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] crimereports.com.

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  • Ryan Drew

    Greg,
    You’ve got a great perspective on Gov 2.0. The initial focus needs to be on engagement and filtering/standardizing data. Common API standards for data aggregation and distribution would enable plug in apps. to output data from disparate agencies, for different purposes.

  • Meagen Ryan

    Greg,

    I like your four steps, and think you’re correct that “convening the conversation” is essential. That said, it’s also incredibly difficult to know where and how to begin. Simply asking the public to participate doesn’t seem to produce useful results.

    For those looking for more guidance on how to convene the conversation, I’d recommend Beth Simone Noveck’s book “Wiki Government.” Ms. Noveck was instrumental in the develoment of Peer to Patent, which you reference.

    Specifically, I’d point readers to the chapter on “Lessons Learned,” which has excellent advice, such as:
    – Ask the right question;
    – Ask the right people;
    – Design the process for the desired end.

    These suggestions, and others found in that chapter, help those interested in convening the conversation figure out how to do it successfully.

  • Sean Hudson

    Greg,

    At the City of Arvada, we have recently published a data catalog and have started to get (some) requests for high value datasets. We also realized that just because we published the data catalog (http://arvada.org/opendata), people were not just going to flock to it. So, we reached out further than our city limits to create a new group Colorado Smart Communities (http://csclabs.org) to involve everyone around us – government employees, concerned citizens, journalists, programmers, elected officials, and vendors – put data to good use.

  • Anya

    Greg,
    You’ve got a great perspective on Gov 2.0. The initial focus needs to be on engagement and filtering/standardizing data. Common API standards for data aggregation and distribution Farmville Tipswould enable plug in apps. to output data from disparate agencies, for different purposes.

  • Patty Zevallos

    Further advice for both government agencies and corporations:

    Why your web site will probably fail
    And how to stop that from happening

    Littering the landscape of the internet are large decomposing carcasses of web sites that failed. No one visits them. They don’t function. They just lie there in the dwindling twilight.

    What happened to them? How did sites started with enthusiasm end up like this? What mistakes did well-meaning but naive people make?

    Getting giddy about technology

    You hear the terms thrown about. Social networking. Blogs. Drupal. WordPress. Content Management Systems. I have seen people get tears of joy in their eyes talking about Web 2.0, Flash, and the new interactivity. These same people get worked up into a frenzy on the blogs about a new release of something or other, and how could anyone use the old stuff!

    Calm down, folks. It’s just computer code. It will not feed your kids nor bring on world peace.

    The technology has now turned into a problem. The web started as a simple text and picture thing because of the low bandwidth. Someone needed information. They went and read it, maybe looked at a picture. They got all they needed.

    And what the heck is wrong with that?

    Now people add Javascript menus, Flash animations, active server pages, XML, and much more to something that was so simple and useful. Sometimes these things are needed. But often they are not, or they could be done in a much simpler way. And you know what happens when you add a bunch of cluttered, bug-ridden, unnecessary junk to a web site?

    Nothing. Yes, nothing. No one buys anything. No one reads it. No one cares. Because someone else is doing the same thing, but doing it right. Your viewers hit the “back” key and get the heck out.

    This is not a mystery. Customers state in survey after survey that they hate over-complicated, cluttered, buggy sites and prefer sites that are simple and easy to use. So why do designers and developers keep adding unnecessary junk?

    Because they are not enlightened, like you just became. How do you avoid this kind of dead web site? Focus on what the viewers want. Not what you want. Not on what the boss wants. And nothing else. Then do it with the simplest technology that will work. HTML (the language of the web), CSS (Cascading Style Sheets add consistent formatting and more), and an email form is ALL YOU NEED for a straight informational site. If you are selling something online, you need to add a shopping cart. There are times when viewers might benefit from an animation, or pages customized to their choices, or the like, but do it in the simplest possible way. And heaven help us, don’t have a Flash intro.

    The advantages of a K.I.S.S. web site are huge. Much better customer response. Much lower design and development costs. Much less troubleshooting and incompatibility problems among browsers and operating systems. Much easier to update, adhere to usability standards, and make the web site secure, if needed. Much simpler to make 508 compliant (accessible to the disabled).

    Just plain smarter.

    There never was a reason for the web site to begin with

    Too often I have heard people say “I have a web site. Now what do I do with it?” They have this backwards. You don’t make a web site, then figure out what to do with it. You have a reason for the web site, then make it. A company needs to use the web site and other elements of the internet as part of a marketing plan. Government agencies and nonprofits also need to achieve specific goals with an organized, detailed plan. The web is only a tool. Something ELSE is what you really want to do.

    The wrong people are working on it, with vague job titles

    Web design and development is such a new field that people who had been pretty competent managers in the past really don’t know what to do with it. You can tell this from the employment ads. One of many problems is that the job titles get all blurred. A job will require a few programming languages, excellent graphic design skills, AND writing skills. This type of job description will turn a web site into a carcass pretty fast. Programming, graphic art, and writing are different and separate professions, requiring radically different training. Although there may be some multitalented people who can handle more than one skill, they are very rare. If you use a programmer for graphic design, you are going to end up with a really bad design. If you use a graphic designer for writing, you are going to end up with really bad writing. And no customers.

    In addition, we have the “on-the-cheap” people who want to get a college intern to do programming, design with Dreamweaver, deal with Drupal content management, set up blogs, edit Photoshop files, write great promotional text, and fix the transmissions in the other employees’ cars for eight bucks per hour. These people say they don’t have the money to pay a professional to do the job for real. Well, wouldn’t they notice this really big financial hole in their business plan and avoid starting the business until they were ready? Or perhaps there was no business plan and they don’t have a clue what they are doing. I have known many companies that have hired high school and college students on the cheap. None of them are in existence now.

    Have a plan that includes a project manager, programmers, designers, and writers as distinct jobs. If your site is small you may be able to use qualified freelancers. Set up a budget and a schedule. Be sure you can pay market rate, and can compete with the hundreds of other companies who desperately need the same people. Hunt down the really great people, based, more than anything, on the work they have produced before (all pros have web portfolios). The project manager needs to have once worked in one of the other fields. During my 31 years in media production, I have only seen managers succeed who had already worked in one of the fields he or she was supervising. How to lure top talent? Pay well and on time. This is number one. Be organized. No one likes to work on a chaotic project, although everyone does, since chaotic projects are more the rule than the exception. Make the project fun and be easy to deal with. Get flexible with scheduling and telecommuting. As long as everything is done on time, what do you care what time of day someone does it? You will lure great talent out of the woods with flexible scheduling. Work on projects that are worthwhile and creative. And then let me know, because I would love to work for you.

    Looking like just another template

    People got excited when templates for web sites came out. “Oh goody, now I don’t need to learn anything or hire a web designer. I will just use a template and stick stuff in it.” Sure, great deal. Go for it, as long as you don’t want to stay in business.

    When a viewer goes to your site, they get an immediate impression of what you are about, based on the look and any large text. You want to be fresh and original and attention-getting (with a clean, simple site). You want to “set a mood” for what the viewer should expect that is tailored to what you are communicating. You want to use images and color and composition.

    Are you really going to get that out of a template? Or are you going to look like an unprofessional organization with a generic site that considers its viewers such a low priority that you couldn’t be bothered to learn anything or hire a web designer? On top of that you probably have an overcomplicated site (templates tend to be that way) that has viewers running for the hills.

    Consider another approach. If that first impression, customized to your message, uses images and color and composition (plus a bit of text), then guess what? It is art. It needs to be designed as art, using illustration, photography, and composition skills. If you don’t have these skills, find someone who does. I know many web sites are not designed this way. It is one reason they die.

    Writing is low priority

    Writing is the most ignored part of a web site. A company might get excited about the programming and design, and then just slop some text in there.

    Viewers do not visit a site to see how the programming works. They really don’t go to look at the cool design. They go to read the text. It is the most important part of the site.

    The text needs to be concise, well-organized, and focused only on the site’s goal. It needs to be interesting and maybe entertaining. It should not sound like a government document (government documents shouldn’t sound like government documents). No passive verbs. No overlong sentences. No “impact” used as a verb. I am writing right now in a casual, direct-to-the-public style that doesn’t even demand complete sentences. It is more like ad copywriting. This is not the right style for everything. The style depends on the targeted audience.

    The text also should not be in one long document, even with a table of contents. This is THE WEB, not print. Break it down. Make it work as web pages. But do not have multiple layers of links. Viewers hate that. Organize it from the viewer’s point of view, not yours.

    Really stupid forms

    Many forms on the web spit out error codes, demand information obnoxiously after being filled out that they never asked for to begin with, and are cluttered and confusing. This does not lure customers. It drives them totally insane. There is no quicker route to becoming a dead web site. You need to design the form as a simple, logical thing, and use a programmer who is experienced at this, if you are not. You also need to test the form with different browsers, on different computers, and on both Mac and PC (along with the rest of the web site).

    English-only sites

    Almost everything in the United States is now English-Spanish, except web sites. Whether you like it or don’t like it, a very large and growing segment of the population prefers Spanish. And all those customers/viewers do not go to your site. You are also missing out on many other immigrant groups, and on possible viewers in other countries, by being English-only. If you possibly can, it makes sense to have the site written, not just translated, into other languages, with the content altered to fit the culture.

    So . . . get excited! You can make a web site work. You just need to do it carefully and think it through. You need to do much more than what is outlined here to get people to come to your finished site. They won’t come just because it is there. You also need a marketing plan. But the web site is the place to start. And yours will stand out. Because most of the other ones are only carcasses.

    Patty Zevallos
    media producer — web, video, print
    writing, directing, design, illustration, layout
    located in the Washington, D.C. / Northern Virginia area
    Visit http://www.pbzproductions.com to see her Green Living site, which uses only HTML and CSS, and her resume / portfolio site, which adds a Flash animation but it is subtle. See if you can find it.

  • Mwc

    like your four steps, and think you’re correct that “convening the conversation” is essential. That said, it’s also incredibly difficult to know where and how to begin. Simply asking the public to participate doesn’t seem to produce useful results.

    For those looking for more guidance on how to convene the conversation, I’d recommend Beth Simone Noveck’s book “Wiki Government.” Ms. Noveck was instrumental in the develoment of Peer to Patent, which you reference.

    Specifically, I’d point readers to the chapter on “Lessons Learned,” which has excellent advice, such as:
    – Ask the right question;
    – Ask the right people;
    – Design the process for the desired end.

    These suggestions, and others found in that chapter, help those interested in convening the conversation figure out how to do it successfully.