Last Friday I had a great conversation with the CEO of a technology transfer organization in Singapore who was telling me how several countries are still looking at Singapore as a great example for its accomplishments.
We discussed about how it may be difficulty to replicate Singapore’s success in larger jurisdictions, with more decentralized governance or multi-tier government organization, and what were the unique factors that contributed to its success. Where I felt Singapore has been really unique is in the level of trust it gave (and keeps giving) to government employees.
Apparently, one of the reasons why Singapore had to develop several customized systems as part of its e-government program was the lack of vendor offering. The country has always pushed the boundaries of what is possible with technology, challenging vendors with problems they had never faced before (good examples in the area of procurement and logistics). Government employees, most of which were already IT-savvy well before the growth of the Internet in the nineties, have been a driving force in helping use technology to solve these problems. This led to the birth of Singaporean own service providers (such as Crimson Logic), which are now quite successful abroad too.
In how many countries do governments trust their own employees and value their contribution to change and innovation? In my own country, for one, government employees are often criticized by their own ministers for not being sufficiently productive. When I was a civil servant at the European Commission and was fortunate enough to work with lots of very bright colleagues, our hierarchy would listen to vendors and consultants rather than us due to a combination of distrust and misplaced fear of lack of transparency.
This leads me to one of the greatest risks of government 2.0 and open government in particular. Celebrating transparency often comes hand in hand with encouraging external stakeholders to prove solutions to government problems. Some folks call this “tapping into the ingenuity of citizens”, which almost sounds like “as opposed to the inflexibility or malice of employees”. Idea contests, barcamps, e-participation events, but also singing the praise of outsourcing or cloudsourcing, all sound like targeting public servants for having been doing what they are supposed to do, i.e. running the machinery of government. While I am sure this is not what the gov 2.0 proponents imply, most of this openness and externalization really comes across as a declaration of distrust in the ability of civil servants to do their job.
However, as one of the secret sauces of Singapore’s success is trusting its own employees, so almost all gov 2.0 success stories in the Western world share the same ingredient, i.e. they come from the intuition and the willingness to innovate of people who work in government.
How can government 2.0 move from conferences and political talkshops to real and sustainable value creation? The sooner senior political leaders, activists and consultants stop referring to it as something that allows citizen to take government into their own hands, the better. Government 2.0 is a tool for professional civil servants to do their job even better.