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Gov 2.0- Call it what you will. Labels, language, and the need for a compelling vision

It is emblematic of the times that nascent Gov 2.0 is without adequate descriptors readily accepted and simply described. This has less to do with the availability of labels than the fact that Gov 2.0 is a ship without a rudder— it still lacks a unifying theme and clearly articulated purpose behind the Gov 2.0 transformation. Gov 2.0 still means many things to many people—often different.

Social media, Gov 2.0 —going, going ……….?

It was bound to happen. “Social Media” an often-used term for all things Gov 2.0 is about to get the RIP. The influential Chris Dorobek started the mudslide last week with his Dorobek Insider column at Federal New Radio. Echoing his comments from the Sweet and Tweets Event from the night before, Chris challenged the term “social media” as the most appropriate representation of the Gov 2.0 movement. In his event commentary Chris asked: “Isn’t social media simply collaboration but in a different form? “

Dr. Mark Drapeau’s view was that “social media” might not be descriptive but that Gov 2.0 is about much more than simple “collaboration”. Jeff Levy weighed in on twitter questioning whether it all makes a difference at the moment while Andrew Krzmarzick authored on his govloop blog to suggest that the flagship term should be “knowledge media”. No More Social Media: It’s Knowledge Media. Then Nahon Gershon opined that more appropriately the rally moniker should be “new media” to connote neutrality. See, Social Media, What is in a Name?

Viewed through today’s prism all of the commentators are correct. Chris Dorobek is critically prodding the community to mature. “Social media” is trite and derives from a largely failed “Web 2.0” label. It seems grossly lacking strength to describe what many are characterizing as the most transformative trend in the recent history of government.

Mark Drapeau is equally correct. The time worn term “collaboration” fails to capture either the energy or imagination of what government could be with large scale transformation envisioned in Gov2.0.

Jeff Levy is probably correct in saying that until someone comes up with something better, “social media” at least has an acquired meaning that many in government understand – if experimental. Krzmarzick’s emphasis on knowledge rings true. And Gershon is clearly on the right trail in promoting neutrality.

Right questions? Right time?

The fact is that the terms “Gov 2.0” and “social media” are being used to describe many things:

(a) Government’s desire to “involve” citizens in policy-making processes.
(b) Government’s willingness to listen and respond to citizens.
(c) Government’s professed “transparency” built through data aggregation and publication.
(d) Government ‘s willingness to foster internal inter and intra agency collaboration between and amongst agencies and their employees.
(e) Government’s desire to accomplish (a) through (d) simultaneously, on scale, and as and when appropriate?

These goals beget many “how to” questions: Is the form of engagement enduring or episodic? Is it social or discrete? Is it the product of a specific technology or many technologies working together? Do engagements form institutional memory? And do subsequent engagements build on that memory whether from agencies, citizens or politicians? What are the information taxonomies and ontology’s that will enable government to be effective?

The point is that Gov 2.0 in the broadest sense encompasses all of these outcomes and more. So Gov 2.0 needs not a “term”, but an entire lexicon that adequately describes not only the media exchanged, but also the goals and behavior that represent success. So where should we look and why?

What is next? The thematic of Network Science

We might start by looking to authors who are leading in the emerging field of network science. Though few are going to curl up with Yochai Benkler’s 490 page treatise the Wealth of Networks, or Manuel Castell’s 597 page tome: The Rise of the Networked Society, we can nonetheless glean guidance from their simple themes.

First, both Benkler and Castell describe global transformations to a new world dominated by the Networked Information Economy. As described, the transformation forever changes the way that all organizations build value – including systems of governance. Second, Benkler further posits that in networked information economies, government will succeed by turning “social production” into business outcomes. “Social production” in this sense means that people of all types and roles will engage in networks to enable organizations to achieve mission outcomes outside of traditional linear market systems.

The price of engagement is often non-economic – receiving attention, recognition, meaning, and making a difference. Network technologies simply enable the non-economic production to occur and to be meaningful.

But this varies with traditional role of government. Networks are about building new communications systems – not simply transactional collaboration. That is the challenge. In government we cannot achieve transformation just by aggregating more data. Likewise we cannot achieve transformation by simply building more data portals to create an idealized transparency. Transformation requires more. Gov 2.0 means that we desire to change the way that people communicate. We are asking citizens and government employees to communicate more with the predicate and promise that more communication will drive better mission outcomes.

Clear language requires clear vision.

So how did Dorobek, Drapeau, Levy, Krzmarzick, and Gershon’s simple discussion of Gov 2.0 language evolve into a discussion about vision? Lacking vision, what is it that we are we trying to describe?

Simply, the point of Gov 2.0 is how government can best leverage a vast array of experiences and develop a body of knowledge from its citizens, employees and stakeholders to solve big problems and build a better government. How can government make better decisions and deliver services more efficiently?

As Steven Covey concludes in The Speed of Trust, results build trust. If we want to build citizen and employee trust, let’s achieve tangible results. An idealistic vision of achieving “the greater good” standing alone is probably not going to carry the day. Nor is a rationale of competitive Web 2.0

I don’t have the answer to the language question today. Like others, I am working on it. My sense is that every process in government – internal and external – could benefit from more valuable networks, more inputs from citizens and employees, listened to, fairly considered, and meaningfully acted upon.

My sense is also that other countries in the world are getting it figured out much faster than the U.S. and that as in private industry we are exposed to falling further behind in an increasingly competitive world built on a foundation of rapid exchange of ideas and network transformation—albeit one that sometimes lacks appropriate labels.

Forced labels, especially without a more developed vision, might be limiting rather than enabling to achieve the promise of this complex new world of Gov 2.0. So let’s add clarity to our vision.

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Jaime Gracia

Kim – Great post. I do not believe the labels are insignificant, and have to be taken in content to get to the vision and the true purpose and potential of Gov 2.0 initiatives. Often in government language and labels mean a great deal, sometimes more than the actual content or purpose of a program. It is a necessary tool to focus attention on where it needs to be, so labels can be important. Many have opinions on what these tools should be named, but no one is arguing that Gov 2.0 can have enormous benefits and be a transformative method for knowledge transfer and information exchange, which is the collaboration component that you mention. I think the Better Buy Project, founded by Mary Davie of the Acquisition 2.0 group, is a great pilot for the potential of this medium. I encourage you to see how results are being achieved if you have not already.

Andrew Krzmarzick

As always, great post, Kim! I’ve written about my vision here (and *you* provided inspiration by Twitter): a mobile, measurable and malleable government. The measurable part includes a government that produces (and easily shares with the public) “tangible results.” All of these web-based and mobile tools are drivers and enablers of that vision.

Also, I agree that the US has a lot to learn from other nations, including the UK and Australia…and probably places like Africa and other emerging economies when it comes to mobile technology. But we are in many respects in the lead, as this article in the Japan Times suggests (you’ll recognize a lot of the names 😉 So we should celebrate our successes, cite the great practices and lessons learned, then connect and share more with our international neighbors.

As with any movement, I think we’re building energy and making progress every day…and there are numerous examples of government agencies producing results. And the way we talk about that progress is important to get on board the people who do not yet realize that this train has left the station and it ain’t going back! 🙂

Stephen Buckley


I agree that “Gov 2.0” is still too fuzzy a term for practical use. It is a Rohrshach concept that lets anyone project “their” idea of what it means to them.

The curious part is that many of these people think that “online collaboration” was not happening until AFTER the introduction of “Web 2.0” tools (which apparently, they think, started with blogs in the late 1990s).

For those of us who think of our democratic government as “always in beta”, it is hard to understand how we could possibly have jumped to the next version-level (i.e., “Gov 2.0”) without any patches or community discussion in between.

Instead, I believe that “Gov 2.0” is a misnomer that, although obviously attractive, should still be recognized for the terribly misleading meaning that it conveys.

Dannielle Blumenthal

I agree, this is an interesting and useful post. I read somewhere that naming things correctly is the first step toward wisdom; there was an article in the New York Times about companies renaming themselves so as to better frame their capabilities and realize the potential of their businesses. Personally I like both “Gov 2.0” and “social media” as descriptive labels but wonder myself as to whether they are too scary for government culture. Perhaps “advanced collaboration tools” is a better way to put it. How can anyone be against that?

Christoph Berendes

Gov 2.0, like Web 2.0, is, in most contexts where it’s used, a marketing term, a way to have some hype rub off on a (possibly worthwhile) initiative. So there’s a lot of energy out there that has a stake in fuzzing the term up, and that energy will resist almost any “Gov 2.0 is xyz” definition that is crisp enough to exclude certain processes, technologies, or initiatives.

Instead of fighting that energy, let’s consider what distinctions would be useful to people toiling faithfully in Gov 2.0 land. For instance, the International Association for Public Participation has created a five element scale (PDF) or spectrum for considering the impact of participation, from “informing” on the low end, through “involving” (where public’s concerns are reflected in the alternatives developed), and up to “empowering” (where the public’s wishes will be implemented). I think these distinctions are helpful, though of course one could make others.

But, in any case, I think it would be more useful to define such a scale carefully in a Gov 2.0 context than to argue where on the spectrum Gov2.0 begins (e.g. is it Gov2.0 if you “collaborate” or “empower”, but not if you merely “consult” or “involve”)?

As you do your work with Neighborhood America, what distinctions do you find useful as you discuss your clients’ goals and processes?

Jeffrey Levy

Good, thought-provoking post, Kim.

However, I don’t think “gov 2.0” means much to the vast majority of people I’m trying to reach within my agency and in other agencies. I’m not sure I’ve ever used it outside of the pretty small community here and on Twitter.

So the fact it’s loosely defined doesn’t bother me. It also doesn’t bother me that many groups have glommed onto “gov 2.0:” open gov’t, transparency folks, dataheads, people who want to engage on policy, etc. Most gov 2.0ers I talk to don’t even know that, at least since the 1940s, the federal gov’t has officially and formally invited comment on regulations. So at least the public engagement stuff isn’t a new concept, just new ways to approach classic concepts. Now, transparency and data release are actually new ideas for the govt, or at least for parts of it.

But when I talk to resource-strapped managers around EPA, they don’t care what I call the collection of tools and concepts and approaches. They only care about what they’ve always cared about: how it’ll help them (and how fast), and how much it costs in both money and time.

They know what “social media” means, and a smaller group knows what “Web 2.0” means. And while some react negatively, at least it gives me a common starting point.

So my energy is going into tools to help them use the tools: training, individual project support, overarching guidance of what to watch out for, etc.

BTW, I’d challenge the notion that “Web 2.0” is a failed term. It currently has more than 13 million results in Google, nearly double the 7.7 million for “social media.”

Joe Boutte

Gov 2.0 may have its rudder in the early announcements from the Obama administration referencing transparency. From my perspective, Gov 2.0 is more about enhanced, intuitive use of technology to collaborate, communicate, and coordinate. I think the new positions of “New Media Director” that are springing up is also indicative of ongoing transformation. However, the transformation of government into a more agile, responsive, and efficient enterprise must be enabled through the lens of PROCESS. I believe that if agencies streamline processes and balance the focus between intellectual capital, process, and technology, better collaboration, communication, and coordination will occur. The most important part of whatever innovation and transformation that is occurring is not its name, but the results in terms of making government better, more responsive, more efficient, and more agile.