Blog post

Why North Americans Will Get Government 2.0 and Europeans Won’t

By Andrea Di Maio | October 30, 2009 | 6 Comments

web 2.0 in government

I spent two very intense weeks in the US and Canada, meeting hundreds of clients at all government levels on the topic of social media. I started in Orlando with chatting in the backstage and then on stage with Vivek Kundra, the US CIO, then I had countless one-on-ones and round tables with clients from several government organizations. After Orlando I visited several cities in the US and in Canada, attending meetings with communication officers tasked with the development of a social media policy, interacting with technical teams that develop social media platforms, presenting to mixed audiences of business and IT folks to help them find a common ground, and so forth.

In most cases I have delivered uncomfortable, controversial messages. The blurring boundaries between internal and external collaboration, the urgency of empowering employees besides (or rather than) citizens, the need for simple and enforceable social media policy that cover employee behaviors both on corporate network and elsewhere. For many, my examples of how consumer social media are creeping into internal processes were an eye-opener, and so were the calls for a bottom-up approach, where government agencies should let go control to facilitate engagement

What I noticed in every single meeting, also when people came from a completely different perspective, has been the willingness to challenge themselves, to consider alternative viewpoints, to use some of my intentionally provocative views to reflect about where they can improve. Once again, it has been a refreshing experience, with officials at all levels debating issues, bouncing back ideas, drafting roadmaps they had not considered possible before. It has been an exciting experience where I have got from our clients at least as much as I hope I have given them, if not more.

While a typical North American celebration such as Halloween approaches, I can’t but think about how different many Europeans are when challenged on the same topics. I do distinctly remember a guy who sat in a minister cabinet explaining to me why I was totally wrong about suggesting that government agencies open social media access to their employees: his view was one where employees are not an asset but a liability, where management tools are the same as those used in the fifties, where time seems to have frozen at the gates of his agency. He is not alone though. Several officials in European countries that I have been interacting with are relatively dismissive of any advice that runs contrary to their beliefs. I never assume I am right in what I say, but I love to provide alternative viewpoints for people to challenge their own ideas and possibly improve them. While most North American clients will engage and react, most European clients won’t.

Of course there are exceptions. People in Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands  or Ireland show similar characteristics as North Americans when it comes to debating issues. But in most other countries I have to be careful not to piss people off or to lower my expectations about the outcome of a debate.

Maybe the world is changing and I will find multiple counterexamples to this as soon as I start my next week at Cannes Symposium. I very much hope so, as I believe that in these turbulent times only those who are bold enough to accept that they may be wrong will thrive.

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  • In Spain it is common to regard public employees as more of a barrier than an opportunity. I think that’s why the most advanced people have enthusiastically embraced O’Reilly’s concept of government as a platform: they want citizens to do what they do not require public employees. An error, citizens can not and don’t want to take on these tasks. Or they change the focus, or as you say, the failure of projects is assured.

  • Graham Colclough says:

    You make very valid obsevations Andrea. It goes much beyond just Gov2.0 however, as you will know. It’s deep seated in the values and culture of society. What it means to be American, or Canadian (starkly different, particularly around public services and Govt), or any other nationality for that matter. The end result of course is not always favourable as a result.
    My guess is you probably met many of the more open and willing. There are also many progressive ones in Europe too. They need full support in making a difference, coz underlying it all your observation quite rightly puts a valid challenge to Europe.

  • hjuk says:

    Useful. By the way, where do Brits come in this?

    PS: Thanks fro your blog. Please don’t stop writing!

  • Davied says:

    Funny, I had the same experience in Brussels, but the other way around of course: I found EU officials to be more careful and closed than my colleagues in the Netherlands. See the blog I wrote about it:

    However, I’m not convinced that it will be easier in the US than in the EU to bring about government 2.0. Though I probably didn’t talk to as many Americans as you have, I got the impression when I was in Washington that it’s mainly the communication departments that are starting to experiment with 2.0 tools. However, most policy officials continue to work as they always have. But that’s where the breakthrough will have to take place.

    Are US government organizations less top down than European ones? I wonder.

  • Todd Eurick says:

    They just take a very different approach. Instead of trying to open up the government a little bit by allowing citizens to peek inside, they are building a way for the citizens to be the government. Case in point: the Metagovernment is largely a European effort.

  • Jeffrey Peel says:

    I think many of the points you make are valid. At the Government 2010 event just over a week ago one central government delegate made clear to me during the coffee break that senior management in her department was a significant stumbling block to change. To an extent Gov2.0 is seen as trendy, troublesome nonsense to many in government. Too often they pay merely lip service to it. However, I think there is a head of steam building – problem is, it’s still somewhat undefined as to what people want to achieve.