Blog post

Why The IT Industry Could Derail Government 2.0

By Andrea Di Maio | July 03, 2009 | 8 Comments

web 2.0 in government

By now I think many agree that the evolution of e-government (and in particular the electronic delivery of information and services to various stakeholders) will  follow a “government 2.0” path. While I really hate the term “government 2.0”, it is effective at summarizing the use of web 2.0 technologies that will have a transformational impact on the way governments deliver services and operate.

Most commentators, including consultants, vendors, system integrators, suggest that the main obstacles to this transformation come from government organizations themselves, due to a combination of risk-aversion and propensity to retain control. We all know that succeeding in this transformation implies to blur boundaries, to take risks and to let things go, all rather contrary to a government culture.

However if I look at many examples, such as the City of Toronto, the new US federal administration, the increasing presence and activity of thousands of civil servants on social networks, the often more permissive social media access policies in government agencies than in businesses, I am not entirely sure governments are the main problem.

Let’s have a look at ten years of e-government. Many millions of dollars have been spent on web sites, portals, call centers, middleware solutions, SOA efforts and many million dollars are being spent to operate all this. If it was so successful, why would so many be intrigued by web 2.0, if not to solve a problem that previous efforts did not fully solve (or – in many cases – did not solve at all)?

When people look at project failures or limited success of e-service take-up, the easiest culprit is government. But is it? What about the myriads of vendors, service providers, consultants and analysts (yes, we too) who have been relentlessly advising about the virtue of e-government? What about all those e-government rankings, from all corners of the world proving that the greater the “e” in e-government, the better off you are? Government plans are heavily influenced by the market, through consultation, lobbying, or just government decision-makers attending conferences and talking to “experts”.

Nothing wrong with that, but what happens when the confluence of consumerization (of tools and devices), commoditization (of infrastructure and appliocations) and socialization (of information) threatens the status quo? What happens when a government organization starts crowdsourcing the design of a web site? What happens when “we, the people” become software developers? What happens when the case for investing on enterprise 2.0 collaboration tools is not strong enough, as the value of consumer tools proves greater? What happens when budget-constrained agency starts turning toward “fully public” cloud services for their infrastructure or application needs, and discontinue lucrative infrastructure maintenance or software licensing contracts? What happens when a large government organization decides to discontinue or curtail a one-stop-shop portal?

In previous posts (see here and here) I have suggested that many of the early attempts at crowdsourcing and government 2.0 that we are seeing will still attract the “usual aspects”. On the other hand, as I wrote earlier today, certain solutions appear so immediate and almost inexpensive that they may drive governments to take bolder decisions about how to change their e-government course.

We should not underestimate the potential market impact of all this. More software as a service, more infrastructure utilities, more open source software, more consumer solutions, more critical reviews of on-going SOA efforts to support more RESTful architectures, more critical reviews of citizen-facing portals. On the other hand, at times when the public sector plays an important role in driving IT spending, maybe reducing investments on enterprise tools and solutions is not so desirable for the IT industry, and it may also have an adverse impact on innovation and economic development in many jurisdiction.

Just think about a medium size state or local government that employs a fair amount of IT professionals, pays software licenses for a variety of enterprise software solutions, engages contractors from the jurisdiction to develop applications, run infrastructure, staff a helpdesk. What if it moved massively to cloud computing, software-as-a-service and adopted consumer solutions for collaboration as well as some of its public web hosting needs?

Do hardware and software vendors, system integrators, consultants really have an interest to make that happen?

And which side will  industry analysts like us take on this?

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  • Massimiliano Claps says:

    So in essence, what you’re saying is that we are at the tipping point (or close to it) that will make IT a full commodity and Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and few others will be the only survivors and become just like large utility companies?

    Maybe, but I suspect there are still too many asymmetries, to many different standards, to many separate data sets and processes, it will probably take a few more years, regardless of the appetite for risk that governments have

  • That may be a very long term scenario, just looking at how any industry has consolidated with maturity.
    No, what I am saying is that the risk-averse attitude of governments is not going to be the primary reason why we will still see considerable waste of money on certain areas that are already ripe for consumerization or commoditization. I did mention channels, social applicaztions and some aspects of infrastructure, but of course I do not see mission-critical back office applications be ready any time soon for that.
    So there is still a phenomenal market for vendors on helping government improve their processes, modernize their applications, better manage their data. Yet, I see too much emotional (or rather business 🙂 attachment to those areas that are ready for change.

  • Nick Jones says:

    In Physics they have a saying that goes something like “obsolete theories only finally disappear when their supporters die of old age”. The same is probably true of government 2.0. The new generation of citizens and government employees will swim in a sea of technology they grew up with like twitter and its successors and invent government 3.0, while the old guard look on, puzzled, from the shore and tell people about the dangers of going in the water.

    Most consultants, vendors and systems integrators have business models that work best when something is mature and commoditised, and they struggle with something new and fast-evolving. They are good at industrialising something when it has been proved, but bad at discovering new paradigms. But that’s been the case forever and is as true of government 2.0 as it was of client / server and the PC.

    So maybe what you’re describing is just the normal lifecycle of innovation.

  • Jeffrey Peel says:

    I think you are being provocative to make a point – or several – and many of those points are worth making. However, Gov 2.0 is not just about mash-ups, open data and social networking. It’s also about greater access, greater choice, public involvement and the use of web services to join-up totally disconnected public services. The move is in the right direction. Babies are unlikely to be thrown out with bath-water just yet.

  • Consider:

    (1) Transformation is taking place in all industries from highly centralized models of production and delivery to decentralized models. IT is no exception. See Yochai Benkler, The Value of Networks. Transition from an “industrial information economy” to a “networked information economy”.

    (2) Historically, the justifying business logic for large software companies is their ability to aggregate people representing unique and highly specialized expertise and capital. As in many industries, such as financial services, insurance, and automobile, the rationale for centralization is starting to break down as solutions require less of both and as network tools enable aggregation of people and capital outside of large institutions, episodically as needed – including specifically by government agencies.

    (3) Critical thought and leadership are badly needed in gov2, including with analysts who at times do perpetuate technology institutional driven market definition and acceptance. E-gov, and “gov2.0” represent a very different technology paradigm than past paradigms that served as the foundation for industry growth and delivery of technology to government for several reasons:

    First, the delivery models of gov 2.0 are vital to successful network behaviors (citizen engagement). The technology delivery model has to untether stakeholders from the software as government builds networks, at least in a traditional sense. It has to rely on ubiquitous standards (browsers), mobile phones, and channels that are generally available to all.

    Second, procurement systems for technology programs that are built to fulfill a transactional need of government, to provide citizen services for e-payments etc. for example, are very different than procurement systems for communications functions, and specifically for unstructured citizen communication and collaboration. Cloud based architectures historically have been most successful when they solve problems that are repeatable, and where standards (not necessarily promulgated) help to build value in networks. One size does not fit all. Critical differentiation is key.

    (4) Also, the success of gov 2.0 in large part requires a deep behavioral sensitivity (it is in part a sociology problem), not simply a software problem. So governments are going to struggle with traditional methods of providing scope requirements for large technology builds, or alternatively, to say let’s use product A or product B and try to force fit it to meet the needs of complex collaborative and/or citizen networks. To your point, delivery in the cloud is not only an “expense” side advantage, but a functional advantage. SaaS solutions that incorporate behavioral logic can help governments go faster, with much more flexibility than traditional software models. They also enable government agencies to leverage learning across shared needs – agencies learn from each other and leverage knowledge and development costs across many agencies.

    Your blog post is not only provocative, but an excellent and much needed reflection. The opportunity is to develop it even further. This type of critical thinking is going to help the whole industry as it shapes a new future.

    Critical thinking will also help government to better define the many business problems which government expects to solve with gov 2 and to discover the many solutions and delivery methods that most efficiently solve those problems.

    As you sense, what got us “here” won’t get us “there”. And as Benkler posits those who solved yesterday’s problems may not always necessarily best solve tomorrow’s. An open and progressive perspective is key. Thank you. Your point of view is refreshing.

  • Thanks Andrea

    I don’t think it’s going to be quite the paradim shift some of the comments take on but it is certainly a good point for this moment in time.

    But the citizen should be able to affect this, after all government is about them, isn’t it? Primarily for efficiency savings, which will also be key in the market, government will have to cut back, and, as you say what a better way? Will it alter service delivery? Probably improve it?

    We still fail to look at services end-to-end, which is the area that cloud might encourage – if we don’t it will be ‘clod’ computing with all the potential savings wasted.

    Great thinking, again!


  • Andrea thanks for the article. I do believe it will be a paradigm shift. As we have already announced in the UK we are rationalising desktop designs, networks, data centres, leveling the playing field for open source, open standards and reuse, as well as going down the private Government Cloud “G-Cloud” with an associated Government App Store “G-AS” route.

    All this is wrapped in a Green IT Strategy as well as an Information Security strategy.

    I cannot see how this will not make a fundamental shift. We accept it will be incredibly hard to do, but the logic is compelling from a security, cost, efficiency, security and innovative stand-point.

    We have already announced that we will buy software at the Government level so that all of the Public Sector can get the best value coupled with the greatest flexibility. We have already said that whatever we create that is proprietary where possible we will make it open source.

    This must impact the IT suppliers and the IT community and the future role of the CIO.


  • John touches upon a very important point here. The public procurement lever is formidable to change vendor behaviors. What the UK government has announced and what the US Federal Government is pursuing in areas like cloud computing are necessary moves to make this shift. Indeed this is not going to be easy, as vendor interests often overlap and coincide with user interests.
    This is the never-ending story around shared services: whereas everybody says that’s a great idea to save money, one wonders why it is so difficult to get them going. Vendors are not always helpful, but some departments and agencies aren’t either.