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Change This

It is overwhelming refreshing and even inspirational to consider that as a country we have a real opportunity for change in governmental processes. It is a historic opportunity. But it is one that could easily be wasted. How can we avoid that possibility?

The Right Conversations.

We have to begin by having the right conversations. We have to identify, define, and focus on the right success factors. It is one thing to understand that meaningful public participation can be truly powerful. It is a very different proposition to understand how to execute change that can last.

Early conversations in change.gov and blog sites have focused on applications and selective opportunities. But those discussions miss the point effectively endorsing a “moon shot” strategy based upon disruptive implementation of Web 2.0 technologies. What stands in our way and how can we increase our chances for success?

What Stands In Our Way?

– Organizational design. Government is not by its nature designed to support rapid change. Government is designed to promote very slow rates of change. What do we mean?

– People. All levels of US government are built on a system of checks and balances. By design, we require many people to concur in all types of decisions – projects, issues, events, rules, and legislation – all areas of public participation.

– Process. Governmental process is complicated by design. Process ranges from everything from administration of rules, (APA), to procurement processes (RFP’s and qualification). There is nothing easy about working through governmental processes which are designed to go slow – not fast.

– Structure. We treat all challenges within government as reasons to input the element of structure into the conversation. Web 2.0 communications streams are by definition, lacking in structure and designed to promote emergent outcomes and to find alternative points of view advanced by cognitive outliers not normally involved in deliberations.

All levels of government are designed to implement and support structured transactions with citizens. They emphasize security, reliability, and accountability. Citizen communications are not structured transactions. They are messy and unstructured. What we have designed to promote structure will not support unstructured communications and the solutions that support them.

We also have to be able to identify what business problems we are trying to solve, and to be specific on the type of citizen interaction that will solve them. A blanket commitment to change is the type of rhetorical promise that will lead to citizen disillusionment.

– Organizational will. When we elect decision makers we expect them to make decisions, and they expect to use their judgement to make decisions. Massive amounts of public participation have not historically been welcomed. In part this is because, public opinion is often highly emotional and seen as protracting, not expediting processes.

The credible use of public participation can not be accomplished without the support and endorsement of those same decision makers. For instance, Congress has perpetuated the use of citizen email though it is completely impractical to read or manage it. For Web 2.0 to be successful there has to be a widespread belief and understanding that Web 2.0 can actually lead to better government. That will only come from proven successes.

– Organizational know how. Governmental agencies are built to emphasize and promote clear lines of authority. Many governmental positions in virtually every agency are hired precisely for their ability to be authoritarians. Listening is a skill.

The ability to recognize and value collaboration is a skill. It is not necessarily something that comes easy to those use to being experts and authoritarians. To take this point a step further, there is also a technological and behavioral barrier to implementing Web 2.0 technologies and methods. The bottom line is that to be successful, government agencies will have to acquire, promote and value new and different skills. Related to this point is the further reality that for agencies to acquire Web 2.o skills, they have to embrace internal use of Web 2.0 to solve internal organizational challenges. It is difficult to advocate organizational change without embracing that change yourself. Agencies have to practice what they advocate.

Change This

Real change is going to require thoughtful realism. The bottom line is that for government agencies to have a real chance for transformative change, all of these success factors must be recognized and addressed. It is not enough to advocate adoption of Web 2.0 social media or other Web 2.0 strategies, one must thoughtfully understand and address what has to change in government to enable citizen interaction to be meaningful.

It is one thing to promote listening in a campaign, when campaign officials are listening by design and where a campaign organization is designed to promote Web 2.0 participation based on participation. It is a very different challenge to transform one of the most complex organizations in the world, the US government, not designed to promote participation, and to make citizen interaction actionable. Two different things.

To achieve Change that Matters, we have to first Change This!

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Adriel Hampton

Kim, this is an important dissection of the hurdles. I would add one major thing – generation shift. The average government worker is in their late 40s, and that means we are going to see massive change over the next decade, which will bring an entirely new kind of leadership based on a workers who grew up with essentially costless communication as well as these new collaborative tools. From watching GovLoop, it also appears there are plenty of longtime gov employees eager to work on and embrace these issues.
Keep up your work in the trenches, helping the “Change This” happen!