Government as a Platform?

Data, data, data. This is the answer for government in this new world of Government 2.0. Making government available to the citizens by building platforms for change. These are the ideas bandied around when the Silicon Valley Warlords came to Washington, D.C. this week to put on the invitation only Gov 2.0 Summit and teach Beltway insiders how their successes in the Valley could be instituted in the center of government.

The center of government. The center of politics. The center of policy. Of course, if the warlords have their way, the center of technology.

The concept of government as a platform is a good one on the surface. The idea that making government a series of, for lack of a better words, APIs to help the citizen understand and access their government officials and services better is a noble one. However, it is naive, and this is where the native-understanding of Washington comes into play.

The rest of the country looks at Washington as a city that is always in-fighting. That the entire ecosystem is made of bureaucratic citadels of power that never accomplishes anything. Incompetent politicians who all lie, lie, lie.

For those of us inside the beltway, we recognize that partisanship is a means to an end. That policy takes a long time to change, policy makers remain embedded as established government for years and even decades, and that politicians come and go. This is part of the expectation in our Washington. The agencies exist, made up of rank and file – the foot soldiers, if you will – and the policies in place in those agencies come from decades of precedent in some cases.

Some of it needs to be changed, and to the extent that OpenGov and Gov 2.0 can open up the doors to this change, then it will. However, some of this will never change and it’s not necessary to try to change it. Precedent generally exists for very sound reason.
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What will fail, however, is the replacement of the Washington system made up of politics, policy and also data by a fraternity-style, easy-money lifestyle of the west coast. While they talk billion dollar valuations on startups, we talk about billion dollar annual budgets for Level C agencies. Two different worlds. We have a much bigger stake, and therefore, we’re less likely to change how we do things because they suggest we should.

My suggestion is to O’Reilly and Camp: Come back to Washington, D.C. I know you’ll be back for Gov 2.0 Expo in the spring, but come back for a Summit too. Instead of dictating how the event goes, however, open it up. Make sure 50% of tickets are available for free for any verifiable government employee. (General consensus is the attendace was around 70-30, Private-public, a guess since O’Reilly Media declined to comment on attendance figures). Double the price for the private sector tickets to compensate. Here’s a hint: The federal fiscal year doesn’t begin until Oct 1. Budget money isn’t available to pay for the agency employees to attend your event. This isn’t the private sector. Money needs to be accounted for, especially during a recession. If you want this to be about government, ensure that the Feds can go free of charge and charge the Private sector double.

Secondly, allow questions from the audience. There was extremely little interaction with the audience by speakers. This needs to change if it’s going to be a learning environment.

I’d also suggest the need for a competitive event. With everyone who has dipped their feet into the Government 2.0 kool-aid, precious few have kept their noses clean from federating around this very failed event. I said in November that few of anyone has this industry figured out yet, yet the money flowing in from the Valley has caused almost everyone to sacrifice their independence and free-thinking (How many of you on that Gov 2.0 Summit Advisory Board are free to do a competitive event?)

I’d encourage some of the historically free-thinkers who have given up their independence to think about how government can really be assisted (let’s not talk about fixing government – they innovate much better than we do, actually) in different ways. I think there is room for events that will avoid the thumbprint of previous event and will federate around real ideas, not just inspiration speeches.

* Photo Credit: Big Berto

The Three Constituents of Government Engagement

The other day, I had a chance to speak with Congressional staffers on Capitol Hill about blogging and social media. It was an interesting opportunity that few people get, but I was honored to be given a chance to have that opportunity. It was also interesting to me that, the Democrats had a different set of interests, it seemed, than the Republicans. The Republicans definitely seemed to be interested about the concept of Twitter and microcontent and finding ways to communicate on behalf of their bosses (the members of Congress). The Democrats, on the flip side, seemed oriented to ethical communications, almost shying away from talking to bloggers for journalistic integrity and ensuring that all activity online feel in lines with the rules.

Regardless of the various conversations going on inside those halls and the various interests conveyed, they all have the same three constituencies to cater to. In fact, any government entity has to concern themselves with these same three constituencies. I had this conversation, in fact, last night at TechCocktail DC, where an entrepreneur was building a product that would directly serve government agencies. As a new entrepreneur with a new product in active development, he wanted my thoughts on how to bring the software to market. I advised him to think about these three different constituencies because, for a technology or movement to succeed in government, all three of these groups must have their needs addressed.

The Citizens (or the Users)

In the United States, rightfully, the federal government exists because of the American people. Every dollar spent on a program, project, contract or other investment is money that is gained through taxes or borrowing, which is in turn, paid for by taxes. Therefore, the American people have a direct vested interest in every line item in an agency budget, including product investment. This is why it is so important that the ideas that are brought to the table and utilized are done with careful consideration of ROI.

If a government agency decides to use a product, it is in the American people’s best interest that the idea is well vetted and has a high chance of success. Unlike other areas of the marketplace where experimentation can be tried, it is a much more difficult sell if large amounts of money are at play with an unknown chance of success.

The Elected Government (or the Board)

The second constituency, and the political side of the whole conversation, is the elected government. These are the Obamas, the Cabinet members, the department heads and other political appointees that set the policy and direction for their fiefdoms. They are the ones only concerned with the 50,000 foot view, that look at the puzzle as a whole and strategize about direction.

The elected government, at the end of the day, are likely to make the big decisions. Those decisions, might not be decisions about the adoption of a software product or technology, unless those products are major direction-changing products. However, they offer a significant stake in formulating the thinking surrounding adoption. In order to meet the need of this group, the entrepreneur has to think about the mission of the agency, and how strategically, their product or service is going to affect the strategic thinking at the top.

The Established Government (or the Employees)

The third important constituency in the ecosystem of government selling, is the established government. While the tenured feds who have been carreerists for 20 or 30 years, may not look at the larger strategy decisions, they are intimately involved in the day to day. They are the foot soldiers that, regardless of who is in office, continue to do what they do. They have their kingdoms that have been built up over years, making decisions not based on the high-level strategy, but based on executive orders, court rulings and the practical ebb and flow of day to day work.

The established government cares little about the “why’s” (many are just there to do their job and go home, which is not to say that they don’t care – they just have a different level of buy-in), and instead are focused on the “how”. They might argue, “It’s great that we want to adopt Linux as the operating system of choice in our agency to save money for the taxpayers, but we have significant interoperability concerns with other agencies.”

In order to bring a product to market, an entrepreneur must understand the practical challenges that are faced in an operational environment. This cannot be done with a single meeting in a conference room for an hour or two, and it can’t be done by simply reading blogs or newspapers. An entrepreneur should take as much time to understand that landscape intimately, and ensuring that any solution brought forth is going to address challenges as best as possible.

This group is also going to be the one that is most likely to derail a “pitch”.

Summary

Whenever you want to bring a product to market, the government (like business), is going to look at what you do from the perspective of their own understanding and perceptions. Taking the time to listen first, and understand the challenges of the three constituencies, is going to go a long way in extending your product reach to this audience.

It would be presumptuous to walk into Google and suggest better software for a perceived internal problem without first understanding if your solution extends Google’s mission to organize the worlds information. If it doesn’t help Google gain market share with their own products, then it’s not likely something that the Google brass care to entertain. If it doesn’t help Google, in some way, make money, then it probably doesn’t have wings. A sensible entrepreneur would look at these concepts before walking in the door. Why aren’t we doing the same thing with the government?