If You're a Government 2.0 Guru, You have no Business in Government 2.0

This past week, we witnessed history with the election of President Barack Obama. He is certainly America’s first black president, but unfortunately, that’s where the highlighted differences seem to end. Little coverage is given to the fact that he is also the first Gen-X president. He is the first tech savvy president. And of course, he is the first “internet president”, having used social media and the netroots effectively.

Even WhiteHouse.gov is seeping with Web 2.0 goodness (though admittedly, it is not quite as savvy as Change.gov, the official transition team site of the Obama administration).

Conventional wisdom says that the federal sector is about to change dramatically. That the adoption of a national Chief Technology Officer, and the pledge to open up the doors and windows of government to the public, will bring about new opportunities for an online world that thrives on transparency and open dialogue. There is no reason to believe that this will not be the case.

Along comes the newest buzzword of the day, Government 2.0. As with anything that includes a software-styled decimal iteration, this heralds a new and improved government. A better one that offers more functionality, usability and interactivity.

Geoff Livingston points out, accurately, that this new openness in government has apparently created a sector of carpetbaggers that have labeled themselves “experts” in the field. I think his cynicism is warranted. Capitalism at work. Anything to make a buck.

Here’s the stark reality of the Government 2.0 space: There are very few gurus and taking on that mantle will doom your ability to work in the sector.

Let me explain.

There are actual real experts that have been toiling for years trying to get government to adopt new and innovative technologies, communication channels and bringing a forward thinking mentality to those in service. These folks have had a degree of micro-success, but it’s been limited since the government, as a whole, is not very open. It’s changing – possibly a result of the hard work put in by these experts – but it’s still a very closed space. Those experts are experts because they’ve put in their time, toiling and pushing and fighting the system. They understand the system, as it is, not simply as they would like it to be. They recognize the need to work within the constraints that have governed the government for many years with a hope that they can change it over time. They are experts because they are not flash in the pan and know it will take a long time.

See, they understand that two governments exist. There is the elected government which changes every 4-8 years and sometimes longer (in the case of Congress and State legislatures). As well, there is an established government – career feds who are never fired, and rarely quit their jobs. They just move between agencies with established patterns and principles in tow. They are the foot soldiers who actually do the work. The established government is where the real change begins.

Very few of the so called experts can truly be experts by any reasonable standard. They have appeared on the scene in recent months, read the blogs and brushed up on their government-fu. They probably come from traditional, and sometimes social media communications backgrounds. They have been working with small companies in the web space or otherwise, and expect the principles which have governed their trade to transcend the halls of Commerce, Agriculture, State and Defense. Therefore, they believe, they are experts.

What they don’t realize is that their self-branding actually poses the risk of hurting their business – especially if, in a down economy, they expect to sustain their business in a new an growing sector. What they don’t realize is the government they wish to work with understands that Government 2.0 is new and that very few people are experts. The government, I believe, is looking to partner with people who have the chutzpah to become experts. Who have a firm grounding in communications principles and web savvy. They understand that the next year will make experts if the right candidates, firms and contractors are chosen. They are looking for people who have the savvy needed to guide and advise, with the understanding that it’s a completely new playing field. My instinct says that the government knows that they are getting prepared to experiment and want someone to experiment with.

Are they looking for complete rookies? Hardly. But they are looking for the chops to brave this new world with some degree of sanity.

If you’ve got those chops, you might become an expert. Chances are, though, if you lie to them and say you’re an expert now, they simply won’t hire you.

Aaron Brazell

Aaron Brazell is a Baltimore, MD-based WordPress developer, a co-founder at WP Engine, WordPress core contributor and author. He wrote the book WordPress Bible and has been publishing on the web since 2000. You can follow him on Twitter, on his personal blog and view his photography at The Aperture Filter.

31 thoughts on “If You're a Government 2.0 Guru, You have no Business in Government 2.0

  1. Thanks so much for writing this “companion piece” to Geoff’s great article. Most of the truly influential people in “Government 2.0″ are not widely known in the “fun social media startup event” circuit, but they will have the most impact. They are very smart, well-connected, have impressive academic and service resumes, and can call the decisionmaker and get a meeting while the “gurus” are just writing about it, even worse sometimes in an insulting, negative manner that doesn’t help anyone. Success in changing government doesn’t go to the edgy and the flash in the pan; it goes to the hard-working, reasonable and persistent.

  2. Hear hear! When someone tells me they are a social media expert, I look quizzically at them and wonder to myself, Says who? You? Few experts are truly experts, like you write.

    On a bigger issue, why the continual need to write about Government 2.0 as a noun? How many Waldos on the street can identify with the term? My guess is not many. People understand what “government,” “web,” and “online” means. People identify with a desire for increased participation, communication, and transparency. But in the words of Jamie Scheu, please stop versioning the web.

  3. Mark-

    I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t actually do any business with the government at this time. I am, clearly, writing about it but I’m also not doing the work. Clearly, you are positioned well on the inside to be one of these experts and hope you take every opportunity you can get!

  4. Hi Aaron,

    Great post and I think you and Geoff are absolutely right.

    As I said over at Geoff’s blog, I am humble enough to know that I am not an expert or guru related to Web 2.0 since I have only been playing in the sandbox for about a year. But I have been writing about the subject during that time (http://generationshift.blogspot.com), and have begun to consult with agencies a bit about ways to dip their toes in the water. My approach is to talk with agencies directly, such as the in-person conversation I had last week with “Blogger Bob” over at TSA. From there, I seek to highlight their activities for the benefit of other agencies at all levels of government.

    In addition, I have been delivering a presentation that essentially does three things: (1) Explains social media, (2) Shares examples from agencies that are actively using social media, and (3) Demystifies the start-up by demonstrating in real-time how to set up the tools. It’s designed as an introduction, but also serves the purpose of overcoming stakeholder resistance and fear of adoption. Lastly, I facilitate some brainstorming about what might work best – not just creating a blog or wiki for the sake of saying “we’ve gone Web 2.0!” All of this activity has been performed without compensation (with the exception of a couple webinars).

    I’m curious to know if you and Geoff would consider this carpet-bagging or a useful and natural evolution of the process. For me, if compensation comes from offering these services and it helps move agencies forward to better communicate with constituents, that’s just frosting. My main focus is on sharing what I have learned with them and enhancing their ability to accomplish their mission.

  5. Andrew- I would not count that as carpetbagging. I would count that as organic growth in a brand new space. However, there are many who are self-righteously declaring what should be happening in the government space. I think it’s as much about presentation as it is about humility and respect for the status quo.

  6. Hello, Aaron. You struck a nerve with me on this one, and I would love to share a few additional thoughts with you….

    Speaking as someone who teaches courses like “Social Media: What You Need to Know” and “Podcasting for Government and Corporate Business” in the Washington DC area, I can say conclusively that our government has a lot to learn.

    The podcasting class I teach has been around (and thankfully, has been in demand) since 2005. Over the years I’ve taught students from a wide spectrum of government entities like the FBI, NASA, and (with the most participants so far) the IRS. Most of the students were eager and anxious to implement podcasting (and other Web 2.0 initiatives) where they worked. Out of all my students though, only one from The Kennedy Center was given the green light to move forward.

    I found out from several students that the apprehension you blog about comes from three fronts. The first one (mentioned here in this post) is “change”. Government policies have gone through committee upon committee and are now set in stone. No one wants to break out the chisel. Aaron is quite correct that change is happening but at a snail’s leisurely crawl. While the changes at WhiteHouse.gov are impressive, they should have happened years ago. If the government is lucky, they will be caught up before the end of President Obama’s current term.

    The second problem with the US Government embracing Web 2.0 initiatives is, according to my students, the folks in their IT departments. Concerning what I teach, many of them don’t know what a podcast is, don’t care to know what a podcast is, are go to great lengths to convince their immediate supervisors that a podcast can introduce viruses into a system. (Again, these are what my students are telling me.) The concern here is who is, in the end, inherently held accountable for the podcast: the creators, or IT who holds the final word on the website. I have also been told by clientele that Government IT folks are quite possessive over their websites. Whether it is a personal issue or a professional one, this is a second hurdle my students face.

    The third hurtle, however, indirectly points at us, the people who are actively in Social Media. A few students have brazenly shot their mouths off at me that I’m teaching Podcasting wrong. “Well, there’s this one podcast I listen to, and they don’t use an RSS feed!” My response: “Well then it’s not really a podcast.” They proceed to try and win this argument by pulling up a site that has an audio file available for download, and next to it a graphic that reads “Podcast.” As I say in both my books on podcasting and in my class, a podcast is media delivered to you via RSS. Period. Anything else is just downloadable media. Still you have the (self-proclaimed) Social Media experts talking about webcasting, netcasting, and vidcasting…and many of them are just podcasting. Within the Social Media community, people are making up words that only thickens the “Geek Speak” soup, causing confusion for those wanting to implement it. Granted, this kind of confusion keeps guys like me in business, but this confusion will also slow down change that our government needs. Instead of coming up with catchy terms in Social Media, we should focus on the basics in order to be clear as to exactly what we are doing.

    Thanks for offering this sounding board; and thank you, Aaron, for this post. Maybe, at my next podcasting class in February, I will have a different kind of student charged with a different kind of strategy for their organization. We will see.

  7. Great article. I think it resonates in anything…people, at least myself, are more willing to work with people who have a desire to learn, than those who do not. Some of my greatest role models, and people I consider to actually be experts, are those that insist they are not and continue to share what they learn. Those are my heroes. =) In the “government 2.0″ circles, these are the people I admire, and look forward to working with more in the future. People who desire to learn, grow and serve each other and the country.

  8. In defense of Andrew, who I know, I think that Geoff was getting at the notion of many “social media experts” suddenly turned “Government 2.0 experts” overnight, partly because of excitement about the election.

    You work full-time at a major Federal government Cabinet agency, where you have an educational role that partly involves social technologies. Not only are you not a carpetbagger, you are the one getting carpetbagged!!

  9. Well said and a good riff on that original discussion. It is all about humility. Who can be a government 2.0 expert yet? Maybe some folks at the Library of Congress with their whopping two-three year old blog. Get my drift?

    Andrew: I was not calling you an expert or a carpetbagger. As Mark said you are the one getting carpetbagged. But it has been interesting to see guilty dogs bark a bit since the original post.

  10. Yeah, whatever. I’m a Web 3.0 expert. ;)

    In all seriously, there’s a multitude of self-proclaimed Web 2.0/Social Media experts who just make sh*t up, regurgitate the “real” experts, and probably haven’t had significant clientele or proven results, etc. Which pisses me off to no end. In fact, I wish they’d stop following me on Twitter. And, of course, many folks who do make a living in this space do so quietly letting their clients take the praise. I’ve done work for a variety of folks, or how about Shawn Morton’s work at Nationwide, or Jeremy Toeman’s Stage Two consulting firm. And obviously Aaron is an expert and has a unique voice in this space.

  11. I guess I should have written a sentence or two how government Web 2.0 experts will largely need to be culled from the outside, as the gov hasn’t historically been known for their openness as with most older, established industries. However, there many initiatives in place. In fact, those interested in real people doing real stuff and reporting on existing stuff, may want to check out Steve Lunceford on Twitter: http://twitter.com/dslunceford

  12. I came at this business from a career in the USMC, active and reserve, trying to make tech work. So I can agree that it’s going to be interesting to watch as people jump into this space. Finding people who have both operational and technical experience can be hard; even harder to find people who also understand the policy hurdles. And you must – This is just as much about working to help change/shift policy to support tech as it is the tech itself. Technology in context. I have spent the last several weeks tweaking two-way email integration to help what some would consider senior level decision makers join The Conversation. They could care less about Anything 2.0. I am no guru but I do know that putting 2.0 at the end of the title means little to many of the people who sign the checks.

  13. The bemused stories of reporters covering the new fresh-faced social networking interns and GenXers now pouring into the White House hint, perhaps, at one of the major obstacles facing “opening up” the government. Certainly for the last eight years, and likely going back decades, there is a concern about security within the White House that gets mirrored throughout the government as a whole, an attitude that enemies are listening.

    This isn’t going to go away even with a few well placed executive orders because it is ground so deeply in the bureaucratic culture in Washington that it’ll take a Herculean effort to change it. Presidents and their administrations come and go, but these keepers of tradition go on forever.

    Add on to this the fact that most government IT systems consists of layer upon layer of computers and their associated applications, many built by long since out of business contractors for tasks that are no longer performed and long since forgotten. There are usually three or four layers of authentication at work, in some cases authenticating for services that are no longer performed, but taking the redundant servers out of the loop would bring whole bureaucracies screeching to a halt.

    Moreover, consider that every time that you add a new server or remove a server, you typically have to harden the server against attacks and make sure that it is properly audited, which is usually a cash cow for the auditing services (an $800 server may end up requiring $200,000 worth of auditing services just to be added).

    Finally, consider that new system buys have to go through three or four or five different committees just to insure that they satisfy the needs they are supposed to satisfy (which of course shifts depending upon who’s defining those needs at the moment). Distributed web architectures may help, but even there expect that it will be a slow process.

    There is far more at work than just simply adding a few blog sites here and there. I suspect strongly that in the end, it will still be the big corporate consultants that do the best at the end of the day, because they have learned how to speak the language of the bureaucrat, rather than coming in expecting to teach the bureaucrat to learn the language of the geek.

  14. Aaron,
    You managed to have many of the true experts in this post — you and several of the people who have posted comments.
    There is an interesting mix happening — there are government people who may (or may not) be interested in “government 2.0″ … and then there are Web 2.0 people who are looking at government. There are reasons why this is developing slowly — it probably should develop slowly. Most outsiders tend to look at government as a single organization. In truth, it is a conglomerate of hundreds — maybe thousands — of different organizations. And, just like the rest of the world, different organizations are at different stages of development. If I was going to generalize, I would say that government is wading into the shallow end of the pool. But my suspicion is that government is about the same place as most private sector organizations. There are exceptions — the high-tech companies where this is a way of doing business. I look at my own industry — journalism — and they are adopting it only as we face near extinction. So this isn’t that easy. Furthermore, I would argue that the Defense Department is farther along then almost any other organizations. They just call this “network-centric operations,” but the idea is largely the same — information is power, and information that is shared is much more powerful then information that is kept to oneself… all of us are wiser then each of us individually. DOD has been implementing network-centric operations for a decade — and it has made the U.S. armed forces particularly lethal and increasingly agile.

    In the end, if this is going to work, this has to help agencies carry out their missions more effectively — whatever mission that may be. That can be somebody at DHS securing the borders to somebody at DOD whose focused on defeating our enemies, it can be somebody at EPA focused on cleaning up the environment or somebody at OPM focused on managing a large and diverse workforce. If these tools are going to be helpful, they have to enable agencies to carry out the mission more effectively.

    In general, agencies probably should wade in rather than diving into the deep end. These tools necessitate a very different way of thinking for most organizations, let alone most agencies. The hierarchical management structure gets flattened… and information is shared.

    I, for one, am thrilled that people are talking about this and thinking about this. Again, all of us are smarter then each of us individually — so I look forward to the innovation that will come as government and Web 2.0 share thoughts, ideas, information and data.

    Finally, I have to point to one organization that I think has been at the forefront of helping agencies implement these tools so they can carry out their mission more effectively: the National Academy of Public Administration’s Collaboration Project.
    http://collaborationproject.org/
    To that end, I nominated the Collaboration Project for one of Federal Computer Week’s Federal 100 Awards because of the remarkable work they have done.
    http://dorobekinsider.com/2009/01/06/fed-100-nomination-napas-frank-digiamarino/

    Aaron — thanks for the post.

  15. Bravo, Aaron,
    Whether you’re the “guy” who buys a business or the “guy” who comes in to problem solve, it’s key to understand that the people who actually do the work carry a wealth intuitive detail that can only be gained by experience. All the “brilliance and expertise” learned within another sphere has be carefully reconsidered within the new context to have true value. That takes a beginner’s mind. Well thought and well presented, sir.

  16. Gentlemen, you are all making valid points. But don’t forget the old adage, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed are kings.” So all it takes is one of these one-eyed “experts” to find a “blind” client and he/she cab be “king.”

    Here’s another analogy: The ugly truth is that yet another type of “Internet gold rush” is on and some people who come late to the scene might find “gold” before those who arrived earlier and prospected a lot more carefully. And most won’t find anything.

    A lot of good Gov 2.0 folks will get outmaneuvered by weaker “experts” who are better marketers. Or maybe just luckier.

  17. Not entirely true, Joe. The federal sector has an extensive and rigorous contract bid/award process that, as bureaucratically cumbersome as it is, does serve to weed out those who can’t do a job.

  18. Well-written piece. But Obama is not an Xer. As many nationally influential voices have repeatedly noted, Obama is part of Generation Jones, born 1954-1965, between the Boomers and Generation X. Google Generation Jones, and you’ll see it’s gotten a lot of media attention, and many top commentators from many top publications and networks (New York Times, Time magazine, NBC, Newsweek, ABC, etc.) are specifically referring to Obama, born in 1961, as part of Generation Jones.

  19. Said another way, the business of government is rarely strictly “social”. There are an almost unlimited number of permutations of network behavior in open citizen networks, closed stakeholder and project team networks and hybrid networks. Unlike what we think of as Web 2.0 and/or social media networks, network structures are designed for a purpose first, usually one of decision support for a project, event, issue, rule or legislation.

    Advising government and acting within government does require a deep understanding of specific business problems and objectives, often unique to each agency or network type.

    The comment on financial motives is a good one, for perhaps a slightly different reason. Success in implementing network services is directly dependent on business models and method of delivery and support. Legacy business and procurement models in government will not provide the same lift as new business models designed to amplify network behaviors and to drive real value from those networks.

    New technologies are scary for established vendors, in part because they deliver network support at a small fraction of the cost of traditional delivery models designed to provide government with massive multi-million dollar IT projects that best serve structured transactions and financial and citizen service transactions. They in effect canabalize old technologies and business methods.

    My view is that success is going to be dependent on a willingness to invert communications layers within and between agencies, and to further reform the technology and delivery process for those technologies and methods that support the new paradigms. We also have to be willing to accept a high degree of de-centralization characteristic of distributed citizen networks by a government built for centralized management and control.

    The point in part is that this is going to require a mix of established subject matter knowledge and skills, coupled with the skills necessary to build effective networks for citizens, interagency communications, and agency/citizen involvement. What those who subscribe to social media and Web 2.0 do bring is a sense of urgency for change.

    Having fought this battle for many years, and being heavily invested in its success, we should welcome and enlist new entrants into the cause of change. It is going to take the new energy to overcome resistance to change needed to transform our government structures. We can not be competitive as a country without making these changes. In the same way that American business is going to experience massive transformation – so too is government.

    It is going to take all of us.

  20. Aaron, I’ve worked on Federal proposals since the 1980s and am well aware of the wonderful hoops a vendor has to jump through. (and I don’t claim to be an expert in that realm – seriously). In a perfect world you would be absolutely correct.

    However, someone with less “expertise” can be a better proposal writer or can be better at teaming with prime contractors and get the work. That is what I also meant by being a better “marketer.” The procurement system does not necessarily create a level playing field. It sometimes favors those who score the best, not the best.

  21. Nice post Aaron, and so many great comments. This is why I don’t want to be an “expert” in anything. :) Haha.

    The good news at least, is that all this “gov 2.0″ talk is getting more people involved and thinking about different ways to get things done. The real “experts” will come out on top, and the carpetbaggers will get left behind.

  22. Most excellent post. You ht a nerve with me about beltway bandits that claim to have some Web/Enterprise 2.0 pedigree, but in fact have nothing of the sort. What I find humorous is that in our environment, you really can’t hide your competence or your incompetence. Just by looking at someone’s digital exhaust, you can know immediately if the person in question knows what they are talking about.

    @Joseph Zuccaro says correctly that in the “land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” A vast majority of the public, let alone USFG executives, do not know or understand what it takes to have a successful W/E 2.0 initiative. Unfortunately, Aaron is correct in his worries. There will be a rush of bandits to sell “Web 2.0″ solutions to the Federal market. All I can think is, “Great a whole new set of IT integration problems I have to fix . . . “

  23. The point that resonates with me is we are going to become government 2.0 experts over the next year.

    I’ve put together a focused collection of links, Government Hacker Reference Documents, that Government 2.0 trainees should know.

    That said, I think it will be great to have people with proven track records in Web 2.0 working with people with proven track records in government, and a few people who have whacky ideas. That’s what’s great about the Internet: great insights and innovations come from unexpected places.

    Many people have been probing at the interface of government and Web 2.0 for a while, both from the inside and from the outside. That’s what we keep discovering over at the Sunlight Foundation — just how much is going on.

    For those of you out there with Web 2.0 skills, bring your skills and your enthusiasm. Just check your assumptions and ego at the door. Those of with you with just plain enthusiasm, you are invited, too. After all, that’s how the web started…

  24. Wow there’s so much good stuff in this blog post, and so many excellent comments…

    Tee: “Within the Social Media community, people are making up words that only thickens the “Geek Speak” soup, causing confusion for those wanting to implement it.”

    This particularly relates to my situation at Ontario government. We’re using a lot of new media/multimedia tactics in our strategies now, but “Web 2.0,” they are not. Even the YouTube channel we’re about to launch for our AccessOn.ca site will not be true social media: the comments will be closed, and in my opinion, that removes the social aspect all together.

    Greg Elin: “For those of you out there with Web 2.0 skills, bring your skills and your enthusiasm. Just check your assumptions and ego at the door.”

    Absolutely correct! I’m 24 years old. I’ve been using computers since I was 10, and started using two-way communication channels like BBS and chat rooms since I was 12. My two older brothers are both computer geeks and I learned through osmosis how computers work, inside and out. I went to school for public relations, corporate communications, and was taught to believe in the principles the underlying theory professes: honesty, two-way communication with your stakeholders/audiences, and delivering information for the good of the public interest. I’m an idealist and deeply believe in those values, and I see avenues being paved by Web 2.0/Social media technologies that will ultimately align with true democratic values – enabling a voice for every citizen and a more efficient and transparent government.

    But it will not happen overnight. Not even with a new charismatic, forward-thinking U.S. president. This is a starting point and we need to respect that… people are too eager to jump into this game without understanding that you can’t shatter a paradigm. You can start chipping away at it, creating fractures on its surface, but to break it completely requires time and patience.

  25. Good post and great comments.

    As a full-time fed who runs a “Gov 2.0″-style project at an agency and the founder of GovLoop.com – a social network of over 5k govies where we talk about this stuff all the time, I am greatly intrigued how the evolution of “Gov 2.0″ will happen.

    My couple quick thoughts (some overlap):
    1) Gov’t is made of hundreds of agencies. And then you talk about all the divisions in each one (i.e. multiple different initiatives from various not-always coordinated groups at places like State/EPA/etc). Tons of different players at different stages.
    2) Procurement doesn’t quite know how to deal with small engagements. I don’t see these as 5-year, $30 million projects which is what the gov’t is used to. I’m guessing they might just add a person or two (and some tech) to contracts already in place.
    3) I think it’s great to see the two communities grow and connect. There is a strong contingent of full-time govies (and contractors already at an agency) that coordinate frequently at places like Federal Web Managers events, GovLoop.com, and Collaboration Project events. The new breeds (the Googles, Sunlight Foundations, and more general social media/web 2.0 consultants/companies) are starting to show up and sponsor events. The cross-over is good for both parties as there is a lot to learn from both. I’ve seen a number of events pop up lately with a good mix in crowds.

    And don’t worry, gov’t folks have been pitched by a million consultants selling us a pot of gold for a penny for years. We can figure it out.

    Finally, I’m not really worried about the buzz-words. Whether Gov 2.0 is appropriate. Does Web 3.0 exist? To me, in the end, it is about enabling conversations to disseminate and build knowledge (gov’t to gov’t, gov’t to citizen, etc)

  26. Very true!

    Some of us who have been working in the space for 10+ years have a great deal of knowledge of what does and doesn’t work.

    Whereas many newcomers seem to focus on the fads – let’s all have a ‘blog’ (but no comments because someone might hurt our feelings) – at the expense of really understanding the online ecosystem.

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