Gov 2.0 as means not end

Government-as-platform doesn't absolve us from asking what services should be provided by a government.

Gov 2.0 Summit, 2010It’s often tempting to think that Gov 2.0 is common ground between those who always want smaller government and those who want government to help its citizens. To an extent, this is true: opening up services lets citizens and businesses do more for themselves, and means government doesn’t have to grow for more things to happen. In some cases, government can even get smaller.

But government-as-platform doesn’t absolve us from asking what fundamental services should be provided by a government, as opposed to private industry. This is a big question. We didn’t come up with a single universally-agreed answer before Gov 2.0, and Gov 2.0 will neither answer it for us nor let us evade the question.

You can see this in two recent statements Clay Johnson’s Don’t Let the Municipal Crisis Go to Waste essay sparked a challenging line of thought. Clay’s thesis is simply this:

Perhaps its the idealist in me, but I want this crisis mean more than privatization or bankruptcy. I want it to drive a need for people to connect locally, and I want it to further blur the line between people and the government they elect. I want it to usher in a new era of civic responsibility.

Civic responsibility and participation is, of course, a theme of President Obama who brought up as a center of volunteerism.

At the same time, David Cameron is articulating his Big Society concept:

The Big Society is about a huge culture change…
…where people, in their everyday lives, in their homes, in their neighbourhoods, in their workplace…
…don’t always turn to officials, local authorities or central government for answers to the problems they face …
…but instead feel both free and powerful enough to help themselves and their own communities.

You can see how government-as-cost and government-as-investment thinking comes out in the difference in rhetoric between the Obama and Cameron administrations. Obama and his staff, coming from the investment mindset, are building a Gov 2.0 infrastructure that creates a space for economic opportunity, informed citizens, and wider involvement in decision making so the government better reflects the community’s will. Cameron and his staff, coming from a cost mindset, are building a Gov 2.0 infrastructure that suggests it will be more about turning government-provided services over to the private sector:

And in its place we’ve got give professionals much more freedom, and open up public services to new providers like charities, social enterprises and private companies so we get more innovation, diversity and responsiveness to public need.

There will be overlap in what both administrations accomplish—rarely do political opponents completely disagree on what steps to take. However, Government as a Platform is a story being told by both political sides: in a frame about investing for benefits and in a frame about lower taxes and moving services into the private sector.

I can’t emphasize enough, though, that APIs and open data are tools, not results. As someone who doesn’t feel well represented by either political party (I’m both empathic and numerate), I hope we see a bit of both side’s goals: some divested functionality and some increased opportunity. I’m not so optimistic, however, as to assume that Gov 2.0 won’t be seized upon by ideological absolutists of both ilks. After all, it’s worth remembering that Kashmir and the West Bank are common ground too.


“Government as a platform” is on the agenda for the Gov 2.0 Summit, being held Sept. 7-8 in Washington, D.C. Learn more and request and invitation.

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