There is a LOT of effort being spent by the United States government to increase transparency to the taxpayers. In general, there are some great efforts (such as data.gov and usa.gov), and I think we should continue pushing the edge of the envelope in citizen participation with government. However, I believe we have a MUCH bigger problem to solve to get us to ‘Government 2.0’ – encouraging/cajoling government agencies into collaborating amongst themselves first. Impossible you say? Maybe so, but without effort focused on this goal, no amount of external transparency will have lasting success. Is there a magic formula or tool to accomplish this?
Short answer: No. More detailed answer: No, but proper application of tools such as wikis, discussion forums, centralized document management, application lifecycle methodology, and social media features can provide a way forward. However, the key critical aspect at the end of the day is community (yes, why should this be a surprise, coming from the community management consultant? :)). Without an approach that factors in how the internal cultures and communities operate within the government, any hope of meaningful citizen participation is pretty much non-existent.
The recently announced Open Government Directive is the ‘stick’ being used to drive intra-agency collaborative efforts (as well as external transparency). However, most of the time, applying only the stick results in a ‘checkbox’ approach to any task – doing the bare minimum. Lena Trudeau hits the nail on the head in her recent blog post at Federal Computer Week when she writes:
“Collaboration is a path to achieving results. Rather than focusing on simply achieving compliance with the Open Government Directive by checking the box on collaboration, agencies have a great opportunity to identify a real problem and use collaboration to solve it.”
Given that humans are not naturally altruistic, my oft-stated commentary on WIIFM also applies here – do agencies who agree to share data/technology and cooperate get bigger budgets, bonuses, or some other form of prestige by doing the right thing by the new Open Government Directive? It would be great if they did these things because it was better for the average citizen, but that’s unlikely to happen. Identifying a tangible problem to solve, as well as what’s in it for the respective agencies, can help provide the ‘carrot’ to help mitigate the sometimes detrimental effects of the ‘stick’.
Without fostering ‘communication’ (read: community) among the various agencies, any chance of producing coherent and reasonable transparency to the taxpayers on the outside of the system is doomed to failure. I’ve often wondered if we are close to a tipping point in terms of government employees who grew up in a more ‘collaborative’ time, with the internet, open source, social media, and the ease of working with each other. Will the rigidity sometimes foisted upon (or required of) new ‘govies’ quash their innate desire to collaborate effectively?
One way to address this is to change the way problems are thought of and how people are incentivized to solve them. We need more people like Vivek Kundra (USA CIO) and General Jeffrey Sorenson (US Army CIO) (both fellow Fed 100 award winners for 2010) to sponsor projects like Apps for Democracy and Apps for Army, which, through small changes, start to tear chinks out of the traditional way that ‘app development’ and collaboration are thought of, both inside and outside of the government. They also start to encourage a level of cross-collaboration that fundamentally changes the way people within government talk to each other.
“…it has always been easier to say ‘let’s buy a new tool’ than to reflect about deeper process and cultural changes. Finally, on a topic that is new to most people, with boundaries that are quite unclear, it is easier and somewhat more comfortable to be able to point to a new tool or a new functionality, something distinct from what one has been doing so far, as a way to tick a box in a compliance exercise.”
Can we all see a theme here on the ‘compliance exercise’ bit? I agree with all of his points (even grudgingly realizing that there needs to be some strategic direction change not coming from the technologists). Honestly, I think we need to look to successful open source projects and their use of community, meritocracy, and cultural models that are largely tool agnostic (though some would argue that distributed vs. centralized version control is a holy war!) Successful open source and/or Agile development communities exhibit characteristics that generally encourage and reward internal collaboration and involvement of all stakeholders in the process (outside users are represented by requests for enhancements and community leaders)
All of this causes me to wonder – given the rise of the ‘social media/collaborative’ generation, how long do you think it will be before this ‘new breed’ starts to influence the way government interacts with itself? More importantly, will the government culture remain long after the current generation of govvies is gone, and will that get in the way of the new generation, or flat out discourage them from entering public service in the first place? If we hope to achieve even half of what we are being promised in a ‘Gov2.0 Nirvana’, we are going to have to solve the ‘internal government 2.0’ puzzle first. I’m very curious as to what you, the readers, think is necessary to spur the move to ‘Government 2.0’ within federal agencies. Please feel free to leave me your thoughts here…