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.

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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.

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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.

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