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?

It's a Read/Write/Execute Web and We Just Live In It

I hesitate to put any kind of definition around the versioning of the web. The fact that the internet world has to quantify the differences between the so-called Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 is silly at best. However, there is no doubt that there is a vast degree of difference between the web that was known in, say, 1999 and the web that we know of in 2009.

Objectively speaking, the first generation of the internet was based around a premise of “Read only”. It, of course, was not termed that, but the technology did not exist to support anything else. People used the internet to read the news, find weather forecasts and catch up on sports scores. Blogs didn’t exist. Facebook and Twitter were but thoughts in their founders minds, and likely thoughts that did not even exist yet. Who knew that a time would come when the most interactive thing on the web would not be shopping and ecommerce?

Somewhere in the middle of this decade, the web took on a more interactive approach. Tim O’Reilly began calling it Web 2.0 to note the clear cut difference between a “read only” web and a “read/write” web. Social networks and blogs gave users of the internet a chance to participate in the creation of it, by generating content. Eventually, content generation transformed from the written word to video, podcasts and microcontent.

On the cusp of a next generation to the web, there is a movement toward meta-data, that is granular information to help discoverability on the web. APIs allow developers to take content from, say, YouTube or Twitter, and repurpose that into something usable in other forms by humans, applications and mobile devices. It is, in essence, a “read/write/execute” version of the web and we are already beginning to see this.

Ari Herzog, a longtime reader of this blog as well as a longtime opponent of mine, wrote a post declaring Europe’s Government 2.0ish aspect of their EU site a win over the United States. See his post for his rationale.

He certainly makes a good point with his premise after the jump:
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Crossing Over Technology With Government

In recent months, I’ve made a small fuss over the so called Government 2.0 experts descending on Washington expecting to change the way of life in government. Of course, I’ve been also called out for not providing actual solutions. Probably rightly so, but understand that I don’t work in the government space. I am simply an outside observer who approaches problems with some degree of sobriety and realism.

Today, I figure I’ll offer some ideas that can move the conversation forward in some kind of constructive way. Wired’s Noah Shachtman covered a white paper released from the National Defense University that approaches Government 2.0 from the perspective of information sharing. While that is indeed a portion of the solution to the greater problem, the military in particular, probably needs to look at broader solutions (and more specific, less 50,000 foot view), as a more effective technology complement to their Mission.

For instance, while simple communication across the various branches of the service is useful for any enterprise, it would pay to address the core war-fighting mission of the military. For instance, a less than 50,000 foot view that suggests “information sharing”, might propose use of mobile devices that utilize GPS information for tactical war-theatre decision making.

Real-time use of video and photography immediately makes data available to analysts requiring split second decisions (such as the split second decision making by the Navy Captain responsible for ordering the sniper takedown of the Somali pirates this weekend).

It is not useful to simply put out generic information about “information sharing” and suggest blogs, wikis and the like are the solution to the problem. While I understand whitepapers are intended to provide a skeletal framework for further action, it is condescending to organizations who already value and understand the need for “information sharing”. What they are looking for is the “hows” and “whats” to achieve their mission.

As stated in previous articles, this is where the “experts” should be focusing. Realistically, those activities will be classified and not published for public consumption. That’s probably the way it should be. The real experts are working internally, inside their organizations, with their constituency – not in the public forum where context and value are lost.

Missional Government 2.0

It’s only a matter of time before Tim O’Reilly tells the world that Web 2.0 Expo is going to be hosted in Washington, D.C. I mean, I don’t know anything for a fact, but all the sex appeal of Web 2.0 is descending on Washington. I certainly appreciate the fact that the Silicon Valley bubble is seeing that there are real things happening here in Washington, but I continue to ask the questions about motive and clarity of thought. Are they (we) missing the forest through the trees?

Tangentially, but still related, the web technology space has clearly been usurped by marketing and communications. When folks refer to a “tech community”, what they really are referring to is the social web community which is now dominated less by actual technology folks and increasingly, and somewhat disturbingly, by marcom folks.

Not that there is anything wrong with that. It’s just not “tech”. It’s community. It’s marketing. It’s public affairs. It’s public relations. It’s brand. It’s reputation management. It’s rarely tech.

And so, the conundrum. What Washington outsiders suggest is “Government 2.0″ is really a marketing campaign. Is that really beneficial? Or even new?

Peter Corbett wrote a great post here the other day suggesting that governmental change and “Web 2.0″ adoption, to paraphrase, can be delivered by building appropriate technology and applications to meet the needs of the government.

Think about this… How can we have Government 2.0, when the government consists of so many divergent niches, industries and missions? On the federal level, there is Congress, Labor, Commerce, Defense, Intelligence, Health, International Development, and the list goes on. On the state and local level, there are Motor Vehicles, taxation agencies, police departments, fire departments, schools. That only constitutes government proper and says nothing for government related organizations like political action committees, lobby groups, NGOs and grassroots political organizations. Again, that’s only in the federal sector.

You can’t apply one solution to the entire government. Understanding of the missional nature of sectors of the government is critical. We should be talking about Commerce 2.0 or Intelligence 2.0, not Government 2.0. And we should certainly not be applying a one size fits all solution that works effectively in the private sector to the public sector without understanding that mission.

Our taxpayer dollars are the sole funding sources for most of these government groups. In a time when taxpayer money is being printed to fund things that can only be funded by taxpayer dollars, the last thing we want is those dollars going to ineffective solutions that don’t extend the mission of the agency, simply to say, for instance, that the Department of Labor is on Twitter.

Why?

Does it fit their mission? Is it effective in protecting the taxpayer interests and extending the mission of Labor?

The Department of Labor fosters and promotes the welfare of the job seekers, wage earners, and retirees of the United States by improving their working conditions, advancing their opportunities for profitable employment, protecting their retirement and health care benefits, helping employers find workers, strengthening free collective bargaining, and tracking changes in employment, prices, and other national economic measurements. In carrying out this mission, the Department administers a variety of Federal labor laws including those that guarantee workers’ rights to safe and healthful working conditions; a minimum hourly wage and overtime pay; freedom from employment discrimination; unemployment insurance; and other income support.

This is an example, of course. I don’t mean to single out the fine public servants over at Labor and, in fact, I cannot speak to anything they are doing with the social web.

Folks, listen up. People have to take a step back and stop trying to apply the same stuff that works out here to what is going on in there. It might work. But then, it might not. Understanding those core missional requirements can help the real experts bring real solutions to the table.

In fact, in many cases, building technology that doesn’t already exist to meet the misssional requirements of agencies that we may never see is not sexy in an era of web celebrity and achievement. In fact, people may never see some of the technology that comes to bear because they simply think that common social networks or blogs are the solution.

If you want to be in this space, you need to protect taxpayer dollars by bringing appropriate solutions to the table, whether public, well known services (if they meet the need) or building apps that make sense to the mission and may never be used outside of that organization.

These are the keys.

Added: Geoff Livingston spoke to the National Park Service and made my point for me. Clearly, he understands the mission and scope of the NPS and is encouraging the proper modes of social media that are compatible to their mission.

In Washington They Ask, "What Can We Actually Use?"

As many of you know, I’ve spent the better part of the last three months looking for sustainable employment. Historically (in the past two years), I have focused on technology startups outside of my geographical region, but, as time has gone on I have seen increasing value in planting roots with a local firm.

In this process, I have interviewed with agencies, political action comittees, social cause organization, activist groups, development shops and even the occasional PR firm. However, by and large, most of these organizations are connected to the Washington government machine in some way.

A question that comes up frequently in interviews, specifically because I have a unique position as “power player” in the web space, is “What is out there that is new that we can use?”

This question has been answered in a variety of ways, being refined for each organization and group. Different folks, different strokes, different spokes.

As an early adopter of most new web technologies, I recognize this question. It is a question that generally stems from the desire to “be relevant” but often doesn’t consider the mission and constituency. So, in an admittedly generic and assumptive way, I’ll answer this question, and leave you scratching your head as to why I get hired for my social media strategery… There is nothing new out there that you can use.

Nothing. Absolutely Zero.

The principles of communication are really simple and have remained consistent over 10,000 years of recorded history… Talk to people the way you would want to be talked to. Give people information the way they want to consume information. If that’s a YouTube video, make a YouTube video (Bonus points if you can articulate a surefire way to make a viral YouTube video! ;-) ). If you have a thousand attorneys on a email newsletter, then communicate with compelling email newsletters (and talk to my buddy, Greg Cangialosi, over at Blue Sky Factory about their solutions). If your constituency wants a “pull” aggregator of interesting related content, give them a Delicious feed. If you are dealing with foreign wars, try to communicate with photography. If you’re dealing with climate change, work with a Google Maps mashup (build one!) showing the effect of rising sea levels and deforestation.

In other words, communications principles always remain the same: communicate with people on their level with respect. The execution of such principles varies according to organization.

Putting aside the “best tool” question, the real question becomes: How will you use the tools available to execute on mission, not simply be sexy?

Answers?

Nuke the Nukers (and other benefits of social media to Government)

Editor’s Note: I had a chance to meet a fantastic guy recently. He has very clear and vivid, if sometimes offensive, thoughts on the web space we live in. He’s actually a little crazy, so I thought he would make a great addition to the Technosailor.com family. Lou P. Nuts has a distinguishable voice and told me, over Prairie Fires shots (which he absolutely adores – I told you he was loopy!), that he is not in this business to make friends, but that he notches his belt when he makes enemies. I hope you’ll enjoy his writings that will be featured here.

This weekend, I spent a lot of time thinking about our government and the great democracy we live in. We have a new President who is going to save the planet from our greedy selves. He single handedly will stem all sorts of ungodliness in this world with his efficient, Messiah instincts. Obama is my hero, and if he isn’t yours, you should die a bloody death for your unpatriotism.

Already, he has promised that the technology created by an innovative private sector will be a key cornerstone of his administration. Social Media rocks and the Messiah plans to use us, his willing servants, to make change come to pass.

Our next challenge is proving our worth. Rohit Bhargava, of Ogilvy, has a great post today where he implores us to pray to the Messiah that we might be found worthy of his benevolence and servitude in helping.

There are so many areas of the government that require change that we can bring, if they will listen. For instance, we should suggest that all military and paramilitary operations be run through the Digg machine. There is no group better for vetting the enemies of the state, than the Digg crowd who, without filter, dictates to all who may listen exactly what should be targetted. For instance, Digg correctly identifies WordPress, Microsoft and Christians as “Great Satans”. Clearly, we must listen.

If we want to engage in GOA, as Rohit calls it, we should crowdsource White House photography. Clearly, hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money does not need to be spent on a staff photographer when Flickr exists.

And Twitter? @BarackObama is already the most followed man on Twitter. All we need to do, as social media gurus, is ensure that he is tweeting out links to his latest initiatives.

Put the TARP 2 stimulus package on WikiPedia to ensure that the citizens have an adequate chance to offer their own markup and amendments. Representative democracy in action!

I think Rohit is spot on. The more we make government understand social media, the more the power will rest on us. I’m waiting for August Capital to fund a startup that will bring “the keys” and “the suitcase” to us. No one should dictate how nuclear weapons are used or who they should be used on.

This is a parody.

BART Goes Wireless

imagesIn a story that we’ve been following in the past week, it seems the survey that was sent out to BART users last week is not simply a “feeler”. When BART users received the email from the Bay Area mass transit service requesting participation in a survey, it suggested that the organization was considering some level of wireless connectivity, but as best as I could tell, it did not suggest such access was imminent.

Thomas Hawk, who I’ve previously referred to as the best photographer on the web and is also a client of mine, apparently got a chance to try an initial pilot phase out and reported some problems logging on.

the San Francisco Chronicle reports that BART has signed a 20 year deal to provide wireless internet access in it’s entire system, but the news does not disclose terms of the deal or who would actually be managing and deploying the service. The story does indicate that access would be provided via fiber as opposed to satellite or cellular.

Dan Mintz: Government 2.0 is an Experiment

Lately, I’ve focused quite a bit in the government technology space. With the new administration and the apparent focus on open technologies and dialogue with the public, it is clear that government is going to become more transparent and will likely adopt (and maybe re-engineer) some of the technologies that the private sector has taken advantage of over the last five years.

Dan Mintz, formerly the CIO for the Department of Transportation reiterates my assertion, in an interview with ExecutiveBiz, that the Government knows that no one is an expert in this area but is willing to work with competent individuals and companies who are willing to partner in learning the space:

This is still an experiment so therefore “˜how this will play out’ will require people who are comfortable with experiments. The government has a tendency to be risk-averse, which is understandable. It will be very important for the leadership within the departments and agencies to provide support for people who are willing to do the experiments. The second important factor to remember is that it [2.0 activity] will be user driven, not IT driven.

In my earlier article on this matter, I stated:

What [self-described Government 2.0 experts] 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.

Sounds like we are saying the same thing. It’s just a shame that Mr. Mintz is the former CIO of the Dept. of Transportation.