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?

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.