Yesterday two events happened that convinced me that I needed to write this post. The first one was a press call, where the journalist – who is preparing a piece on open government – said that he wanted to talk to me because I was the only skeptic he could find on this particular topic. The second event was a Twitter exchange which made me feel like I was acting as (more than being) a contrarian.
Not everybody has been following my work on web 2.0 in government in the early days, nor do people fully appreciate that the longer-term vision I share about government 2.0 is probably more aggressive than O’Reilly’s government as a platform. Also the very definition of government 2.0 we use at Gartner, which has been the subject of a recent debate on GovLoop, looks far beyond the open data movement that is catching so much attention.
This is just to say that I am a believer in the transformational power of web 2.0. I also believe that a very good reason to talk about government “2.0” is because the amount of change that we will witness deserves a major release number (otherwise it would be government 1.1 or government 1.2, as most of the so-called e-government actually was).
As I have been evangelizing about web 2.0 and gov 2.0 at times and in places where people would not listen to me, I hope I have earned the right to express concerns where I see things going in a questionable direction.
I did the same many years ago, when I was among the first to challenge the role and importance of government portals. Users and vendors hated me for this, but I guess that what we are seeing today – with people using Google or social media to access government information, and government portals almost always underutilized – proves me right. At the time, I warned against overinvesting on the electronic front office and about always remembering that government does not compete with anybody for the core of its services, so being accountable is more important than showing a pretty face.
Let me say once and for all that I am a firm believer in government 2.0 and in the principles of open government – such as transparency, participation and collaboration.
My main concern, which I have expressed countless times, is that an open government must be a government that both talks more about what it does and how it operates, and listens to what people have to say. But in doing so, it does not pretend it owns or controls the communication channels or the style of interaction.
In becoming more transparent government tries to speak in plain, simpler, understandable English and expects people to respond. Some people will, but what about all those who do not really care about the machinery of government, but care about the outcomes of government actions, such as cleaner roads, safer streets, better social security, greater employment, and so forth? They are still on the other side of the gov 2.0 divide, but they are the public at large, those who do not track expense claims from politicians or develop software or lobby for living. Yet, these people do talk about problems and issues, and they do collect information, pictures, videos, a wealth of knowledge that cannot be ignored.
My cynicism about government 2.0 is about how it is predicated on the false premise that “once you build they will come”. If 99 percent of the effort is about forcing agencies to open data and launch innovation contests, then let’s make sure they (i.e. the agencies) can get something useful out of it. Allow them to be selfish, let them engage (a rather narrow) external audience to serve their purpose. If this makes them more effective and/or efficient, this is already a success.
If governments really want to address the other side of the engagement coin, and figure out where people are, what they care about, what language they use, what makes them tick on a topic and stick to a community, then they need to empower their employees to be market researchers, information brokers, idea transformers.
The attitude needs to shift from “we need to engage people who tell us how to work (because our folks are not good enough)” to “we want our folks to become even better by tapping into the ingenuity and creativity of people”. Now, I’m sure you’ve heard many gov 2.0 leaders and proponents using similar words. But if you read the fine prints, you may have noticed that they say “government must tap into the ingenuity of people” and not “government employees”. This is a fundamental difference, and one that I have been stressing for quite some time now.
A last word about vendors and consultants.
As I said earlier, when I was giving my sermon about the limited use of citizen-facing portals I had an army of vendors and consultants against me. They were cashing juicy contracts to develop one-stop-shop strategies, maturity assessments, rankings of all sort, and my dissenting voice was suggesting their clients to be more cautious, to do less rather than more.
I have the sneaking suspicion that it is the same right now. Events and seminars, social media strategy toolkits, enterprise social software, more web sites, more storage (possibly in the cloud), you name it: the government 2.0 frenzy implies lots of opportunities for vendors of all sort. My dissenting voice is suggesting that listening on a consumer platform (such as Facebook or LinkedIn or Twitter) may be more rewarding than deploying enterprise tools for collaboration and engagement; that piloting with internal (business) resources is more important than engaging social media consultants; that leveraging their employees’ personal networks may give faster results than building a captivating series of pages on Facebook.
Of course the time for higher profile and more expensive ventures will come (and is already here for some agencies), but could we understand what the people we serve really need and want in the first place?