Four Steps to Gov 2.0: A Guide for Agencies

What Does the World Look Like When the Work of Government is Driven by the People?

Gov 2.0 has a lot of definitions, but in observing the exciting breadth of projects currently being built, it feels a little like the Blind Men and the Elephant, where everyone defines it based on their first hand experience, but not from a holistic view. In its essence, Tim O’Reilly’s definition of Gov 2.0 is where government acts as the catalyst to let others build upon its work h — and most importantly, to multiply its impact.

For the first time in history, we’re really at a point where this is technologically feasible. Even if you have no specific tie to government, Gov 2.0 envisions a world in which — just by having experience and interests — ordinary members of the public willingly contribute to the knowledge, facts and policies that comprise our government. It might be as easy as carrying your cell phone. And it might take just 30 seconds.

In December, the Obama Administration released its long awaited Open Government Directive, which was met with enthusiasm from some, and an underwhelmed “meh” from others. The Administration has asked state and local government to adopt the Directive, but it still begs the question:

If I am an agency head and want to embrace Gov 2.0, what should I do first?

Right now it’s a confusing whirlwind of options: Create raw datafeeds in machine readable formats? Create iPhone apps? Use a wiki internally? Create a Facebook group, a Facebook page? Start posting to Twitter? The choices are infinite, but the resources are most definitely limited.

Below is a starting discussion, a “Four Steps to Gov 2.0,” designed to align the various Gov 2.0 stakeholders – individuals, governments, private companies, elected officials – toward the same goal in pursuit of open and participatory government. It applies to all levels of government at the federal, state, and local level. It attempts to structure an agency’s actions as prioritized consecutive steps, in a way that will reward those that adhere to it with more power, better engagement, and future compatibility with other government agencies, private companies, experts, and the general public. Even a few years ago, it would have been technologically impossible or at least prohibitively expensive. Now, the biggest obstacle is simply a plan and the political will.

It’s most definitely an amalgam of many different ideas, especially Clay Shirky’s idea of convening the conversation, and the Obama Administration’s ideas around releasing high value datafeeds and making government transparent, participatory and collaborative. It prioritizes the steps, and finally, introduces the idea of an API that creates a virtuous cycle by returning crowdsourced value back to the agency.

Four Steps to Gov 2.0

1. First and foremost, “convene the conversation.” Governments that want to win should first maximize the free contributions of the general public and experts for issues handled by that agency. Focus on creating the systems to foster self-organization and moderation (think user voting, forum moderation, and social reputation).

Before all else, this should be the first — and only — goal of agencies at every level. The original Obama campaign site and Peer to Patent are great examples, and several other early examples are starting to emerge.

2. Next, examine your agency’s data and put it into three “buckets”. If you have not completed #1, go back and do that first because you’re leaving a valuable resource on the table. The buckets are:

  • Define high value data sets that can be shared in machine-readable format. This is data that is not updated frequently, never anticipates the need for improvement, and is generally referential in nature. Examples might include historical spending, infrastructure details, and census-like data.
  • Define high value data sets than can be interacted with via an API. This is data that anticipates improvement from the public, and/or which regularly needs to stay updated by the agency. Examples might include permits, locations of buildings, and crime data.
  • Define the data types that are not shared, period. Shine a bright light on these data types, and make very clear statements as to why they are not shared. If “getting to the data” is the reason for not sharing, put that to the community and you will be able to find someone to help you get that data out for free. Examples are data that is already protected by law, or which contains personally identifiable information.

3. Next, build the datafeeds, because they will help maximize the public’s information and contribution in Step #1. Push this data to the public in machine-readable formats: XML, RSS, or CSV, accessible via Web services.

4. After the datafeeds are complete, build the API. Look at this as a social compact, where as part of the exchange, companies and members of the public are able to return value back to the agency, creating an infinite loop of ever improving data. Use it to generate mechanical turk-like assistance from the public. I’ll explain some of the key components of an effective Gov 2.0 API in a future post.

After these steps have been accomplished, look at building a regular Web site, specific applications, and services. Agencies that prioritize in this order won’t put themselves at risk of building social silos (these are social networks that end at the boundary of the town, state, or agency).

I’ll consider each of these steps individually in subsequent blog posts. If you have more ideas, please let me know here or send a note at greg [at]