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Geeks Invade Government With Audacious Goals


This post was originally published on O’Reilly Radar on May 27, 2009.

Guest blogger Mark Drapeau is the Co-Chair of the Gov 2.0 Expo Showcase in Sept 2009 and the Gov 2.0 Expo in May 2010, both in Washington, DC. He holds the title of Associate Research Fellow at the Center for Technology and National Security Policy at the National Defense University, a professional military educational school run by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Mark is also co-founder of Government 2.0 Club, an international platform for sharing knowledge about the intersection between technology and governance.

When one thinks about important problems facing the United States, and indeed people all over the world, it is difficult to not come up with the laundry list that every talking head seemingly has on the tip of their tongue: jobs, education, health care, national security, poverty. There are so many problems to solve, with so many constraints on spending money, and such a short supply of manhours to get the job done. Many government employees spend a lot of time working on the issue or crisis of the day (or the hour) rather than thinking about long range planning and strategy.

This might be Alexander Hamilton’s fault. One of the first things I was indoctrinated with after moving to Washington, D.C. was that the U.S. system of federal government was not designed to make good decisions; rather, it was designed to not make horrible ones. This is counterintuitive, perhaps, but mainly true. And this flies in the face of ideas about using technology to make government more efficient, mainly because the purpose and organization of government is quite different from that of business.

Nevertheless, more and more people from the private sector are interested in playing a role in government, thanks in no small part to the excitement surrounding the Obama election and inauguration, in which social media technologies and information sharing were showcased at their best – massive fundraising from many small donors, empowering people to self-organize locally, and direct public relations that circumvented a mainstream media lens. Now, people enamoured with emergent social technologies want to know how they themselves can revolutionize not only politics, but also governance.

For those who don’t follow fashion trends in Washington, D.C., allow me to present the new and increasingly popular species of talking head – The Geek. (The Geek is distinguished from The Wonk, studious, preppy, bespectacled types that run Washington policy, know exactly what intersection Brooks Brothers is on, and enjoy cocktail parties for “networking,” and The Nerd, the type of scientist or other fastidious pointy-head rarely seen outside a laboratory or professorial tower, with nary an interest outside their own peculiar and narrow slice of life.)

The prototypical Geek is a different breed of talking head, one that usually lacks media training, one that often hails from Silicon Valley, San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Austin, Boston, St. Paul, or Boulder, one who likely knows more about the inside of a computer than the average person does about the inside of their fridge, a well-read introvert shy in real life but outgoing on Twitter and in the blogosphere, who is erudite enough to have always felt there was a better way to run the government but feeling entirely disconnected from the apparatus.

No longer. When I speak about Government 2.0 to audiences around D.C. I am fond of telling them about the very smart and motivated outsiders (i.e., The Geeks) who think that they can run the government better than the government can. I enjoying dropping the line, “The government can no longer afford to work at the pace of government,” because people never really know what to say in response as they mull it over. That statement is somewhat tongue-in-cheek and not entirely fair to hundreds of thousands of hard-working government employees; but of course, my role as a speaker is usually to provoke thought and get a point across, not to be fair. And gradually, through my efforts and those of many other Government 2.0 enthusiasts, people inside the Beltway are understanding that new ideas and new technologies can bridge gaps between government and the citizens (and that outsiders are starting to utilize such technologies whether the government gives permission or not).

Detractors might point out that Government 2.0 advocates, and their predecessors, have been predicting that the information technology revolution will reinvent government for quite some time (check out this 1995 special issue of the Journal of Systems Management, for example). What’s different now, however, is that the democratization of data is actually fundamentally disrupting how people think about their personal role within a democracy (one author has somewhat ironically termed this “digital socialism“). People separated by continents can network effortlessly. Companies exist in virtual spaces. Information and data are more accessible, sharable, and discoverable than ever before. Clay Shirky has pointed out that these new social arrangements are leading from cooperation to collaboration to collectivism. Citizens feel empowered. But is this empowerment properly setting the stage for what I’m fond of calling “government with the people”?

Neither the people inside nor outside the Beltway can create Government 2.0 alone – they need to cooperate and collaborate with each other. But deciding how that is to be done is not so simple. The “how” of collaborative Government 2.0 will be an important topic of conversation at the Gov 2.0 Summit in Washington, D.C. on September 9-10th. Both The Geeks and The Govies need to listen to each other’s ideas, hear each other’s concerns, and work towards achieving Shirky’s four stages of organizing if the government is to provide all the things that its citizens are increasingly demanding of it. And if that is to happen, government must operate much faster and be more agile, yet somehow still behave in a legal and fair and equitable and thoughtful manner.

In a theoretical “adaptive government,” employees, contractors, and citizens alike realize that 80% solutions in the right time frame are better than 100% solutions in the wrong one. The notion of “Government as a Platform” (the overarching theme of Gov 2.0 Summit) helps to make this common sense right-time approach possible, and I think that many of these 80% solutions will be displayed by their creators at the exciting Gov 2.0 Expo Showcase taking place the day before Gov 2.0 Summit. As co-chair of the Expo Showcase program committee, I’m looking forward to reading proposals about grassroots Gov 2.0 experiments and projects and making sure that the best ones get heard in front of as many people as possible. I want to see real-world examples of how the availability of open and transparent data sets combined with social tools like wikis, blogs, and mashups have enabled microsharing across millions of weak ties, simple discoverability of information and data, and crowdsourced input and analyses to create right-time 80% solutions.

At the grassroots level, I have been increasingly proud of our group efforts to form Government 2.0 Club and hold the innaugural Government 2.0 Camp in Washington, D.C. That two-day event inspired people not only to network with each other and share their ideas locally, but for a global rise of “Goverati” to form Gov 2.0 Camps not only on specific topics like crisis response, but also localized events around in the world – in Canberra and Berlin, for example. If Government 2.0 Camp accomplished nothing else, it showcased the tremendous amount of human capital that can be catalyzed and tapped to solve big problems.

Within both the government and large businesses, there is a huge cultural challenge to integrating collaborative technologies into a traditional, siloed organization to create more adaptive entities. But ultimately this integration needs to occur to some degree in order for the government – and by extension, the society it governs – to behave in an anticipatory manner instead of the reactive one most are used to. Earlier I wrote that the U.S. government was designed to not make disasterous decisions, but checks and balances are not fullproof. As Jared Diamond explains in Collapse, irrational failures happen for numerous reasons we are not immune to; for example, failure to anticipate problems on the horizon because of lack of experience or false analogy (think: the Maginot Line), and failure to perceive problems as such because of lack of hands-on experience or the phenomenon of creeping normalcy (think: climate change).

Thus, the theme of Government as a Platform is about more than making tools available on a computer. It is about setting the conditions that empower employees and citizens to be successful under unpredictable conditions. It is to a large extent about embracing the unknowable, empowering experimentation, and permitting small failures. Highly impactful and highly improbable “Black Swans” have huge effects on large, slow, maladapted organizations. Even moderately unpredictable environmental disruptions – “Grey Swans” – are a significant challenge to navigate. I have heard Tim O’Reilly describe a government “architecture of participation” as an emergent method for anticipating the unknown, and being more resilient and adaptive to it. While most quarters of government are far from being true learning organizations because of a combination of rules and regulations and organizational and individual barriers, best practices need to continue finding their way into everyday government processes and planning, with the blessings of senior leadership.

Despite the tech-oriented nature of Gov 2.0 Summit and Gov 2.0 Expo, it’s important to remember the grand challenges that the U.S. and other countries currently face. Input from stakeholders and thought leaders not just from Silicon Valley and Washington but also representing huge global issues like extreme poverty, infectious disease, cybersecurity, religious freedom, intellectual property, and many other areas of modern concern will be important. Ultimately, a more strategic, innovative, and efficient approach to government can stretch finances and maximize capabilities to avoid stagnation and solve important problems.

Changing times call for a change in strategy. And while a great deal of discussion needs to occur – and this is one of the primary purposes of the upcoming Gov 2.0 Summit – one possible vision for Government 2.0 may be for people inside the Beltway to move from sheltered silos to collaborative hives for public good, and for tech-savvy entrepreneurs to work on stuff that truly matters. With regard to broad information sharing, I’d like to see popular technology blogs focus somewhat more on applications to large societal problems, and see Beltway publications write more about possibly relevant happenings in Silicon Valley, Tribeca, and Austin. I’d like to see real dialogue – such cross-polination could only be helpful at this crossroads in history. Imagine what this generation’s list of Big Hairy Audacious Goals to come out of such a conversation might be.

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