Why Doesn’t Government Use the Web to Organize Its Work?

I’ve been reading Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky. It’s a brilliant book on the information revolution that we’re going through. He believes that this revolution is as momentous as the development of the printing press, which triggered the Reformation and religious wars. The rise of amateurs and the expansion of consumer choice has meant the end of seemingly unassailable institutions like newspapers.

Seeing how the world is rushing to adapt to the web, I had a practical question. Why doesn’t the government use the web to organize its work? For example.

1. Why is there no actual Facebook for feds? Govloop (Facebook for feds) is a brilliant idea, a way for federal employees, contractors and other interested parties to communicate and collaborate. Why didn’t the GSA provide this tool years ago? Think what a tremendous aid this would be to federal employees. Why isn’t there, at the very least, a government-wide directory showing photos, titles and contact information? Does your agency have such a directory?

2. Why isn’t there an online project management tool? So much of government work is managing projects – people, inputs, resources, deadlines, deliverables and so on. I’ve seen people use spreadsheets, Word docs, MS Project, Sharepoint, wikis and even crossed-out to do lists. Why doesn’t government adopt a tool like Backpack (my fav), a web-based project management tool?

3. Why is so much of government work done on paper? Reimbursements, training requests and purchases so often require the walking around of paper forms and the collection of signatures. Think how much more efficient government would be if these forms were made electronic.

4. Why doesn’t government publish all of its photos on Flickr? Shirky lists Flickr as a great example of crowd-sourcing, where amateurs post and tag exponentially more photos than a newspaper or magazine would publish. What if you could visit a National Park Service page and see countless NPS and amateur photos of Yellowstone, all carefully geotagged?

5. Why can’t I just click once to apply for a government job, like I can do on Monster? USAJOBS, with its browser-specific requirements, pages of explanations to wade through, confusing KSAs and endless duplication, is a usability nightmare. And this is how potential employees are introduced to government.

I’m sure you have your own examples. For the most part, these are not Web 2.0 tools. Online directories, web-based forms, one-click applications – this is Web 1.0, from the 1990s. Investing in making the processes of government work more efficiently would be a worthwhile endeavor for the new administration.

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Scott Horvath

Regarding #1: That does exist. It’s called Web Content Managers Forum (http://forum.webcontent.gov). It’s gov’t only. GovLoop is open to anyone and everyone that is interested in Gov’t (employees, contractors, media, etc). There’s advantages and disadvantages to both models since once is completely open but doesn’t allow for gov’t only interactions on sensitive topics, and the other not allowing the public/contractors to be involved. You need to weigh your options on where you want to participate…or participate in both which I do.

#2: This would definitely be nice to have.

#3: Policies my friend, policies. That’s why. The policies that state things like printing out certain emails for storage and other items are outdated and need to be addressed. There are other methods for backing up information. Unfortunately paper backup is still the most trusted form of backup and probably has a much longer shelf life than tapes, drives, etc. The electronic data isn’t the problem…it’s the storage medium. What happens 30 years from now when the hardware required to read your PDF files no longer exists and no one has backwards compatible software or hardware? What about your tape backups? You eventually have to transfer one form of data storage to another over and over again as hardware/software becomes obsolete.

But do you have to do that with paper? Nope. I’m not saying I agree with paper backups for many things that we’re required to do, but it certainly isn’t affected by electronic interference or EMPs. Although…fire is pretty strong alternative for the paper 🙂

Re: #4: Although uploading everything to Flickr sounds great, and easy, it’s not (I don’t believe) 100% compliant with Section 508 regs. Additionally, you would be putting all of your eggs in one basket. Granted many agencies would probably have a backup plan just in case, but you can we really count on that happening? Flickr is a great tool, and I don’t see going away, but with the history of Yahoo products and their longevity you have to be careful where you put your assets.

#5: That simply sounds like a good usability test is needed and would have to be followed. That’s a programming issue really. I don’t think it’s a policy issue…simply just hasn’t been done.

Lauren Vargas

Great direction of thought….first we must look at policy, determine nature of policy and with that understanding, adapt or update.

Joe Flood

Thanks everyone for the feedback. Call me crazy but why can’t there be an online directory of all government employees? I worked for the World Bank in the mid-90s. The first thing they put online was a searchable directory of employees, complete with photos and contact info. So helpful before meetings to check out. Seems like this would be a pretty basic and necessary function for any large organization. Perhaps some agencies are already doing this.

I applaud GovLoop for offering tools for govt employees to collaborate. It’s a great model that I hope gets adopted within government. It would simplify the organizing of work and communication.

Re #3, it always seems to come down to policy. Maybe these policies should be updated to reflect that we no longer use typewriters.

Re #4, that’s a good point, Scott, but maybe the photos could be published in an open-source format (like data) so it wouldn’t be dependent on a single commercial service.

And my final rant #5, programming is just part of it. The application instructions are confusing, the job descriptions vague, and how the process works is obscure.

Mark Sabah

Hey Joe, Good Topic….I am currently organising a debate on this subject with a think tank. The title of the debate will roughly be: “Is the internet the saviour of democracy?”

one of the initial issues that come out of this subject is that governments have a requirement to engage and share information, but that does not necessarily mean the public are right or have all the facts to be able to engage correctly – hence decision are emotive or irrationally made. Having members of the public joining in on all policy making could potentially be a dangerous thing.

civil servant also do not want to be known to the public – they have and sometimes need protection because of the issues they deal with. GovLoop is optional and a generally a friendly site with a sense of community and support from the members – this may not be the case if all members of the public could have access. Flyod (above) talks of security issues – he is correct on that point.

also, ultimately – we elect officials to do a job. do we really want to be engaged very ten minutes about what to do next? i think not. By opening this process up – it would be hijacked by a relatively small group who don’t allow officials to get on with their jobs by constantly bothering them with their own take on things.

and ultimately – like most respondents have said – it comes down to policies. We need intelligent, educated people coming up with policies, and finding out how they work and how to implement them. having everything open (and paperless) could only lead to a stalling of government processes.

Arlena Boxton

Hi Joe

#1 – I think people and “culture” are the biggest roadblocks that impede government progress when it comes to adopting almost anything new whether it be technology or even a new process. I would imagine that quite a lot of government agencies still have folks in key positions who are: technology-challenged, or the old guard or technophobes, or those who simply do not think of technology as an enabler of process automation. I think those for whom technology is very much a part of their personal lives are often more “ready” or are more open to applying it in a work setting. It can be frustrating for those of us who use technology so much in our daily lives that we take it for granted. When I roll out of bed I can grab my smartphone from the nightstand, and in an instant know what my calendar looks like; text my daughter not to forget our lunch today; find out what the weather is likep access a live traffic feed or find out if public transit is on time; find out the value of the dollar against the euro, cringe at the DOW/Nasdaq, and pick up an alert on the best travel deals of the day. Mostly information that is “pushed” as opposed to me “pulling it” from the web.

People who have incorporated technology in this way, and use it to facilitate/enhance their everyday experience, and quickly adapt to its changing nature have a more difficult time understanding why others don’t feel the same way about it or use it to the fullest in the ways that they do.

Government has always been synonymous with “paper,” policy, standards, processes, stability and low risk, -there’s nothing wrong with that except when the culture “refuses” to budge and cannot see the efficiency gains in continously looking for ways to streamline and automate. I also think because of bureacracy in place it’s sometimes just so much “easier” just to do things the way they’ve always been done, rather than jump through all of the procedural hoops government has when it comes to trying to introduce new technology….and too, I think there is a very real and warranted fear of technology continuing to make jobs obsolete, which in many cases it will continue to do. It used to be that a government job was “safe.” Not so any more. (Look at the impact email has had on the Post Office, or what electronic money transfer has done to the check business.)

Technology is moving forward at such a pace that what is “new” and “the best” today is outdated tomorrow, and is replaced by something faster, better, smaller, sleeker, and more streamlined. Business processes can often be automated very easily and/or outsourced to the private sector who already have this automation available in cheaper geographies. I really do understand the fears when it comes to technology.

#2. Agree with you on web-based project management. It would be nice to be able to have all of the collaboration tools and media available and unfettered at one’s fingertips.

#3 People simply “trust” paper. Look how many years it took for people to stop writing checks and/or carrying cash. I think I might have 5 dollars on me if that. Here are questions I hear about electronic storage: what if the network is down; what if the print server crashes and we can’t print; what if my remote access doesn’t work; what if someone hacks in and compromises our confidential data – all very real life scenarios that make people hold on to paper.

#4 A good idea but I wonder how much work/overhead would be required? It certainly would generate jobs to manage photos and perhaps even video content. Then there’s also governance 🙂

#5 I think this is reflective of how siloed government agencies continue to be. Streamlining a process such as applying for a job across government agencies would mean those agencies would need to all be on board with workflow and processes. Wouldn’t it be great if you could simply upload a 5 minute YouTube audio or even video stream discussing your qualifications and why you want the job along with your resume? We simply are not there yet.

Andrea Schneider

I also love the book “here comes everybody’, I heard Clay on Talk of the Nation and almost jumped out of my car (I was driving).
I’m going to pose a thought that is elegant in its simplicity. While many of us can see the obvious applications of these new web 2.0 technologies, I am almost positive that many in the government sector really don’t understand it yet, therefore don’t see all the benefits.

Going even further, I am equally convinced that there is a serious breakdown between some sectors in communication and basic understanding. Each system has its own language so to speak. Each sector needs to be approached with that clarity. Many folks in business (even tech) do not understand how gov’t works, and don’t know the difference between govt and non-profits or foundations. How about the education and health sectors? Each has its own language and politics.
In order for us to do a really good job of introducing the new methods we have to be able to explain them and how they would work in clear language that is understood by the agency type we are targeting.
Sometimes I think we all miss the nuances that are so critical. Not unlike understanding different cultures.