Barriers to Gov 2.0

Over on the Facebook Gov 2.0 Club Group, there’s a discussion going on about the biggest barriers to Gov 2.0. I thought I’d post my ideas here.

It’s a great question. Ultimately, I think the greatest barrier to Gov 2.0 is the fear of loss of control.

This can affect Gov 2.0 efforts within the organization (things like Intellipedia, Diplopedia and GCpedia). Enterprise-wide collaborative efforts that are aimed at breaking down silos can run into real cultural and policy barriers. But ultimately, I think a lot of it boils down to people who are used to thinking of content as “our information, under our control”.

This can affect public-facing Gov 2.0 efforts, either consultations or open data. There is the same fear of losing control: of the message, the framing and the context.

It’s a truism that the technical part is the easy part in Gov 2.0. But there can be barriers to the technology, too. For many IT departments, this is a very different way of doing things than what they are used to and the big applications they are used to building and supporting. It may be that the people coming and asking for the blog/wiki/etc. seem to (or do) know more about these new technologies than the IT people do. The IT departments, too can fear loss of control.

I say that like it’s a bad thing. And, as a barrier, to a great extent it is. But it’s very understandable. It’s not just just greedy, power-mad hunger for control. (In fact, I think it is rarely that.) It’s that, where people are being held accountable for results, they want to have as much control as possible over what produces those results.

Part of the whole Gov 2.0 movement is a push to greater and greater transparency. With this greater transparency comes greater accountability. Ultimately, I fear, the more successful we are in our push for greater transparency and accountability (good things!) the harder it may be to get people to give up control.

Because all of this transparency and accountability is scary. We want them – we know they are good. But nothing is certain. As we try out new things, there is the real possibility of failure. We know that’s not necessarily so bad. There will be lessons learned. That may be what it’s all about with some new things we try. Or there may be extenuating circumstances, factors beyond our control or prediction. But public failures are definitely more challenging than private ones. And the people looking at the failures may not be looking at the full context.

In scary times and scary circumstances, we want to control as much as possible. It’s well known that our fear of things isn’t just a factor of their likelihood and affect; it is a factor of how much control we have over the situation. That is why people are more afraid of terrorism than road accidents. They feel more in control of the outcome on the road. Given that, asking people to give up control and at the same time open themselves to a lot of scrutiny may be asking a lot.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be doing it. It just means we have to take that into account as we try and persuade people to do the right thing. And it is the right thing. Greater participation means better outcomes. And greater transparency/accountability means a better democracy.

So how do we overcome the barrier? I certainly don’t have all of the answers! If you have tried and true techniques, please add them in the comments! I have a few ideas:
– We can frame the Gov 2.0 activity as increasing, rather than decreasing the control. I’m starting to see more and more of this, in particular with regard to participation in social media. The situation is presented as “These conversations are going on whether we are there or not. It is already out of control. By participating, we can at least communicate our point of view/correct errors of fact/etc.”
– Related, we can make the alternative scarier than the loss of control. I’m sure the FBI and the CIA felt it was important to keep control of their information and risky to share it across organizational boundaries. There might be leaks or moles or what have you in the sister organization. After 9/11, it was a lot less scary than the alternative and Intellipedia was born.
– We can start with Gov 2.0 in areas that face seemingly insurmountable problems, and use that as the wedge to establish credibility and a track record. Take crowd-sourcing, for example. Giving the work to a huge crowd of outsiders is a very scary loss of control. A great place to start is the patent process, where the growing backlogs are insurmountable by inside staff – especially as economic times get tougher! (Peer to Patent Project)
– We can take baby steps. Start with limited pilots, to get people used to it and make it less scary. Let people have more control at the beginning, moderating the discussion, gardening the comments. I know one new enterprise-wide wiki where articles have “owners”. The owners can leave the articles wide open to editing, or lock them and have contributions only on the discussion page, which they can choose to incorporate or not. Definitely less scary. But it is the thin edge of the wedge. And people soon see that greater control also means a greater workload exercising that control.

Philosophically, I think the long term solution is to share accountability. I don’t think people should be held accountable for something they had no control over. As control is shared around, so is accountability. The trick will be to share accountability, rather than make it disappear. Can accountability be shared? I’ve seen a lot of models that say “no”. Responsibility can be shared, but not accountability. But I think that as we all get together to build things, to participate in government, we all have to take accountability for our contributions. How to make this work? Here, I have no answers. What do you think?

[Obligatory note: These are my opinions, not necessarily those of my employers. Observations about “the public sector” or “the government” contained herein don’t necessarily apply to the government I work for and may have been informed by a number of other government organizations I’ve come into contact with or whose employees I’ve talked to.]

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Andre Goodfriend


Interesting topic. I took a slightly different approach in a post to the Collaboration Project group a couple weeks ago, asking “Are Collaborative Technologies within Hierarchical Governmental Structures Paralyzing the Decision Making Process

I draw on a 1988 paper by Dr. Edgard Schein at MIT on “Innovative Cultures and Organizations” to ask a similar question. Dr. Schein argues that what were then new information technologies, rather than improving efficiency within organizations, could actually be detrimental if the organization was not already collaborative.

The group had a active discussion on the topic, noting the element of loss of control as well. Pulling the comments together, the observations appeared to be that Dr. Schein has made some valid points, and that information technology can and has been used to either enforce or circumvent efforts to control complex decision making/implementation systems. The implementation of IT within the US government has not, however, paralyzed the bureaucratic process. Increased familiarity with the capabilities and benefits of the technology, along with a generational shift, have help our hierarchical structures incorporate these technologies without any debilitating mishap. The incorporation of these tools, along with the generational shift, have also helped bring about some cultural change. That being said, leaders, managers, decision makers and analysts within this technology enhanced environment must be aware of the benefits and shortcomings of the different media (e.g. email, website, face-to-face, telephone, print, voice, etc.) in order to use them effectively. They must also shoulder the personal responsibility to use them in a professional and accountable manner.

I might add that in addition to the aspect of control, competition is perceived as an incentive towards excellence. When I was advocating towards the introduction of collaborative interagency networks (e.g. SIPRNET and OSIS) a decade ago, one of the positions was that sharing information without demanding something in return would lead to the person sharing information becoming uncompetitive. People would take without giving, and others would take the credit for the work of the person who provided information without asking anything in return.

I think though that is a different competition model that has to be used in collaborative environments. The hierarchical control model is geared more towards an era of information scarcity. When information is hard to come by, those who can horde it can control outcomes and compete effectively. However, current communication technologies have unleashed a data flood. Many speak of information overload. In an information rich environment, it’s no longer competitive to horde information, since other sources of information will then be turned to. Instead, we look towards aggregators and analysts — those who can sift through the abundance of data and reports and present those that are most relevant. Being competitive in this environment no longer means withholding information until the final product is released with your sole imprimatur on it. Instead, it means being able to contribute actively and credibly in a discussion. The more credible one’s contributions, the more authoritative one becomes and the more one’s input is acted upon by others. In this way, the goals as you have defined them also become the organizational goals and are acted upon by the organization as a whole — hopefully to the benefit of all.

We’ve already seen episodes where lack of data sharing has led to “failures of intelligence” and failures of policy. As the success of those who work collaboratively increases, the collaborative Gov 2.0 model will also spread, because it will be seen as the most competitive and likely to succeed.

Competitors love a winner, and if the winner is the one who collaborates, others will follow.

Guy Martin

Andre, David:

Excellent points from both of you! This is also very timely for me as I try to guide the emerging community efforts in Forge.mil. One of the things that I’ve also kept coming up against (even in an ‘internal collaboration’ environment like the one we are trying to build) is partly a ‘credibility/prestige/status’ issue where program managers are less likely to re-use or share software code, docs, etc. because it lessens their perceived value to their management chain.

Andre, I like your thoughts on framing this in a different way, and I’ve advocated for such programs and their managers to be rewarded and incentivized in a different way – i.e. – ‘how much code re-use does your program have, how many members of other commands/DoD organizations are participating in your project?’

Another issue we have to face is that when we get contractor partners (the Lockheeds, SAICs, etc.) working in the Forge.mil framework, the software acquisition process is not tailored to incenting them to re-use or work together. This is because those contracts are mostly ‘Time & Materials’, so it actually BENEFITS the contractor’s bottom line to rewrite pieces of software that should be considered ‘plumbing’ in any normal software project.

The bottom line (as I’ve mentioned to several folks I’ve talked to on this) is that tools such as Forge.mil, Intellipedia, etc. are simply that – tools. Without appropriate behavioral changes, they just become expensive propositions which may or may not succeed.

Noel Dickover

In looking at the policy barriers to implementing a number of the social software technologies, its becoming clear that there two issues that need to be addressed. First is finding ways around things like the PRA, records management policies, information assurance policies, privacy act issues, and public affairs issues. Second is an education and socialization process for the oversight staff. There is all sorts of great activity going on in the gov20 world, but my sense is most of those conducting oversight on the above policies have thusfar stayed on the sidelines. Someone really needs to take these people by the hand and show them this new world, and then discuss how their policies either do or do not apply. Preferably someone at OMB needs to take the lead on this.

Dennis McDonald

Some resistance to social media is based on a lack of understanding, some is based on a fear of loss of control, and some resistance makes make perfect sense. Regarding the latter, there are some transactions where concepts of collaboration and community are inappropriate or irrelevant. It all depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.

In the private sector, some people approach using social media as a way to increase involvement of customers in the process of developing and delivering products and services. They are willing to modify traditional forms of control by adopting more open and collaborative methods. Other private sector companies approach social media primarily as another way to advertise and broadcast commercial messages that will ultimately impact the buying decision without really any consideration given to increasing openness or transparency.

An interesting thing about social media and social networking is that they can be support either view of customer or user transactions and decision-making. Depending on one’s business goals, either approach can be valid.

I don’t see the situation being any different with how the Federal government manages programs and interacts with its different interest groups. Some programs benefit from processes being made more open and collaborative, others don’t. A major challenge is understanding the difference, since there is always “… more than one way to skin a cat.” But the distinction is one that should be made based on knowledge and understanding, not on ignorance or fear.

Dennis McDonald
Alexandria Virginia USA