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Putting Thoughtful 2.0 in Gov 2.0

Twitter @kpkfusion

As evidenced by the National Dialogue, Recovery.gov, data.gov and the Open Dialogue, government is “ramping up” for a feverish pace of Gov 2.0 adoption. But as also evidenced by early experiences (and failures) with Gov 2.0, are we as government and as a country doing the right thing, making the best decisions – adopting the best strategies?

As we expand traditional methods of engagement, are we being comprehensive, thoughtful, and critical in the implementation of new means of engagement and with the appropriate and optimal technology construct? And of course, are we spending scarce budget dollars in methods and approaches that have a high probability of success – not just in driving successful technology projects, but also in achieving hypothesized results?

Perhaps we could all take a deep breath and reflect. Perhaps we could learn from common experience in a way that will reduce our chances of failure and increase our long-term opportunity for success – success in including more citizens in government processes, and success in enabling the process of government to work better.

We are going to get one chance to do this the right way – to deliver results that will build trust by a rightfully skeptical public audience. It is a historic moment.

The Gov 2.0 challenge

The evolution of Gov 2.0 is not unlike the evolution of Web 2.0. Web 2.0, spawned by social portals is the rage of the moment. Business organizations are just beginning to learn how to leverage Web 2.0 in a way that leads to meaningful business results. Yet, even in business, enterprise understanding and adoption are in an embryonic stage. The power of collective action is unarguable. But most businesses also recognize that collective action by customers, partners, and employees is disruptive to traditional business processes. Understanding and embracing that disruption is easier said than done.

The problems inherent in business use of Web 2.0 are magnified many times over in government. After all federal, state and local government is the largest enterprise in the US representing 1 out of 6.5 of all workers (22.16M employees out of 141M), an estimated 35% of 2010 GDP, and with 306M citizens as customers. Government networks are amongst the most numerous and complex in existence. They fulfill a diverse plethora of business needs. They support difficult decision and policy-making structures.

Big numbers mean more complexity and a greater opportunity for failure. In light of the challenge, how do we create an environment that will foster success?

The technology prism

Technology is a recognized enabler for Gov 2.0 strategies. It is not surprising then, that transformational leadership of Gov 2.0 has largely been a technology focused discussion. I would argue that we should view the business challenge from a very different perspective – one grounded in an understanding of citizen and organizational behavior and a keen view of the “public good” that we are trying to achieve.

Vivek Kundra (CIO) and Aneesh Chopra (CTO) have articulated a far-reaching vision of transformational change for the federal government that is long over due. It is a vision that seeks to leverage technology into meaningful engagement, and one which supports change in governmental processes to allow government agencies to easily acquire that technology without massive system builds – in the cloud – itself a seminal moment in government.

Yet we still have not changed the most fundamental impediment – the view that our technology infrastructure must primarily support highly centralized data aggregation and portalized outreach. We are building large government portals designed to aggregate data (under the banner of transparency). Similarly, we are mass importing early Web 2.0 commercial strategies designed to aggregate consumers in social portals.

Critically, will the portals prove to be relevant (and credentialed) to most citizens with a high probability of success? Similarly, will social portal and Web 2.0 strategies built on a highly centralized model lead to meaningful citizen dialogue – or just more online food fights and smart mobs that destroy public credibility and agency morale? Will both elements of strategy maximize the “public good” or are there alternatives that will drive higher probabilities for success?

The behavioral prism

Building solutions that promote unstructured or semi-structured communications is inherently a different challenge than building technology systems and solutions that support transactions and/or structured (and often secure) communications. The two have very different purposes and require different rules of communication and business logic to be successful.

This is where Gov 2.0 could borrow a page from social sciences now being used to transform design principles in our physical environment. Let me share three examples.

First, in environmental planning there is a design paradigm known as Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED). Wikipedia describes CPTED as follows:

“As established by Newman, defensible space must contain two components. First, defensible space should allow people to see and be seen continuously. Ultimately, this diminishes residents fear because they know that a potential offender can easily be observed, identified, and consequently, apprehended. Second, people must be willing to intervene or report crime when it occurs. By increasing the sense of security in settings where people live and work, it encourages people to take control of the areas and assume a role of ownership. When people feel safe in their neighborhood they are more likely to interact with one another and intervene when crime occurs. These remain central to most implementations of CPTED as of 2004.”

Said simply, rather than building walls to keep criminals out, open environments creating clear lines of sight make people feel more secure – a challenge to traditional norms.

Second, in the transportation planning industry, there is a design paradigm known as Context Sensitive Design (CSS). CSS is a relatively new body of work (embraced by the FHSA. Simply said:

“In contrast to long-standing practices in transportation design that place primary importance on moving traffic (vehicular throughput), the CSS process emphasizes that transportation facilities should fit their physical settings and preserve scenic, aesthetic, historic and environmental resources, while maintaining safety and mobility.” Wikipedia.

A third example is the new urbanism movement. Broadly stated, new urbanism recognizes that neighborhoods are increasingly vibrant when built to enable walkability, diversity, and low scale architectures. See Wikipedia.

In all 3 examples traditional notions of centralized human behavior are giving way to citizen focused, contextual design, more appropriate for the way that we as citizens actually live. Over the last 50 years we have spent billions if not trillions of dollars of our GDP building out our physical environment, to only now, upon reflection, understand that we can achieve safer residential areas, more efficient transportation systems, and more vibrant city-scapes by critically evaluating how contextual design and infrastructure best serves the public good.

The opportunity for Gov 2.0 is to similarly achieve that same level of creativity, thoughtfulness and understanding. In Gov 2.0, before we embrace large system builds and centralized portal structures, we should critically reflect on whether those paradigms will best meet our goals. In implementing Gov 2.0, do we fully understand how design influences citizen and agency behaviors?

A blank canvas

The point is that as we go forward in promoting Gov 2.0, we can and should be more thoughtful. Though well intended, we should recognize that the old (if relatively recent) ways of building communications structures in Web 2.0 may not in fact maximize the public good when it comes to Gov 2.0. Gov 2.0 is much more than a data exercise requiring massive data collection and portalized reporting. It is much more than a citizen outreach exercise that serves as an extension of political campaign processes where citizens often vent – not always constructively.

Gov 2.0 should first and foremost be centric to citizens, and for internal networks, agency officials. It should be designed to enable citizens and agencies to constructively exchange data, and points of view based on experience. It should enhance the business of government, to enable government to work more efficiently, and to enable policy makers and elected representatives to make better, more inclusive and sustainable decisions. Gov 2.0 should be built with design principles that maximize inclusion and that eliminate the social fear that citizens often feel. Gov 2.0 should enable distributed transparency that promotes decentralized citizen and agency exchange as well as centralized management.

That is the promise of Gov 2.0 – to be transformational, but thoughtful. We have a blank canvas. But if we break the promise, to citizens and to ourselves, Gov 2.0 could well be an opportunity lost.

We need Thoughtful 2.0 in our Gov 2.0.

twitter @kpkfusion

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Ari Herzog

Agreeing with you, I disagree the term is “Thoughtful 2.0” for clearly folks are thoughtful in their actions. Rather, the focus ought to stray away from technology as the enabler but technology as what exists in the background. For instance, if we agree the education system needs to change from printed and outdated textbooks to Kindles and new media solutions, that is as much your “Thoughtful 2.0” as anything else.

It’s also unfair to use Wikipedia as your primary source of attribution, when that is a neutral point of view by definition. Here’s a blog post the idea by Don Zeigler, for instance, on why new urbanism is misunderstood.


A dimension that I think Kim brings up that I have not seen discussed much elsewhere is the social science behind collaboration. There is a whole discipline of social network analysis that is rarely brought into these discussions that I think is essential. It is not just a technology piece of bringing tools online. Deeper questions of building and creating value networks is essential.

Pam Broviak

I agree also with your approach to all this and have myself struggled with deciding the best implementation strategy for each component of Gov 2.0. I have seen too many failures in engaging citizens with the non-Internet based strategies. People either don’t care or they don’t know best how to collaborate to maximize their input. So not sure they will be able to succeed just because the there are more tools.

I am wondering if successful engagement and collaboration needs to go even deeper. More along the lines discussed by @GovLoop. Should we begin teaching these skills in grade school? Why do we wait until people get a job and enter management to give leadership and team training?

We all learned how to write papers and letters in grade school – should educators now include proper online skills such as blogging, editing wikis, networking, setting up profiles, communicating online? Then add in some good civic training so people better understand government, the contribution they can make, and how best to communicate their ideas. Then perhaps we will graduate kids who have been prepared to engage, collaborate, and contribute in a highly successful manner.

I do have to add to the CSS comment though because in theory CSS should have been a great program. The DOT for years ignored requests from local governments for infrastructure that best fit the needs of the community. However, what has happened is that groups are using the CSS program to push through infrastructure improvements that are far from efficient and highly wasteful of tax dollars. In a way, I think the failures that do occur are also related to what we are discussing. For some reason, we (govt and citizens) are failing in our ability to engage, collaborate, and contribute so the outcome is truly the best decision.

Jeff Cochran

Pam brings up a good point — Current employees in government entities are rarely experienced enough to be self-trained in proper Nettiquette, especially the use of Web 2.0 functions. Throw in public records legalities and Sunshine laws and you have a situation where technology can’t help, only proper user behavior can. And most government entities have woeful records and negligible budgets for any training, let alone directed Web 2.0 training. Heck, we can’t train employees to meet policies we haven’t even created yet. Though most of us have become accustomed to putting the cart before the horse. Or just buying the cart and ignoring the horse…

Kim Patrick Kobza

Steve, Pam, Jeff, Thank you so much for your comments. I greatly appreciate how thoughtful they are. You are raising two important challenges.

First, technology may be a “required condition” to achieving wide-spread involvement; but it is not a “sufficient condition”. Standing alone, it will fail because there are many other necessary conditions to achieve successful outreach – most of them driven by behavioral understandings, and implementation skills. Without an understanding of those skills and a commitment to promoting them, all of the technology in the world will not help, and in fact could often complicate rather than simplify governmental processes.

The other factor that often comes into play is exactly the issue raised by Jeff. In a past life I worked in local road commissions, and with transportation planning committees. And Jeff is exactly correct, especially on CSS. I think that part of the challenge is a tension between centralization/decentralization and related, a lack of confidence in transportation professionals that citizen involvement or even collaboration between professionals can be constructive and helpful.

Part of the challenge is that design processes often require linear chains of decision and command to be successful. Citizen participation, and/or group collaboration are distributed processes. The distributed processes are often best used to learn local knowledge and priorities, but too often, they are mapped to the design process itself. That can be okay in for instance an alternative analysis where solution possibilities are limited, but it is less appropriate to use for what amounts to a “binary” voting exercise. In fact, it is entirely inappropriate for that purpose.

So to Jeff’s point, our common experience in citizen involvement is not always good. We experience citizen involvement as adding complexity and cost. But if we could show that gov 2.0 properly executed could actually accelerate design and implementation cycles, and save time and cost, we would have much more confidence in the possibilities.

Underscores real challenge to change.

Tracy Kerchkof

“First, technology may be a “required condition” to achieving wide-spread involvement; but it is not a “sufficient condition”. Standing alone, it will fail because there are many other necessary conditions to achieve successful outreach – most of them driven by behavioral understandings, and implementation skills. Without an understanding of those skills and a commitment to promoting them, all of the technology in the world will not help, and in fact could often complicate rather than simplify governmental processes.”

Yes yes, 1000 times yes. I work on a semi public facing wiki and bring up this point every meeting, to the point where people are sick of my voice. At least at my organization, we keep trying to push web 2.0 with a “build it and they will come” mentality, when this is simply not the case. I have tried to bring relevant examples from a friend of mine who studies social media and marketing for a living, and they routinely ignore these suggestions to focus on the technology, maybe because its easier to wrap their heads around? I have no idea but it is very frustrating.

Also, Pam, I loved your comments about teaching leadership skills earlier than on the job. So many thoughts, maybe I will write a blog post.

Stephen Buckley

People seem to forget that the White House’s “Open Government Directive” (still being drafted) will not, and can not, direct citizens to engage, participate, or collaborate in the decisionmaking of federal departments and agencies.

We, as free citizens, are the ones who decide if (or how much) we want to engage with our government.

If an invitation for “public engagement” describes a public meeting where I will probably be lectured by government officials who treat me like an empty vessel, then I (and most other people) am very likely to use my time in a less frustrating way.

So, in order to BE more engaging with the public, the trick for government officials, then, is to figure out those things that will convince i.e., “nudge”) more citizens that WANT to be involved in a given opportunity for public participate.

And since the White House does NOT have a “killer app” that they will mandate for adoption by all federal agencies, the best that the White House can do is “simply” tell the bureaucrats what the measurable Goals will be, AND by what Metrics they will use to measure progress toward those goals (Transparency, Participation, and Colloboration).

So, the OpenGov Directive will not so much Prescribe (i.e., “this is How to engage the public”) as it will measure Performance (i.e., “this is What we want you to shoot for, and how you do it is up to you”).

And it will be that LAST part (i.e., “how you do it is up to you”) that will make it finally make it O.K. (i.e., safe) for the federal bureaucrats to begin innovating in earnest (i.e., experimenting and measuring) to see what works for improving public engagement.

But, at this point in time, it is fundamentally important that the Open Govt. Directive be crafted with definitions that show how to Measure the elements of Public Engagement (Transparency, Participation, Collaboration). Everything else that follows will flow from that first step.

Stephen Buckley