Blog post

Government 2.0 Can and Must Save Money

By Andrea Di Maio | April 21, 2010 | 6 Comments

web 2.0 in government

The interest of political leaders and government organizations for open government (or government 2.0), has developed at a moment in time when budget shortfalls due to the financial crisis and recession have hit hard many jurisdictions. A decade ago e-government developed shortly after a crisis that was much less severe and led to a relatively fast recovery: as a consequence most e-government programs had the luxury of generous investments, very high-level business case justifications (if any) and a much longer timeframe to realize value. This is not the case for gov 2.0.

Government 2.0 can definitely have a positive impact on efficiency , but it faces two main problems:

  • It originates from a call for openness and transparency, a willingness to engage citizens to gain their trust and inform them about what government does, as well as involve them in how policies are developed and applied. It was not born to help government rapidly slash costs and face immediate challenges.
  • Its outcomes are very difficult, if not impossible to predict. Its bottom-up, loose-control nature defeat the usual rigor and hierarchical formality that are typical of how governments operate.

Yet, government 2.0 is not just a nice-to-have. It can deliver measurable value to agencies, in terms of reduced costs, improved productivity, better and cheaper service levels. Examples that I have come across concern all government domains, such as law enforcement, public safety, tax and revenues, child care, unemployment, art and culture, procurement, human resource management, and more. In all these cases doing things differently has led to significant savings, more efficient ways of delivering services, the ability to predict events or engage external resources to gather ideas and find solutions at lower costs.

The common element of almost all these stories though is that they developed from the bottom up. They were not planned upfront but mostly resulted from somebody’s brilliant idea and passion for innovation as well as their managers’ and coworkers’ willingness to give it a go. And this is also the problem.

Many believe that bottom up change is not possible, because of policies, laws and regulations. But there is actually a lot that can happen staying within the boundaries that are set by existing policies.

I think that the current shortage of resources and a sometimes dramatic budgetary situation can be a powerful incentive to make this change happen, to tap into the creativity of employees as well as external resources.

This cannot be generalized, of course: furloughs, headcount reduction, salary cuts and the tougher job of facing greater citizen demand with fewer resources create lots of aggravation and disgruntled employees. Social media are being used also to express such discomfort, often joining forces with dissatisfied citizen. However there are many  government employees who do want to do the right thing, who have a strong sense of service, and are willing to roll their sleeves to find ways to make the impossible possible.

It is time for government 2.0 proponents, experts, bloggers, politicians, barcampers, consultants and vendors to change course. Rather than focusing just on transparency for the sake of transparency and openness for the sake of citizen participation, we need to collectively address the challenge of how to make these technologies and approaches visibly contribute to solving problems today rather than tomorrow, to save money now rather than just let government be open.

We do not need big and ambitious strategies, nor do we need to aim for perfection. We just need to get the job done.

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  • david osimo says:

    I was writing exactly on the same topic in co-designing my speech at ForumPA
    I only disagree on cost. I do not believe gov20 helps efficiency – but rather effectiveness. Not reducing costs, but achieving better results (services and decisions).
    But while gov20 does not provide clear measurable savings, it shows how much you can do with little money – and how much money has e-government misspent.

  • Davied says:

    In the Netherlands all measures being proposed to cut back costs in government are disregarding 2.0 possibilities and solutions. These measures are called ‘reconsiderations’ (heroverwegingen), so at Civil Servant 2.0 we’ve called for ideas to come to reconsiderations 2.0.

    Dutch version:
    Google Translate:

    We are currently gathering ideas. Do you have any?

  • Martin Stewart-Weeks says:

    Two things struck me when I read Andrea’s original piece.

    The first is that we seem incapable of weighing outcomes like transparency, engagement, co-creation, trust and all the rest in the balance of outcomes and value from govt 2. It’s really quite dispiriting to keep listening to analysts and others describe how important all these things are and then basically sweep them aside and claim that, in the end, all this is only useful if we can bank some savings. All that says to me is that our calculus of value is in desperate need of an overhaul. And don’t reply by accusing me of being naive or foolish by ignoring the ‘real world’ where costs and productivity are important. I know that. What I’m waiting for is someone to come along and craft a more sophisticated way to callibratre the full, rich mix of benefits and outcomes which is capable of giving all of them their due and measured weight.

    The second thing that struck me, and it’s something I keep feeling in the current discussion around Govt 2 and the talk about the so-called post-bureaucratic age, is that some much of the debate assumes that the task is basically buffing up bits of the existing model of governing and trying to make it work better. What I don’t see much of is a realisation that much of the ‘machine’ simply isn’t working any more. And no amount of clever govt2 fiddling is going to fix it.

    The real import of govt2, if it has any import at all, is the yawning gap (chasm perhaps?) that has grown between the new capabilities and culture of the collaborative web and at least some of the capabilities and structures of government. We ought to be worried about that (and banking some cost savings and efficiencies really isn’t the point)

  • @david osimo – one of the reasons why e-gov misspent was that it did not focus on efficiency but a misinterpreted sense of “effectiveness”. Having as many services available on line as possible was clearly the wrong approach, yet everybody followed that (and very much so in Europe). So taking efficiency as a driving concern may lead us in the right direction.

  • @davied – very timely – I am sitting for two days in a series of workshops, two of which are about how to save money with gov 2.0. We will see what comes out, but I have already published Gartner research on this over a year ago

  • @Martin – As one of the analysts who have been studying and writing a lot about the “public value of IT”, I do share your frustration. My advice has always been to make sure that people look at all value dimensions, even when making a conscious decision that efficiency is what really matters.
    As far as transformation, I do agree, but in fact, focusing on achieving an outcome at a (much) lower cost implies challenging the way it is produced. So I would argue that one can achieve a good deal of transformation even through a relentless focus on cost containment.