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Gov 2.0: The Promise of Innovation

Republished from Forbes.com. Column by Tim O’Reilly
Original post can be found here

Over the past 15 years, the World Wide Web has created remarkable new business models reshaping our economy. As the Web has undermined old media and software companies, it has demonstrated the enormous power of a new model, often referred to as Web 2.0.

Now, a new generation has come of age with the Web and is committed to using its lessons of creativity and collaboration to address challenges facing our country and the world. The Facebook Causes application has more than 60 million registered users who are leveraging the power of social networks to raise money for charity. Meetup.com helps interest groups formed on the Web get together in person–and a remarkable number of groups do so for civic purposes. A quick search turns up nearly 20,000 meetups devoted to cleaning up local parks, streets and neighborhoods. Twitter and YouTube have played major roles in helping organize political protests in Iran’s recent election. Everyblock and Stumblesafely take government crime statistics and turn them into public safety applications for the Web or iPhones. The list goes on.

Meanwhile, with the proliferation of issues and not enough resources to address them all, many government leaders recognize the opportunities inherent in harnessing a highly motivated and diverse population not just to help them get elected, but to help them do a better job. By analogy, many are calling this movement “Government 2.0.”

President Obama exhorted us to rise to the challenge: “We must use all available technologies and methods to open up the federal government, creating a new level of transparency to change the way business is conducted in Washington, and giving Americans the chance to participate in government deliberations and decision-making in ways that were not possible only a few years ago.”

There is a new compact on the horizon: Government maintains information on a variety of issues, and that information should rightly be considered a national asset. Citizens are connected like never before and have the skill sets and passion to solve problems affecting them locally as well as nationally. Government information and services can be provided to citizens where and when they need it. Citizens are empowered to spark the innovation that will result in an improved approach to governance.

This is a radical departure from the old model of government, which Donald Kettl so aptly named “vending machine government.” We pay our taxes, we expect services. And when we don’t get what we expect, our “participation” is limited to protest–essentially, shaking the vending machine.

In the vending-machine model, the full menu of available services is determined beforehand. A small number of vendors have the ability to get their products into the machine, and as a result, the choices are limited, and the prices are high.

Yet there is an alternate model, which is much closer to the kind of government envisioned by our nation’s founders, a model in which, as Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to Joseph Cabel, “every man … feels that he is a participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day.” In this model, government is a convener and an enabler–ultimately, it is a vehicle for coordinating the collective action of citizens.

So far, you may hear echoes of the dialog between liberals and conservatives that has so dominated political discourse in recent decades. But big government versus small government is in many ways beside the point. To frame the debate in terms familiar to technologists, the question is whether government is successful as a platform.

If you look at the history of the computer industry, the most successful companies are those that build frameworks that enable a whole ecosystem of participation from other companies large and small. The personal computer was such a platform. So was the World Wide Web. But this platform dynamic can be seen most vividly in the recent success of the Apple ( AAPL – news – people ) iPhone. Where other phones have a limited menu of applications developed by themselves and a few carefully chosen partners, Apple built a framework that allowed virtually anyone to build applications for the phone, leading to an explosion of creativity, with more than 50,000 applications appearing for the phone in less than a year, and more than 3,000 new ones now appearing every week.

This is the right way to frame the question of “Government 2.0.” How does government itself become an open platform that allows people inside and outside government to innovate? How do you design a system in which all of the outcomes aren’t specified beforehand, but instead evolve through interactions between the technology provider and its user community?

The Obama administration’s technology team has taken the first steps toward rethinking government as a platform provider. One of the first acts by Vivek Kundra, the national CIO, was to create data.gov, a catalog of all the federal government’s Web services. (Web services, as opposed to static government Web sites, provide raw government data, allowing third parties to build alternate services and interfaces to government programs.) The Sunlight Foundation’s Apps for America Contest (modeled on the successful Apps for Democracy program that Kundra ran while CIO of Washington, D.C.) is seeking to kick off the virtuous circle of citizen innovation using these data services.

Rather than licensing government data to a few select “value added” providers, who then license the data downstream, the federal government (and many state and local governments) are beginning to provide an open platform that enables anyone with a good idea to build innovative services that connect government to citizens, give citizens visibility into the actions of government and even allow citizens to participate directly in policy-making.

That’s Government 2.0: technology helping build the kind of government the nation’s founders intended: of, for and by the people.

Tim O’Reilly is the founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, a premier computer book publisher. O’Reilly Media also hosts conferences on technology topics. Tim is chairing the upcoming Gov 2.0 Summit with Richard O’Neill, founder and president of The Highlands Group. Tim’s blog, the O’Reilly Radar, “watches the alpha geeks” and serves as a platform for advocacy about issues of importance to the technical community. He can also be found as @timoreilly on Twitter.

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Great article and it’s good to see that it was published in Forbes to get new people thinking about Gov 2.0. I love the platform idea but the cultural change of moving away from few select providers to a culture of trusting anyone to build off the gov’t is a big change. I’m excited to see the experimenting going on at all levels of gov’t and looking forward to the development of a strong Gov 2.0 ecosystem to help solve gov’t problems in new quicker, cheaper, better ways.

David Tallan

I like the platform idea as well. It reminds me of something I tweeted back in early July: Web2.0=platform for community value creation through participation; govt=platform for community value creation through representation. I think one of the critical challenges for “open government” is how to integrate direct citizen participation in the operations of government (especially policy-making) with the representative structures and accountabilities that are fundamental to our system of democracy.

Stephen Buckley

Agree with most everthing, but this statement:

“Citizens are connected like never before and have the skill sets and passion to solve problems affecting them locally as well as nationally.”

Sounds nice at first, but then I thought, “Wait a minute. If the job of government is to do those things that the people can not do well by themselves (i.e., fill potholes, enforce the speed-limit, national security, etc.), then it should NOT be trying to give ME the “skill sets and passion to solve problems” that are the Government is responsible for.

Oh sure, I will continue to be an involved citizen that helps the government find ways to “work better and cost less”.

But that does NOT mean they should be looking for innovative ways for ME to find innovative ways to help them do THEIR work.

Rob Ahern

There is no “us” and “them”; folks who work in the government serve the public but we, the people, are ultimately responsible for whatever goes on in the United States. The only time our society progresses is when citizens solve the problems that are affecting them locally; providing tools to this end is crucial, and revolutionary.

Great post- looking forward to hearing O’Reilly speak in a few weeks at the Gov 2.0 summit.

David Tallan

I have a philosophical difference with Stephen Buckley above that is, perhaps, best expressed in Rob Ahern’s initial statement “There is no ‘us’ and ‘them'”. And it gets down to the whole premise of the article: government as a platform.

I believe that, in general, government is a platform for the community to act and to do the things it cannot do (or cannot do effectively) as individuals, either through representation (legislation) or through hiring people to do stuff on behalf of the community (civil service). They key is community action. It’s not their work. They are doing our work and the more we help out, the more we benefit. We benefit in at least two ways:
1) To the extent we can do it ourselves, we don’t have to hire them to do it and the costs go down; and
2) To the extent that our work adds to theirs, the services/outcomes we want are improved.

Going beyond this, sometimes governments simply can’t do enough to meet our community needs and we have to step in and help them. The example of this that always springs to mind is WWII. And I’m not talking about people signing up to join the armed forces (in effect, becoming government employees). I’m talking about the scrap metal drives and victory gardens. People pitching in to help out.

And, ultimately, I think that is more and more what people are looking to do now. Pitch in and help out. Government action isn’t their action. It is our action, performed by proxies. It’s stuff that we want done. And some of us are willing and ready to help it get done. It’s not a bad thing if they look for innovative ways for us to do so.

Stephen Buckley

Actually, David Tallan does not appear to have a philsophical difference with me. I think we basically agree.

We are on the same page in that we both believe that it is desirable for citizens to “pitch in” when, as Mr. Tallan says, “governments simply can’t do enough to meet out community needs”.

So if a government agency IS operating as best as it can within its budget (e.g., road maintenance), but still can not keep up with all its obligations (e.g., filling all the potholes around town), then I have the option of “pitching in” (e.g., filling the pothole in front of my house).

BUT that should only come as a last resort. Otherwise, the government agencies will begin to depend on citizen-volunteers as a “free” source of labor, versus their seeking ways to improve its own internal efficiencies.

It’s obviously more efficient (i.e., cheaper), for example, for one “pothole crew” to go around town filling potholes than it is for individuals citizens to fill individual potholes.

But if it is easier, in the short-term, for the Roads Dept. to enlist “volunteers” than it is for THEM to go thru a long, painful reorganization that make them more efficient, then they will tend to choose the former (i.e., “free labor”) option.

It is human nature to seek the path of least-resistance and, as a former federal employee, I can tell you that human nature is at much at play in government agencies as it is anywhere else.

And that is why we have to be careful, when we encourage “public engagement”, that we do not naively become the “enablers” of government operating systems that (like people in general) CAN become better, on its own, but would prefer not to .. if there are “other options” (i.e., get someone else to some of my work for me).

Certainly, leave the door wide-open for innovative ideas from outside citizens. But those should be ideas about what our Government should be doing (or not), and how to do that work better. We just have to be careful that we don’t become “enablers” that allow government inefficiencies to continue.

David Tallan

I guess the difference is that I don’t think having citizen volunteers will prevent government employees from trying to do the best job they can in the best way possible.

If we become “enablers”, I expect we will be enabling government to do more with less (i.e., volunteers enable us to reduce required staff, most likely through attrition combined with redeployment) or more with more (i.e., the addition of volunteers to paid staff providfes more resources enabling service extensions or improvements.

I think government is generally operating as best it can within its budget and the various political constraints that come with the public sector. And that it is not always a black and white question of meeting obligations or not. It’s isn’t always a question of whether or not a pothole gets filled, but how long it takes to get it filled. Enlisting volunteers can enable the holes to get filled in faster. Even if they are meeting their hole-filling targets, volunteers can help them exceed the targets.

I think that the inefficiencies in government that still remain after years and years of belt tightening are likely caused by constraints that a lack of volunteers won’t make disappear. I don’t think government employees are sitting around, preferring to be less productive and looking to volunteers to enable them to be so.

That’s based on my experience with civil servants. Your mileage may vary, of course.

Stephen Buckley

I do agree with you that “government is generally operating as best it can within its budget and the various political constraints”.

But only because you added the qualification “within … various poltical constraints”.

Putting aside that aspect for a moment, and assuming all government agencies have some sort of budget, then I am not sure exactly what you mean that “government is generally operating as best it can”.

By adding the word “generally”, it sounds like you acknowlege that some parts of government do not do “as best it can”.

Now, are these inefficient parts so insignificant when compared to the larger whole, and we are so close to perfection that it is better, instead, to enlist outside help?

As a former management auditor for five federal agencies, I would ask for some proof of this sudden, widespread excellence because, in my professional experience, it is actually the best-run agencies that say they are always looking for ways to “work better, cost less”. All the other agencies are in various degrees of denial: “We’re doing the best we can .. under the circumstances (i.e., considering the short-sightedness that we have in upper-management).

So, until we know with some objective proof (i.e., a management audit) that a government agency is truly operating at optimum levels, then we should not be looking to actively soliciting (vs. merely allowing) outside help to make up its existing inefficiencies.

That’s my experience with government (and private) agencies. And I can point to studies and reports that confirm it, both before and after I worked in government.

Hillary Hartley

Steve hit the nail on the head in the very first comment, “The cultural change of moving away from few select providers to a culture of trusting anyone to build off the gov’t is a big change.”

It will be interesting to see if those “select providers” can provide the hooks for an engaged citizenry. I’m biased, but I think those trusted providers are the key to providing a liaison between the government throwing open its doors and the citizens who want to experiment and innovate.