I just read an interesting article postulating that Brits would be better off than Americans when it comes to open government. Referring to the call that the UK Cabinet Office is making to application developers for yet another Appsfordemocracy-like initiative, the article says that the greater maturity of freedom of information in the US with respect to the UK could be a liability rather than an asset for the US, as there is an entrenched way of making government information public that is difficult to change. On the other hand, the UK would have more room for maneuver, having less such legacy.
While this may be true, I believe that UK officials are equally worried with the way freedom of information works. In a post published a while ago, I mentioned how a client was expressing his worries that more open data would stress existing FOI processes. The legacy of existing processes and entrenched ways of doing things exists pretty much everywhere. This is why e-government (should we say “1.0”?) did not succeed as many hoped. This is also why it has been more successful in countries with little legacy, major discontinuities and simpler administrations (why do you think Estonia is a best practice in so many fields?).
Government 2.0 or open government is not going to be different. Cultural barriers, turf battles, risk avoidance, a procedural rather than policy-based approach to accountability will make this journey long and difficult.
A warning sign is that the same things are happening over and over again in different countries. Govcamps and barcamps, open data contests, application contests, engagement of high-profile opinion leaders (be they Tim Berners-Lee or Tim O’Reilly). Nurtured by blog posts and tweets, the traditional interest for “best practices” has spread like wildfire. So what I am seeing is e-givernment (1.0) all over again.
The next step will be for consulting and advisory firms to develop maturity models to start measure and benchmark government 2.0, and the same will happen with international organizations such as the European Commission, the United Nations or OECD. As countries were ranked according to how many online services they were providing, they will now be ranked by how many data sets are available or how many social media they have a presence in.
In the past those rankings hardly cared about how many people were actually using those online services, let alone what value were getting from them. I suspect that the same will be true for government 2.0 rankings. There will be a wealth of bar charts, pie charts, scorecards showing how countries, states, cities become more open , but there will be little else than anecdotal (and often quite biased) evidence that this is making any difference on service levels or real (rather than perceived or advertized) citizen engagement.
Like for e-government 1.0, any initiative on government 2.0 or open government (or whatever name one wants to use for technology-intensive government transformation), must be rooted into the peculiarities of a country or a state.
Do people trust their government? Are service levels good or bad and how are they perceived? What are the main political priorities in that jurisdiction? What are the areas that people care most about? I can’t believe that the answers to these and many other similar questions are the same. So I would expect initiatives to be fundamentally different. Somewhere it might be data.gov, somewhere else might be a new approach to identity management, and somewhere else might be how to empower well identified intermediaries to partner with government in certain areas. I wpuld expect the very terms “participation” and “engagement” to have fundamentally different meanings in different jurisdictions, depending on political system, demographics, economic situation, and so forth.
Let’s not get trapped with copycatting brilliant ideas. Since they may not be so brilliant once redeployed in a different context.