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From Athens on the Net to Spartans at the Gates: The Missing Link of Government 2.0

By Andrea Di Maio | September 15, 2009 | 3 Comments

web 2.0 in government

I just read Anand Giridharadas’s article on the New Yoirk Times Week in Review about “Athens on the Net” , discussing about the pros and cons of crowdsourcing policy-making. Comments to the article are also quite interesting, as is the Information Week’s blog post by Michael Hickins that got me there in the first place.

To what extent  the Internet can be a powerful avenue to support a balanced citizen participation to policy-making is – as usual – an interesting subject for debate. On the upside, people can have better visibility of what is being discussed and somewhat influence the process, albeit in ways that need to be improved going forward. On the downside, it is inherently difficult to prove that ideas, ratings, support do not come from the usual suspects, such as lobbyists, interest groups, and so forth: the anonymity of the Internet that should convince more people to have their say may also turn to be the worst enemy of transparency.

Isn’t this ironic? On the one hand governments strive to greater levels of transparency, e.g. by providing full records of who met the President or providing public information in such an open way that people can uncover all sorts of patterns. On the other hand, who is actually using such information to push a particular agenda may become less and less visible, as it is protected by the Net anonymity.

The real paradox of government 2.0 (or e-democracy, to use a slightly older term) is that while government becomes more transparent, people (the crowd) become less so. Lobbyists have known identities and so have political parties, industry associations and their members. An online community, or a million people on Facebook have no real face (another irony).

So while we believe we are building a new Athens on the Net, where citizens can freely express themselves, influence their elected officials and closely monitor their own government, new interest groups and lobbies that are much harder to identify circle around and pull the strings, giving us the illusion of a more transparent government.

Is this inevitable? I do not think so, assuming we focus on what is really important going forward.

A first set of interesting reflections is offered by one particular comment to Giridharadas’s article, which suggests to

…solicit ideas at the department level (like the department of education) around important contexts (improving the back to school experience and audiences (single moms) – people have top of mind ideas that are being lost as we go through the start of the school year, the same is true for other key contexts like tax time, grant writing, government contracting…

as well as

…rewarding citizens with tax credits for well framed ideas that are grounded in facts or just invite them to an event, that is keynoted by the president each year for the top 1000 innovators…

Somebody may think these ideas are naive, but they are not. They take anonymity out the equation, they turn engagement into recognition and may trigger different, virtuous behaviors. Incidentally I do not mean the usual “apps for democracy” or “mashup contests” that apply to an abysmal percentage of the population. I mean something that is truly open to anybody, irrespective of whether he or she is even able to use a browser. Let ideas flow in, leverage the intersection between online and physical communities, use brick&mortar channels where needed.

However, finding ways to engage real people rather than geeks or lobbyists is only one part of the equation. The other part, which is the really missing link in most of the government 2.0 discussion, is to rethink about the role and value of government employees. They are bound to a code of conduct, they are required to be “super partes” (i.e. independent from political parties and elected officials, vendors, and so on), they understand intricate processes and organization, and they live every day the frustration created by those very processes. Let them be both agents and brokers of innovation. Let them engage with people outside, on topics they are expert in and accountable for. Let them be the filtering mechanism that both articles mention as needed to prevent the obscurity that crowdsourcing may create. Let them be the “democracy police”.

I made this point a number of times in the past (see here and here), and yet it seems to me that employees 2.0 are not yet given a fraction of the attention they would deserve to untangle the paradox of government 2.0,.And to keep the Spartans out of the gates.

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3 Comments

  • SteveG says:

    Andrea – excellent commentary. You make many good points, although I would quibble with a few (e.g., I wouldn’t equate gov 2.0 with e-democracy, I’m less inclined to think that an input source of “thousands of ideas” would yield that many better than one that has a higher bar, and geeks are “real people” too ;-).

    But I absolutely concur with the proverbial bottomline of your post about “the role and value of government employees” in the process of vetting ideas from the citizenry.

    I had the good fortune of attending the inaugural O’Reilly Government 2.0 Summit/Expo last week in DC and – while not the first such event on the topic (indeed, my own company, nGenera has had an active Government 2.0 syndicated research program underway for 2 years now, led by Don Tapscott – it did a very fine job of presenting a large amount of content in 3 days…I learned alot.

    And, one of the things I learned (or perhaps, better said, was reminded of) is the quality of the professionals who came to speak from the all levels of local, state and federal government. In fact, while Obama administration officials have gotten much attention (notably Aneesh Chopra and Vivek Kundra) for good reason, I was equally if not more impressed wiht some of the long-time civil servants who were director and CIO level professionals from health, defense, intel, and other represented agencies.

    Not only did they have a current understanding of the capabilities of the technology (which true to your point, the “apps for democracy” crowd can get overly obsessed with), but they were also the only ones in the room that consistently addressed the big issues of how to change government from the inside: the diplomacy, leadership, attention to culture, process change, persistence, and other necessary elements required for successful enterprise-wide change – be it “transformative” or, frankly, simply good enough to be several notches better than what they had before.

    So, I agree with you that having them involved is vital and giving them the incentives and tools to be successful at increasing the pace and quality – from the inside – of gov2.0-driven change should be an objective of our public leaders.

  • Tim says:

    It seems to me there is quite a bit of confusion in terms of some of the terminologies that are being thrown around. In my view, crowdsourcing and public participation are not the same. In fact, there may be less overlap between the two than some people think.

    Here’s where I see the main differences:

    For example, crowdsourcing usually involves clearly defined goals and measurable outcomes (e.g. improving an algorithm, doing pharmaceutical research, vetting satellite imagery etc.). In cases where there aren’t any objective success criteria (e.g. some design contests), at least there is a committee that has full authority to rate and rank contributions and pick a winner. It is irrelevant who participates in a crowdsourcing initiative, and there is no concept of participants having to buy into or agree with the outcome or winning proposal.

    Public participation, on the other hand, is about engaging citizens in decision making that often involves making difficult trade-offs based on conflicting values systems (very subjective). It is extremely important that all stakeholders have a seat at the table and feel they have ownership of the process. Most of the time the process will be guided by consensus seeking of some kind and achieving a certain level of agreement across all participants is required in the end in order for things to be able to move forward politically.

    Can and should crowdsourcing as we know it be applied to help with certain pieces of policy making? Absolutely. But will it be sufficient to qualify as and achieve the goals of public participation? Most certainly not.

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