Web 2.0 in general and social networks, like Orkut and Facebook in particular, have emerged as very powerful models of social interaction ... so much so that Iran is trying to quell its election related insurrection by trying to block Facebook and the US Government convinced Twitter to defer its scheduled downtime so as to allow Iranian thought processes to play out to their full potential !!
While Orkut and Facebook are privately owned public platforms, we know that similar ( if not identical ) platforms are available to build own's one private social networks. For example we at the Praxis Business School, in Calcutta have our own platform, the Kollaborative Klassroom ( see http://kk.praxis.ac.in ... to know what i mean ) that we have customised to reflect our own organisation ( courses and departments defined as "communities" and "friendships" that delineate relationships between individuals)
Currently employees of the government operate on a diverse set of platforms ... as is graphically reflected in the diversity of their emailIDs. Instead can we not envisage all government employees on a single Orkut-style social network ? that will allow integrated email, chat, and VoIP voice ( i am not suggesting Google, but i am sorely tempted to do so, since all of it is free and will not burden the tax payer ). Individual departments ( and sub-departmental groupings ) can be reflected as "communities" ... some of which could be closed and private while others could be open with some degree of moderation.
If we are even more ambitious, then we can consider private citizens -- at least those with voter ID cards or PAN cards -- to be included in these networks. If we want to be more cautious, we can create social networks for specialised departments like the Income Tax Department ? Whether we wish to be ambitious or cautious will of course depend on discussion that we can have at various public and private forums.
Creating a social network like this for the entire government has significant advantages. Since a large part of the eGovernance consists of collection and disemmination of information -- not the complex functionality required, say, in an ERP solution -- a social network platform could with its collection of blogs, forums, document attachment and messaging facilities, could be an adequate starting point. If additional functionality is required then individuals or communities could build community specific applications ( that is departmental applications ) that will add functional value to the network .. in fact applications could -- and perhaps should -- be decentralised as long as all this is done in a manner that is compliant with the overall network standards.
As an example, consider Indian Language facilities. As an Orkut user I had built a Bangla Writer that is available in Orkut but is actually used by a small niche of people who write Bangla poetry ! This is in XML and compliant with OpenSocial standards. We can consider similar applications at the regional and departmental levels but of course for administrative functions, not for writing poetry !
Moving to a social network automatically takes us into the domain of Cloud Computing. Moving data and applications into the cloud means that the IT infrastructure can be centralised and many of the challenges associated with the government procurement process can be addressed much more easily and transparently. Capex requirement will be reduced and operating expenses can be billed back to individual departments on the basis of usage. Many states have now implemented WANs that are mostly sitting idle .. and a social network can be an ideal application that can be rolled out on these networks and then of course as wireless broadband becomes a commodity -- as it might with the availability of the 3G spectrum -- the application will be even more accessible from all corners of the country.
Technology is not a challenge here. Social Networks like Orkut and Facebook are highly scalable and can handle hundreds of thousands of users ... what is important is MOTIVATION : can government be convinced to even consider such a radical approach ? ORGANISATION : what kinds of communities ? who manages or moderates which one ? what happens when a person is transferred ? and EDUCATION : employees have to be trained to use this. we know that most teenagers and young adults are very comfortable with Orkut / Facebook but their parents may need handholding !
So there are challenges and I am not saying that this will be easy ... but if the CSI and similar organisations feel that this is an idea that is worth exploring further then we could have focussed discussion on this topic. A conferance devoted to "Web 2.0 / Social Networks as a platform for eGovernance" could be an excellent forum to solicit ideas and opinions around this concept which if found acceptable and feasible can be transmitted to the government at an appropriate level.
Moving the government of India to an Orkut like platform is a mammoth task. But the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Can we consider taking that first step ?