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Government workers debate online citizen engagement

At Friday's Gov 2.0 Camp, an "unconference" described as a "Woodstock for the 21st century," government workers discuss what it means to engage citizens in meaningful online discussions.

WASHINGTON--Washington may be a city of policy wonks, but the District's self-proclaimed "tech geeks" are intent on adding some Silicon Valley flavor to the capital.

Hundreds of Web 2.0 evangelists flocked to a school auditorium in Washington Friday morning to kick off Government 2.0 Camp, the inaugural event of Government 2.0 Club, a national organization created to allow government, academia, and industry to collaborate on Web 2.0 solutions for government.

Attendees of Gov 2.0 Camp wait for different discussions to start. Stephanie Condon/CNET

Leaders in government agencies have been slow to adopt Web 2.0 technologies, bemoaned many government-employed new-media strategists in attendance. Yet in a well-attended discussion at the event, the new-media directors admitted that if they were to use more online tools to engage citizens, they wouldn't quite know how to tell whether it accomplished anything.

"I have no idea how to measure success," said Sarah Bourne, chief technology strategist for the Massachusetts Web site

"It's kind of like the pot issue," she said, referring to the deluge of marijuana-related questions users submitted to the White House on its "Open for Questions" tool--and which became the elephant in the room during President Obama's online town hall on Thursday.

Whether a conversation is meaningful "has to be definied from the citizens' perspective," Bourne explained. Yet if they lead the discussion to a seemingly insignificant topic, is the discussion still a success?

"We all want to hear from the public, but we want to hear meaningful stuff," said Joy Fulton of the U.S. General Services Administration. "How do you filter what's going to help us, and filter out what's just noise?"

The user-driven nature of Web 2.0 technologies may create complications for the government, but it served as an effective format for the conference itself. The two-day Gov 2.0 Camp was billed as an "unconference," in which the participants planned the entire event themselves in a collaborative manner on site.

"It's like a Woodstock for the 21st century," said A.J. Malik, a technologist for the county of Arlington, Va., and one of the attendees.

"If you're talking about how our unemployment office can be improved and they go off on a rant on gay marriage, that's not useful."
--Sarah Bourne, chief technology strategist,

After a brief introduction, the organizers turned the microphones over to the hundreds of attendees packed into the auditorium at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. Over the course of an hour, each person there introduced himself and briefly described the issues he hoped to learn more about or lead a discussion on.

The organizers jotted down notes during the introductions and quickly slotted together a schedule of discussions to take place. The attendees all set down their laptops and iPhones to crowd around the large piece of butcher paper with the schedule scribbled on it.

Bourne and Fulton made their comments about meaningful citizen discussions during a session called "Engaging the Public and How You Define Success."

Bourne said that visitors often question whether anyone in the government even reads user comments on the site. Yet addressing user comments has proven to be a challenge, since they are often off topic.

"If you're talking about how our unemployment office can be improved and they go off on a rant on gay marriage, that's not useful," she said.

Max Harper, a social-media consultant who worked for the Obama transition team, said Web 2.0 tools have to be refined to better meet the goals of civic engagement. For instance, if user questions and comments on a government Web site can be directed to a specific category, government officials can try to address every issue in an appropriate manner.

"But if you're not prepared to respond, don't tell people you're ready to respond," he said. "People know when something is inauthentic."

The Obama transition team, he said, was constantly critiquing its online engagement with citizens and refining the process. Even with the potential pitfalls, he said video discussions could significantly improve the government's interactions with citizens.

"Part of it is showing a face inside an agency and letting people realize they've made a human impact," he said.