Government 2.0: Building an Online Democracy Business strategist and author Don Tapscott explains how he is working to create government Web sites intended to get American citizens engaged in democracy. He says the Internet can make government more open, participatory and efficient — and maybe even smaller and cheaper, too.
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Government 2.0: Building an Online Democracy

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Government 2.0: Building an Online Democracy

Government 2.0: Building an Online Democracy

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We're all used to the idea by now that the Internet allows customers to interact with businesses, readers to connect with writers, it gives passionate amateurs ways to share their expertise, and it lets everybody collaborate in new and fundamentally different ways. But there is one laggard in the rush to revolutionize and reinvent, the biggest, slowest, most change averse and top down institution in existence, government.

A year ago, Don Tapscott joined us to talk about some of the ways that the web has changed business and about his book "Wikinomics." In just a moment, he'll be with us to talk about his new project to let the Internet make government more open, more participatory, more efficient, maybe even smaller and cheaper, and at the same time get citizens more engaged in democracy.

Later on in the hour, we'll talk about nuclear proliferation and celebrity activism with Michael Douglas, who's in town to lobby Congress, but first Government 2.0. What ideas do you have to use new technology to make government better? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. The email address is You can also join the conversation on our blog. That's at

Don Tapscott is the author of "Wikinomics" and the chairman of a think tank called nGenera. He joins us from the studios at SS Voiceover in Pembroke Pines, Florida. Don, thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. DON TAPSCOTT (Author, "Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything"): I'm happy to be here, as it were.

CONAN: OK, as it were, a virtual guest. What governments are you talking to and are they listening?

Mr. TAPSCOTT: Well nGenera has launched a multimillion-dollar research project that's funded by countries from around the world, so the usual suspects, United States, Canada, the UK, but others such as New Zealand, Finland, Portugal, and so on. And the goal is to understand the whole next wave of government.

I'm convinced that governments are now positioned to go through some of the very profound changes that private companies have been going through, and this probably the biggest change in not just the way governments create and deliver services, but in the nature of governance itself, democracy and the relationship between citizens and the state, probably the biggest change in this century.

CONAN: Can you give us any concrete examples of things that are being used now in the U.S. government?

Mr. TAPSCOTT: Well, absolutely. We've got initiatives underway like Intellipedia, where, by opening up and sharing information, ironically, the CIA is better able to understand the bad guys, and what's going on. This is essentially a collaborative platform that uses wikis and other tools. You've got all kinds of...

CONAN: Obviously it's a secret one. It's not available to the public, though.

Mr. TAPSCOTT: Well, it may well be. If they're opening up to various agencies to contribute information, why not open it up to the public? So that if they...

CONAN: I think that the CIA would rather tell the public than tell the Defense Intelligence Agency.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TAPSCOTT: Well, fair enough. There are lots of big cultural barriers here. But you know if you or I discover something kind of weird somewhere, maybe there ought to be a vehicle whereby we can do that. Or another good example, seeing as we're on security and law enforcement, is a lot of governments are doing these things called government portals where they're trying to bring together all kinds of government information and capabilities in a single place, a single window or a shopping spot for citizens.

But what the FBI has done is use something that is something of the Web 2.0 called widgets where, rather than you come to us and learn about the ten most wanted, these little widgets go out and then plant themselves in appropriate places, like, say, a cash registrar in a convenient store, and tell the shopkeeper who are the ten most wanted. So that's just a tip of the iceberg in terms of some very big changes, in terms of how governments operate. The biggest ones, of course, are in the nature of democracy itself.

CONAN: And what do you proposing there? I mean, the way government interacts with its citizens has typically been a one-way conversation.

Mr. TAPSCOTT: Well, fair, touche. And the old model, let me stereotype it, I'm a politician, listen to this 30-second negative ad where I attack my opponent on an issue that, by the way, if you're young, you could care less about. And then go vote for me, and I'm going to broadcast you for four years, and we get to do it all over again. That model is inappropriate for a whole new generation of young people, 80 million of them. I call them the Net Generation.

This is my upcoming book called "Growing up Digital," and these kids want to interact. They want to collaborate, they want to be engaged, they don't want to be passive recipients, like their boomer parents, where (ph) - of watching television for 24 hours a week. So these kids want a different model. And there are all kinds of exciting things that we can do. I'll give you an example, if you want. In this program, all around the world we're working to catalyze these initiatives.

So in Canada, they're working on something called Canada Jam. That will be a three-day conversation of all Canadians on the web, and the topic will be, who knows? It will actually be chosen by the Governor General. The Queen's representative is going to chair the discussion, and it can be on something like global warming, or how to make the Canadian economy better, or whatever. And we use collaborative filtering, it's called.

So just like you can rate something on Amazon, or on Digg, say what's cool, and what people think are appropriate articles in the Internet, or YouTube, all the best videos kind of come to the fore because lots of people rate them highly or view them. So these ideas will come forward. And this is not Ross Perot, and the electronic town hall, you get the vote on the evening news every night. That's a kind of a bad idea, a.k.a. the electronic mob.

Democracy's a lot more than majority rule on a nightly basis. One of the things about it is protecting the rights of minorities. But rather, this is a new way of reaching out and engaging citizens, getting them involved, and all kinds of initiatives would come out of that, and good things would happen. That's one of a couple dozen big ideas we're working on in this program.

CONAN: We're talking with Don Tapscott about ways the web and new technology can improve government. If you have such ideas, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, And let's talk with Michael, Michael with us on the line from St. Louis in Missouri.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call. I wanted to ask if you have read the two recent articles in Democracy. One about Wikinomics, and the other was a rebuttal talking about the need to filter, and provide expertise to prevent the electronic mob. And I'd be interested to hear a little bit more about that.

CONAN: Yeah, go ahead, Don.

Mr. TAPSCOTT: Sure, absolutely. Well, there's a role for filtering. I mean, we have indirect democracy for some good reasons. You know, the creation of a legislation is a complicated thing that requires a lot of thought, and just because you can create a wiki, where large numbers of people can come together and create an encyclopedia that has great quality, Wikipedia. You can also create programs and policies.

I mean, the Green Party in several countries has created its program through a wiki. But having said that, there's a role for the intermediary in all - not just in government, but in market places, and in every institution in society. And I'm not suggesting that we have some kind of mob rule here, far from it.

I'm just saying that there are new ways now, new tools and technologies, where by citizens can get input, where they can collaborate and learn from each other, where government people can learn from citizens, and where new kinds of discussions and conversations can occur. And when that happens, I can't think that anything but good will come from it.

CONAN: And presumably if citizens are more involved, more engaged, they will be more invested in whatever result emerges?

Mr. TAPSCOTT: Well, absolutely. Just take something like healthcare, for example. And you can apply this, by the way, to any - I mentioned security and law enforcement, but this can be healthcare, or any other institution whereby we get citizen engaged in creating their own healthcare.

CONAN: Michael, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it. We'll take more of your calls with Don Tapscott on ideas to improve government with new technology, 800-989-8255. Email at, and stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking today with Don Tapscott, the author of the book "Wikinomics" about how governments can use new technologies, like wikis, to reduce costs and engage younger voters. What ideas do you have to use new technology to make government better? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us,, and you can read what other listeners have to say on our blog at

And Don, one of these things you're talking about, is this participatory and getting a lot of input, electronically, from citizens all over the country? But can't that sometimes overwhelm government, if, at some point, input becomes, well, an enemy to efficiency, doesn't it?

Mr. TAPSCOTT: Well, sure, of course. But I'm not talking just about input. I'm talking about new models that are less paternalistic whereby citizens actually become involved and take responsibility for doing certain things. Let me give an example. The Holocaust Museum for Darfur, here's a new kind of partnership that involves the U.S. State Department, many hundreds, thousands actually, photographers, private citizens, NGOs, and private companies.

And you can start with a satellite image of Earth, and zoom down into any one of 1,400 villages in Darfur, and understand concretely the devastation that's occurred. And this all enabled by the new web, whereby, just like in the private sector, these old, vertically-integrated companies are unbundling into focus companies that work in networks, I call them business webs. So in the public sector, we can have new kinds of networked partnerships in society to do things that were previously not possible.

And this is not about privatization of government, or outsourcing, or anything like that. In the case of this Holocaust Museum, there's nothing in, in the first place, to outsource. These are - we're talking about a new division of labor in society, a new way of orchestrating capability for citizenship, and the possibilities, I think, are just huge.

CONAN: Give us an example. You mentioned that museum, but something more concrete that might be more, well affect our daily lives.

Mr. TAPSCOTT: Well, something like healthcare. You're born, you get a website. That's what should occur. And this becomes your electronic patient record, and you have complete transparency into it, and you will take responsibility for a lot of your own health, healthcare. So right now we can see this with all kinds of collaborations occurring around this issue where patients get involved.

So you've got things like WebMD, where patients get information. But then there are blogs and discussion groups, like Doctissimo in France involves 10 million people. You've got question and answer websites like Yahoo! Answers, like wikis like Fluwiki, and Cancerwiki. Then there are things we call swarm intelligence, like, and Sermo, and Organized Wisdom. And then there are these fabulous support communities.

So if you have a rare disease, you can build a community with others on Caring Bridge, or Care Pages, or Daily Strength, and so on. And this is about a new model of how citizens can become engaged. So if you have, say diabetes, and you've got great tools, and the ability to collaborate, and you can test your own blood sugar level, you will do that. And some of the burden of healthcare will be moved onto individual patients who will happily use these powerful tools to be healthier, and bottom line, you get better, cheaper government.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners again in the conversation, 800-989-8255. Rich is on the line from Boston, Massachusetts.

RICH (Caller): Hi. I'd like you to talk about the idea of using the Internet as a tool of public oversight of the government, that we could use the Internet to make the government completely transparent legally and financially, and whether or not you think that's reasonable? And how we would accomplish that in the next couple of years?

Mr. TAPSCOTT: Well, you know, it's a great question, and it's happening right now. But typically it's not being led by government. It's being led by other institutions, like Google. Google for example, has a whole government environment where you can get information on, say, the American Forces Information Service, or White House news, government executives, their top government stories. And they're finding new ways to make government information available in ways that governments couldn't do that.

And if the governments don't smarten up, and start opening up, and making information available, they will be rendered naked by other forces. And the point here is transparency is a good thing, you know what, sunlight is the best disinfectant. And, you know, if you're going to be naked, being fit is no longer optional. You better be buff. And I think transparency is not about Sarbanes-Oxley or the FCC, or avoiding the perp walk, or anything like that. This is a new force for public accountability, the private sector. It's a new force for growth, and innovation, and trusting relationships.

CONAN: C-SPAN cubed. Anyway, Rich, thanks very much for the call.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RICH: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can talk now with Ben, and Ben's on the line from Cleveland.

BEN (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi there.

BEN: Hi, thanks for taking my call. I was curious as to how this kind of technology and use in government would affect the end user, the person who's actually looking at the information, the type of politician, in other words, that we'd get who was going to be savvy enough, technically savvy enough, to use this type of information. And how that might change people who are being elected?

Mr. TAPSCOTT: Well, absolutely, and you can see it right now in the primaries. I mean, obviously Obama gets it better than the others. And I think if there's one single thing that will go down in terms of saying why he won the primary, which he likely will, it was that he used social networks, and he understood the power of youth. If you actually look at the data, he's often losing in 40 and above. But it's these young people, by the millions, arguably more, that are becoming engaged.

It raises a huge issue. Should he become the president, I don't think they're going to be satisfied with having just elected somebody. I think they're - these kids, and we've talked to many of them, they want a different model of government. They want to be engaged. They want to be involved in the creation of policy. They want to participate in their communities. You know that civic action is at the highest level in two decades? And political action has been rising for the last decade as well.

CONAN: Senator Obama's talked about, among other things, sort of bringing the idea of the fireside chat to the web.

Mr. TAPSCOTT: And that's a great idea, but the fireside chat isn't the old broadcast model. You know, it's more like a fireside conversation that's a real two-way thing. The technology absolutely exists to do that, and he's going to have millions of young people pushing really hard and wanting him to do that. And I think that democracy will benefit as a result.

CONAN: Would you expect a White House blog, an Oval Office blog?

Mr. TAPSCOTT: Oh, sure. He should blog, absolutely. It's like every CEO of every company should have a blog as well. But old paradigms, I can say that because I wrote the book "Paradigm Shift," OK.


Mr. TAPSCOTT: I didn't invent the word paradigm, but old paradigms die hard. So somebody like Jonathan Schwartz, the CEO of Sun Microsystems, takes over this troubled company, and he says everyone in the company can have a blog, and I'm going to blog, too. And his PR and his legal department go ballistic, saying what are you talking about? Anyone can issue a press release? And he says we'll have some guidelines.

Here's one, don't do anything stupid. Write about something you know something about. Make it interesting. You know, in three years they've never had a problem. People can be trusted. People will do the right thing if you give them the chance, and set up the conditions where by good things happen.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Ben. And what you raised in that example is an interesting point. One of the problems that government has is that if a government official commits anything to paper, or in these days to a computer screen, it sort of becomes policy. What you're talking about in these collaborations, these wikis and other kinds of things, is this is going to evolve over time. That may not end up being the policy.

Mr. TAPSCOTT: Well, absolutely, and that's going to require a big cultural change in the body politic, basically. Right now, it's very predatory, really. You know, politician muses on something, and the press is all over him. That's a culture that's got to change, and because in this new environment you've got to be able to think out loud. You've got to be able to throw out some crazy ideas. But again, I think this young generation, this net generation, coming not just into the workforce and into the market place, but becoming citizens, they're going to push for a more open, and forgiving, and truly conversationalist attitude.

CONAN: Here's an email from Jason in Denver. I currently work for the federal government. My question/comment is, how can a bureaucracy as large as the federal government begin to posit such change? We cannot even replace our six-year-old computers, which are outdated, let alone begin a wiki.

Mr. TAPSCOTT: Well, I think it's a great point, and this is a cultural change, and old paradigms meet resistance. And leaders of old paradigms have great difficulty embracing the new. You know, I was talking to the CIO of a state where the governor had banned Facebook. And I asked him, why did he do that? And he said, well, because young people are wasting their time, which to me is bizarre. If young people are wasting their time, it's not a technology problem. It's a management problem.

And I said, well, what was the effect of banning Facebook? And he said, well, everyone went to MySpace. So, I mean, these tools are there. What the kids tell us is electronic mail, and that's what we use in governments today. It's a great technology for sending a thank you letter to one of your friend's parents, but that's about it. We have wikis, blogs, jams. As I was mentioning with Canada jam, Habitat jam had a conversation with 40,000 people. IBM had a jam of 400,000 people over a three day period. We have tags and tele-presence (ph), all kinds of powerful new technologies.

Talk about being pennywise and pound foolish, you know, you can't replace a computer. These technologies could dramatically change the way that governments collaborate. They could radically drop costs, and result in profound changes to the quality and delivery of services to citizens. So I think we're looking for a new generation of government leader, basically, one that understands that the world is changing, and there are great opportunities before us.

CONAN: Let's talk with Laura, Laura with us from Centennial, Colorado.

LAURA (Caller): Yes, hi. I have a perfect example of that collaborative aspect of using technology. I've been sitting on a 21-member commission here in Centennial, Colorado, writing what's called a home rule charter, which is like a mini-constitution for the city. And early on in our process we - one of the members of our commission, as a volunteer, set up a wiki site for us.

And what that allowed us to do was, in between our weekly meetings, we could do research, post that research, the other 20 people could see it, the public could see it, the public could send us comments, we could comment on each other's research. And it allowed us to comply with the Colorado Open Meetings Act because what we called it, it was an open meeting, 24/7, where we were posting our ideas, our research, having that conversation on an ongoing basis, when it was convenient for us during the week, during the course of our regular lives.

And then we'd get back together for our weekly meeting, and we would already have done a lot of the work and the sharing. And the public was allowed to see all of that, so we were able to comply with the law.

Mr. TAPSCOTT: Well, it's a great point, and you know, these initiatives are happening all across the country, all around the world, really, but they're typically happening in a bottom-up way, or from an individual. You look at somebody like the state legislator for Utah, Steve Urquhart, who created a site called, where people can post and edit information about legislation under consideration in the senate. And, you know, when colleagues complain about not liking what people have said in their bills, his response is simple, well, that's not my problem, basically. There's a new model of democracy emerging here.

CONAN: Laura, thanks very much for the call.

LAURA: Thank you for your topic today.

CONAN: We're talking with Don Tapscott, the author of "Wikinomics," about how technology, like wikis, can improve the government. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's go to Peggy, Peggy with us from Wilmington in North Carolina.

PEGGY (Caller): Hello. I'm currently going through application for Medicaid for my dad, which is a mountain of things to learn, so it's even taken me a couple of months just to get basic information. I found myself really being annoyed that I couldn't get electronic information because I'm so used to doing it in all other areas of my life.

CONAN: So this is all paper?

PEGGY: Well, yeah. I have to go to the bank, and provide three years of bank statements, hard copies. I have to get letters from the insurance company stating what his benefits are. I have to, not only check with the VA, I have to either get a statement of eligibility or non-eligibility. Tons of things that are, I'm sure, available electronically, but can't be accepted by my county government electronically.

CONAN: And that seems like a pretty easy fix, doesn't it, Don?

Mr. TAPSCOTT: Well, absolutely. You know, information when it's bits moves around a lot faster than when it's atoms, and bits are a lot easier to find than atoms, and they're a lot easier to organize, and to ship around. I mean, in fairness to governments, you know, these institutions grew up about the same time as the old corporation a hundred years ago. We needed bureaucracy. I mean, bureaucracy back then was a cool word. It was the latest hot management idea. And we needed to have accountability, we needed to avoid patronage, graft, corruption, and so on.

But these were all done through traditional organizational models and structures, through traditional systems that were largely physical, and through traditional approaches to the relationship between citizens and the state, where the citizenry was inert. You know, we had good public accountability, as good as we could, but citizens were not engaged. And now the digital revolution is creating an opportunity to change all of that. That's why I call it Government 2.0. This is a second generation, if you like, of government in our time. I don't think there's anything less than that occurring.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get one last caller in. This is Dave from Gardner in Massachusetts.

DAVE (Caller): Hi. Thanks so much for taking my call. I'd like to point out there's one pretty good example here in the U.S. where someone has applied fairly recent modern management technology to government, and that was in Indianapolis, Indiana, under the two years - two terms of Mayor Graham Richard, I believe was his name. And he applied what is generally called six sigma technology to the government there, and made some very startling improvements in terms of its efficiency and effectiveness, that citizens could actually relate to, even though I think all the web stuff is fun to talk about...

CONAN: Any concrete examples, Dave?

DAVE: Probably the best example that everybody related to there was he removed the amount of time it took on average to fix a pothole in Indianapolis from two weeks to four hours. And he did it by getting down to the root causes of the delays that were involved, from the amount of paperwork that was involved, from assigning people to work, how many people actually made it to the site, how many people were standing around watching one guy do it. And one of the ways he incentivized the unions to do this, was he took a portion of the monies saved by the town, by the city of Indianapolis, and put it in a fund for the union, so that every Christmas these guys got a substantial bonus, I think it was like 400 dollars.

CONAN: Now, that's thinking outside the box.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TAPSCOTT: He also, as I remember, has a book out called "High Performance Government is Good."


DAVE: This is the same kind of memory - same kind of manufacturing technology that Toyota has used to eclipse GM and Ford. It's also starting to penetrate...

CONAN: Dave, I'm afraid we're running out of time, so I'm going to have to cut you off. I apologize for that, but thanks very much for the phone call. And Don Tapscott, thank you very much for your time today.

Mr. TAPSCOTT: My pleasure.

CONAN: We want to end with a crazy idea, maybe, from Jean in Louisville, Kentucky. I'd like to see a taxpayer have the ability to designate where their tax dollars will be spent, whether for defense or for the national parks. Why couldn't we go to a government website with budget items, and pick what we want to fund? This would cut out a lot of lobby efforts. Well, it would cut out a lot of interests in Congress, too. We'll talk more about this later. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. ..COST: $00.00

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