Is Gov 2.0 just another passing fad? ...

...Or do collaborative initiatives represent a true advance in the way government works?

A year ago, the idea of putting social-media tools to use in official or even semiofficial government settings was more fanciful than practical, more experimental than programmatic, and — to the skeptics — more crackpot kid stuff than sound government policy. Indeed, on hearing the endless chants for Government 2.0, many latecomers to the likes of YouTube, Facebook and Twitter were wondering aloud what all these Young Turks were smoking.

But by the end of 2009, federal employees of all ages and backgrounds are chatting, friending, blogging, tweeting, wiki-ing and crowdsourcing their way through the workday, and federal agencies are greenlighting all kinds of projects for internal team building and brainstorming and external outreach to constituents.

Barack Obama’s historic presidential campaign got everyone’s attention when it came to raising money and mobilizing a grass-roots workforce through social media. And thanks in no small part to the Obama administration’s early evangelism and trailblazing demonstration projects in this field, it’s become practically incumbent upon every federal agency – from the State Department and NASA to the Army and General Services Administration — to begin spelling out its own strategy for putting social networking into some kind of functional reality.

But is Government 2.0 a true advance in the way government works, or it is just a passing fad? A year from now, will all these initiatives have matured to the point that a government agency could use them to generate useful ideas, streamline operations, improve accountability, deliver services and even save money? Or will agency leaders and their employees revert to the old ways of doing business, muttering the bureaucratic equivalent of, “Who was that masked man?”

Interviews with government officials, employees, consultants and interested observers suggest that although the true value of Government 2.0 has yet to be measured or even fully imagined, there will be no turning back the clock to a previous era. Much like the emergence of the World Wide Web some 15 years ago, the latest version of online interaction and information sharing promises to insinuate itself into every corner of government.

“Social media is just going to be absolutely integrated into almost everything we do,” said Lena Trudeau, vice president of the National Academy of Public Administration and founder of NAPA’s Collaboration Project, an independent forum of leaders committed to using Web 2.0 and other collaborative technology to solve the government’s problems.

“I really do think it will change the way we do government business in many ways,” said Bev Godwin, director of USA.gov, the government’s official Web portal. She served on special detail to the White House earlier this year as director of online resources and interagency development.

Of course, Obama didn’t invent Government 2.0, nor was he the first to flaunt its use. Prominent government officials have written blogs for some time now. Chief among them are Robert Carey, the Navy’s chief information officer; Linda Cureton, former CIO at the Goddard Space Flight Center who was recently promoted to NASA’s CIO; and Adm. Thad Allen, commandant of the Coast Guard.

And a number of agencies have experimented with the technology. GSA’s "GovGab" blog was launched in 2007. The Transportation Security Administration’s IdeaFactory was launched in 2007 and is a recognized model for encouraging users to generate their own content and using crowdsourcing, which is, according to Wikipedia, “the act of outsourcing tasks to a group of people or community in the form of an open call.” The intelligence community started its internal wiki, Intellipedia, in 2006, and its Analytic Space began operations in 2008. Both are examples of using social-media tools to drive collaboration.

In other words, a core group of government workers have been walking the walk of Government 2.0 for several years, but now they are receiving important support and official sanction. “Before Obama even took office, there were people thinking along these lines. And now they just have cheerleaders higher up in the food chain,” said Mark Drapeau, who spent a year at the Center for Technology and National Security Policy at the National Defense University working on a Web 2.0 white paper for the defense community. Drapeau is also a columnist for Federal Computer Week.

But the inauguration of the nation’s first Web 2.0 president kick-started an unprecedented campaign within official government circles. On his first full day in office, Obama issued a memo on transparency and open government, which outlined new goals for federal agencies to make government more participatory and collaborative.

The memo called for drafting an open-government directive. As part of that effort, the administration launched in May the Open Government Initiative, a series of online forums through which the Obama administration solicited public input on how to make government operations more transparent. The brainstorming phase was briefly disrupted when a group of individuals overwhelmed the site with comments regarding Obama’s eligibility to serve as president. Once order was restored, however, the phase elicited more than 900 ideas and 33,000 votes. The administration is using those ideas, and the comments received in the other two phases, to draft the memo, which is expected to be released soon.

As one of the directive's key principles, “every agency will be directed to publish and engage the public in their open-government plans,” said Aneesh Chopra, Obama’s chief technology officer. Furthermore, agencies must deliver “a structured schedule of how data will be released to the American people in a machine-readable format.”

Agencies will also be asked to provide details of how they “will engage the public in policy-making,” Chopra told attendees at a Government 2.0 conference in Washington this fall. The White House will also create an additional set of platforms, similar to Data.gov and the Spending Dashboard, to help agencies comply with the directive.

“We want to hardwire our agency accountability for open government,” he said.

Chopra, whose appointment as the nation’s first CTO fulfilled one of Obama's election-year pledges, is the public face of the administration’s Government 2.0 campaign. From his perch in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Chopra’s job is to find ways to “promote technological innovation to help the country meet its goals such as job creation, reducing health care costs and protecting the homeland,” Obama said.

However, even before he announced Chopra’s nomination, Obama made another key appointment at the Office of Management and Budget, where e-government policy had resided for the past eight years. He named Vivek Kundra, the wunderkind CTO of the District of Columbia, to be his chief information officer. In addition to overseeing federal technology spending, Kundra is responsible for directing the policy and strategic planning of federal IT investments.

Some of his priorities are ensuring openness and transparency, lowering the cost of government, improving cybersecurity, building a participatory democracy, and fostering innovation.

One of his first projects was the launch of Data.gov, a public Web site that provides access to raw government data. Another project, launched in June, was the Federal IT Dashboard, which assesses many large government IT projects in terms of cost, schedule and CIO ranking.

Chopra and Kundra have set a new tone in Washington that other agencies are sure to follow, if only because the two men have Obama’s personal endorsement and generational allure.

“The fact that Kundra and Chopra were appointed was a really big deal, not only because they are big Gov 2.0ers but also I would say [because] they are another generation,” said Steve Ressler, founder of GovLoop.com, a social-networking site for federal employees. “They are kind of that Generation X bridge that gets social media and understands how it can work with government.”

Other leadership decisions, such as Cureton’s promotion to NASA’s CIO position, were also important, Ressler said. Cureton is a supporter of using social media to collaborate in the workplace. She continues to write her popular blog, and she encouraged the development of Spacebook, NASA’s in-house version of Facebook.

The rise of Ressler’s GovLoop was also a significant development in 2009. He launched the site on Memorial Day weekend in 2008 as a way for federal, state and local government workers to connect and collaborate.

What started out as a part-time gig for Ressler, who at the time worked at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, became a full-time occupation. The site won several awards and was written about in dozens of publications, including the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and Federal Computer Week, which honored him with a Federal 100 award.

Technology provider GovDelivery bought GovLoop in October and hired Ressler to run it. The site has more than 21,000 members and is growing, Ressler said.

The success of GovLoop shows how important social media might become in government, though the final picture has yet to emerge. “It was kind of an underground club for a couple of years and then blew up this year,” he said. “But it is still in its teenage years. It kind of looks like an adult, but nobody really knows what it will look like when it is fully grown up.”

For Godwin of USA.gov, social-media technology will likely lead to government employees and the public working together to solve problems. Spacebook could be a model: It lets NASA's geographically dispersed scientists collaborate on projects and solutions.

That concept could become the norm governmentwide, Godwin said. “I really see it moving in the future from an outreach to solving mission-related problems together,” she said. “I think it is a long journey. I don’t think we are going to get there in 2010.”

Institutional hurdles must be addressed before those lofty goals are achieved. For example, some agencies still block access to social-media tools. Concerns about security and employee productivity are the two main reasons for such bans. Agency leaders must balance when information must be kept behind firewalls and when it is acceptable to venture into the public domain with tools such as YouTube and Twitter.

Ignorance and indifference are other major hurdles for social media, Drapeau said. Agencies will need to offer training that shows how the tools can change the way government employees do their jobs, he added.

“Part of the problem is [that] the people who are thinking about social media the most are the people who are the most interested in it,” he said. “But there are still a lot of people who this affects, and they don’t really know what’s going on."

One clear sign that the federal government is committed to increasing the use of social media is the work GSA is doing to create a citizen engagement platform. GSA plans to offer best practices, assistance with selecting social-media tools and perhaps government-hosted technology through the program, said Martha Dorris, GSA’s deputy associate administrator of the Office of Citizen Services.

“What we’re trying to do is create a program to help other agencies in conducting dialogues with the public,” Dorris said. “We know the open-government directive is coming out very shortly, and agencies are going to be creating plans on how to engage the public in making policy decisions within their agencies.”
The platform is needed because simply posting a question for the public to answer is not an efficient way to get input, she said. GSA officials hope the platform will provide complete support to agencies before they initiate conversations with the public, though the project is still in its early stages, she added.

GSA plans to host social-media tools that agencies can use to engage with the public. It is installing the open-source tools on its infrastructure with plans to keep adding to the library of offerings for agencies, Dorris said.

“We will eventually have the ability to say to an agency, ‘What business problem are you trying to solve?’” she said. “That’s where we are trying to start because starting with the tools is a mistake. Once the platform is ready, agencies should be able to just go on there and launch a dialogue.”

The combination of the open-government directive and support from GSA should make agencies more comfortable about trying the technology, Trudeau said. Early missteps should be expected and accepted.

“I do think there is a value in experimentation and trying things out in order to learn from them, but that doesn’t mean that you do it in a haphazard way,” Trudeau said. “It is important that you understand…the goals that you’re trying to achieve, and that you also understand the potential implications to the organization.”

Agency leaders should also seek out employees who have the most experience and interest in social media.

“The other thing you want to do is enroll people in your organization who are really savvy about these tools already,” Trudeau said. “And every organization has people like that. [Managers] just have to go out and find them.”

Internal uses of social media for applications such as IdeaFactory and Intellipedia demonstrate that agencies are able to successfully use the technology, Drapeau said. However, citizen engagement efforts will likely prove more challenging for agencies.

If done right, social media could eventually permeate every aspect of how the government works and communicates, Godwin said.

“I really do think it will change the way we do government business in many ways,” Godwin said. “I think we will do things better because we will have better input with things like crowdsourcing; the more ideas the better. I also think the tools will continue to grow and improve. Who would have known three years ago we would be using something called Twitter in government, much less blogs, podcasts and widgets?”

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Reader comments

Thu, Jan 7, 2010 Maria M

Barry has it right. Being "connected" 24x7 does not make me a better citizen. For me, it's information overload. Does the average Joe spend hours every day pouring over stats in a "dashboard"? Nope! Does the average Joe read many gov "blogs"? Not a chance! (Most gov blogs I've read are simply touting existing administration policies anyway...look at what we are doing, blah, blah, blah...not REAL dialogue...) The public is smart enough to know that transparency does not = data sets online + people blogging the status quo. Gov 2.0 is not a fad to be sure, but the bulk of voters will still vote based on their values and principles...not because of "dashboard" or "tweet". JMHTCW

Wed, Dec 9, 2009 Barry Virginia

I think the point has been made that the advance of 2.0 and social media will change the way we live and, most likely, the way we govern ourselves. I think that, moreover, the advance of these technological and cultural devices will not likely become a fad to be fondly looked back on. So the real question, it seems to me, is will all of this help us govern ourselves more effectively and wisely. I believe that without a great deal of thought and discipline, the answer will be no. Perhaps a more focused way of asking that question would be "does being constantly connected to virtually everyone make us better citizens and public officials?" Again, I think the answer is likely more no than yes. We hear much about open and transparent government and how 2.0 will foster that. I think our need is not so much transparency as virtue. If by threatening to put government officials' dealings out there for everyone to see, we are saying "so you had better be honest in your activities," we are likely to be disappointed. Virtue needs no transparency crutch, and lack of virtue will find dark corners to do its mischief regardless of You Tube. Surely we have learned this through the endless and completely unsuccessful parade of laws and regulations aimed at controlling public individuals' and organizations' behavior. As for the hype about more efficiency in government through 2.0 tools, we are likely to find that bureaucratic inefficiency is built into the beast and won't likely cure because everyone is government is tweeting. My humble counsel would be to focus on recognizing and adhering to those founding principles on which our nation was based and keep the technological toys where they belong; useful but hardly transformative and no foundation on which to build a brave new world.

Tue, Dec 8, 2009

How open is open government when the comments on federal Blogs and Fora (submitted by citizens) are culled and censored by administration officials - so that unpopular opinions are not shared across the community at large?

Copy writers on information technology topics are always looking for that silver bullet that is going to change the world and solve every problem (we seem to get a new miracle-solution offered up every year or so - just in time for the previously hyped solution to be debunked).

The only thing that will revolutionize government is a sincere adherence to principals, subornation of personal interest, and a willingness to give up power - the last time that happened was when George Washington retired after his second term as President.

Web-2 tools are only as good as the quality of information that they relate; the use of censorship in Blog/Forum content by an administration will eventually increase citizen cynicism and frustration.

If the White House wants to know what citizens have to say - it can stop and read any of the uncontrolled, public Blogs that already exist - it does not have to develop its own social platforms - which will always be suspect.

btw - it could be argued that any attempt by a government official to censor Web content on a federal Blog or Forum is a violation of the citizens right to petition his/her government, under the first amendment of the Constitution.

Sun, Dec 6, 2009 Salina Washington

From my experience at the county level, “Government 2.0 is a true advance in the way government works.” Government agencies are already using these tools to generate useful ideas and to save money. Oakland County, Michigan trimmed $600k from its IT Budget by implementing ideas posted by employees on their IT Cost Reduction Blog (http://bit.ly/6LAAsW).

A year from now, I expect the popularity and the usage of the tools to grow among government employees and elected officials in the Baby Boomer, Gen X and Gen Y groups; however, I don’t see the same enthusiasm for these tools among “old school” leaders.

Over the next few years, I foresee governments investing most of their time learning how to use the tools to listen to what is being said about them on the web and to engage citizens by solving problems and providing them with information. The listening piece, I imagine will be the hardest part for these agencies because in the past most citizen complaints were private and did not usually get much, if any, press at all. Now, the complaints are not only being posted on the web for the world to see, but they are also being spread virally. If these complaints are left without any response from the agency it could be interpreted as fact. And worst of all, these comments, once out on the web, will live on “forever,” thanks to our friendly search engines.

I imagine it will take some time for citizens to really start engaging government agencies online. One reason may be the overall lack of trust citizens have in general for government agencies and another may be driven by their fear of being sued for expressing their opinions.

In conclusion, these new communication channels will force agency leaders and their employees to change their ways of doing business.

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