State and local government websites as wikis?

(Please note, because of the time that has passed since I wrote this article, it may no longer reflect my current views or the most accurate and complete information available on this subject.)

MontreatI'm intrigued by websites powered by wikis, where the content can be added, modified and deleted by the users of the site.  When the people who are affected by the quality and structure of the content presented have some control over that content, you sometimes have an opportunity to get more useful, relevant, current material than if the site is maintained by a small number of content administrators.

At Summersault, our entire company intranet is a wiki.  Anyone who works with us can edit the content on it, add new pages, delete stuff that they think is out of date or unhelpful, and so on - from small typo fixes to multi-page documents and images.  If someone makes a change that needs to be un-done, the wiki software lets us "roll it back" or otherwise incorporate only partial changes.  All of this gives us the opportunity to have an intranet "by and for" its users and our staff, instead of something built and maintained solely from a management point of view.

Wikis aren't appropriate for every kind of website, or even most kinds, but I've been thinking lately about what it would mean to have wikis power city, county and state government websites.

If these sites are primarily meant to be informational tools for use by the people who live in a given geographical region (and who are theoretically paying for the site's creation and maintenance), could governments give those people some control over the content on those resources?

Residents will tend to collectively be very knowledgable about the details of how their community/city/county/state works, at least at the practical level of the average citizen's interactions with government entities, and could collectively have more time and resources to keep an informational website current than a few government employees who probably have many other things to do.

Someone who knows the trick to expediting a certain paperwork process could share their wisdom.  Someone who just loves to keep track of certain kinds of weather trends or which floats were in which parade each year could curate an entire section of the site. Someone who did the research on who you have to talk to about getting a permit to build your deck could post the details.  The crowd-sourced content would be lopsided and messy at first, but over time it could grow into a comprehensive, living knowledge base about what it means to live in a certain area.

Of course you couldn't have all of the content be powered by users. Laws and municipal codes that need legislative action to change, election results, sensitive financial information, interactive forms and tools, etc. might still need to be managed by authorized users only - but wiki users could still annotate and expand on those pieces of information.

Wikipedia and The Wikimedia Foundation have found innovative ways to deal with people and robots who would abuse their editing privileges for posting spam, obscenities or self-serving content; these wiki-powered government sites would certainly need those tools.  And like Wikipedia, the content published at any given time would be a work in progress, always needing more editing, expansion, review and refinement.  The Wikipedia list of policies and guidelines is extensive, and similar guides and best practices would have to be developed for each site.

But could this still be a better way for taxpayers and residents to help shape government websites that are supposed to be most useful to them?  Could using a wiki to power these sites save taxpayer dollars, and maybe even help to build a sense of shared identity in a given area?

2 thoughts on “State and local government websites as wikis?

  1. I work for one such state government, and I was intrigued by the idea when I saw other states trying it, but one part out of this needs to be bolded and highlighted: "collectively have more time and resources to keep an informational website current than a few government employees who probably have many other things to do."

    Unfortunately, our time is as "free" as software on the internet. The hours employees work are treated as free because people think they've already paid for government, just like they already paid for internet. When the Official Wiki is wrong, most citizens will want it fixed, but they won't think about fixing it themselves.

    There is definitely value in government use of wiki systems, but every one that has been successful has been in a limited fashion. It has to be value-added, not the key information that we already provide. Tourism, for example, is an excellent place for it with the public giving wonderful details on local destinations and what to do there. A statewide wiki, on the other hand, is going to get nothing but creative insults from people worldwide who hate a certain politician.

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