Public Engagement in the Web 2.0 Era: Social Collaborative Technologies in a Public Sector Context

By McNutt, Kathleen | Canadian Public Administration, March 2014 | Go to article overview

Public Engagement in the Web 2.0 Era: Social Collaborative Technologies in a Public Sector Context


McNutt, Kathleen, Canadian Public Administration


The digital media revolution is changing both the scope and the nature of public engagement activities. Governments around the world are experimenting with social media using the tools to enhance democratic engagement, improve service delivery, collaborate across organizations, and communicate with stakeholders and the public (Dixon 2010; Osimo 2008). Web 2.0 technologies are fundamentally changing how people socialize, communicate, shop, participate in public affairs and learn with consequences for society, politics, and the economy (Thomas and Sheth 2011). For public administrators, keeping pace with new Web technologies will be critical to governments committed to knowledge-based economies that simultaneously foster innovation and promote social cohesion (Valtysson 2010). For citizens, the density of online communication networks provides greater access to information, more opportunities to engage in public debate and undertake collective action (Woolley et al. 2010).

Government capacity to adapt to the digital era depends on the organizational, cultural, and administrative willingness to shift public engagement activities away from the "broadcast paradigm" associated with Web 1.0 towards a "communicative paradigm" associated with Web 2.0. Second generation Web technologies have triggered significant changes in both policy and administrative processes as governments respond to the new behavioural, social, economic, and political norms of the network society. Emerging research suggests that "ubiquitous engagement" will be a democratic expectation in the next several decades (Lee and Kwak 2012) with social media, mobility, and virtualization pushing radical transformation of public sector organizations (Roy 2013). Many of these digital changes challenge the traditional modes of public engagement, which were largely premised on a new public management (NPM) approach to first generation e-government (Navarra and Cornford 2012).

In the early days of public sector information communication technologies (ICTs) implementation e-government was treated as "an evolutionary phenomenon" implemented through specific stages of development including cataloguing, transaction, vertical integration, and horizontal integration (Gupta and Jana 2003: 373). This NPM approach prescribed networked technologies as remedies to existing policy problems and public sector reforms, often focusing on marketing solutions and business-driven models of design (Andersen and Henriksen 2006). In other words, public administrators did not turn to ICTs to promote new forms of public engagement (although some experimentation did occur), but rather adopted digital technologies to produce increased efficiency and support existing administrative relationships. While the Canadian government enjoyed a great deal of success with first generation e-government initiatives, these achievements were often limited to the application of networked technologies to support internal reorganization of service delivery and information management (Borins et al. 2007; Roy 2006).

It is, however, no longer early days with the Web evolving and improving as technologies often do to better serve the purposes of users. Governments can no longer depend on simply using their website to build reputational capital and social authority. As citizens increasingly rely on their online networks and mobile devices to manage relationships with friends, family, work, financial institutions, educational institutions, and so on, the demand for government to both adopt and adapt to the Web 2.0 era will continue to grow. In 2010, 68% of Canadians banked online, 65% visited government websites, 64% searched for health-related information, and 53% had a Facebook profile (Breikss 2012). Social media penetration in Canada is extremely high with 86% of online users having a Facebook site, 19% on Twitter and 14% with LinkedIn profiles (Ipsos Reid 2012). Currently YouTube is the 2nd largest search engine in Canada. …

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