Public Net-Work – Online Information Exchange in the Pursuit of Public Service Goals – For the OECD by Steven Clift – 2003

Version 2.3 – Based on final version to the OECD, Text updated – September 3, 2003

public net-work

Online Information Exchange in the Pursuit of Public Service Goals

An early concept paper written for the OECD E-Government Project

By Steven Clift

Member, OECD E-Government Associates Group

For related articles, information on the Public Net-Work E-Conference, or to arrange a presentation or speech on this topic, please see:


Public net-work is a new concept. It represents the strategic use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to better implement established public policy goals and programs through direct and diverse stakeholder online involvement. Governments hosting public net-work initiatives are shifting from their role as “sole providers” of public services to facilitators of those working to solve similar public problems.

Public net-work moves beyond “one-way” information and service delivery toward “two-way” and “many-to-many” exchange of information, knowledge, and experience.

Public net-work projects have the following things in common:

  1. They are designed to facilitate the online exchange of information, knowledge and/or experience among those doing similar public work.

  2. They are hosted or funded by government agencies, intergovernmental associations, international government bodies, partnerships involving many public entities, non-governmental organizations, and sometimes foundations or companies.

  3. While they are generally open to the public, they are focused on specific issues that attract niche stakeholder involvement from other government agencies, local governments, non-governmental organizations, and interested citizens. Essentially any individual or group willing to work with the government to meet public challenges may be included.

  4. In a time of scare resources, public net-work is designed to help governments more effectively pursue their established missions in a collaborative and sustainable manner.

Public net-work is not a governmental Intranet or an Extranet. These are related, but involvement tends to be specifically limited to select government offices, contractors, or classes of individuals or organizations. Public net-work is not about online public consultations early in the decision-making process. It is not directly connected to representative institutions or processes.

Public net-work can apply e-democracy tools initially developed for the input side of government decision-making to the output side of public administration. This may provide for cost efficiencies and a more significant return for e-government investment in information exchange and online community tools.

At the moment, publicly accessible Public net-work projects are rare. The embryonic few use a small set of the current ICT tools available. To succeed, these projects must adapt emerging models of distributed information input, information sharing and syndication, develop models for sustained information exchange/discussion, and build from the existing knowledge about Communities of Practice and computer-mediated communication.

Developing the “neutral host” facilitation role, along with sustained funding, is important. The host must generate trust, a sense of momentum and relevancy and ensure that participation is viewed as relevant to achieving public missions through broad, horizontal information exchange. Individuals and organizations are keenly aware of the institutional disincentives related to more open information exchange. The value of information exchange must be demonstrated over time to overcome natural resistance to new ways of working and collaboration.

Government partnerships, with their public missions and resources, often make ideal hosts. Government departments that feel their status/purpose will be threatened by shifting from an expert gatekeeper to an involved facilitator do not make ideal hosts. Facilitation models involving NGOs and academic consortiums have potential and should also be developed when resources from government, foundations and others are made available for this purpose. However, such initiatives should not support centralized information clearinghouses that do not use ICTs in a fundamental, distributed and integrated way.

Note: The original draft presented to the OECD used the term “e-public work.” The term “public net-work” is now being used to avoid confusion with traditional public works projects often associated with physical infrastructure and transportation.

The full article assumes that you have read the summary first.

Public net-work

What is the context?

The first decade of Internet-era e-government has focused on the provision of service information and transactions. This development has been essentially one-way. The government provides – and the citizen, business, or the community organization receives.

While obvious, government offices also established internal file servers to allow easier information exchange within a government office. The adoption of e-mail is fosters greater, albeit informal and highly unstructured, information exchange across government departments and with the public as a whole. Most of this communication is not captured in a way that encourages knowledge exchange nor is it easily accessible at a later point internally or externally.

With significant management support and the adoption of knowledge management and “groupware” tools, some governments are becoming learning organizations that both import and export their knowledge in pursuit of their public missions. Their power and impact is amplified by generating new knowledge that is widely accessible. However, most online information exchange to date has remained within government – often within specific government offices. This relates in large part to the use of online tools built based on the assumptions used in a tightly controlled competitive corporate environment. Pre-web browser tools were not designed or licensed to make broad external collaboration among extremely disparate individuals and groups easy or affordable to implement. Even today, many of the commercial web-based collaborative tools are priced assuming per-user fees and require extensive motivation or training to learn.

Despite horizontal communication opportunities across agencies using Internet-based tools (e.g. an e-mail list for webmasters in different departments), the benefits of online tool adoption must overcome institutional and cultural barriers to more open sharing of information, knowledge, and experience. This problem is more about human nature and large organizations than something unique to governments. In short, most people don’t like to share, but they love to gather. So in an online environment, something must connect information gathering to the explicit purpose of sharing.

Governments, with their public missions, can counter human nature and support both active information sharing and gathering. In particular, governments need to ensure that the information resources required to best implement government policy are available to those doing public work no matter their organizational affiliation. This requires leadership and an interest in helping others navigate quality information. It also requires the promotion of connections among people involved in similar public work.

This article highlights examples where online information exchange has embraced stakeholder and public involvement in the pursuit of established public goals (laws, programs, budget priorities, etc.). Ultimately, the goal is to use ICTs to help solve public problems and more effectively meet ongoing social, environmental and economic challenges.

What is it?

Public net-work, a new concept, is the strategic use of information and communication technologies in order to better implement established public policy goals and programs through direct and diverse stakeholder online involvement.

Public net-work is specifically designed for the “output” side of government. It can leverage the same ICT tools designed for portals and “input” side online consultations/e-democracy applications (see my article “Online Consultations and Events – Top Ten Tips for Government and Civic Hosts” for more information <>). The similar technical requirements of public net-work and e-democracy may make both activities more cost-effective and help ensure more balanced e-government approaches. The one-way “services first” mentality in e-government flies straight in the face of citizen expectations about the two-way nature of the Internet. Public net-work and e-democracy can help align e-government to citizen expectations and make the potential of the new medium a reality.

What are some typical online features?

  • Topical Portal – The starting point for public net-work is a web site that provides users a directory to relevant information resources in their field – these often include annotated subject links and/or standard Yahoo-style topical categories.

  • E-mail Newsletter(s)/Notification – Most projects keep people up-to-date via regularly produced e-mail newsletters. Additionally, some sites allow users to create personal settings that track and notify them about new online resources of direct interest. New resources and links to external information are often placed deep within an overall site and “What’s New” notification dramatically increases the value provided by the project to its users.

  • Event Calendar – Many sites are a reliable place to discover listings of key current events and conferences.

  • Document Library – Some sites move beyond the portal directory function and gather the full text of documents. This provides a reliable long-term source of quality content which may otherwise be removed from other web sites without notice.

  • Discussions – Using a mix of e-mail lists and/or web forums, these sites encourage ongoing and informal information exchange. This is where the “life” of the public net-work online community is often expressed.

  • Other features include news headline links from outside sources, a member directory, question and answers systems, and real-time online meeting features.

Distributed Input

Unlike early public policy-oriented portals (particularly defunct .coms), the input side of a public net-work site is often distributed. Involving a team of editors from multiple organizations is desirable. Centralized link directories can easily die with one person’s diminution of interest or capacity.

Distributed input encourages the users of a public net-work site to submit information about reports, articles, events, and similar items. According to sites like oneFish and the Development Gateway, site editors continue to add the vast majority of resources. Some site editors work directly for the project host while others contribute in-kind editorial support from partner organizations. Over time, these sites are seeking more general user submissions and have built the technological and management structure required to support additional editors and partner organizations.

From a quasi-commercial/netizen volunteer perspective, the Netscape Open Directory <> offers the most dynamic model of a distributed, low-cost system for organizing links to online resources. Initial government/NGO efforts should take inspiration from this effort as they seek to build more tailored initiatives directed at target groups and interests.

The part of the government-led public net-work model which is missing from the few existing examples, is the syndication < > of directory/news content to other sites. Once the distributed system for gathering content is established, making sure the content gets to where their target users spend their time online is essential for relevancy. Relying solely on intentional web visits to a single site may limit the reach and effectiveness of the effort.

What examples?

The following case examples provide a number of projects to follow in the coming years.

1. CommunityBuilders NSW

This initiative is likely the world’s most comprehensive government-hosted public net-work project. Tied closely to direct policy implementation, along with a portal to quality information resources, they have developed a thriving hybrid web forum/e-mail list with over 1000 participants.

According to their web site <>:

Communitybuilders.nsw is an interactive clearinghouse where the users contribute its content and ongoing development because they publish their stories and tips to the site. Users include everyone involved or interested in making our communities more dynamic, healthy and successful, ranging from community members of all ages, different community organisations, community workers, and all levels of government and business.

What will I find?

The emphasis is on practical resources and how to do things including checklists on what is community building; how to use and interpret statistics; group work techniques; managing conflict; how to consult young people; funding sources; sustainable urban design; and partnerships with community and business. Most of the resources are Australian but some overseas material is also included.

Case studies are featured to show how others have made changes in their communities; what worked, what they learned, what made a difference. You can share your story too if you publish it using the online forms. Other users are sure to find your story inspiring.

You can exchange ideas, ask questions share your experiences with other community builders in the Discussion forum .

To promote your community events, conferences and workshops and see what else is happening use the Events calendar.

Organisations involved with community building are able to promote their work through Featured Organisations

A deep investigation of their site, including their discussion archives <> is advised. Their model also demonstrates the importance of political leadership. Positioning the government as an information facilitator, not just a sole provider of service, requires management support with clear political direction.

2. Minneapolis Downtown Crime Control – MPLS-DTC E-mail List

Minneapolis, the largest city in Minnesota, established an e-mail list for police, building security staff, and interested citizens to exchange information on crime suspects and safety directly related to downtown Minneapolis. The concept is simple – get the eyes and ears of crime prevention to share information “many-to-many” across downtown. Through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness, full-time police officers and firefighters who work for qualifying agencies may be eligible for student loan forgiveness by meeting certain conditions. If you need more information about this program, just click here.

In a typical week, forum members receive crime alerts from the police as well as exchange notes with other building security personnel about common incidents or problem transients. At times, photos of crime suspects from building security video cameras or police files are e-mailed in an extremely timely basis leading to arrests. The forum is open to anyone downtown. Its promotion is focused through traditional outreach to target audiences and it has generated media attention for its effectiveness.

According to Luther Krueger, the project lead:

Crime prevention programs across the country face the challenge of communication between law enforcement and those agencies’ community partners. Flyering, phone trees and fax alert systems cover a lot of ground but aren’t enough for truly collaborative efforts. The Internet has been used by the Minneapolis Police Department’s Downtown Command for several years now not only to communicate alerts, but to provide an interactive forum for crime prevention volunteers, security professionals, police, and concerned citizens. The MPD SAFE Teams for the Downtown Command have expanded this to include on-going projects which rely on accurate and timely information delivered to the community. These “virtual” projects have led to _real_ reductions in crime and the strengthening of existing partnerships.

Further information on collaborative cyber crime prevention is available from:

Or contact Luther Krueger for his Power Point presentation:

3. Info4Local.Gov.UK

Info4LocalGov provides local government across the United Kingdom a wealth of information from a number of central government agencies. Run jointly by 6 departments, this “Invest to Save Budget” award-winning site has over 40 agencies entering information into the system.

Their personalized e-mail alerts are extremely effective and easy to use <>. This is a model for other sites seeking to promote the dissemination of information from multiple government sources to specialized audiences. Another emerging UK project geared toward local communities is the Knowledge project of the Improvement and Development Agency <>.

4. oneFish

oneFish is “an online database and directory of fisheries and aquatic research and development information.” It is facilitated by SIFAR in the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. It is funded by a number of countries and international development organizations.

According the oneFish web site:

oneFish permits the rapid dissemination and integration of information specific to a wide range of topics. It provides an enabling environment for developing partnerships, identifying contacts and enhancing networking and communication within and between diverse stakeholder groups. In addition to encouraging online discussion and holistic debate, topic-specific current events and news items can be highlighted.

oneFish facilitates the participatory approach to information management. It achieves this through encouraging subject specialists to manage their own specialised topic areas and interact with others. Topic Editors play a key role in ensuring that the content of oneFish remains dynamic, relevant and of the highest possible quality. Whilst oneFish is an open participatory system, user access to specific topics can be controlled. The facility to create groups of members, and for topic editors to set permission levels for their respective topics, provides topic editors with effective management tools to better enable them to control the development of their topic(s).

The site provides one of the most comprehensive sets of online tools used by a public net-work project. It includes Virtual Offices and sections for NGOs to place their own fisheries information. Their Community Directory Server (CDS) software is now being used with other FAO-led collaborative projects and raises an important question about how to cost-effectively promote the diffusion of these tools and approaches to other policy areas and levels of government activity – should hosts build their own systems, buy commercial solutions, and/or explore open source solutions? The correct answer will vary on a case-by-case basis, but in the end, the cost to the user or per user (including technical and adoption/learning curve costs) must be taken into consideration.

More information is available from:

5. Development Gateway

The Development Gateway is an “interactive portal for information and knowledge sharing on sustainable development and poverty reduction.” It is a project of the Development Gateway Foundation, a non-profit funded by the World Bank and about a dozen countries and some companies.

Like oneFish, the Development Gateway is building a platform for information exchange that is being used by many partners. Subject guides at the global level are complemented by Country-level gateways. (To get a sense of the site’s real value, explore their various topics and join a few topics of interest. Be sure to sign up to receive e-mail notifications on new resources in your topic of interest.)

Using a distributed model of section editors lead by an extensive staff at the core, they feed the site a steady and reliable stream of new directory content. The site has become one of the most useful starting points on public policy implementation period, well beyond their core audience involved with development issues.

More examples?

Other initiatives suggested for future exploration:

Government of Japan, Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry

Digital New Deal

Their Public Platform System supports exchange of information on hundreds of scientific and technical topics. PPS combines e-mail lists and web discussions in an optimal way and allows keywords from discussions/information exchange to be cross-referenced with technical databases.

Government of New Zealand Shared Workspace

A project investigating “the viability of implementing a secure, electronic shared workspace for supporting networks, projects, and policy development across government agencies.” While currently envisioned for internal use, creating options for external stakeholder participation may be a natural extension.

DanmarksDebatten – National IT and Telecom Agency

A new initiative launched in 2003 to support online dialogues through the national government portal to any government agency and local authority. The system will allow governments to create discussions based on their policy input needs. While currently scoped as a policy consultation project, the technology platform (shared technology, XML based-model) could lend itself to strategic online interactions as policy is carried out – particularly at the local level where input on the delivery of services and policy adjustments exist in a tight circle.

Teachernet – UK

This award winning site incorporates an extensive number of interactive elements designed for educational professionals across the UK.

State of Queensland, Australia – Volunteer Emergency Workers Portal

A leading site for coordination and involvement of volunteer emergency workers. This effort has attracted corporate donations and interest. You must be a volunteer emergency worker in Queensland to register and use this site.

GovTalk UK – E-Government Standards Setting Information Exchange

Designed to promote exchange of information on e-government standards. The information dissemination section is strong, while the discussion forums appear to be used only lightly.

U.S. Results Oriented Management and Accountability – Electronic Networking Group

Funded by the federal government, hosted by a state government, open to NGOs and others interested in Community Action Programs, this e-mail list-based exchange demonstrates how creative relationships can be established to foster ongoing information exchange within public program administrative space.

State of Washington E-mail Lists – Example integration.

Likely the most extensive set of public e-mail lists used by any state government in the United States. Most appear to be announcements lists. Government-hosted e-mail lists are extremely difficult to find without word-of-mouth connections to civil servants.

Social Science Information Gateway

With 70 partner institutions, the Resource Discovery Network is a high quality collection of subject gateways that provide users access to descriptions of freely available, high quality, Web resources indexed by subject experts. Their subject-based e-mail notification system and Grapevine like-minds network feature could revolutionize public policy information exchange on a global basis. To do so, it would need to be applied specifically within the realm of public policy implementation and the specific work of government agencies.

Lessons to Date?

1. All online features must be designed with the end user in mind. They must be usable and easy to learn. Complex systems reduce the size of the participatory audience. Public net-work cannot rely on an internal office environment where people can be required to learn new systems or use specialty software beyond their existing e-mail and a web browser. To provide a strong incentive, these systems must save the time it takes those implementing public policy to do their job effectively.

2. Public net-work sites broaden the awareness of quality information resources on a timely basis. Finding what you need, when you need it is more likely to occur when a community of interest participates in building a comprehensive resource. Overtime, these sites will naturally face information overload/currency issues that must be handled.

3. Building trust among the organizations and individuals participating in the development and everyday use of a collaborative site is essential. If a lead organization overly “brands” the site, partnership difficulties will arise. Brief interviews with a number of case examples leads noted that special care must be taken when building partner relationships. Partnerships, with clear responsibilities and goals, will position efforts as a truly participatory community projects.

4. Gathering and sharing incentives, particularly for resource links is a particularly tricky area. Involving people with solid librarianship and communication skills is essential. Creating a more sustainable model where participants more actively submit information (e.g. seeking submissions from users for more than 5% of link listings for example) is an ongoing challenge. In-kind partnerships where staff time is donated may be more effective than relying heavily on the time of unaffiliated individual volunteers. With more localized efforts, individual volunteers may be the best or only option.

5. Informal information sharing has tremendous potential. To effectively encourage horizontal communication, facilitation is often required. Leveraging the years of experience of academia with thousands of topical e-mail lists (practically hidden) across the Internet is advised. Also, noting all the dead web forums scattered across the Internet, attempts to create web-only solutions for ongoing public policy information exchange have failed for the most part (not including well promoted, relevant, time-specific web-based online consultations or high traffic sites where people provide commentary on news items). The CommunityBuilder.NSW site is one of the few sites I have seen that effectively integrates e-mail and web technologies for sustained online deliberation and information exchange.

6. The connection to decision-makers and authority is significant. Government-led public net-work projects require political leadership and strong management support. Paradoxically, an effective online involvement program on the implementation side of government, if connected to agency leaders, may reduce the need for online consultation on the input side of policy making. Why? The exchange of experiences, ideas, and feedback on government work by stakeholders early in the implementation process will allow agencyies to make mid-stream corrections. Think of public net-work as an “early warning system” on potential future policy pressures that may now be accommodated through incremental adjustments rather than future political battles requiring major reforms. The key is to open up government leaders to those on the front lines both delivering and receiving public service.

Where to next?

1. Research and analysis is required on these and other emerging projects. Public net-work is a new area of e-government activity. The external/multi-organization stakeholder participation component central to public net-work is uniquely enabled by ICTs. There is little research on this area of government activity. Public net-work development can leverage research on knowledge management in government <> including Communities of Practice <> and groupware/computer-mediated communication <>.

2. Promoting awareness of existing projects is essential to encourage similar efforts around the world. The best practices about this form of public service needs to be captured. Connecting those involved with related efforts in academia and NGOs with those in government would create a solid community of practice around public net-work.

3. E-Government implementation is an ideal topic for structured online international information exchange among those on the frontlines. Most exchange comes through traditional conferences and niche media coverage. National and international conferences work well for managers and top experts, but this does not encourage peer-to-peer exchange among those building or running online services. Participation by e-government staff in an international public net-work initiative would be an effective way to introduce this line of activity to heart of e-government around the world.

4. NGO/University-led projects on the outside of government should be pursued when institutional barriers in government don’t allow/encourage open information exchange. Developing a trusted host for information exchange is a difficult process. At very local level, neighborhoods for example, the role of government and other groups often blends together. The challenge is to get someone to play a facilitation role such that those doing public work can focus on meeting their public interest goals more effectively.

5. Be cautious. There are limits to the value of information exchange. Too much information, or bad information, can paralyze decision-making or distract people from the task at hand. All good things should be taken in moderation.

6. The more local, the more likely citizens can and should be directly involved in the implementation of public policy via ICTs. Lessons from crime prevention in Minneapolis and volunteer emergency services in Queensland point to a dynamic opportunity for achieving public goals in partnership with individual citizens.


The two-way nature of ICTs will change government and how our societies identify and solve public challenges. When? How? That is unknown. However, making this information-age change an improvement in way we deliver the results of governance will require successful public net-work and related initiatives at all levels of government around the world.