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Leadership in a World of Permeable Boundaries (Part 1 of 3)

In this first blog entry I’ll explore the main changes that Gov 2.0 will bring and the corresponding changes that will be needed in the style and culture of our leadership and organization. I’ll argue that the primary change of Gov 2.0 is the creation of “permeable boundaries”. With increasing engagement and collaboration, work and decision making will no longer be kept in one area and one organization.

In the second blog entry (coming Wednesday) I’ll look at organizations where an inspiring leadership and a small staff effectively harness a large group of volunteers to create significant achievements as models of leadership in this type of environment. I’ll look at some examples and discuss what what they have in common and their “lessons learned”.

In the third blog entry (coming Friday) I’ll attempt to apply those lessons to a government context. If that sounds interesting to you – read on!

(As a side and obligatory note: these opinions are my own and not those of my employer. Although I wouldn’t be offended if my employer starts to think along these lines.)

Permeable Boundaries
When it comes right down to it, Web 2.0 (and Gov 2.0) is all about permeable boundaries. We are moving from a time of clear distinctions, with Government as the producer (of policies, services and
communications) and the community as the consumer to a time when the boundaries are much less clear. Emerging web technologies are enabling collaboration within the organization, breaking down silos, and enabling increased integration of government organizations with the surrounding community. Tapscott and Williams capture this shift in their book Wikinomics. It is most clearly captured in their “prosumer”
concept (a consumer who helps produce the products comsumed) but underlies their other concepts (peer production, ideagoras, etc.) as well.

The Gov 2.0 model is one where government is releasing its data for conversion into services by the community (e.g. the Apps for Democracy innovation contest sponsored by Washington D.C.); where analysis is outsourced to the community (e.g. the Peer to Patent community patent review ); and where the community is actively involved in writing, not just responding to, policy (e.g. the NZ Police Act Wiki). It’s a world where the government is inviting people in (Web 2.0 consultations, community-sourcing traditional government activities) and, at the same time, increasingly going out into the community, delivering services and communicating, not just through government websites, but the places people regularly visit (Facebook groups, YouTube videos, Second Life islands). The boundaries between government and the community are becoming a lot more permeable.

Internal boundaries are also becoming much more permeable.
Increasingly, as Web 2.0 technologies are applied within to improve collaboration they are breaking down the barriers between divisions and departments in traditionally siloed and hierarchical governments.
One of the most famous examples is Intellipedia and the rest of the Intelink tools (blogs, social bookmarking, etc.) which are breaking down the barriers between the 16 US military and intelligence agencies, but there are plenty of other examples. These collaborative products are not produced by a single department but horizontally across the organization.

Resulting Concerns
These changes are provoking concerns. One concern we are hearing raised repeatedly is that leaders are concerned about the loss of effective control. This is true for both the outward-facing and internal implementations of “Gov 2.0”.

The role of elected officials in setting the agenda, defining the policy direction of the government and representing the people is a cornerstone of representative democracy. Some have expressed a concern that direction setting directly by the “community” through Web 2.0 engagements bypasses the role of our elected leaders and undermines representative democracy. We need to find a way to connect the informal Web 2.0 engagements to the formal decision-making structures of the government. We need to find a way to enable the political leaders to stay true to their policy platform and the commitments they made during the electoral process while fully engaging citizens between elections.

A perceived loss of control is also a challenge to internal collaboration and wide-scale adoption of Web 2.0 technologies. Intellipedia competes with what seems to be a fairly wide scale implementation of Sharepoint, which is attractive to many because it allows users and administrators to establish boundaries and work within smaller groups without sharing across the broader government community. People continue to feel the need to work on material in private and take it through preliminary approvals before enabling wider distribution, even within the organization.

Separate, but perhaps related, is the need that some groups have for ownership of “their” content. This is also often associated with concerns about diffused accountability and difficulty of attribution when authorship is spread around the organization.

Effective leadership in a Gov 2.0 organization will need to acknowledge and address these concerns, not dismiss them.

What do you think? Have I effectively captured the essence of “Gov 2.0”?
What am I missing? Have I more or less hit the mark or am I way off target with the challenges I describe?

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Tim Constantine

Nice post. I’m looking forward to your future installments.

Another cause for concern in permeable internal boundaries is that the web 2.0 tool needs to allow for alternative choices or opinions. If you’re using a wiki (for example) to try to build a list of best practices, there needs to be structure and expectations in place that your best practice doesn’t trump someone else’s best practice. What’s possible in one organization may not be possible in another (due to size, budget constraints, organizational culture).

Organizations, too, must recognize that they have something to contribute, then allow the time and resources to do so. On the other side, organizations must get over the Not Invented Here syndrome and realize people outside of “our” organization may have something of value to contribute to our organization.

Also, organizations need to be brave enough to share. We’re generally not in motion. As in: “We’ve never done that before.” and, “Is that even legal?”

Finally, web 2.0 is by nature always a work in progress. It becomes a new model of persistence — and celebrating the reality that there is no static end-point but rather an ongoing process.

Related to releasing government data – there are real privacy concerns.

David Tallan

Hi Tim,

I think these are great points. I’ll try and respond to some of them.

So much of this is about culture and best practices. On wikis, the gardeners can be crucial for fostering these. For example, they can step in where one best practice is replacing another and re-edit it so they are side by side, making a comment in the discussion page about why they are doing so. At least, with the version histories, when this sort of thing happens the earier best practices are not deleted permanently.

It’s a source of never ending amazement to me how our bureaucratic orgnaizations can, at the same time repeatedly fall victim to the “Not Invented Here” syndrome while requiring environmental scans before doing anything to make sure they are not breaking new ground. 🙂

At one talk I attended recently the topic of available time came up. Everyone knows of “the Google 20%”. There’s no way we are getting that kind of time in the government where we all have to be working at 100%. Any unfilled time is wasted taxpayer dollars, it seems. But we need time to innovate. Innovation will not come without available time.

The key to releasing data is to release ours and not theirs. 🙂

Thanks for your comments!