Building a vision for Government 2.0

Government 2.0 isn't waiting for a federal mandate.
Written by Dion Hinchcliffe, Contributor

Government 2.0 isn't waiting for a federal mandate. Earlier this week, the nation's first ever CIO, Vivek Kundra, urged the use of Web 2.0 approaches to address the needs of government and citizens at the Management of Change conference in Norfolk, Virginia. Kundra outlined several important areas where he believed Web 2.0 can help improve government: connecting with citizens and their ideas (social computing), routing around the horizontal and vertical silos surrounding government data (open APIs), and tapping into the potential savings of low-cost new software applications and processing capabilities (SaaS and cloud computing.)

Among the three areas, Kundra's perception that citizens were a true peer group in the process of governing seemed to come through clearest:

"We’ve got to recognize that we can’t treat the American people as subjects but as a co-creator of ideas. We need to tap into the vast amounts of knowledge… in communities across the country. The federal government doesn’t have a monopoly on the best ideas."

That the global, pervasive network known as the Internet can directly connect citizens with their government is obviously an idea well-aligned with Web 2.0 ideas. Not that the vision for something known as Government 2.0 is a new one. It goes back to the very beginning of the Web 2.0 discussion. But with a new administration in place in Washington and a passionate CIO that by all appearances is progressive and understands the modern IT era, the timing seems to be ripe for a remaking of government and perhaps even democracy itself.

Fixing what isn't broken?

Our democracy is not quite 250 years old and its mechanisms have largely served us very well over the years. That we currently have representative government is for a variety of reasons, not the least of which were that the vast distances in our large country used to make wide-scale direct democracy difficult and that considerable expertise and knowledge were perceived to be required to make important government decisions. The Internet, however, with its ability to make any distance equally close and to let us research virtually anything in real-time, has seemingly erased the need to impose such constraints on how we govern ourselves.

But of course there is more to the story. The state of government today is also still very much a "we the people" vs. them, the government. There is a distance between us and our government, at least for most of us, that is reminiscent of paternal days of old when getting involved, unless it was your local assembly, was something that few people had the ability to do. Government was for people who could join it and make a career of it, and many have indeed dedicated their lives to public service. Now, however, there is the means to enable many, many more to be involved and to potentially create a government that fits us and serves us, in our time, better than it can in its present form.

We should also not forget the classic sayings that "bureaucracies exist to perpetuate themselves" and "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely", which are old chestnuts for a reason. The roots of these concerns occasionally need tending to as well.

In short, events of the last couple of years and vast changes in our modern society seem to urge some essential improvements upon our government, if only we had the means:

Improving Government 1.0

  • More transparent and accountable. Too much government information is inaccessible from the citizens that paid to create it. Much more than just raw data or collated statistics, which is increasingly opening up already, its the very deliberations of the government machine; the decision making, who made them and why, as well as the actual actions taken, all of which are often far too closed to the governed, yet affect us so profoundly. Make no doubt about it, like Web 2.0 was to the rest of society, opening up daily activity to the daylight is a sea change and governments around the world, never very comfortable with scrutiny or criticism to begin with, will be seriously challenged in an era where their constituents have as much power as they do to communicate. It's also true that too often the information that is intentionally kept from coming to light that is the most significant. I'm not talking here about secure or classified information; there is information that simply must be kept highly circumscribed for security reasons (though that too is often overdone). For an example of a move in the right direction, OpenSecrets.org is an excellent example of transparent and accountable government information, while Data.gov is also a good start, but only a start. Globally visible, persistent government activity is the enabler here, and Enterprise 2.0, which will be used much more internally within government at first over the next few years, is part of the answer.
  • Less expensive, cumbersome, wasteful, and heavyweight. Our current government is largely a construct of the 20th century, when most of the growth and development of the federal government as well as our state and local governments took place. This is a traditional paperwork and hierarchy-driven system where, despite impressive adoption of Web 1.0 as well as numerous bright spots (some dramatically so), far too many of the cowpaths have merely been paved. The way we run our government must be reinvented for a world that has gone decidedly connected, digital, and is increasingly ready to be directly participatory. Not only can the way we interact with citizens and within government be made enormously better and more lightweight, it could cost dramatically less with the application of new technologies and social structures. And as we saw with the rise of nearly revolutionary open business models 10 years ago on the Web, engaging the greater world on the public network is often the best, easiest, and cheapest way to accomplish things, if only we have the freedom to fundamentally rethink the way we do things today. With the federal budget skyrocketing and no end in sight, dramatic means will be required to cut costs sooner rather than later, and some of the more powerful aspects of 2.0 will likely be the answer.
  • Not as impersonal and imprecise. Not many people have a regular, meaningful relationship with their government other than paying their taxes and obeying the law. Most of the time, we are a government statistic instead of what we really are: living, breathing citizens. And while the debate on large vs. small government will probably never be over, a new form of government that is far more direct and personal is coming. The very nature of how citizens can connect with, engage, and gain mutual value from our government is changing because of the Internet. With 2.0, the government's ability to provide a customized experience to each and every citizen so that the services that are provided, whatever they end up being over time, are exactly what we need, right when we need them, often powered by the rest of us. And mass customization is likely just the beginning; Facebook groups and political online communities began to help us self-organize but the legislation of the future as well as national decisions will increasingly be tailored by us and for us in a form of modern digital gerrymandering to fit us like a glove, potentially overcoming at long last the winner takes all tyranny of traditional democracy. E-mail gave us ability to reach our representatives instantly, but social tools, online community, government tools powered by collective intelligence, and participatory citizenship will change our civic lives a great deal more. In the very near future, for better or worse, our relationship with our government is almost certainly going to be closer, more personal, dynamic, and custom fit.
  • A quick glance at this list shows that it tends to parallel a good number of the predictions I made for Enterprise Web 2.0 in 2009: tight budgets will drive adoption of SaaS and cloud computing, online community will become a priority for better connection to customers and the marketplace, internal use of 2.0 will increase more than external use, the current severe macroeconomic conditions will drive alignment with technology and business like never before, and massive changes in current business conditions are creating openings that represent major opportunities for those that can spot them.

    The New York Times posted its interview the nation's CTO, Aneesh Chopra, today. Half of his priorities fall into the Government 2.0 category.

    So given the premise that we have new means to extend and improve our government in 2.0 ways, what might such a creation look like? What would the tenets be? While the notion of Government 2.0 is still just taking shape and it will take, by definition, the collective efforts of somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 million people to shape, the following general tenets seem to make sense:

    Defining Government 2.0

    1. Web as a Civic Platform. A direct riff from the first principle of Web 2.0, this simply means that the Internet will be the dominant channel for citizens to interact with their government and vice versa. It also means that it will be the foundation and delivery channel for powerful new applications, open data, and social computing related to government operation and by extension, Government 2.0. Thus, the Web is the most powerful tool for communication, delivery of services, and citizen engagement yet created, thereby enabling the following outcomes.
    2. Social Governance. The government of the near future will be much more social than before, internally more at first and then externally, particularly as new candidates take office off of social platforms (think Obama's Twitter account actually put to good use after the election.) The rise of global social networks and their displacement already of most forms of traditional communication online, including e-mail in many countries, has shown how we prefer to communicate. Human beings (and therefore citizens) are social creatures and tools which inherently leverage our nature will work better than tools that don't. Governments are social systems and it only makes sense that a social tools will make government work better internally (collaboration amongst government employees with things like Enterprise 2.0) as well as with its citizens and other stakeholders. Certainly election campaigns have caught this bug (until they have political power, they have to use the most powerful tools available). Increased transparency and accountability will come about because of social governance, even if outstanding questions include how to create a government in which the default is to be so (though one would assume that network effects by default would create rewards enough for government participants doing the right thing).
    3. Participatory Citizenship. One of the most powerful aspects of the Internet is the ability to be connected directly to everyone on the network, whenever both sides want that. With mobile phones, everyone can be connected to their government all the time (in fact, they are in many ways already, because of emergency response laws and other reasons.) But social governance will lead to participatory citizenship. Going far beyond today's online mainstays such as instantly polling your constituency, participatory citizenship is about using the network to build a better, stronger government with both data and services as well as policy and decision mutually made together. It's a remaking of how closely involved citizens are in government, how much power they have, and the walls between government and the people. Think about the rise of social media vs. traditional media and participatory citizenship makes government undergo the same shift. Again, those with political power today may not want this in true 2.0 form, but as we increasingly see with candidates, newcomers can offer this to their potential electorates in order to reach office, and so increasingly the walls will be torn down.
    4. Electorate Intelligence. The most valuable resource the government has are its citizens. Combined, they have more knowledge and capability than any other capacity available. Tapping into it that knowledge, eliciting it, and leveraging it towards shared goals and mutual benefit will be one of the most powerful activities that the government will engage in. The analogue with Web 2.0 is the principle of "harnessing collective intelligence" and this aspect may ultimately generate the most long-term value of Government 2.0.

    And there's sure to be more as the ideas of Government 2.0 evolve. We are entering an era of uncertain times and it's clear that some things need to change if we can agree on what they are. The current condition of our country is a mandate writ large to do something, and for the first time since our government was created, we now easily have the power within our grasp to do something that is both momentous, new, and valuable, (as well as, hopefully, wise) that wasn't possible before for both technical and social reasons. Done right, improving the way we run our government will make us all economically, socially, culturally, and yes, civilly, better than we are today. Fortunately, like Web 2.0, the grassroots, bottom-up aspect will ensure that much of this will be done by the folks in government on the ground, or by you and I. Government 2.0 isn't waiting for a federal mandate, though that certainly won't hurt.

    I am based out of Washington, DC and I can attest that there is enormous amounts of activity in the Government 2.0 space at the moment that was ushered in with the Obama administration. Vivek Kundra's recent pronouncements are just the tip of the iceberg. For their part, O'Reilly, the organization that identified Web 2.0 to the world, are hard at work bringing Gov 2.0 Expo and Gov 2.0 Summit to light this year. There are many local conferences and events that are talking about the next-generation of Government as well. I'll post more here as the story unfolds this year.

    Are you ready for reinvention of the way we run the government? Why or why not?

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