Public service departments that initially believed the internet was the highway to massive savings are now running head-on into the realities of two-way web interaction and greater reliance on outside parties for some of their most intractable problems. What is commonly referred to as Web 2.0, in the form of blogs, joint information sharing tools (wikis), electronic one-on-one chat and moderated discussion forums, is starting to have a greater impact than the previous great white hope, putting routine transactions on the web to slash delivery costs.
Several public sector specialists in major accounting firms and IT consulting groups are outlining unconventional examples of the way in which interactive websites, trialled in United States elections, can ease the information load on government departments.
Greg Pellegrino, global managing director, public sector, for international accounting firm Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, regularly discusses with officials around the world how collaborative internet tools like wikis can free up discussion inside an organisation, and also help when dealing with outside clients.
"What really startles them is the possibility for outside consumers to solve other people's problems," he said. "One of the popular ideas is that they can go to someone who's faced the same problem, who can provide them with a succinct explanation of what to do.
"What is eye-opening is the way outside citizens can go to each other. It's extremely low cost and low friction, seconds to complete and good customer satisfaction.
"In [the discussed] examples, the government agency wasn't involved. The problem is how to ensure the information is accurate. Being unregulated, there aren't authoritative sources of information. Putting the manual on line doesn't answer a specific question."
The standard response so far has been to post lists of frequently asked questions on public sector websites, which can help a sense of individual interaction and provide accurate information for use by outsiders.
But in the future, the organisational response is more likely to be a wiki (in effect, a live Q&A), where additional information and informed responses can be supplied for new issues as they arise.
"All the things we did in the past were static and assumed predictability, whereas the biggest load on government is the unpredictable," said Mr Pellegrino.
"There are elements of the adoption of these technologies in different agencies. We see leadership blogs, the adoption of wikis inside the enterprise such as in national security. For what's occurring in the consumer world, there isn't yet a collective response at government level like a YouTube or a FaceBook."
Government internet services in the future are likely to extend past high-volume, routine transactions for organised citizens into more responsive internet techniques for the time-consuming minority who need personal attention, immediate responses to their specific current problems and quick access to expertise when they need it.
"We're learning through Web 2.0 that we're getting new ways of meeting people's needs," said Mr Pellegrino. "It's unpredictable, asymmetric and demands application of the knowledge of the organisation.
"This is where collaboration within organisations helps to improve the collective knowledge. Web 2.0 as a concept is about three years old. In the US we've looked at the experience of meeting complex problems in immigration, national security, the delivery of social services.
"In the last 18 months we're seeing more use of social networking. We're looking at what a consumer will feel, which has become a technique in judging customer satisfaction."
Fairfax Business Media
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