Geeks Invade Government With Audacious Goals

Guest blogger Mark Drapeau is the Co-Chair of the Gov 2.0 Expo Showcase in Sept 2009 and the Gov 2.0 Expo in May 2010, both in Washington, DC. He holds the title of Associate Research Fellow at the Center for Technology and National Security Policy at the National Defense University, a professional military educational school run by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Mark is also co-founder of Government 2.0 Club, an international platform for sharing knowledge about the intersection between technology and governance.

When one thinks about important problems facing the United States, and indeed people all over the world, it is difficult to not come up with the laundry list that every talking head seemingly has on the tip of their tongue: jobs, education, health care, national security, poverty. There are so many problems to solve, with so many constraints on spending money, and such a short supply of manhours to get the job done. Many government employees spend a lot of time working on the issue or crisis of the day (or the hour) rather than thinking about long range planning and strategy.

This might be Alexander Hamilton’s fault. One of the first things I was indoctrinated with after moving to Washington, D.C. was that the U.S. system of federal government was not designed to make good decisions; rather, it was designed to not make horrible ones. This is counterintuitive, perhaps, but mainly true. And this flies in the face of ideas about using technology to make government more efficient, mainly because the purpose and organization of government is quite different from that of business.

Nevertheless, more and more people from the private sector are interested in playing a role in government, thanks in no small part to the excitement surrounding the Obama election and inauguration, in which social media technologies and information sharing were showcased at their best – massive fundraising from many small donors, empowering people to self-organize locally, and direct public relations that circumvented a mainstream media lens. Now, people enamoured with emergent social technologies want to know how they themselves can revolutionize not only politics, but also governance.

For those who don’t follow fashion trends in Washington, D.C., allow me to present the new and increasingly popular species of talking head – The Geek. (The Geek is distinguished from The Wonk, studious, preppy, bespectacled types that run Washington policy, know exactly what intersection Brooks Brothers is on, and enjoy cocktail parties for “networking,” and The Nerd, the type of scientist or other fastidious pointy-head rarely seen outside a laboratory or professorial tower, with nary an interest outside their own peculiar and narrow slice of life.)

The prototypical Geek is a different breed of talking head, one that usually lacks media training, one that often hails from Silicon Valley, San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Austin, Boston, St. Paul, or Boulder, one who likely knows more about the inside of a computer than the average person does about the inside of their fridge, a well-read introvert shy in real life but outgoing on Twitter and in the blogosphere, who is erudite enough to have always felt there was a better way to run the government but feeling entirely disconnected from the apparatus.

No longer. When I speak about Government 2.0 to audiences around D.C. I am fond of telling them about the very smart and motivated outsiders (i.e., The Geeks) who think that they can run the government better than the government can. I enjoying dropping the line, “The government can no longer afford to work at the pace of government,” because people never really know what to say in response as they mull it over. That statement is somewhat tongue-in-cheek and not entirely fair to hundreds of thousands of hard-working government employees; but of course, my role as a speaker is usually to provoke thought and get a point across, not to be fair. And gradually, through my efforts and those of many other Government 2.0 enthusiasts, people inside the Beltway are understanding that new ideas and new technologies can bridge gaps between government and the citizens (and that outsiders are starting to utilize such technologies whether the government gives permission or not).

Detractors might point out that Government 2.0 advocates, and their predecessors, have been predicting that the information technology revolution will reinvent government for quite some time (check out this 1995 special issue of the Journal of Systems Management, for example). What’s different now, however, is that the democratization of data is actually fundamentally disrupting how people think about their personal role within a democracy (one author has somewhat ironically termed this “digital socialism“). People separated by continents can network effortlessly. Companies exist in virtual spaces. Information and data are more accessible, sharable, and discoverable than ever before. Clay Shirky has pointed out that these new social arrangements are leading from cooperation to collaboration to collectivism. Citizens feel empowered. But is this empowerment properly setting the stage for what I’m fond of calling “government with the people”?

Neither the people inside nor outside the Beltway can create Government 2.0 alone – they need to cooperate and collaborate with each other. But deciding how that is to be done is not so simple. The “how” of collaborative Government 2.0 will be an important topic of conversation at the Gov 2.0 Summit in Washington, D.C. on September 9-10th. Both The Geeks and The Govies need to listen to each other’s ideas, hear each other’s concerns, and work towards achieving Shirky’s four stages of organizing if the government is to provide all the things that its citizens are increasingly demanding of it. And if that is to happen, government must operate much faster and be more agile, yet somehow still behave in a legal and fair and equitable and thoughtful manner.

In a theoretical “adaptive government,” employees, contractors, and citizens alike realize that 80% solutions in the right time frame are better than 100% solutions in the wrong one. The notion of “Government as a Platform” (the overarching theme of Gov 2.0 Summit) helps to make this common sense right-time approach possible, and I think that many of these 80% solutions will be displayed by their creators at the exciting Gov 2.0 Expo Showcase taking place the day before Gov 2.0 Summit. As co-chair of the Expo Showcase program committee, I’m looking forward to reading proposals about grassroots Gov 2.0 experiments and projects and making sure that the best ones get heard in front of as many people as possible. I want to see real-world examples of how the availability of open and transparent data sets combined with social tools like wikis, blogs, and mashups have enabled microsharing across millions of weak ties, simple discoverability of information and data, and crowdsourced input and analyses to create right-time 80% solutions.

At the grassroots level, I have been increasingly proud of our group efforts to form Government 2.0 Club and hold the innaugural Government 2.0 Camp in Washington, D.C. That two-day event inspired people not only to network with each other and share their ideas locally, but for a global rise of “Goverati” to form Gov 2.0 Camps not only on specific topics like crisis response, but also localized events around in the world – in Canberra and Berlin, for example. If Government 2.0 Camp accomplished nothing else, it showcased the tremendous amount of human capital that can be catalyzed and tapped to solve big problems.

Within both the government and large businesses, there is a huge cultural challenge to integrating collaborative technologies into a traditional, siloed organization to create more adaptive entities. But ultimately this integration needs to occur to some degree in order for the government – and by extension, the society it governs – to behave in an anticipatory manner instead of the reactive one most are used to. Earlier I wrote that the U.S. government was designed to not make disasterous decisions, but checks and balances are not fullproof. As Jared Diamond explains in Collapse, irrational failures happen for numerous reasons we are not immune to; for example, failure to anticipate problems on the horizon because of lack of experience or false analogy (think: the Maginot Line), and failure to perceive problems as such because of lack of hands-on experience or the phenomenon of creeping normalcy (think: climate change).

Thus, the theme of Government as a Platform is about more than making tools available on a computer. It is about setting the conditions that empower employees and citizens to be successful under unpredictable conditions. It is to a large extent about embracing the unknowable, empowering experimentation, and permitting small failures. Highly impactful and highly improbable “Black Swans” have huge effects on large, slow, maladapted organizations. Even moderately unpredictable environmental disruptions – “Grey Swans” – are a significant challenge to navigate. I have heard Tim O’Reilly describe a government “architecture of participation” as an emergent method for anticipating the unknown, and being more resilient and adaptive to it. While most quarters of government are far from being true learning organizations because of a combination of rules and regulations and organizational and individual barriers, best practices need to continue finding their way into everyday government processes and planning, with the blessings of senior leadership.

Despite the tech-oriented nature of Gov 2.0 Summit and Gov 2.0 Expo, it’s important to remember the grand challenges that the U.S. and other countries currently face. Input from stakeholders and thought leaders not just from Silicon Valley and Washington but also representing huge global issues like extreme poverty, infectious disease, cybersecurity, religious freedom, intellectual property, and many other areas of modern concern will be important. Ultimately, a more strategic, innovative, and efficient approach to government can stretch finances and maximize capabilities to avoid stagnation and solve important problems.

Changing times call for a change in strategy. And while a great deal of discussion needs to occur – and this is one of the primary purposes of the upcoming Gov 2.0 Summit – one possible vision for Government 2.0 may be for people inside the Beltway to move from sheltered silos to collaborative hives for public good, and for tech-savvy entrepreneurs to work on stuff that truly matters. With regard to broad information sharing, I’d like to see popular technology blogs focus somewhat more on applications to large societal problems, and see Beltway publications write more about possibly relevant happenings in Silicon Valley, Tribeca, and Austin. I’d like to see real dialogue – such cross-polination could only be helpful at this crossroads in history. Imagine what this generation’s list of Big Hairy Audacious Goals to come out of such a conversation might be.

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  • Mark –

    Steve Lohr posted an interesting article on his NYT blog last night about stimulus package money eventually finding its way to smaller tech firms for application to local government projects.

    He points out that as much as $100 billion will be spent on technology “to make local government work smarter”.

    It will be interesting to watch the results as this wave of money crashes against the “cultural challenge” you mention above. The resources for a change to Government 2.0 are coming. Let’s hope that our government bodies can quickly learn to swim with the changing tide, and let’s hope that geek leadership will emerge to help them.

  • Miriam W

    Let’s be a little more precise:
    /wɒŋk/ –noun Slang.
    1. a student who spends much time studying and has little or no social life; grind.
    2. a stupid, boring, or unattractive person.
    3. a person who studies a subject or issue in an excessively assiduous and thorough manner: a policy wonk.

    Slang –noun
    1. a peculiar or otherwise dislikable person, esp. one who is perceived to be overly intellectual.
    2. a computer expert or enthusiast (a term of pride as self-reference, but often considered offensive when used by outsiders.)
    3. a carnival performer who performs sensationally morbid or disgusting acts, as biting off the head of a live chicken.

     /nɜrd/ –noun Slang.
    1. a stupid, irritating, ineffectual, or unattractive person.
    2. an intelligent but single-minded person obsessed with a nonsocial hobby or pursuit: a computer nerd.

  • Again, nice write-up Mark. Some time, I need to tell you my friends theory on dorks, geeks and nerds. I thought of it throughout your article because she takes the topic quite seriously, and we’ve had many a good talk about it over a glass of wine.

    Also, enjoyed crafting a visual of this quote: “to collaborative hives for public good” …now wouldn’t THAT be something to see. I think it’s getting there, but obviously much more can be done. And technoogy can enhance and enable this to happen.

  • You’re right. “Making tools available on a computer” can create enclaves of success, such as we will probably see at the Gov 2.0 Expo. But “setting the conditions that empower employees and citizens to be successful under unpredictable conditions” will be difficult without sweeping changes in policy. And those policy changes can’t be made without legislation; because legislation is what created the often suffocating policies that we have today.

    As you wrote, Alexander Hamilton and our founding fathers set limits on the Federal government from the outset. Since that time, many more laws have been passed that either limit government even further, or that dictate so specifically the way government should work that innovators become outlaws. Without a convenient way to thoroughly track myriad government agencies and activities, legislators sought over the last 200 years to eliminate the unknowable, discourage experimentation, and avoid failures. Unfortunately, this is the opposite of “conditions that empower.”

    It would be so easy if we could start with a clean slate, ignoring whatever policy gets in the way, so that our Federal government could quickly re-invent itself and become a silo-free network of learning organizations. But we can’t, so I hope the geeks and the wonks and the nerds will put their heads together at Gov 2.0 Summit and start a list of policies that hinder Gov 2.0. Without a list like that, I’m not sure our current Congress even knows where to begin.

  • Beware of Geeks bearing gifts.

  • Miriam W

    Alex above referenced dorks, geeks, nerds. Is that to infer that wonks and dorks are interchangeable? If so, I take great exception as a self proclaimed wonk. Below is the definition of a dork:
    –noun Slang.
    1. a stupid or ridiculous person; jerk; nerd.
    2. Vulgar. penis.

    Please note, apparently nerd is interchangeable with dork and that is an acceptable substitution.

  • Robby D

    @Miriam W: Got a reference? Can’t just quote dictionaries without saying which one. I’d guess there may be some differences between Oxford American, Oxford English, and, say, Urban Dictionary. Just a thought to keep in mind.

    Re: Nerd vs. Geek, I’ve noticed there is very often a geographic shift in the definition. I’m from Southern California and I’ve more often encountered “nerd” as a term of derision regarding social behavior and personal appearance and narrowness of focus, while “geek” implies a certain penchant for knowledge, usually personally specific (like “language geek”, “mythology geek”, “computer geek”, “fitness geek”) but not to the detriment of an appreciation of a general knowledge base. (Hence, one tends to occasionally “geek-out” on something, but aspires to avoid being a “total nerd”.) However, now that I am in Chicago, I find that it is is often reversed. “Nerd” is the term that you want to be called (apparently), while “geek” is bad.

    Etymologically, that order may be more correct. (“Geek” from the freak show, while “nerd” possibly from Dr. Seuss, though the creature in Seuss is rather unkempt.) However, there tends to be, in any given locale, one that is preferred as more positive over the other.

    In this case, Mark has chosen Geek over Nerd.

    Re: “wonk”: I think this has a specific meaning to Washington DC, related to definition #3 from whatever dictionary you quoted above, and is, in no way, related to “dork”.

    “Dork” is just offensive.

    Don’t know that I added anything, but there you have it.

  • Mark, the movement is definitely happening. Geeks are definitely starting to take an interest and participating in government but what are some examples?

    Beyond cool mashups and visualizations, what would be the leading case studies that you’d point to of how government has made gov more effecient, brought the the people closer to the gov, etc?

    I think we’re beyond the stage of acknowledging that a movement is taking place. Now how do we advance it? How do we shine a spotlight on and assist the folks that are being the examples that everyone else should follow?

    I have some thoughts on this but I’d love to hear your thoughts first. :-)

  • dwighthuth

    What is happening is that the younger generation, those 40’s and Below (Sounds like a good T.V. series) have taken another necessary step in persevering life and ensuring that there is a next generation of humans. The older generation is no longer looked at as being the mouth of wisdom or knowledge, this attention was taken away from them by the Internet, which like the libraries of a starship, a user can sit down conduct of wide search and then refine that search into a narrow and concise conclusion, based on many ideas or opinion instead of a few opinions that are governed by what took place when the were younger and what was normal.Those that live with a mentality like this are usually the ones that are cast aside and not thought about, this is called progress, this is how it was always been. If you are an older person and don’t want to get turned under by the tide of the younger generation, sit down at a PC and do some research on things that your grew up wanting to know about, but could never find the answer.

  • EM

    “digital socialism” — hmm, interesting. It’s not far off. Here, let me illustrate: in a conventional, let’s say, “non-socialist” model, the system itself is owned by a small group of people, while the larger group, the rest of the populace, work for them. The small group and the large group are, in a sense, “together” on the system, but this is definitely not socialism, because there is a fundemental differnce in the buy-in.

    The small group intensely buys-in, becuase they own it, and are thus much more greatly affected by its success, be it positive or negative. The large group only marginaly buys-in because they don’t have that same risk-reward stake; they merely collect a pay-check, so when 5 o’clock rolls around, they’re done with that system. Ergo, no socialism.

    Enter digital socialism. Because data is not machinery or land, the dissemination of it as a factors of production is so much easier and cheaper. In fact, it is virtually free. This drastically mitigates the risk. Because the risk is reduced, a far greater number of entrepreneurs are “invited” into the game. Ultimately, for the small and large group I referred to above, the lines are blurred. They end up having the same stake in the game; and can ultimately share the same rewards.

    This means that the large group, who were merely workers before, now see that there is some reward to their contributing extra effort. The large risk factor has been removed, and they too can become entrepreneurs. They don’t simply drop their pencils at 5; instead, they see where their special skills can contribute (and be rewrded), and they now put in the extra effort.

    The small group, meanwhile, now see that they don’t have to shoulder the high level of risk that they did previously. This lets them concentrate on honing their own talents, also putting in an extra effort. Effort that was previously devoted to mitigating risk can now be entirely consecrated towards enhancing the system. They may frown on having to share profits with the large group, but when it finally dawns on them that there will be more profits to go around for everybody — thanks to everybody contributing in an entrepreneurial fashion to the system — they’ll come around.

    “To each according to their need, from each according to their ability” — that’s what ultimately starts happening with the democratization of data. People will take from the system what they need (and it will handle it), while contributing much more to it than they did under the old paradigm, thanks to the esteem of knowing their talents will be rewarded, while risk is minimized.

    I like it. I really do.

  • EM

    To those who believe us “40s and Over” are no longer looked at as the mouth of wisdom, take note: the Internet is a mess. If one believes that the Internet — the supposed ‘library’ of the future (I believe Star Trek was referred to) — can replace good old fashioned paper-based scholarly research in a university library, I profoundly pity you.

    The Internet is a mess. No ifs, ands or buts. To think that one can sit down at a computer and conduct “wide search” and benefit from the “many ideas” supposedly offered on the Internet? And that somehow this replaces the way that us older generation (“over 40” being, um, ‘older’) dudes conducted real research?


    A few opinions? Yes well maybe it’s because they are the right opinions? Certainly they are scholarly and tested. As they have been for hundreds of years before the Internet was invented.

    I shudder to think that the younger generation is growing dependant on the Internet for their so-called ‘research’. Scholarly, it ain’t.

    Not that there isn’t a place for the Internet as an aid to furthering academic knowledge. But anybody can write anything on the Internet. And make tripe look like caviar. It’s scary.

    Until there is some control, some vetting, some assurance of scholarly standards being enforced on Internet product, there is no way one can pretend that Internet searches can usurp what is found in good old-fashioned university libraries. The old “bricks-and-mortar”. No way.

    I conclude by providing this as a case in point:

  • Dan

    Lame on many levels…

    First, I’d prefer a Government that is unresponsive 80% and ineffectual 15% of the time to the instant social oligarchy outlined in this blog. Our government may seem slow but it was purposely designed that way. History is littered with wreckage of the “efficient approach to government”. The people that designed our government examined history very closely before they sat down to create it. I’d respectfully recommend you do the same.

    No self respecting “nerd” finds the technology of “social networking” any more interesting or useful than a shiny pebble. However, the technology is more applicable to trendy techy wannabe’s disparately searching for some social approval. I’m sure the “nerds” that built it are happy you enjoy it. Besides any true “nerd” knows what happens when group think mentality mixes with new technology. Just ask GM…

    And wow! wouldn’t FOX news and the DOD love a pure internet driven democracy! They would have a reality TV show called “who’s next!”. I’d have to admit, I’d watch it. But how will the hive get new actors?


  • dwighthuth

    Bill O’Reilly is against anything that takes away attention from his meanderings of his conservatist communistic method of mediatic foreplay.

    As long as the words Taliban and Destruction as well as hating Democrats are in the script O’Reilly is all for it.

  • Roger Weeks

    @Dan: So you’re willing to just accept the fact that a government codified in 1787 and ratified in 1788, with only 27 additions over the years, is a perfect and unchangable definition of government?

    I have the highest respect for the authors of the US Constitution. They were passionate, well-educated men.

    Our society and country have changed massively since their time. Our government has changed too – it has massively grown in size, complexity and beauracracy.

    Again, I ask you, is that the best and only form of government we should have? Regardless of how you feel about Government 2.0 or whatever silly tag we’re going to put on it, our government needs a good shaking up.

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  • An exciting and visionary concept this Government 2 but is it really workable or simply a “pie in the sky?” In some ways the give and take of ideas you are talking about in a truly interconnected world (read government) sounds altruistic and reflective if a true democracy but just as the founders of the constitution realised when they invented the collegiate electoral system to mitgate “rule of the mob”, perhaps it is too inclusive to be productive?