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Gov 2.0 Glitz and Gab—Right Track, Wrong Track?

Throughout 2009, the Gov 2.0 community has grappled with substance, tenor and tone for a new era of social communication, and more specifically, “social production”. How can and will citizens, government employees, and stakeholders add value to government processes? (See, The Value of Networks, Yochai Benkler).

In an almost non-stop series of 2009 conferences, Gov 2.0 is being evangelized in a way seldom seen in Washington D.C.—the Gov 2.0 epicenter. It has progressed from a series of highly authentic and interactive “un-conferences” early in the year, to a series of more traditional conferences that are highly produced, “expert” centric, and thematically grounded in “new” points of view. The “hype” machine is in full gear—much like the failed and now discarded Web 2.0 movement before it.

Are we on the right track, or wrong track—or perhaps both? Are we encouraging critical thought commensurate with the gravity and importance of the road ahead? I don’t believe so. This is why.

Consider This

Driving value from social production is complex. Government’s business needs are many. Government has a dual role. In one sense government serves as the mechanism for deliberative policy and decisions—for projects, issues, events, rules, and legislation. In another sense government is a provider of services—defense, roads, permits, economic benefits, utilities, parks and recreation and many others.

Different needs invite different network applications. The broad range and complexity of needs inherently means that to best leverage social production, government must first ask:

1. What is our business problem?
2. Can a network of citizens, employees, or stakeholders contribute social production that will help us solve the problem?
3. If we believe that network(s) will help us solve the problem with social production, what form should the network take? Is it social collaboration, a network destination, a discrete exchange? Or is a combination of behaviors, perhaps at different points in a workflow process?

Next we should ask—What will enable us to be successful? Success factors might be as simple as:
1. Having a clear plan for implementation.
2. Having clear leadership and ownership of the social production process; and,
3. A commitment to making the financial, organizational, and intellectual investments necessary to be successful.

But usually success requires more. Enabling social production challenges established norms and practices. It changes roles and behaviors of all involved—citizens, employees, and government leaders. It requires adaptation to change and a willingness to learn.

Success will result from our ability to build trust based on promises made and kept, and as with most endeavors being mindful of the expectations that we create. Success will be in large part dependent on an understanding of sociology and network science not only the application of technology. And ultimately success will depend on generating measurable, tangible results. For without results, government will not build trust with its citizens, employees, and vast array of stakeholders.

The Right Track

What parts of Gov 2.0 are on the right track?

First, the un-conferences for transparency, crisis management and gov-camp are examples of what we are getting right. Why? —Because they project openness to a range of views. They were innovative-daring to evolve from established norms to build upon the experience of government and industry leaders. They incorporated an ethos that values the opinion of all. They set the right tone and spirit of inclusion. They were authentic.

Second, Govloop, is another example of what is right about Gov 2.0. The community founded by Steve Ressler encourages free exchange between all of those having an interest in the success of Gov 2.0 and governmental processes.

Third, the breadth of attendance at the Open Government Initiative, the Potomac Summit, and the recent Government Summit, similarly reflect the high level of interest and openness by government leaders to participation in government.

Several themes advanced in the dialogue also promise to advance success. They include:
• Recognition that the IT acquisition model has to be reformed for Gov 2.0 to be successful. Vivek Kundra (CTO), Aneesh Chopra (CIO), and the General Services Administration have all properly noted the massive amounts of government IT spend that end up building redundant or non-functional systems.
• Elevation of “Cloud” based solutions that support network behaviors promise to lower fixed costs of distribution. (See, Nicholas Carr, The Big Switch).
• Elevation of open source applications when appropriate. Not all network behaviors have to be overly structured.
• Recognition that all governmental processes do not require the same level of “security”. GSA CIO Casey Coleman has been articulate in the emerging understanding of how government will best function in Gov 2.0.
These are but a few examples of what we are getting right. But we should also be mindful of what we can improve.

The Wrong Track

I couldn’t help but come away from the Government Summit with a sense of déjà vu. Gov 2.0 is starting to feel much like Web 2.0 and .com with what will be equally predictable results, and failure. Why?

The public discussion is building a “hype” cycle, much like both .com and Web 2.0. It is focused on the development of technology, not the understanding of those behaviors necessary to enable the technology to work and to achieve meaningful results. Gov 2.0 is going to require world-class technology platforms, engineering and security. But it will also require commitment to behavioral understanding, organizational change and world-class leadership.

Early Gov 2.0 is focused on data and portal based centrality – not citizens and stakeholders. Data.gov and recovery.gov do not represent change—they represent more of the same. They are big expensive federally run portals that aggregate sometimes-arcane information based on the theory that the public interest is served through a hypothetical transparency.

The value and importance of transparency and openness is unquestionable as a principle. But is building government portals how we best make that happen?

Are data centric portals what citizens really want? How do we know? Did citizens deliver a mandate for government to build more portals? Or would citizen trust better be built through information exchanges with government providing trusted content? Is asking a citizen to go to another portal more effective than building a distributed (and decentralized) exchange model?

If we are truly enabling “ground up” citizen engagement, why aren’t we funding state and local government initiatives, or federal initiatives with decentralized and distributed learning, rather than more centralization and systemic risk characteristic of our early Gov 2.0 initiatives?

Promotion of “open source” applications and “free” without a critical evaluation of downside risks, and true cost of ownership and implementation. Open source will make valuable contributions to the evolution of Gov 2.0 as demonstrated recently by the Apps for Democracy project. But many applications, and enterprise appropriate implementations are going to require more. Support systems, engineering, and well-defined best practices are also needed. Code development is one small part of the total cost of ownership.

Similarly, the use of social portals to do the business of government is not “free” either. Companies that employ advertising models benefit economically from government use of applications. Why should any citizen have to be exposed to advertising (often for singles, dating services and political viewpoints) as a condition to using engagement systems? And further, how does a government build an institutional memory of citizen involvement, and of work product from social portals? These hard questions should be addressed.

Institutional memory is important to building trust based on results. “Free” is not “free”. Nor are social portal technologies designed to meet the many needs of government. They are designed to maximize social relationships—a small fraction of the desired result matrix in government applications.

License for failure It is one thing to design knowing that failure is inevitable, it is quite different to design to minimize the opportunity for failure. At each, the Open Government Institute, the Potomac Conference, and the Government Summit, various key note speakers seemed to free themselves from the tether of accountability in driving to results through the application of Gov 2.0. Examples of success were often overstated and the challenges of success were often understated. This just isn’t credible in the eyes of citizens and will not be sustainable. Ultimately, what is the business model for success? Few Valley companies would be funded without such a model, especially in today’s economic environment.

We can learn from past cycles in commercial and government to avoid the types of mistakes that put us on the wrong track.

The Road Ahead

I believe that as leaders we owe it to ourselves and to our country to get Gov 2.0 right. Once beyond the hype, the business of government is serious and key to the future competitiveness of our country. We recognize that.

But as we chart our course into history, we have to be smart. We cannot take the challenge lightly. We cannot fail to ask the hard questions. Today, coming from the Government Summit we need to raise our expectations in the Gov 2.0 discussion. We need to recognize that meeting the many needs of government requires more than assembling technology blocks as if they are legos®. We have to get the behaviors right.

We have to keep citizens and stakeholders at the forefront of our thinking and ask: What do they need, and what will motivate them to provide the social production that will enable government to work better? That is the key to effective Gov 2.0. That is the key to staying on the right track.

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Bob Gourley

Thanks for that great post. I really enjoyed that and understand your assessments. My hope is your post is widely read. Do you post elsewhere? That would make a good piece in most publications I read.

Kim Patrick Kobza

Thank you to both. Bob, I generally start my thinking through publication here and then refine it and publish either in my own blogs or if asked in one of the more traditional publications. I just enjoy the environment and group here. So I try to contribute every now and again, gather feedback, and make the thinking better through the thoughts of others like yourself. Again, thank you.

Kitty Wooley

Kim, thanks for taking the time to pose these questions. I’m reminded of Bertrand Russell’s “All movements go too far.” I detest hype, but lately I’ve been thinking that overshooting may be the only way Americans can make a transition this big. The hype cycle seems to describe many other developments that have nothing to do with technology, as well.

Dennis McDonald

I’ve watched the same cycle in business with Web 2.0 — early adopters, evangelization, overcommercialization and overpromising, simultaneously accompanied by internalization and the spread of reality stories (not always success stories). Expect next there will be well publicized public excoriation of “experts.” Meanwhile, professionals with authority and PR skills emerge as community leaders and gatekeepers, some associated with traditional product and service vendors. At the same time lots of good things are happening. My hope is that generic terms like “Gov 2.0” and “egovernment” will give way to more meaningful terms that communicate solid information about processes and benefits to management and the public.

Dennis McDonald
Alexandria Virginia


I think this is an essential read at an essential point of time. Tim O’Reilly also stated that he received advice from Blair Levin that DC was a 3 part play – you set up the story, explore the problems, and then there is a happy ending. In my opinion, we are getting closer to the end of the 1st part of the play with perhaps the Open Government Directive launch being the final piece of the 1st part of the play.

I also think Kim’s point is essential near the top. Most people understand that in Gov 2.0 you must ask what’s the business problem. I like the second piece even more – can a network group of citizens, employees, etc enable social production to solve the problem – and how should that network be structured. The community building and network behavior is the hardest part of this all and not enough time is focused here.

Joe Boutte

Thanks for focusing on government again. We seem to get into the hype and technology without remembering why we are doing something. I heard President Obama discussing the dialogue in America right now and he brought up the issue of what do Americans want in and of government. Once we peel back the the ongoing debates in the country on policy topics and on Gov 2.0 we get to the fundamental questions of what do we want government to be and do? Gov 2.0 allows us to have that conversations here and through the exchange of ideas. As we Americans continue to strive for the “more perfect Union” we must focus on the business of government and the scope of government. Suppose we went back in time and had social networking tools to meet the scope of “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of Amercia”. What would Gov 2.0 be?

Jeffrey Levy

Kim, this is a very well-written post, and you take on several problems I’ve seen in what I’ve been reading.

However, I want to assure you that hype isn’t what I’m seeing inside gov’t. I don’t mean Vivek Kundra et al. I don’t mean data.gov or apps.gov. I do think those folks and those projects bring exposure and high-level attention to how things are starting to change within gov’t. I just think they’re far from the sum total of what’s going on.

I’m talking about lower-level folks in agencies at the federal, state, and local level. Perhaps I have a rare window into this stuff because of my role as co-chair of the gov’t Social Media Subcouncil. I hear from people ranging from military communications professionals to EPA scientists to people in the CA and MA state gov’ts to county gov’t in FL.

As you know, my mantra is “mission, tool, metrics, teach.” Mission is always, ALWAYS the first question, as you said. And the great news is that every person I talk to starts there, too.

You asked: “If we are truly enabling “ground up” citizen engagement, why aren’t we funding state and local government initiatives, or federal initiatives with decentralized and distributed learning, rather than more centralization and systemic risk characteristic of our early Gov 2.0 initiatives?”

And my answer is: we are. You’re just not seeing it yet because the projects are just getting underway.

You also mentioned that we need to worry about culture and organizational approach more than technology. And my answer is: we are. In fact, that’s the second key point I make in my presentations to senior EPA managers about social media (#1 is “it’s about the mission.”).

So keep asking these questions and pushing for answers. Just know there are plenty of us within gov’t who agree, and who are pursuing the kinds of questions and strategies you laid out here.

Ari Herzog

To Jeffrey Levy’s perspective of local/state civic engagement, I’d like to see studies of Obama’s department of urban affairs. I’d like to see data of how many localities have worked with this department since its creation. I know Governing Magazine has written about it, I know communities ARE contacting the agency and vice versa; so perhaps one place for getting on the right track is via this enigmatic agency that I’m willing to bet most localities know squat about–because the feds aren’t doing PR about it.

Ari Herzog

Oh… and on the Gov 2.0/Web 2.0 debate, if you remove the versions, your argument makes more sense. Call it the web, call it government; and still use Tim O’Reilly’s vending machine analogy. Ten years ago, even two years ago, the web was about providing services in exchange for visiting websites. Now, it’s about websites as part of larger platforms. No different with government. Let’s not distinguish between the web and the government, for the web is a platform for government as it is for business.

Jeffrey Levy

Errr, yeah. What Joe said. I meant to ask about that, too. I think Web 2.0 is still going strong. I suspect we have a difference of definitions here, so Kim, please elaborate.


Maxine Teller

Good points and nice analysis, Kim. Thank you for speaking highly of Gov 2.0 Camp and the other unconferences back in the spring. It’s been an interesting evolution of the Gov 2.0 “movement.” (For clarification: OGI = Open Government & Innovations Conference; it’s Potomac Forum not Conference; by Government Conference I assume you mean Gov 2.0 Summit?)
I particularly liked the picture Gwynne painted of the “ashes of the gov 2.0 hype” — great images! Also, Joe’s comment about ho we must focus on the “business of government” is exactly right. Gov 2.0 is not about the tools & technologies. It’s about how those tools & technologies catalyze change and enable us to do things differently. Gov 2.0 hasn’t failed, it’s evolving, growing, improving. As much as I continue to hate the release “2.0” term, that’s what we call it, so be it. Jeffrey, your comments are beautiful, revolutionary and spot on, as always. I am officially a fan. 😉 We are just at the beginning of action. Back in March when we participated in Gov 2.0 Camp, we were still really just in the evangelism phase. Few agencies had even jumped in. We were exploring what it was, what was possible, what the boundaries were. Now, we’re testing hypotheses, seeing results, trying to measure what little data we have. We still need some evangelism because it’s still a small % of us who are DOING this stuff. But now we ALSO need “how to’s,” “best practices,” and case study examples to pave the way for more and better government. I still need to find time to blog about what I tweeted earlier this week, but the short of it is: winds of change are in the air. The early evangelists are maturing and leading the next chapter of Gov 2.0 along with new Gov 2.0ers who are leapfrogging right to today.