Internet consultation the next step to eGovernment in the Netherlands?

Last friday the Dutch government raised the green flag on “internet consultation”. In short, “internet consultation” means people are able to get involved in making new regulations and legislation. From the beginning of 2008 a pilot will be launched, which will last for a period of two years. In our opinion, there’s something special about this inititiave.

What makes this a (very) good initiative
In 2007, the dutch government spent 100 days talking with the public and discussing forthcoming regulations (amongst other subjects). It’s goal: getting back in touch with its citizens, listening to what they have to say, and therebye “closing the gap”. Taking the dialogue online is a logic next step. Actually, to put things in perspective, we think this is a great start and a big step towards embrasing the viable concepts of “Enterprise 2.0” and to put them to good use. Explicitly: “internet consultation on legislation” means a shift from “Invented behind closed doors” to “A transparant co-production between Government and it’s Citizens”. The potential outcome: higher quality of legislation, within a shorter timeframe, which is more accepted and embedded within the country.
Of course, the legislationproces already has it’s formal plannend public moments wherin citizens can make a stand. But these moments are scarce, few and scatered in time. This initiative takes making regulations to another level. It makes the designproces transparant, the citizens are consulted, get involved, are asked for there opinion en can actively give there input. It’s a brave step in letting go of the orchestrated designproces into the unknown. This initiative fits perfectly in the strategy of becomming a more effective, flexible and decisive (e)Government.

What will make or brake it, from our opinion
A brave step, but not an easy one. From our opinion, several aspects could make our brake the initiative.

It’s about a higher quality of legislation in a shorter timeframe. Not about doing “Enterprise 2.0”, or being “eGov”
We’ve stated that internet consultation is a form of embrasing Enterprise 2.0. That’s a nice statement, but it’s just a label. The real goal and the consequented paradigmshift, should not be forgotten: a higher quality of legislation! produced bij citizens and the governement side by side! In a shorter timeframe! With a higher degree of acceptance!
The initiative shouldn’t be something that’s fits nicely on the currenct political agenda, but can fall off when the agenda shifts: politicians come and go. It shouldn’t be going for the hype either. Hypes will pass, and so will their labels. But each hype has it’s tendensies, it’s possibilities and it consequences. The potential of this initiative is huge, but stay focussed on the goal, not the hype, nor the political agenda.

Carefully identify and select the subjects that are prone to “co-production”, don’t just “put them all out there for everybody”
Not every piece of legislation fits in the co-production pie. Nor does every citizen have the potential to become a co-producer on all (forthcoming) legislation. Think carefully about which legislation should be adressed in this new innovative form. For instance, pick the ones that are interesting for the masses, on which te public opinion doesn’t vary too much, that aren’t too heavy politically, that aren’t too complex and won’t take for ever to reach completion. Furthermore, think about you co-producergroup. Who can adress the matter and how do they get selected?

Actually listen to your co-producers. And when you listen, you have to give a real response
The much heard critisism in sight of the “100-day walk ‘n’ talk with the citizens”, was that, while the walking and talking part worked out nicely, the “doing something with it and giving feedback on it”-part didn’t get top scores. This is a big pitfall that should be adressed. The government has to be prepared and has to have employees on board which can make the paradigmshift and act accordingly. The citizens are co-producers: “Protizens”. Treat them that way. We had the innovationplatform, it wasn’t a success.
Big companies, like Procter & Gamble, Boeing and Dell made this paradigmshift a while ago and have given some important lessons. They listenend a great deal, but what to do with the opinions, discussions, reactions and new proposals? Dell started gathering ideas online from their customers. The biggest mistake was doing nothing with the top priority ideas. The public could give priority to ideas and clearly made other choices than Dell. Even more reactions started to come in, customers started to complain big time. Eventually Dell started to adopt these ideas and learned the power they unleashed. The Dutch government has to make sure they use the ideas and opinions. Not only it’s employees, but also the internal processes and procedures have to be ready to cope with the output of the public and these processes have to be flexible to scale when it gets succesfull. This is partly the same lessons that should have been learned after the 100-day walk ‘n’ talk critizism. A real eGovernment walks the talk!

Anonymity is a great thing, but creating a secure environment for progressive discussion another
A big concern for most companies is security in starting with Web 2.0 initiatives. Spam and misconduct are the worst nightmare of every online initiative. Spam protection is big business nowadays and very nice initiatives are around to keep spam out! Misconduct can only be managed if people are not anonymous. Getting people to logon and use their real names will make a secure environment to give your opinion. In most companies this is fairly easy, but the bigger you are the harder it gets. Now think about getting a userdatabase for a whole country. We have this in The Netherlands and it is called DigiD. This will be a good test to see wether this service is truely open and reusable!

The tool has to fit the pupose! Not just an IT implementation
Making regulation is about giving opinion and not erasing opinions of others, so no wiki for this project! Giving opinion is more about blogging. But blogposts is more one to many. Discussions between readers is not very well supported by blogs. For the government it has to be important to get some data on whether people aggree or not. This is not supported by blogs but is more like Rating regulations, giving comments, discussing sounds nice for a start and not very hard to set up!

This is just one approach to selecting a tool, but it all depends on whats the purpose and being creative.

Don’t just start but think in phases
The chances are you will not be able to get all possible legislation or regulation on the net, target the right people to join in, handle the sitetraffic and (maybe most important) use all the discussions in new legislation! Start simple with one question and a simple site. Form the start choose an emergent strategy on the content side. Use statistics to make choices about the road to follow not just do stuff. On the functionality side start simple and add features. Again use statistics and feedback (i.e. use internet consultation on the topic of the site!) to add features. When the internal operations seems fit to take on more topics, add more topics! Start one department at a time. And for every departement take it slow. Maybe there will be differenc
es on usage and relevance for every departement. The people that join in may be different as well but neither will be representative for The Netherlands in total.
16 milion people will be able to use the site and will have high expectations. 11.000 people will have to work with the consultations. If you do not start small you will have a lot of mad people!
Don’t be scared if the number of active contributors is small. Wikipedia only has a small number of contributors and manages to make the most valuable encyclopedia around. Somewhere between 1 in 30 or 1 in 100 people will contribute. And not all 16 milion people will join in. Lets say 3 milion people will come to the site. Then 30.000 people will contribute! You only have to stay relaxed and spread the word in the right places.

(This Blogentry was co-produced bij Robbert, Vincent and Melior using Googledocs realtime and Skype)