Government 2.0: A tale of "risk, control, and trust"

Yesterday in downtown Washington DC I was fortunate to be able to attend two important Government 2.0 events, the LMI Executive Forum on Mission 2.0 and O'Reilly's Government 2.0 Expo. Both of these events highlighted the benefits as well as the challenges of improving the way the government does so much of what it does.Here's what you need to know about Web 2.0 in government based on the discussions at these seminal events.
Written by Dion Hinchcliffe, Contributor

Yesterday in downtown Washington DC I was fortunate to be able to attend two important Government 2.0 events: the LMI Executive Forum on Mission 2.0 and O'Reilly/TechWeb's Government 2.0 Expo. Both of these events highlighted the benefits as well as the challenges of improving the way the government does so much of what it does today.

Self-organizing and self-directed behavior is much more likely in the government of the near-future.

Social collaboration, information sharing, and open data were broad themes extensively explored and certainly championed by many at both events, admittedly myself one of them. Cautious optimism was apparent in the participants as there seems to be a broadening consensus that there will be striking changes in government over the next few years. This optimism was occasionally overshadowed in many discussions by the recurrence of issues such as the challenges that bureaucracy poses to progress including HR, policy, reward systems, and management motivations. Especially evident were worries about the classic issues of hierarchical management which LMI Executive Forum participant Mark Oehlert summarized smartly in three broad themes: "Risk, control, and trust."

The interest, however, in improving government through the innovative use of the latest Web 2.0 approaches and tools is at the moment reaching nearly a fever pitch in the public sector, at least in the nation's capital. Throughout the summer and fall there have been events and meetups around the Washington DC area exploring how social computing, Enterprise 2.0, agile integration, and data sharing between agencies in the federal government can achieve many of the goals for next-generation government that those, including national CIO Vivek Kundra, have been expounding in recent months.

A lot of this recent interest has been spurred by a new administration, particularly President Barack Obama's early moves this year, and the issuance in particular of the Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies on Transparency and Open Government. In this document, Obama says that:

Government should be collaborative. Collaboration actively engages Americans in the work of their Government. Executive departments and agencies should use innovative tools, methods, and systems to cooperate among themselves, across all levels of Government, and with nonprofit organizations, businesses, and individuals in the private sector.

While orders and memoranda are issued all the time in government, often without substantial impact, the broad influence of social computing these days, both in the consumer space as well as the enterprise, has made social systems one of the top approaches of interest when it comes to open government initiatives this year, as we'll see from the discussions yesterday.

Exploring Mission 2.0: An emerging subset of Government 2.0

The LMI Executive Forum yesterday was attended by senior members of various government agencies including the CIA, DNI, and the DoD. The attendees, including myself as a guest, discussed at length social computing in the federal workplace, in particular the more secure, mission-oriented environments such as the intelligence community. The use of Web 2.0 tools in this environment can be called Mission 2.0.

A number of key points came out of the discussion that highlight the differences between private sector use of Web 2.0 approaches and their realization in a so-called Mission 2.0 environment. In particular is the very different environment for workers that make life and death decisions based on collaborative data and who also aren't subject to the traditional market pressures of the business world such as drives for efficiency or productivity (though of course, better outcomes are usually sought by both.) Thus the unique implications, drivers, and requirements of Mission 2.0 brings important nuances to this story and it's clear that a direct transplantation of the consumer social world isn't desirable or possible and there must be some kind of adaptation to the unique worlds of the mission-oriented environment.

Read about Building a vision for Government 2.0.

Here were some of the key points explored during yesterday morning's Mission 2.0 discussion. It provides an excellent front row seat to the colliding worlds of traditional government and Government 2.0:

  • There is a growing tension between hierarchy and collaborative networks. While it's far from a battleground, it's clear that social tools break down barriers and identify who is participating and contributing and can create an alternate organizational graph of who knows what and who can do what. Consequently those in power in existing hierarchies may not always be incented to work in the inherent meritocracies of social media platforms such as blogs, wikis, and social networks. Finding ways to reconcile these two worlds will reduce friction as more and more use of the tools takes place inside of government agencies.
  • Rewarding based on value produced, rather than how its produced has interesting desultory effects on new tools and approaches. Because any new environment (such as an internal online community) has to reach critical mass to be effective, many existing reward mechanisms don't encourage the use of newer tools for getting things done, especially if they aren't the best option at hand. Because of this, users may still vote with their feet to use older IT tools or traditional approaches to collaboration, especially in time critical or high profile situations, because they have the critical mass today. One can certainly argue that the best tool should always be used for the job but newer, better tools won't improve enough to be competitive if they can't be "sharpened" through use. It's an interesting case of how the less deterministic aspects of social tools can allow them to be trumped -- at least in the short term -- by the old ways of doing things, at least until a strong enough network effect is created. Leaders could help with this by mandating the use of new tools and even migrating existing data (and there are other methods as well.)
  • The accuracy and attribution of Web 2.0 tools must be improved for many government applications. Divining the reputation of contributors in social media environments, understanding the original sources of data provided, and dealing with propagated inaccuracies (the echo chamber effect) was cited by a number of executive forum participants as concerns. The "popularity" rankings of content and information so common with Web 2.0 tools is often less important than their authority or accuracy. Finding ways to crowdsource these will likely be additional axes of development for Mission 2.0 solutions to be perceived as thought-through and ready for prime time.
  • Security requirements, fear of scrutiny, and need-to-know create a culture that inhibit the sharing of knowledge and best practices. It's hard to spread best practices, improve operations, or find the information needed in a timely fashion when there are powerful silos built across many government agencies. These silos are created to protect information and sources and are (at least as far as my experience has shown) frequently overused often with good intentions, but sometimes otherwise. This culture of closure is anathema to driving good results with social computing (which breaks down barriers that isolate and leaves permanent, discoverable artifacts of participant activities behind) and can have a considerable inhibiting effect. The good news: Social tools might inherently start chipping away at this problem in the government space as they make inroads, but in the meantime it's a challenge to be overcome through change management and cultural evolution.
  • Communication lines are blurring between department, agency, and national entities. A point was made by a senior official at the forum that there is increasingly little distinction between national and international intelligence. The connectedness and mobility of the real-world, and even the government, is already breaking down many distinctions between different groups that are now becoming increasingly artificial. In other words, despite the points made above, certain kinds of silos are now coming apart at the seams with communication, and frequently social tools, being the proximate cause. This is encouraging for a number of reasons though it also complicates the nature of understanding the modern government worker environment and trying to make up-front strategic plans. Another attendee pointed out that self-organizing and self-directed behavior is much more likely in the government of the near-future. This is something that may be hard to believe when looking at many areas of the government today but is much more likely as social computing environments become more prevalent. Preventing this from happening too quickly and prevent disorder may be one of the reasons why parts of the government, such as the Marines, have been banning external social media within the government (security of course being the top reason.)
  • Trust is a notion that's already deeply held by most government workers. Another person noted that we can trust government personnel with responsibility over extremely dangerous weapons and to operate multi-hundred million dollar pieces of equipment but we somehow don't think they can be taught how to use Facebook or an internal social network safely. Some of this attitude is because the tools of open government are still unfamiliar to many and because the the trail hasn't been blazed enough to reduce concerns. Either way, trust will be an integral component to make open government work.

The LMI forum was a very useful snapshot of many of the issues of next-generation government and mission-oriented worker activities in particular. I then moved on to the next big event of the day, the Government 2.0 Expo at the Washington DC Convention Center.

Government 2.0 Expo: A tour of the future of government

Government 2.0 Expo
I made my way over to the Government 2.0 Expo event in the heart of downtown DC. A one day event prior to the two day summit afterwards, the expo was an exploration of the innovation already taking place today to create a next-generation government with a more modern approach, tools, and mindset.

Most of the day was given over to a rapid stream of presentations (the full list here), most taking just 5 minutes, as each presenter explained a Government 2.0 project or initiative that is taking place. Representation of the public sector at Gov 2.0 Expo was quite broad and included the federal courts, local government, national security, NASA, the FDA, the State Department, UNICEF, and even the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART.)

Of particular note (though not exhaustive since I couldn't attend all the presentations at #gov20e) were the following initiatives, which embody using both people and technology to create better government outcomes through innovation, collaboration, and connectedness. It's no accident that most extensively used Web technology in some way:

  • A-Space. A-Space is an effort from the Director of National Intelligence's (ODNI) Office of Analytic Transformation and Technology to create a common collaborative environment for intelligence analysts in the national intelligence community. A-Space is accessible from common workstations and provides open access to interagency databases, the ability to search both classified and unclassified sources simultaneously, Web-based messaging, and collaboration tools. It launched at the end of 2007 and is now in wide use.
  • Arkansas Recovery Portal. This state government Web site attempting to achieve new levels of government openness, transparency, and citizen participation concerning recovery activities in the state. They created an iPhone application with integrated GPS and mapping capabilities to report on where recovery funds where going and to report abuse and fraud. More details here.
  • Transit 2.0 at BART. This is a story of how BART is used Web technology to "drive efficiency, transparency, accountability, participation, collaboration and new models of partnerships between the tech community and government. BART shows how a government agency can use technology to be a provider not only of services—but also of information, data and spaces for building community." They ended up a winning entry for the show.
  • CrimeReports.com During the past two years, over 600 law enforcement agencies have voluntarily chosen to publish their data to CrimeReports.com, the largest database of its kind. Their objective is to "enable the government platform in law enforcement, and is currently building an interface to allow members of the public or law enforcement to write applications that will interact with the data and return results in real time. The objective is to enable the best ideas to emerge to help prevent terrorism, prevent and reduce crime and protect our communities at the lowest total cost."

There are many other interesting developments on tap this week as Gov 2.0 Summit kicks off. You can also read about major developments such the federal government's move to adopt OpenID as well as the Twitter stream in real-time via hashtags #gov20e and #g2s.

Al of this is just a small part of a large scale set of changes taking place in 21st century government. There will be a lot more happening in the Government 2.0 space this fall and heading into 2010. While social tools are a leading subject, so too is data sharing and integration. Expect more coverage here of this rapidly emerging space as it develops.

Also be sure to read Government as a dialogue: Will the Gov 2.0 Summit contribute?

As large as it is will the government ever really be able to achieve real change without a serious overhaul? Please add your comments in Talkback below.

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