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Why Do Governments Separate Open Data and Social Media Strategies?

By Andrea Di Maio | February 19, 2010 | 7 Comments

social networks in governmentopen government data

Over the last few days I have been meeting with several clients in federal and state government in the US, and I had the chance to discuss at length about the current status of a few open government initiatives. For those who have been following this blog, I often mention the so-called asymmetry of government 2.0 as one of the obstacles to effective citizen engagement. In other words, governments provide public data and create avenues for people to engage, but do not consistently reach out to where people themselves create their own data (pictures, comments, ideas) or to online places and communities where people are willing to have conversations that may be of great relevance to policy-making as well as service improvement. When it comes to open government, agencies want to host data and communities, but do not think about being guests of somebody else’s communities.

My meetings this week  confirmed that most government organizations keep their open data initiatives and their social media strategies separated. Often there are different groups dealing with those two topics, although they admittedly “interact”.

I see two main reasons why a tighter integration would be more than desirable.

First of all, open data initiatives already have a social component, in so that they ask for ideas and comments from citizens.

Second, both initiatives feature the asymmetry problem noted above. In fact I can overwhelm citizens by having dozens of agencies asking them for ideas at the same time, and yet miss the connection with online communities and discussion groups that – while ignoring all the open pages of agencies – are developing compelling material about what government could do to be more participative and collaborative. At the same time, I can articulate a wonderful social media strategy, looking very cool on media like Facebook or Twitter, and yet fail to provide my own employees with the right policies, frameworks and tools to allow them to make a better job, every day, by turning participation and collaboration into the normal course of business in service delivery.

It would be great if social media and open data folks would sit together, as part of the same group. I keep meeting very capable and passionate people in government who can go a long way in helping their agencies get this government 2.0 right. Could we just blur some of the boundaries please?

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  • Sarah Bourne says:

    At a high level, it’s obvious that these two directions have a lot in common and need to interact and coordinate with each other. The primary reason they get handled separately is one of practicality: they require completely different skill sets that are found in completely different areas of the organization. In most cases, your line worker providing services has no idea what it takes to provide access to information in a database, and your database and network administrators aren’t experts in all the nuances of particular policies and practice. Top-down support of open government is essential to ensure that these different areas have adequate communication and collaboration opportunities.

  • Brian Hsi says:

    I couldn’t agree more! and @Sarah — while I get the practical nature of it, isn’t that a government centric approach rather than a customer /citizen centric model? It would seem that it would be better to focus on the citizen first

  • Interesting points by Sarah – I’m sure the point about practicality rings true.

    However, it would seem that the Web 2.0 / wikinomics mindset is common to both areas, and therefore needs co-ordination by someone who ‘gets it’.

  • Sarah Bourne says:

    @Brian I argue that it’s an operational model: it’s how you actually get things done. The government- versus citizen-centric question comes into importance when viewing it from the outside. Again, top-down support is how you make sure operational units work together, including understanding each other’s roles in achieving specific objectives, to be sure that the results are citizen-centric.

  • @sarah – I do agree with your argument about practicality. However I often fail to see any sort of high-level coordination in place and this contributes to the asymmetry of open government. I would also argue that the decision about which data is more valuable to publish should stay with the agency that is responsible for that data, pretty much like the strategy to use social media.

  • Sarah Bourne says:

    @Andrea You’re right, a top-down \Do it!\ is rarely sufficient. Nurturing collaboration within your stovepipes has to be part. The goal would be to get your service providers to be able work closely enough with your data keepers to have discussions about value, instead of just what’s easiest.

  • alex says:


    Having worked in government, I wouls say 1 in a 1,000 of my colleagues thought they should go out and meet real people. They are much happier in their office.

    This means the culture is totally against going out and listening or sharing or encouraging collaboration. Government is still 19th century rather than 21st.

    As a result young people do not bother to interact, and elder people are going to find themselves left behind. The main cohort og government workers are between 30 and 50, mostly white and not particularly computer literate.

    Politicians reflect this culture, and seem un-able to change it.

    It will only change when brave, courageous and new leaders of government agencies are appointed, then supported by their politicians, and then have the skills to bring the work-force with them.

    I don’t know of anywhere in the UK where one could say this has happened. Not sure about US. Maybe Australia ??