State, USAID Embrace Web 2.0

The U.S. State Department and Agency for International Development are embracing Web 2.0 while attempting to create best practices that ensure that this technology is used to make government more transparent and efficient, a panel of government officials said in Washington April 14.

The officials were speaking in a forum called "Open Innovation for Government: Answering President Obama's Call for More Open, Effective Public Service" hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the U.S. Agency for International Development. The talk dealt with the new administration's effort to better engage the public through new technologies, and whether this new flow of information would have a positive effect on the way the government operates and develops policies.

"We're really at the beginning of what is an exciting new era of government," said Beth Noveck of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

But this new era of government, with the use of new Web 2.0 technologies – such as Twitter, Web conferencing, podcast and the like – has raised new questions about what role technology should play in government. It is acknowledged across government that these technologies should be used; no one can say exactly how they should be used, however.

"Only a couple of years ago, [interaction with the public] was very much one-way broadcasting," said Jeremy Curtin, coordinator of State's Bureau of International Information Programs. "Our objective is to be as interactive as possible. In order to compete … we have to let [people] reach out to us."

However, this two-way street has many stop lights. For instance, State has a "culture of clearances," as Curtin said –  that is, any information that goes out of State has to be approved by a slew of people before it's made public. State is also limited by law as to what kind of information it can give out publicly.

Curtin also said it is not clear how Web. 2.0 technologies can be used to impact policymaking. He said "we're not there yet" in terms of incorporating information collected from such technologies into this process.

USAID has been experimenting with how to handle the back-and-forth flow of information through its Global Development Commons site. This site is an attempt to open a dialogue with the development community and provide information on best practices and other development issues.

"There's a lot of development information and there isn't a good way for that information to circulate," said Karen Turner, director of USAID's Development Partners Office.

But Turner, like Curtin, said best practices for how to use portals like the Global Development Commons have yet to be established, and that the agency is still trying to learn how to best engage the public with Web technology.

"This is done not because it's interesting. We're doing it to be more effective," she said.

Curtin also acknowledged that this new technology, while a tool, is not the solution to State and USAID's public outreach problems. Many of those that the agencies are trying to reach are not connected to the Web or do not embrace the technology used by younger generations.

"New technology, new media are not the solution for everything," he said.

About the author

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    David Francis

    David is a Washington-based journalist and former Devex fellow who now spearheads Devex's "Obama's Foreign Aid Reform" blog. He has written for the Christian Science Monitor, Pittsburgh Post Gazette, SportsIllustrated.com, San Francisco Chronicle, Foreign Policy magazine and the Washington Monthly. David holds an undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago and is working to finish his graduate degree at Georgetown University.