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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  • Thomas Bjelkeman-Pettersson

    Much of the UK open government efforts seem to be focused on the idea that if you just open the data amazing things will happen. I don’t think it is quite as simple as that.

    UK development aid spending in 2009 was £7.4 Bn ($11.5 Bn) [1]. Where estimates for costs of reporting and monitoring are hard to come by, one reports [2] says that overheads in development aid can be anything from 5-14%. So lets be charitable and say that reporting and monitoring make up about 1% of total expenditure costs, using traditional methods, i.e. thick Word reports which nobody reads.

    That is £74 millon. I hear the other day that the UK development aid agency, UK Department for International Development (DFID), is spending under under £100,000 on its efforts to make their spending data publicly accessible.

    There is more needed than just opening up data. Making data useful costs. Showing how you are spending £7.4 Bn reliably is not something you can solve with a bit of engagement from “providers like charities, social enterprises and private companies”. That takes a serious effort.

    [1] The UK & the 0.7% aid target, and the Draft International Development (ODA Target) Bill (PDF)

  • Thomas Bjelkeman-Pettersson

    The second reference went missing:

    Aid Effectiveness Agenda: Benefits of a European Approach (PDF)

  • Gordon Rae

    I think if you want to frame this topic as a compare-and-contrast between the USA and the UK, you could really pick your quotations more carefully. Johnson and Cameron are making the same point. Cameron’s an elected politician, but John’s example of clearing snow off the streets in DC is exactly the kind of issue that Cameron likes to talk about.

    I disagree with what you say about ‘private industry’. If we look back 80 – 100 years, the state was very small. But education, medicine, social work, clearing snow and taking away the trash weren’t done by ‘private industry’, they were done by citizens, communities, neighbours acting collectively. Perhaps the local town council or the church might take a role in co-ordinating activities, but it wasn’t the big bureaucratic overhead we see today.

    The ‘Welfare State’ model of organization that became the norm all over Europe and N. America after 1945 created big state-run institutions that were managed like corporations, but funded by taxes, rather than sales. The innovations of the Thatcher / Reagan years introduced outsourcing and subcontracting, which were being introduced into private companies at the same time, but it didn’t change the model. My trash gets taken away by a private company, but I still pay for it through my taxes.

    We do need a debate about how services are provided, but it needs to be about how our tax money is spent and how we hold service providers accountable. We need to look at a new way of running government that is about delivery and accountability, and not just about how we fund the institutions.