Last night I decided to spend a couple of hours replaying videos from the Gov 2.0 Summit held in DC on September 7 and 8.
Two things struck me.
First of all, the obsession of Tim O’Reilly and friends with the term “government as a platform”, which IMHO did not make much sense last year, does not make more sense this year and is also getting a bit stale. But I know I am one of the very few contrarians here, as the term has been used throughout the event and beyond.
The view it conveys is of a government that provides data to application developers who create new mobile or web application that will make our life so much easier.
This is just pursuing the asymmetry of government 2.0, whichI have highlighted multiple times and gives government an illusion of control by almost ignoring that much relevant data will come from people themselves, and not necessarily (and sometimes not at all) as a response to a call for ideas of a challenge that government issues.
Secondly, and more importantly, whereas last year most conversations were about social networks and open data, this year cloud computing seems to have gained a more prominent place at the table. This was very clear in O’Reilly’s opening address, but also throughout the event, where Sanjeev Baghovalia interviewed by Clay Johnson, or Aneesh Chopra and Vivek Kundra interviewed by O’Reilly kept going back and forth from cloud to open data to social media.
Besides this summit, it is interesting to find evidence of this confusion in government organization. The cloud computing and the open government activities at GSA are under the same Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, run by my good friend and former colleague Dave McClure. However, if you think carefully about this, why should Innovative Technologies and Citizen Services be part of the same portfolio? Cannot one serve citizens with mature technologies or innovate for other purposes than providing citizen services?
So, besides both being relatively (?) new and overhyped, why should government 2.0 (or open government) and cloud computing be part of the same conversation?
After all, cloud computing is a computing model (or, if you wish, a sourcing model) that can be used, among others, to support open government objectives. If Data.gov runs in the cloud it is probably for scalability and cost-containment purposes, but it could well be hosted on a server farm in DC. The fact that Facebook or Twitter run in the cloud is totally irrelevant from the point of view of their transformational impact.
Ironically, the terms “cloud” and “open” do not even fit very well with each other. How really open or transparent is a cloud service? Don’t you get locked into a cloud service provider as much as you would get locked into a traditional product supplier? Can you always know where your data is?
In reality there is a much closer correlation than there appears to be at first sight, but not the one that O’Reilly and his friends are suggesting.
It is not about whether government CIOs decide to adopt cloud computing. It is about the adoption of cloud computing by the business users themselves, potentially or actually bypassing their own IT department.
In our definition, government 2.0 is the use of IT to socialize and commoditize government services, processes and data.
So what is really transformative is not the decision of migrating a web site from an internal data center into the cloud, or going for Gmail as a corporate email system, but the many, often unplanned events that lead the business to adopt commoditized technology, be it storage on Amazon or Facebook as a good enough alternative to a corporate collaboration platform, with IT either unaware or a simple follower.
This causes the same surprise or discomfort as discovering that citizen-created data is more important to government than open government data is important to citizen.
Understanding government 2.0 implies understanding how information and technology acquisition flows in both directions, from corporate (government) to consumer (citizen) and viceversa, but trying to predetermine the right balance is already a recipe for failure.
Unfortunately I did not find much of this in what I saw of the summit. Cynically I might say that this was on purpose. It is hard to accept that the center of gravity in government 2.0 might not be government and that publishing open data may be less important than understanding what data people are posting out there. Because this would be like telling your target market (government in this case) that there is no point in spending on gov 2.0. What would happen to government organizations whose primary mandate is to spend money for innovation if this innovation comes from elsewhere and is almost for fee? And how would their suppliers, consultants, event organizer see this?
That’s why many live the dream of a government as a platform, waiting for the dream to come true even if, as Tim O’Reilly admitted in his opening, reality is proving harder than expected.
Let’s just hope that all these technology investments that look so cool today, won’t turn out to be expensive legacy tomorrow, when consumer technology and citizen data will actually be the platform.