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Employees-First, Citizen-Second: The Best Route to Open Government

By Andrea Di Maio | August 07, 2010 | 1 Comment

web 2.0 in governmentsocial networks in government

Those who read my blog probably know very well that one of its leitmotivs is the key role that government employees can and should play in open government and government 2.0 initiatives. It is probably turning into an obsession, since the other day one of my posts was retweeted with the following preamble: “At the risk of sounding like a broken record…”

Reading ““Open Government: Collaboration, Transparency and Collaboration in Practice”, I’m glad I found support to my views in two articles.

The first one is “Two-Way Street: Government with the People“, by Mark Drapeau, previously with the Center for Technology and National Security Policy and now with Microsoft.

One of his points that struck me as very relevant is that:

“Bureaucracies cannot have conversations with citizens; only individual people who work within the bureaucracy can. Ideally, such people having conversations can become lethally generous trusted community members”

I always tell people that web 2.0 (and gov 2.0) is about people to people, and organizations (be they private or public) cannot have but a subsidiary role. In government this is even more true, as the diversity of strategic objectives and the need for equality and inclusiveness make social media strategies even more difficult.

As a consequence Mark highlights that

“Few govt employees considering marketing part of their job, and similarly most citizens don’t think of lobbying as part of theirs. But when every person can be a writer, publisher, and distributor, everyone cannot be immune from these responsibilities… Social capital within large orgs should be harnessed, not punished”

I doubt anybody can sensibly object to this. Yet, when I said that social media strategies need for a more direct involvement and leadership of HR departments versus communication and PR I was heavily criticized by communication professionals who are convinced it is their responsibility, and probably feel threatened in their role.

Reality is that this is already happening and is not something that can be banned or stopped. There is still a chance to gently police it and – most importantly – put it to fruition.

The second article is “After the Collapse: Open Government and the Future of Civil Service” by David Eaves.

As he makes reference to concept of government as a platform by Tim O’Reilly, David states that:

“The first part to becoming a platform is ensuring that govt employees are able to connect, self-organize, and work with one another. Any effort to improve citizen engagement will ultimately fall flat unless we first tackle how government itself operates […[ This means accelerating, not preventing, the capacity of public servants to self-organize

Although I do not really agree with the concept of government as a platform (as expressed here and here), David’s point is compelling. From the disappointing results of many crowdsourcing ventures to the failure to effectively engage through Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms, the symptoms all boil down to an insufficient focus on people inside rather than outside government.

So David’s suggestion that

Once governments have figured out how to create platforms for their own employees, we can begin to think about how to enable citizen participation

is right on the mark. Government organizations that want to be successful need to refocus on how to leverage web 2.0 technologies to help their employees collaborate and engage internally and externally.

Along these lines, a great book, which is not specific to the public sector, but  vey inspiring to better  understand how true citizen-centricity can be only a consequence of effective employee-centricity is “Employees First, Customers Second: Turning Conventional Management Upside Down” by Vineet Nayar, CEO of Indian service provider HCLT.

Now, one could object that all the above is a no-brainer, but it is not, since a disproportionate percentage of open government initiatives seem to either ignore government employees or put them in the back seats. And the likely setback for the Australian open government initiative, which was one of the very few to get this right, becomes even more depressing.

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1 Comment

  • Actually, my “at the risk of sounding like a broken record” remark on Twitter was in reference to the comment I left on your post. I was pointing out (as I’ve done repeatedly over the past few months) that the term “crowdsourcing” seems to have come to be applied to everything on the web that has public comments enabled. That, in my view, is incorrect.

    While crowdsourcing and online consultations (a form of public participation) may at times look quite similar and can be used in tandem they are done for different reasons, try to achieve different goals and must be managed differently.

    Crowdsourcing means to have an undefined, generally large group of people accomplish specific tasks. Public participation is about making better decisions by involving the people affected by a decision (stakeholders) in the decision making process.