Empowerment White Paper & web 2.0 for Government

A motley mix of social web heads (inc. yours truly) mingled with UK Gov types at yesterdays workshop on the Empowerment White Paper. I respect the intent of the day's main question; "How can we best use digital media to get public services to where people are going to be in five years time?". Some UK Gov insiders genuinely care about getting services to people and aren't blind to the importance of the digital public.

But for me it misses the most exciting bit; that people are going to start generating their own services in response to their needs, using widely available digital tools and the collaboration they enable. Then the question becomes 'How can government support this?".

Foto NAGI's: Copy of teemeara08%20(2)

Here's a good example. Estonia is one of Europe's most wired democracies; e-government is the norm and most urban areas are giant free wifi clouds. But there was a huge problem with waste being dumped in the wilds and the government wasn't tackling it effectively. At the workshop on Crowdsourcing for transparency in Central & Eastern Europe an Estonian participant told me about Let's Do It! (Teeme Ara in Estonian) where 50,000 volunteers cleared 10,000 tons of illegal waste from the fields, forests and riverbanks in the space of a day. Granted, it was catalysed by a couple of very web-savvy guys (including Ahti Heinla, one of the founders of Skype), but the tools they used to map and take images of illegal garbage dumps across the country (like Google Earth and mobile phones with GPS) are easily accessible these days.

E-government by itself doesn't make for social innovation, but the alchemy of web plus community can catalyse something unexpected. I think normal government responses will seem like Flatland compared to the digitally-enabled citizen initiatives that are going to pop up.

How will we spot the difference? As someone said at the workshop, these new solutions will be based on assets rather than deficits i.e. they'll aggregate what people have to offer, rather than seeing us as a set of atomistic needs that only government can address.

And there's the question of empowerment itself. Someone else said that the idea of an Empowerment White Paper made them queasy, because empowerment isn't something that's handed down by the government but comes from communities themselves. Fair point, only we know how disempowered people feel right now.

On the opening night Social Innovation Camp, the Young Foundation's Simon Tucker told me the buzz was different to a normal gathering of social entrepreneurs. There was more positivity, more sense of being able to make stuff happen. Interesting, isn't it, that the digital can act as the trigger for a sense of empowerment. And maybe this comes from it's ability to aggregate people with a shared passion. The Estonian forests weren't cleaned up by GIS software but by people who cared and found out that a lot of other people did too.

Watch for more examples emerging from initiatives like the Catalyst Awards and the 2gether Festival .