after all no-ones paying her. And its very likely that, in addition to this intrinsic motivation, shes also motivated by making some small contribute to the community. (All the respondents to the National Librarys survey of major contributors listed this as one of their motivations).

Now intrinsic motivation and civic mindedness are valuable things pretty much anywhere but particularly around government.

We still dont understand that much about intrinsic motivation or of how to maximise it in the workforce, but it seems clear that it is critical to highly skilled activity. The author of a groundbreaking book on volunteer built open source software (like Linux and Firefox) Eric S. Raymond, attributes much of the superiority of open source modes of working to intrinsic motivation:

‘Fun’ is . . . a sign of peak efficiency. Painful development environments waste labor and creativity; they extract huge hidden costs in time, money, and opportunity.

In the world of open source the ethic of voluntarism and the improvisational and open nature of online collaboration have led to a culture in which social recognition is a function of the quality of contribution as judged by the community around a particular project whether its Wikipedia, Linux software or some community congregating around a blog or blogs. Formal status doesnt rate as it does within organisations.

In the future Id like to see governments draw volunteer enthusiasts from the community more closely and explicitly into their own activities in policy design and service delivery. And they can go further still. Shouldnt the best volunteer contributors whether theyre correcting text or discussing policy alternatives be afforded greater recognition? Over time we could see if they were interested in being given greater responsibility just as public servants are offered promotions? This could widen the pool of available talent to the public service and provide alternative pathways for recruiting people and developing their skills and authority.

If those pathways of promotion were built, as structures of authority are built in the world of Web 2.0 they would be based on self-selection, enthusiasm and a record of aptitude and contribution in the field. Firms in the Web 2.0 world are successfully experimenting with means of adapting aspects of this kind of volunteerism to their own organisational structures.

Thus for instance Google and the Australian global software maker Atlassian allow employees to spend one day a week on projects which are for the firms benefit, but which they are free to choose. Those with a creative idea can work on it and, equally important persuade others to use their own time to collaborate. The process can create many of the organic possibilities and associations typical of the undirected spontaneous activity of markets and civil society. Its certainly created a lot of Googles myriad products.

Introducing Google time by edict into the public service would probably just reduce productivity. So we recommended a much more incremental approach, proposing that government agencies give their staff opportunities to experiment and improvise with Web 2.0 tools to enhance their agencies work.

I wonder how long it will be before we get our first head of a government department who first came into the orbit of the public service as an online Web 2.0 volunteer.

Julie Hempenstall where are you?

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