Allan Eustis and I attended the Open Government and Innovations Conference (OGI) on Tuesday and Wednesday. Like so many, we were lured in by the chance to hear directly from the White House via CTO Aneesh Copra and CIO Vivek Kundra. Both were excellent speakers. They made good points and as a citizen I have hope about where this will go in the future. Data.gov and the other new aggregate sites have so much potential it is mind-boggling. Tim O'Reilly and David Weinberger were amazing. I learned new things about the philosophy behind the technology that I had never considered, and they were very entertaining to boot. O'Reilly's point, don't just ask for their voices, ask for their hands, when engaging the public was simple, but profound. The keynotes were worth the effort to attend the conference - and I want to thank DoD for spear-heading the event. However, as a government employee looking to leverage web 2.0 to further our work, I came away somewhat disappointed.
All web 2.0 conferences are all starting to look exactly the same. Many speakers come from agencies that are boldly using social media in a new and exciting ways, and many more "believers," who are not allowed to use those same technologies, come to hear about it. But the status quo remains the same. NASA and DoD get to successfully use social media, and the rest of us, for the most part, don't. This is the divide that needs to be overcome. I understand that agencies like the IRS and SSA have intensely sensitive data and need to be extremely cautious. But there are a great many agencies that do not fall into this category that are prevented from using these technologies, despite any prior approval GSA may have gotten. My agency isn't even officially allowed to use Twitter yet. A colleague at DOJ said his monthly newsletter takes 2 weeks to get all the necessary approvals so how can they even consider a blog! Yet, his office is directly involved in the community and they need a way to engage their customers better. One panelist at a breakout session described how DoD is using "other transactions" to quickly fund new ideas to address current problems. While very interesting, this was less than helpful since DoD is the only agency that I know of with this kind of authority - everyone else has to use the traditional and time-consuming procurement system. For an expo, these are excellent speakers. DoD, NASA, The White House are getting things done, but as a method to further collaboration and expand the use of social media, it failed. We need specifics: case studies, business case stratregies that succeeded to support any/all of these tools, etc.
I did come away with some useful information beyond hearing from the keynotes. The breakout sesson Measuring the Impact of Social Media was very good. It was the first session I attended that got into the nitty gritty. For those few who have gotten their feet wet with social media (my office does have an official blog, the only one at our agency) we got some tangible tools. What are your goals when using web 2.0, and then how do you measure it? How do you measure transparency? One panelist, KD Paine, didn't just raise the questions, she went on to answer them (from her own experience). This was very valuable, and subsequently the session was packed. We need to evaluate more than just hits, we need to evaluate engagement and compare it appropriately. If we only have 20 followers on Twitter, but they are all the key stakeholders we need to reach, we may be succeeding. Speaking of Twitter, the conference made a good choice in broadcasting the Twitter-feed #ogi. It was eye-opening to see instant reactions to speaker remarks and "connect" with folks across a room that I couldn't see or speak too. Also cool to see instant consensus as ideas were tweeted and retweeted many times. USMS subsequently attracted new followers as I am sure others did, helping us all to reach more of our customers and stakeholders. However, the conference loses major cool points for not having any of the speakers use the internet for their presentations and for not making clear to attendees that WiFi was free to registrants.
Overall, I learned a lot, but came away with very few concrete tools to make open government happen. Hopefully, the President will soon follow-up his Transparency Memo with concrete guidance for all federal government. Many are obviously ready and willing to engage the public, we're just waiting for the green light.
ps I have to add, I have never been to conference center before that has no vending machines! By the afternoon, I was fading and desperately needed some caffeine. Should they do this again, I highly recommend leaving the coffee out and providing soda in the pm.