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.
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.