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Open Data and Application Contests: Government 2.0 at the Peak of Inflated Expectations

By Andrea Di Maio | September 22, 2009 | 12 Comments

web 2.0 in government

Government 2.0 is rapidly reaching what we at Gartner call the peak of inflated expectations. This is the highest point in the diagram called “hype cycle”, which constitutes one of our most famous branded deliverables to our clients and that often feature on the press.

Almost all technologies and technology-driven phenomena go through this point, at variable speed. A few die before getting there, but many  stay there for a while and then head down toward what we call the “trough of disillusionment”, i.e. the lowest point in that diagram, to then climb back (but never as high as at the peak) toward the so-called “plateau of productivity”, where they deliver measurable value.

If one looks at what is going on around government 2.0 these days, there are all the symptoms of a slightly (or probably massively) overhyped phenomenon. Those that were just early pilots one or two years ago, are becoming the norm. New ideas and strategies that were been developed by few innovators in government are now being copied pretty much everywhere.

There are plenty of examples. Barcamps and govcamps are now happening around the world, from Canada to the US, from Germany to the North East of Italy to the UK. More and more governments state that opening government data is their priority, from the U.S: to the UK, from Australia to Belgium. Application contests (or mashup or idea contests) to engage citizen developers in creating new and valuable applications that leverage government data pop up from Belfast to Washington, from London to Brussels, from New York to the Flanders.

Yesterday I was discussing with a British client over lunch and he told me how the publication of data may lead to requests for more data (through the Freedom of Information Act), in a never-ending cycle of information gathering which is likely to cost a lot to both government and taxpayers. Another client observed (as I said in a previous post) that there is no way people will be able to tell to what extent a mash up on an application actually uses official, trusted government data.

If one reflects about the shortcomings of earlier e-government (1.0) initiatives, many have to do with relatively few people using online services and information or not being able to prove their actual value. Further, digital divide also played a role. I wonder to what extent open data and application contests, certainly two of the most fashionable government 2.0 initiatives, will help on either front.

How many citizen developers are out there who have an intense desire and passion for developing value adding applications? To what extent would those application really benefit those on the wrong side of whichever divide (i.e. digital, social, racial, cultural, linguistic, and so on)? Aren’t these initiatives simply addressing a small elite of technology-savvy individuals (and corporations), giving them further advantages over those who were digitally or otherwise excluded?

It is probably time to use these valuable initiatives in a more focused way. Rather than just engaging the “public” (and the public turns to be a handful of citizen developers), open data and application contests should be directed to NGOs, voluntary and non-profit organizations and – most importantly – to employees themselves. I know I have been mentioning quite a few times the importance of employees (and I’ve coined the quite controversial concept of employee-centric government), but I strongly believe their role is pivotal to unleash the power of the government 2.0 transformation. They need to collaborate with NGOs as well as citizen developers or other groups, they need to be involved in planning, assessing and directing initiatives like mashup contests, which in turn need to be more granular, more focused on specific programs or domains or areas of public interest.

It is time to take government 2.0 out of the hands of elected or appointed high-profile officials, and turn it into a toolset that potentially any government employee could leverage in his or her own domain of activity or expertise. The fact that it will precipitously fall from the peak of inflated expectations to the trough of disillusionment may not be a bad thing at all: only when it will catch fewer headlines and will gradually disappear from politicians’ speeches, it will start to deliver real value. At that time, I’m sure, somebody will be busy launching government 3.0

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  • david osimo says:

    I understand your point and share the perception of over-hype, mainly related to the misguided expectations that bottom-up actions is due to substitute government action, and that we go towards a new Athens (as I comment here:
    However you should note that both barcamps and prizes are low-cost initiatives and are often run by employees or citizens, not launched by politicians. This low-cost emergent innovation is a key difference with govt 1.0, and one that is here to stay, as many others (citizens feedback, open data etc.)
    This is also why we do the Open Declaration ( : it’s time for gov20 to mature from cool projects (the hype) into structured policy proposals (the plateau). It’s a challenges that we set to web2 evangelists such as ourselves

  • Andrea-

    You’re on quite a roll these days.

    One particular point I like about this post is the focus on “government employees.” It’s an often overlooked but key asset in gov 2.0. A lot of the great gov 2.0 projects happened internal by government employees like TSA Idea Factory or Spacebook who leveraged the resources they already had internally using little or no budget.

    There are a ton of innovative government employees wanting to implement new Gov 2.0-style projects and a key first step is creating beta and test areas where they can experiment and the top cover to do it.

    Steve Ressler

  • @David – good points as usual, but the fact that barcamps and prizes are low cost does not mean they deliver enough value. You are right, it is time to move to policy and to take ownership. However this requires focus and tough decisions about what government domains are more mature (or just adequate) to gov 2.0, as opposed to throwing data out, hoping that something good will happen.
    About Athens, well take a look at my post about Spartans at the Gates…

  • @Steve – I have been banging the drum for quite some time about the role of employees. It is not just a matter of letting the brightest shine, but creating a context where any employee can test whether social media can provide value in his or her own job. There are way too many discussions about creating the necessary conditions to make employees use social media from their workplace (code of conduct, security, monitoring), and too little about how to make sure they do something useful with them.
    I do find government 2.0 to be quite elitist: it is either the innovative digerati in government, or the smart crowd outside, and I ask myself what it has to do with millions of civil servants who are in between. Unless we crack that, Gov 2.9 will remain just a political statement (in many cases, a me-too initiative) with a pretty close expiry date written all over it.

  • Andrea said “To what extent would those application really benefit those on the wrong side of whichever divide (i.e. digital, social, racial, cultural, linguistic, and so on)? Aren’t these initiatives simply addressing a small elite of technology-savvy individuals (and corporations), giving them further advantages over those who were digitally or otherwise excluded?”

    I think that is a bit of a stretch. As a Board Member for the Sahana Disaster Management System, I believe that there are plenty of good projects and opportunities out there to create applications that do the reverse, and close the gaps. E.g. countries and organisations on the ‘rich’ side of the divide can develop applications with expertise and knowledge, and then via FOSS these can be transferred to those on the ‘poor’ side of the tracks – thereby bringing everyone closer. The gaps are only left open if the solutions are proprietary or delivered only as software-as-a-service. Not only can it add value by providing tangible software solutions, but it can also act as a normalising knowledge transfer.

    And, the opposite is also true. You can have countries such as Sri Lanka that reverse this, by creating a tool that ‘richer’ countries are able to pick up and adopt. This is happening now with Sahana.

    So, I think the best conception is global flattening – especially if the solutions are free and open source.

  • Jo Deeker says:

    I think the Australian Gov2.0 Taskforce plans for the hype cycle to move very quickly into what you are calling measurable productivity by moving on a number of fronts.

    Yes, they’re launching competitions and projects and I’m really excited about that because hopefully the software products my company develops will win some of the competitions and be positioned to be useful to enable more data to get out there which is the whole point. Also government departments are being nominated & promoted in competitions – it’s not just citizen developers that are being invited.

    But they’re also talking about the culture of government, and what the cultural barriers are to gov2.0 and a great deal of that rests with employees. They have projects specifically related to understanding how people & organisations think now, and what we can do to address them.

    Then, they have one project which is about a toolkit – which tools enable web2.0 within government and all the goodness that goes along with it.

    I see the gov2.0 movement in Australia as the opposite of how you describe it. there is a gov2.0 conference in Canberra on 16th October and it is being attended by people who work in government departments – sounds like employees to me. I’m pretty sure there are only 2 or three politicians involved. It’s case-study based and is about sharing experience so far.

    My hope for gov2.0 in Australia is that by the time the gov2.0 taskforce disbands at the end of the year, there is real action out there in government departments and that it has succeeded in shifting some of the reluctance of employees and departments to release data.

    In response to a couple of your other statements:
    “… publication of data may lead to requests for more data (through the Freedom of Information Act), in a never-ending cycle of information gathering…” My first response is GOOD! Yes there will be more requests for data. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has found that. But the ABS is a data provider – their job is to gather and provide data to the world and that is good news. Other data collected for research purposes – GOOD! Second response: also good if it means more meaningful or useful data is collected and might cause rationalisation of data collection programs for the better. Third response: yes it might cost more money, but the government / dept/ agency can choose not to respond to the next request unless legally required to do so.

    in the response to:
    …. there is no way people will be able to tell to what extent a mash up on an application actually uses official, trusted government data….. You might be right, but there are ways to footnote, annotate and comment data that can be included. But you know what – if I manually extract data from one government application, download a pdf and then strip data out of another, then merge it with a GIS layer I sourced from a GIS consultant, then merged my own data over it, and published it in a report, how is that any different except that it took me two weeks instead of 5 minutes?

    Phew – your post gave me lots to think about.


    I don’t agree that

    then there isa

  • Jo Deeker says:

    PS sorry about the text at the end I obviously didn’t scroll right to the bottom before posting

  • @Gavin – In principle I do not disagree. However I have seen similar attempts in the past (i.e. export eGov frameworks from the developed to the development world, often leveraging substantial UNDP or World Bank funds), ignoring how different conditions are. OSS solutions won’t bridge this gap just because they are open source.

  • @Jo – thanks a lot for your thoughtful comments and no need to apologize, as I do mistype ALL the time 🙂
    I do like what Australians are doing and I’ve seen them succeeding in the past where others have failed. The smaller size of government, the peculiarities of the countries, the easier path to collaboration inside government are all important ingredients for success. Yet, the problem will always be how to turn a good idea, a “sparkle of light” into sustainable change. When I talk about engaging the employees I do not refer to those who are already actual or potential change agents, those who enthusiastically join various Gov 2.0 events. I am talking about everybody.
    On your specific points
    (1) yes government can decide not to respond to the next request but just assessing the validity of that request will cost time and money and the argument the client made was that the number of requests could simply skyrocket (which goes back to how you plan for sustainable change rather than trying to cope with a new environment using old processes)
    (2) true, mistakes and errors will cost less, but this also implies that by lowering the barrier to gather certain information, one also increases the likelihood of inappropriate or even fraudulent use. Do not get me wrong here: I do truly believe open data are a good thing, but governments need to look at all consequences and act accordingly

  • Brenton says:

    I think you miss a point that Gavin alludes to (though I agree with you re: the international situation), that regardless of who develops the applications, if they are open to use by the public then it doesn’t matter what side of the divide you are on. I’m pretty sure I’m not a member of the digirati, and all I had to do to use an app in Vancouver was click a few boxes and now I get an email reminder that garbage day is tomorrow. Perhaps I fall into the digirati, as I have access to the internet, but then so do 90+% of Canadians (last I heard it was 95%, could be way off as I didn’t check).

  • @Brenton – Thanks for making me re-read Gavin’s point. Sure there will be good coming from all the new applications based on open data. But at the same time, there will be plenty of applications that do increase the divde. For sure neither of us is a mashup developers, but those who create mashups will just decide what information we access to and how. If application development (rather than data access) was truly for anybody, then I would agree with you. But the divide will remain, as we will ahve to rely on those who have skills and resources to give us information we can use. The only change is that in the past this was just government, now it is a wider crowd. The real question is: should I trust that more than I trusted government?

  • This is exactly the right point. Time to refocus.

    Doesn’t the challenge lie in two areas?:

    (1) The fuzzy definition of gov 2.0 by many; and,
    (2) A clear definition of deliverables and measurables – in other words a methodology.

    If we use Yochai Benkler’s paradigm (the Wealth of Networks), an appropriate justification for our investment in Gov2 is the enablement of social production to drive value. How can government convert the enormous potential of free contributions made be citizens, employees, and stakeholders into meaningful results? See also, Value Conversion by Verna Allee @http:www,

    To best arrive at effective measurement of Gov 2.0 benefits we have to make clear distinctions between the many processes of government. Government serves two classes of purpose, one to deliver services; the second, to deliberate and formulate policy with respect to projects, issues, events, rules and regulation. Both entail many sub-processes that best leverage social production in very different ways.

    The fuzzy logic being deployed today fails by focusing on data production and portal based publication. It also fails by confusing and equating the value of social network portals with a much broader understanding of network opportunity (much of which has a social dimension).

    The obvious reason for the miss is that the discussion is technology centric. What is different about technology needs in Gov 2.0 versus other waves of technology development, such as CRM, ERP and broad based collaboration systems is that effective Gov 2.0 is not as “transactional”. It is largely behavioral and behavioral logic must be reflected in the application logic and taxonomies of the technology expression. The behavioral logic and the business and delivery models all must be in alignment across a wide range of processes and subprocesses for gov 2.0 to be effective.

    Until we get to that point of understanding – with hope, greatly simplified, the Gov 2.0 “movement” will struggle with results.

    (See also, Recent article published at govloop and Gov 2.0 Glitz and Gab, Right Track, Wrong Track?)