The three phases of Government 2.0

How surprise, experimentation and solutions have defined Gov 2.0.

As the program co-chair for the upcoming Gov 2.0 Expo, I’ve had a lot of time to learn about what’s happening at the edges of the space. And through my experience working on the topic with the Department of Defense, and now through a different lens at Microsoft’s public sector division, I’ve had a lot of time to think about where it’s been, and where it is now.

Setting aside older topics in government and technology, like the e-government movement, I’ve seen three phases in what most people would agree is “Government 2.0” — a phase of surprise, a phase of experimentation, and a phase of solutions. I explain each below.

Phase 1: Government 2.0 Surprise (200?-2008)

Gov 2.0 Expo 2010In 2008 (and somewhat before, but I cannot speak well to that personally), Government 2.0 was in a phase of surprise. Surprise that something like Twitter was significant. Surprise that governments might use Facebook as a public affairs platform. Surprise that strictly hierarchical organizations like the military services would use distinctly non-hierarchical technologies like wikis and blogs to accomplish their missions. Call it surprise, or fright, or ignorance, or any number of other things, but Gov 2.0 had an uncertain future at this point.

When I wrote some initial posts (my first blogs ever, really) about Gov 2.0 for Mashable in the fall of 2008 (post 1, post 2), they got a lot of attention. They got this attention for at least three reasons: (1) I hate this, (2) I love this, (3) Who’s this Mark Drapeau guy? All three reasons were important because at the end of 2008 a critical dialogue was beginning that crossed over from people inside the government, the contractors working with them, and the “outside” private sector of people from Silicon Valley, and multitude of other tech hubs — Austin, Boston, Denver, Seattle, New York, and more.

This was roughly the time when Tim O’Reilly called my office to chat about his views of government evolution, and about what was happening in Washington, DC. This was also about the time when President Obama was elected and different people — Alec Ross, Macon Phillips, Vivek Kundra, etc. — were about to wield power over the topic matter. But yet, Gov 2.0 was certainly in its infancy.

Phase 2: Government 2.0 Experimentation (2009)

After the Obama election, and particularly after the inauguration, Gov 2.0 took on a new pace. Change was mandatory. Experiments were happening. In February 2009, I wrote a piece for ReadWriteWeb about the rise of experimental, tech-savvy people inside and outside government who were moving for change — change in how government operates internally, and how it interacts with the public. These “goverati” formed the core of a movement to bring the White House vision (perhaps dating back to at least President Jefferson) of a more transparent, collaborative, and participatory government in which citizens participate continuously and not just at election time to fruition.

Around this time, the term “Open Government” also became popular. It’s not really clear which of “Open Government” or “Government 2.”0 is the more vague and meaningless term, but both are sufficiently vague and meaningless to sum up a movement that spans everything from philosophy about how government should work for people, to social media and social networks, to cloud computing, to mobile technology, to open source and open technology/interoperability, and even to topics like cybersecurity and privacy of citizen data.

In 2009, it didn’t really matter what you called Gov 2.0. The goverati with the 2008 skill set head start became part of government (think Macon Phillips from the campaign, now at the White House), or were promoted to new jobs like “new media director” within it (think Amanda Eamich at USDA Public Affairs), or stayed in the private sector yet became influential in government circles (think Anil Dash with Expert Labs). And experiment they did.

Experiment, experiment, experiment. Soon, the community of government-interested people using social media and other collaboration technologies exploded from about 50 to about 500. Or 5,000. Or more. Who really knows? and others try to keep track but it’s become an extraordinary exercise. In perhaps the most drastic example of the government’s embrace of new technologies, the Defense Department launched, which explicitly features links to YouTube, Twitter, Flickr, and so forth. “We want to hear from you!” became the motto of government agencies.

Experiments do not always provide the answers one hopes for, and near the end of 2009, I noticed that the very best practices, especially with regard to citizen outreach, agility, and other technologies were not necessarily being adopted by the government. I worried a bit about a semi-permanent, stale (if that’s possible) stage of experimentation. In two posts on Radar (post 1, post 2), I discussed what I saw happening, and also discussed my vision for what truly revolutionary government engagement with audiences would look like. (I soon took a job with a global company largely asking me to put this vision into action … from the other side of the aisle, if you will.)

Phase 3: Government 2.0 Solutions (2010-201?)

The landscape of Gov 2.0 in early 2010 is shifting once more, as wise people move from the mindset of convincing colleagues to move from surprise to experimentation, and actually conducting the experiments and analyzing the results, into one in which people are searching for stable, reliable, legal, interoperable, and complete solutions to government problems. As it turns out, these solutions are not always free, they are not always open source, they are not always created by 35 hackers meeting for a weekend, they are not always available on the web or in the cloud, and they are not always available off-the-shelf.

Sometimes they are, though, and that’s what makes Gov 2.0 ultimately so exciting. Something like Crisis Camp Haiti was incredibly significant. The use of social media to publicize the Iranian elections and other global issues is significant in a different way. There are other useful examples of simple, non-specific, commercial technologies helping government missions. Nevertheless, disappointments associated with simplistic off-the-shelf technology to crowdsource public opinion results in metrics that are irrelevant to solving problems.

Recently, I vlogged on about how a good deal of Gov 2.0 metrics in the phase of experimentation revolved around the number of followers/fans/comments/etc., which effectively tells the experimenter not one single thing about how effective one is being at solving problems. (Don’t even get me started on government agencies competing to have the most Facebook “fans.”) The really important thing to measure is how many truly unique comments you get that are actually novel and useful, that actually lead to change. Or how many new people you can add to your social network that actually help you write better legislation. Or whatever; you get the point — it’s quality, not quantity (unfortunately for managers, the former is harder to quantify). Other issues, like the realization that government entities in many cases don’t own the information that they upload to social media sites, nor the conversations that happen there, are leading to new discussions about what Gov 2.0 should look like.

This creates both challenges and opportunities. While fresh startup companies were the flavor of the year in 2009, in 2010 what I predict is the onslaught of traditional Beltway bandits (Northrup Grumman, Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems), software companies (Google, Microsoft, Cisco), and other major players (Bloomberg? Nielsen? Verizon?) offering a different type of solution — one that costs money, but works reliably and meets the needs and requirements of the customer.

What’s the Future of Gov 2.0?

It’s very difficult to predict the future, unless you are a folk parody duo from New Zealand (NSFW). I wrote about a broad vision for the next three years of Gov 2.0 as 2009 was becoming 2010, but those trends don’t really get at the real question of how Gov 2.0 will migrate from an experimental game into a solutions-based practice. Personally, I’m looking forward to hearing what you think in the comments section here, and at Gov 2.0 Expo in a couple weeks.

So, what do you think? Will currently free Web 2.0 companies work better with governments in the future to offer more stable and reliable solutions? Will traditional corporations use their advantage in the government contracting world to package these new Gov 2.0 solutions with more traditional IT products and services? And how does this differ from the federal level (which I’ve mainly written about) down to more local governments? How does this play internationally?

tags: ,