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 dot.com 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.