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It Is Time To Explore The Dark Side of Government 2.0

by Andrea Di Maio  |  June 26, 2009  |  12 Comments

I have just finalized the agenda for the government tracks in our three flagship events, i.e. our Fall Symposia in Orlando, Cannes and Sydney. In two of these events I will present what I hope will be a controversial session, looking at reasons why government organizations should be very cautious with web 2.0.

I have been covering web 2.0 in government for three years now and I have been one of those pushing hard government clients toward taking into serious consideration how these technologies may improve engagement, trigger transformation, empower the workforce. Those who read this blog will have found ample proof that I am an enthusiast and truly believe these technologies can make a difference.

But there are two important caveats. (1) they have to be used wisely and (2) government business and IT leaders need to understand the profound and long-lasting implications of some of these changes.

As far as the wise use, there is plenty of literature and management focus on security and productivity risks. However there are other aspects that – in my opinion – are not receiving sufficient attention. One that I have covered several times here is how to make sure employees can benefit from these technologies and become innovation agents that help create public value, as opposed to ignoring them or using them unproductively.

Where I feel there is more to say though is not in pulling those who are more reluctant to use these technologies, but in warning those who have broadly adopted them about some risks they may have understimated. Even if they have taken all the sensible steps (so they may be seen as using web 2.0 wisely), they are unlikely to be totally aware of some of the consequences of what they are putting in place.

Let me pick a couple of examples: open government data and crowdsourcing for IT solution design. Both are being used extensively by the US federal administration and have been welcomed as a breath of fresh area and proof of true innovation. There is no doubt about that.

But what if combining open government data among themselves reveals inconvenient truths? Of course this is for the common good, but would government be prepared to react?  What if combining information from government and non-government sources blurs the perception about who is responsible and liable for what? What if government becomes so transparent that the public starts questioning its structure and size?

Also crowdsourcing for IT solutions is a cool thing, as one can gather ideas and suggestions and even prequalify vendors almost for free. But then, how does one bring a half baked free-of-charge idea into the public procurement process? Can a vendor solution be selected without an open call for tender based on the submission of a high-level idea? Could crowdsourcing discourage traditional service providers from bidding? And could it encourage submissions by individuals who – if chosen – would be for sale for the best IT vendor offer?

These are just two examples, but think about implications on HR policies, organizational structure, constituencies (shifting from organizations with a legal status to a dynamically changing set of self-organized virtual communities cutting across those traditional organizations). Think about openness and transparency rapidly moving from the top down throughout a government organization, so that the fact of being an employee dealing with the public makes your life totally public. Think about the new ways in which corruption can be fed by and through social media. And much much more.

Too many books, too many management consultant pitches, too many government 2.0 strategies, too much faith in all the good that can come from greater sharing and engagement. And too much focus on security as the primary reason not to pursue such a strategy. There is much more along the road and It is time to take a good look at the darker side to then come back stronger and – if needed – change course.

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Category: e-government  web-20-in-government  

Tags: crowdsourcing  government-20  open-government-data  procurement  

Andrea Di Maio
Managing VP
19 years at Gartner
33 years IT industry

Andrea Di Maio is a managing vice president for public sector in Gartner Research, covering government and education. His personal research focus is on digital government strategies, open government, the business value of IT, smart cities, and the impact of technology on the future of government Read Full Bio


Thoughts on It Is Time To Explore The Dark Side of Government 2.0


  1. […] This post was Twitted by AndreaDiMaio […]

  2. Steve Radick says:

    “Where I feel there is more to say though is not in pulling those who are more reluctant to use these technologies, but in warning those who have broadly adopted them about some risks they may have understimated.”

    I think you’re right in that there is a need for some of us more advanced users to be just as aware of the risks as of the benefits. One thing that Chris Rasmussen and I have been saying for a while now is that there are a lot of initiatives that have been started by some really bright and entrepreneurial people that are now struggling to get enterprise-wide adoption and/or acceptance. The reason for this is because user-driven, grass-roots approaches can get the ball rolling, but in order to mature to that next level, they’ve got to involve information security, legal, HR, and a whole host of other departments who all have their own concerns.

    The same can be said about the two examples you bring up, but I’ll bring up another one that I’ve recently come across – I know of one agency who was so excited to just get out there and get on Twitter. However, they didn’t realize that before jumping out there, they should probably take a look at their internal processes as they then found out that each tweet was going to have to go through the same approval process as their press releases. However, while these unintended consequences resulted in some headaches at first, ultimately, they were able to streamline their approval processes not only for tweets, but for their other publicly releasable materials as well.

    I like to think of this “dark side” of government as a painful, but necessary step to improving government. It’s going to cause a whole host of new problems that we have to address and risks we have to mitigate, but in the end, as you say, I think we’ll come back stronger than we were before.

  3. Thanks Steve for sharing an interesting example. In my current research I am looking for quite extreme scenarios, but you made me think that most adversities can be turned into advantages if people keep an open minded approach.
    So if I took your twitter example and pushed a little bit further, what if constituents expect most if not all communication tio take place via immediate microblogging? How would they distinguish between the blogosphere chatter and the actual official communication (and would they read the whole text of the latter anyhow)? Isn’t there a risk that draft and final versions of whichever statement or communication become indistinguishable for readers?

  4. Steve Radick says:

    “What if constituents expect most if not all communication to take place via immediate microblogging? How would they distinguish between the blogosphere chatter and the actual official communication (and would they read the whole text of the latter anyhow)? Isn’t there a risk that draft and final versions of whichever statement or communication become indistinguishable for readers?”

    I think you’re making a leap here in assuming that citizens will EVER expect most communication from their government to take place via microblogging. Did we ever expect most communication from our government to take place via TV when that came out? Did newspapers and radio just disappear? Did TV fade away when the Internet came out? Of course not – there’s always going to be a variety of different vehicles used for different purposes to reach different audiences.

    As for distinguishing the drafts from the final – sure, there’s a risk to that, just like there’s a risk of misinterpretation to anything that the government puts out. You can’t avoid the risk, but you can mitigate it. For example, I’ve used wikis to draft policies, white papers, proposals, and a variety of other documents that have to be made final at some point. Once we’re done collaborating on the text via the wiki, I throw a banner up on the page saying something to the effect that “you can continue to edit this page and add comments or questions, but the content as of XX date was the content that made it into the final report. You can download this report by clicking here. Periodic updates will be made to this page using this wiki so please do continue to improve it.” That way, people know that there’s a “final, approved” version available but they’re also able to continue to work on it for future versions. Is something ever “final” anyway? We’re still changing the Constitution!

    Point is that you’re trying to apply today’s processes to a future point in time. It would be like if in the early 1990s when the Internet first started to become popular, and you asked, “isn’t there a risk to people seeing something on a website and assuming it’s official government communication when they haven’t even received the letter in the mail?” People’s expectations and government’s use of these technologies will evolve and adapt over time.

  5. “But what if combining open government data among themselves reveals inconvenient truths?”

    God forbid that sunlight should illuminate to the citizens what astute officials are already aware of. It must be better to keep these things hidden – protect the people from what they do not need to worry about.

    “What if combining information from government and non-government sources blurs the perception about who is responsible and liable for what?”

    Far better to avoid any useful and informed discussion about the role and scope of government and the boundary with the private and voluntary sector. The people are not smart enough to join in these discussions, which are far better left to wiser experts.,

    ” What if government becomes so transparent that the public starts questioning its structure and size?”

    Let them pay their taxes, buy lottery tickets and enjoy the beer and circus. We know best.

    I have to disagree completely on open government data. At the heart of government-citizen relationships there must be trust; whenever there is concealment, there is an erosion of trust. open is always better than closed.

    I am with you on the option to use crowdsourcing for solution design – it has a place, but I think that aspects of solution design arr still the domain of experts.

  6. I love the debate that this is generating and it is exactly what I was looking for.

    Let me start answering Steve. I totally agree that this will change and adapt over time, but there will be quite a few bumps on the road. My point about the tweets was that they constitute a fundamentally new form of communication. Whereas a web page can just be a plain reproduction of what used to be written just on paper (with a smarter way of doing footnotes called “hyperlinks”), tweets are just fragments of text. My first question is how “official” can they be? And then, more importantly, as a particular position is likely to be captured as a sequence of tweets, you need to amke sure that readers get the “whole story” (i.e. all the relevant tweets), but that may become challenging.
    As far as the wiki collaboration, in my experience that works pretty well within “relatively” close communities, but less so in the “open air”. There are fundamental issues with how to ensure a fair and balanced participation by a sufficiently large constituency, as opposed to creating just a better channel for the usual suspects (lobbyists and the likes) to interact with government.
    Actually this makes me think about e-government 1.0: how much has it really helped transform the relationship between citizens and government unless by providing a different channel to do pretty much the same things (don’t get me wrong here: better, faster, more conveniently, but basically still the same).

    I also like Laurence strong point defending the concept of open government, and agree wholeheartedly. Believe me, living where I live today, openess of government data would be a much desirable attribute! What I am trying to convey here tough is that “freeing” data is just a necessary condition for transparency and participation, but not a sufficient one, unless people are given the tools to use those data and really be engaged.
    There will always be intermediaries of all sort that use those data the way they see fit to influence opinions and drive behaviors. Sure, there will be more than those we have today so there might be more choice. But the fundamental problem is that people, unless they have a professional interest in the “business of government” have little appetite for “raw data”. They want usefui information and services that may be created leveraging open data. So we will always “buy” from somebody.
    To me, this is pretty much like the “dream” of open source freeing from vendors, something even governments seriously believed in a few years ago. Look at it now: the largest users of open source are the large vendors, and people keep buying from them.

  7. ‘Look at it now: the largest users of open source are the large vendors, and people keep buying from them.’

    Can you back that up with some references, please?

    Even if it is true, one could draw a number of conclusions from that fact. Is it the case that these large, open-source using vendors are simply earlier to see the advantages of the approach? As organisations with significant expertise in the area that seems also a reasonable conclusion to draw.

    ‘people, unless they have a professional interest in the “business of government” have little appetite for “raw data”.’

    Without providing raw data to people over a significant period of time it is impossible to say what might or might not be done with it. At present the datasets freely available on line are often spotty and idiosyncratic, difficult to statistically link together, or to compare in a useful way. And still interesting things have been done with them – consider the tour de force from Hans Rosling, for example:

    http://www.ted.com/talks/hans_rosling_shows_the_best_stats_you_ve_ever_seen.html

    http://www.ted.com/talks/hans_rosling_reveals_new_insights_on_poverty.html

    http://www.ted.com/talks/hans_rosling_the_truth_about_hiv.html

    Now there, we see some real value from open data. Value that may well not have been realised were the data siloed and doled out only to the privileged few.

    Regards,
    Andrew McMillan.

  8. James Brown says:

    I am glad you are starting to look at the darker side of Gov 2.0, I think being able to understand the potential issues is as important as understanding the advantages. More blogged here: http://blogs.msdn.com/james_brown/archive/2009/06/27/the-dark-side-of-gov-2-0.aspx

  9. Andrew,
    thanks for your comment.
    As far as open source, I do cover that for government and can tell you that – with very few exceptions (large insourced departments with significant development capabilities) open source is getting into government mostly through (1) commercial software vendors (both those selling open source and providing support, and those incoporating open source into their solutions) amd (2) system integrators.
    As far as open data, you choose quite an interesting example. Has Rsling’s Trenalyzer was actually bought by Google, which brings me back to my response to Laurence: this may (will?) benefit mostly the usual suspects.

  10. […] that we will see many changes of sentiment also in civilian government organizations too. As I said previously, I am working on a presentation about the darker side of government 2.0, and security concerns are […]

  11. […] I said in a previous post, I am currently doing research on the Dark Side of Government 2.0. Here is a list of areas I am […]



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