This week I took part in a focus group for the Government Information Center (GIC), a small office in the Delaware Department of State charged with managing the state's internet portal: delaware.gov. They are studying ways to improve the usefulness of the internet as a tool for communication between government and constituents.
I maintain a web site for the Office of State Planning Coordination, Livable Delaware, and the Delaware Geographic Data Committee. I believe that the web can be a very useful tool, but it takes work and thought. I was pleased to see the guys at the GIC putting resources into this effort and I will be interested to see what they come up with.
Some of the things we discussed included taking advantage of the growing "social networking" phenomenon. Weblogs are a big part of that movement. I think that the kind of direct citizen involvement represented by blogs could be a benefit to a government web presence. Communication, after all, should be at least two-way.
I do see a potential problem in the trend towards anonymous blogging. Government leaders are going to be nervous about letting people comment anonymously; they'll be worried about what sort of things gets posted. As I have noted in the past, I share some of that concern, but I do think there are ways around the problem.
First, I'm beginning to see degrees of anonymity. Some of us, of course, are out here entirely as ourselves. Anonymous folks with their own blogs will at least have a fairly consistent nom-de-web. Though we may not know who they are in the flesh and blood world, we at least have a sense that we know the web personas like Hube, Del, delathought and others by their writings. Further, we know where to find them on-line if they start to get abusive in other people's blogs.
But there are also readers and commenters who are completely anonymous and feel no compunction about posting derogatory, abusive and unhelpful trash. To some extent, the community of weblogs and bloggers will self-police, controlling the anonymous trashers with a collective moral authority. But there will always be those who pollute the webways.
Any moves towards a more collaborative state government portal will have to take that into account. There are collaborative sites out on the net that have made strides towards enabling collaborative on-line work while keeping the trash to a minimum. My gold standard are sites like MetaFilter, Flickr, and del.icio.us, though these require strong moderators to police them.
I think we can find ways to open up the state's web presence to get more feedback from the public, but it will take careful planning by the state government folks and forbearance and help from the on-line citizenry.
As a start, I'd like to ask my fellow Delaware bloggers, many of whom are listed in my blogroll, for their ideas. What would you like to see on the Delaware portal? What would be useful? What are we doing right? What are we doing wrong? What can you add?