This post was originally published in Federal Computer Week on September 5, 2012.
Mark Drapeau is director of innovative engagement at Microsoft’s Public Sector division.
A recent Wall Street Journal story described the gadget sagas of busy professionals juggling a corporate-issued BlackBerry for work and an iPhone for everything else. Government employees — especially younger ones or those who are highly engaged with social media — are no different. For years, phones besides the standard-issue BlackBerry have been encroaching on the federal workplace, and increasingly, feds want to work within a mobile, wireless, connected environment.
Last month, I participated in an off-the-record panel about mobile device use within the Intelligence Community. As you are likely aware, the IC has stringent rules about cybersecurity, information security and related issues. Operating within that environment can make it hard to do what would otherwise be relatively simple tasks, such as checking one’s e-mail on the go.
Nevertheless, some IC progressives with air cover from senior leaders are making their top-secret workspaces more mobile. Change is coming. But it is coming too slowly for some, who are taking matters into their own hands.
In a trend that IT professionals have dubbed “bring your own device” (BYOD), feds are bringing their personal computing equipment into the workplace. Blocked from adding apps to your agency-issued BlackBerry? No problem, just use your personal smart phone. Office laptop old and clunky? No worries, just take your tablet PC to the cafeteria.
Obviously, there are serious security issues associated with BYOD in the government workplace. And yet, thought leaders in the IC and other places are adapting to the trend. However, now that BYOD has been tacitly accepted, the door has been opened not only to a disruption in how employees use technology to get their jobs done but also to their work/life balance.
BYOD goes beyond a technology and security issue for the CIO’s office. It is also a subtle but important human resources issue for managers and employees. Although private companies can order their employees to be tethered to their gadgets outside normal work hours, it’s not as obvious where the boundaries are for the public sector.
On the surface, it would seem unfair for federal managers to demand that their employees be connected to work 24/7. But left unchecked, “device creep” can sneak up on a workplace and lead to a situation in which people feel pressured to constantly be connected. What can managers do to maintain a balanced workplace for their employees?
One simple thing is to refrain from making BYOD mandatory. If some employees insist that taking notes using a smart phone app makes them more efficient, managers should encourage it. But they shouldn’t penalize people who choose not to spend $500 on a phone. The workplace should not turn into a competition between the haves and have-nots.
Another thing managers can do is gently discourage e-mail threads or similar collaborations outside relatively normal work hours. For example, if a few employees working on a project use their smart phones to reply to an e-mail thread between 9 p.m. and 1 a.m. on a weeknight, that’s acceptable. But less-tethered employees in the same group should be allowed reasonable time to reply to the thread before any decision is made if the matter isn’t time-sensitive.
Finally, managers should realize that — even in this crazed decade of social media, mobile apps and ever-present cloud services — more technology is not necessarily better technology, being more connected does not necessarily mean an employee has better information, and working more hours doesn’t necessarily make someone more productive.
Unplugging from work — there’s no app for that.
This post was originally published in Huffington Post Media on May 9, 2012.
Recently, the White House Correspondents Dinner (a.k.a. “Nerd Prom”) and its bevy of pre-parties, after-parties, and brunches hit Washington, D.C. by storm as it does every spring. But across the Potomac in Arlington, Va., a simultaneous gathering of government enthusiasts known as “Transparency Camp” occurred, sequestered from networking with influential media, political, and business titans. But why?
Transparency Camp is “an ‘unconference’ for open government: an event where, each year, journalists, developers, technologists, policy-makers, government officials, students, academics, wonks, and everyone in between gather to share their knowledge about how to use new technologies and policies to make our government really work for the people — and to help our people work smarter with our government,” according to the Transparency Camp 2012 website. It’s backed by the Sunlight Foundation, and it’s a great event. The topic matter is important. Microsoft even sponsors it, and other unconferences with similar topic matter in the U.S. and around the world.
Towards the end of Transparency Camp (and WHCD weekend), Alex Howard, a prominent D.C.-based reporter and blogger with O’Reilly Media, made this comment via his popular @digiphile Twitter account: “Shame that the objects of adulation & celebrity culture on display at the #WHCD aren’t watching & learning from #Tcamp12. #opengov #nerdprom”.
Perhaps it is. But whose fault is that?
The timing of Transparency Camp is curious. Here we have a gathering of intelligent, passionate people discussing how to change democracy and government and make it more open and accountable to citizens. Across the way, we have a gathering of virtually every influential journalist, media executive, and member of Congress who might potentially be an advocate of or storytelling vehicle for such change. What did the Transparency Camp organizers do to reach out to this audience? Not very much if anything, beyond double-hashtagging some cheap shots.
But it’s worse. When I casually made a couple comments to that effect via Twitter — and I won’t quote every single tweet I sent, and the replied tweets, and the side conversations here — I was surprised to see a lot of animosity toward Nerd Prom from at least some of the Transparency Camp crew. And when I publicized an earlier version of this article written on Publicyte.com, the well-trafficked D.C. Tech Facebook group went wild with the same strain of comments.
A lot of the comments were about celebrities. Paraphrasing, people commented that WHCD was just a bunch of celebrities, was just about partying, was simply about getting your photo taken.
Well, sure it was. But those celebrities like Kate Upton, Bradley Cooper, and Sofia Vergara are just an attractant. You see, the people behind Nerd Prom and its ecosystem of events know that people want to watch it on CSPAN and fight for tickets into certain parties because of celebrity attendance. They’re the bait, the party is the hook, and we’re the fish. Easy, right? Perhaps the Transparency Camp organizers could learn a thing or two about celebrity promotion of their events and goals.
Why all the hating on celebrities? I don’t really understand it. Nowadays, celebrities are tech angel investors, they’re building websites like Funny or Die, they’re increasingly reliant on platforms like YouTube and Twitter, and they’re creating mainstream content for companies like Hulu. Twitter blew up because of three people: Oprah, Obama, and Ashton. let’s face it — tech can’t live without celebrities. Ashton Kutcher takes his passion for tech even further, working specific real-life gadgets and social media platforms into the fictional show he stars in, Two and a Half Men. I don’t particularly see the vast chasm between the values of open government and transparency and things that celebrities care about.
Transparency Campers, have you ever actually asked Kate Upton what she thinks about the open data movement in America? I didn’t think so. But you could have when she was in town last weekend.
More seriously, when someone of the intelligentsia uses the word “celebrity” in a derogatory tone, it usually implies a swimsuit cover model or a handsome leading man. But what about slightly less famous celebrities like Kerry Washington or Tim Daly? Surely, they are both “celebrities” and also capable of understanding complex issues affecting society.
But forget celebrities. The reality is that most people attending most of the Nerd Prom events are about as famous as I am. They are the up-and-comers, the workhorses. They are the assistant producers, the local reporters, the guys with a face for radio, the Congressional press secretaries, and the people who were more powerful 10 years ago but still attend these shindigs. Unless you’re a blogger or photographer, most of one’s time at these events is not spent stalking Chase Crawford or Claire Danes; rather, it is spent talking to friends, acquaintances, and potential business partners.
If you’ve ever wanted to talk about the importance of open government, the concept of an unconference, or the future of technology and democracy with an ambitious national TV news producer, a local on-air reporter, or a key Congressional staff member, Nerd Prom is the place to do it. Can you think of a better single event to do so during? You almost can’t not meet someone like that if you attend a couple of the parties. It’s unclear why the Transparency Camp attendees wouldn’t see this as useful.
You might object and say that while such people are physically present, they’re unlikely to care about the issues discussed at Transparency Camp. Wrong there, too. For example, I talked to my friend Angie Goff, a news anchor at NBC Washington, a long-time blogger and tweeter, and well-liked member of the media community, if she had ever heard of something called Transparency Camp. The answer was no. But she’s always interested in geeky tech stories and in the community at large — she’s interviewed me, Evan Burfield (chairman of Startup DC), Peter Corbett (director of DC Tech Meetup) and other “geeks” on NBC, and she emceed Microsoft’s recent Geek 2 Chic: DC charity event.
Angie Goff was interested in Transparency Camp. The problem was that she didn’t know it existed.
Not all geeks hate Nerd Prom. It’s not like the tech industry completely boycotted it. One of the biggest and by all accounts most fun parties this year was hosted by Google at the W hotel. Last year, Capitol File and Bing co-sponsored one of the larger afterparties at the Reagan International Trade Center. Why would Google or Bing sponsor a Nerd Prom party? I suspect for the reasons stated above, not to mention larger branding issues. This year a new tech company entered the WHCD activity fray when Tumblr hosted a private brunch for about 50 people in a speakeasy restaurant a few blocks from the White House.
New York-based media writer Rachel Sklar — herself no stranger to Nerd Prom nor being geeky — wrote two nice pieces on the new intersection of tech and WHCD for Mashable and Politico. Geek overlords like Twitter’s CEO Dick Costolo and Zynga CEO Mark Pincus are increasingly attending WHCD and even hosting entire tables to, in part, evangelize their brands and goals to influentials, and probably even gather unique feedback. In some cases, after all, their social media platforms are being used to hide secret communications, influence elections, and overthrow governments. Opening such lines of communication is wise. Rachel writes,
It’s no surprise that the tech community does not typically revere anything preceded by the word “old.” In many ways, that point of view is one of tech’s biggest weaknesses, because with age comes wisdom, experience, and a larger sense of context, essential for dealing with the world beyond an early-stage startup. If you doubt, look no further than Eric Schmidt at Google, Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook, and John Maloney at Tumblr. There’s no shame in hearing from the grownups. Quite the opposite.
Rachel also makes the point that media, politics, and government have a tremendous amount to learn from the employees (and users!) of innovative companies like Tumblr, Pinterest, and Intstagram, not to mention more established ’startup’ companies like Facebook and Twitter. She writes in part,
If you want to figure out how, you should ask Liba Rubenstein, Tumblr’s newly-minted director of outreach for causes and politics. She just started — and she’s looking to “facilitate and package content around elections and governance.” Even if you’re not interested in her 500-million pageview help, at least approach the issue defensively. Remember: While Team Obama’s tumblr has been trucking along since October (example: 12,690 notes on the clip of the president slow-jamming the news), Team Romney apparently did not jump on MittRomney.tumblr.com fast enough, seeing as it currently features this quiz: “Who Said It? Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, Or Wonka Contest Winner Charlie Bucket?”
There is little barrier to entry into the Nerd Prom world. Of course, you always have to work to drive attendees. But one can design an event surrounding the WHCD to meet one’s own goals. The aforementioned Tumblr event was a private Sunday morning brunch, where they rented out a “speakeasy” restaurant a few blocks from the White House, set up a buffet, and had about 50 people enjoy mimosas and coffee and food while they networked. About the most “famous” person there was Dennis Crowley of Foursquare. It wasn’t about celebrity; it was about leveraging a pre-existing rally of influentials to get something done; in this case, “launch” Liba Rubenstein and her new position that Rachel Sklar wrote about above.
There’s no reason that Transparency Camp’s organizers couldn’t have done a similar event — a brunch, a happy hour, a pre-event invite-only dinner — to promote their people, event, and mission, and answer Alex Howard’s original query about why the “objects of adulation and celebrity culture” aren’t watching and learning from their unconference. They aren’t watching and learning, frankly, because they don’t know you exist.
But perhaps the reason Transparency Camp didn’t want to reach out to the influential attendees of Nerd Prom is because there’s internal value in not widening the conversation and publicizing their movement. Mainstream media, politicians, and celebrities are easy scapegoats for a relatively small open government community that is in reality quite insular. And while unconferences are, in principle, open to all attendees and voices, in actuality the unique subculture and norms of behavior of such events make them difficult for newcomers to comprehend and thus discourage outsiders from participating.
My suggestion for Transparency Campers, and more broadly for other leaders of tribes who have interesting missions and stories to tell, and changes they want to make, is to get on Nerd Prom turf and make some connections that can broaden the conversation about your issues. It’s easy to not do it. To quote one of America’s favorite celebrities, Chad Kroeger: The first step you take is the longest stride.
Right now, three entities contributing to the public good – citizens, the public sector, and private businesses – are incredibly dependent on each other. Citizens need support from government and the broader public sector, and jobs from businesses. The public sector needs the support of the private sector through products and services, and needs input, ideas, and other contributions from its citizens. And private sector organizations increasingly seek to stand for something more than merely selling products – they seek to help the public sector and contribute to citizens’ well-being.
SECTOR: PUBLIC lives where these three entities meet. If necessity is the mother of invention, there has been no period in our lifetimes during which technological innovation is able to have such a great impact on civic progress. Every day at SECTOR: PUBLIC, we will discuss cutting-edge technology, share public sector stories, and provide thought leadership about how American progress and public good are being both disrupted and benefited by the rapid innovation era we are living through.
This post was originally published on Huffington Post tech on December 21, 2009.
Recently, I wrote a post about Government 2.0 predictions for 2010-12, and one of them was that government would “always be on-the-record.”
By that I meant that the combination of (1) the proliferation of tech-savvy citizens with mobile camera/video devices, (2) the prevalence of wi-fi or other Web connections, (3) the massive number of people using social networks like MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter, and (4) the great interest that people have right now in a number of controversial issues like our current wars, health care, and climate change that people could and probably would start documenting everything that government officials do and say, where they go, who they meet with, for how long, what their staffers eat for lunch and with whom, and so on.
And you don’t need to be a professional journalist to do this, or even to do it well. An entire site along the lines of Gawker.com could be started around this, in fact. GovernmentGawker.com, anyone?
Well, I was doing some research to look at planes versus trains to get home for the holidays (in light of the recent blizzard that’s affected transport in the DC-NY-Boston corridor), and I came across a fantastic video that essentially puts the Amtrak Acela First Class service on the record for the trip between New York and Boston (7 min edited clip). Check it out.
Now, imagine if someone did the same thing, but wanted to document a day in the life of Senator Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), currently in the middle of heated debate about health care legislation. It’s not hard.
You check the general schedules of his committees and such beforehand, research powerful, under-the-radar staff and other relevant people on the Washington Post’s WhoRunsGov.com, go through simple security at the Capitol (far easier than an airport), find Nelson’s office in the Hart building, camp out in his waiting area, maybe ask the person at the front desk some questions, find some press in the hallways and ask some questions (maybe visit the Russell rotunda, where the television crews do their spots), stalk the cafeteria (there’s a great coffee shop called Cups in the basement) and listen for people saying “Nelson,” go back to his office and see him leaving to walk down the hall to a committee hearing, take photos of the staff with him on your Samsung ST-1000 with wi-fi and geo-tagging and upload the pics to Bing Maps and Facebook, go to the sub-committee hearing and tape it from a Flip in your coat pocket while you tweet live notes, upload your Flip video to YouTube while you follow Nelson to his next meeting, and so forth.
(Note: This post has nothing in particular to do with Sen. Nelson or health care, it’s just an example “ripped from the headlines” – I’ve even met and chatted with him when he spoke about energy at the Defense Department, he’s a nice person.)
You can surely imagine at this point many variations on this for political appointees you don’t like, lobbyists you’re interested in, principal deputy assistant secretaries that make important decisions but don’t necessarily travel in armored vehicles with bodyguards, various members of the press who might be meeting with sources at Capitol Hill bars, etc. Trust me, this isn’t hard. If you live in Washington, DC, you probably realize how very easy this is, in fact, when combined with some good traditional news sources like the Post, Times, The Hill, and Politico. (If you live in Washington, DC, you also know that it’s incredibly common to know where various officials live, eat, and so forth – I used to live about two blocks from Senator Obama’s pad.)
But why would someone want to create an “ambient stream” of Senator Nelson or anyone else’s life? (Besides it being fascinating in a lowbrow, Gossip Girl kind of way, of course.) Well, most people wouldn’t. But so what? It’s just like Wikipedia – only about 1% of people who use Wikipedia actively edit it; about 9% do sometimes, and 90% just read it. Twitter is not unlike that either – only about 10% of users contribute 90% of the tweets.
So what if 1% of U.S. citizens started doing this? Roughly there are 300 million people in the U.S., say half of them are adults, so we have 1% of 150 million as 1.5 million. Now, if everyone just did this at the state, local, or federal level one day a year, and generated one “amateur journalism piece” from that day, that’s about 4,100 videos/blog posts/tweet sets generated PER DAY. That’s a lot of government on-the-record.
Los Angeles, CA – Today at the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference, Federal CIO Vivek Kundra surprised attendees by appearing via videoconference and teaming up with Ray Ozzie, Microsoft’s Chief Software Architect, to showcase several new features of Azure,the company’s cloud computing services platform.
These new Azure features include an open catalogue and data marketplace, codenamed DALLAS, which offer “data as a service” to users of the public cloud. Datasets currently available through DALLAS are a mix of those from the public and private sector, including data from the Associated Press, Citysearch, ESRI, NAVTEQ, DATA.gov, infoUSA, NASA, National Geographic, the UN, and more.
This would seem to strategically position Microsoft as a cloud provider for the public sector.
Kundra also announced NASA’s “Pathfinder Innovation Challenge,” which allows for the creation of tools underlying Mars exploration in order to promote STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education, something I am passionate about, given my background as a scientist. This new challenge calls for software developers of all levels of proficiency to create tools that provide simplified access to, and analysis of, hundreds of thousands of Mars images for online, classroom, and even Mars mission team use.
As seen in the recent Google-Microsoft-Yahoo event titled “Random Hacks of Kindness,” a tremendous amount can be accomplished by developers working within loosely joined social networks built around a passionate interest. This is entirely in the spirit of Government 2.0, and of the inaugural Government 2.0 Camp that some of us held in Washington, DC last spring.
This morning, marketing blogger Seth Godin asked the question, “How much of time, staffing and money does your organization spend on creating incredible experiences (vs. avoiding bad outcomes)?” This really hit home to me as someone who spends time thinking about how marketing broadly defined fits into government missions.
Under the framework of what we call Government 2.0, I’ve written a bit lately about how government can use social networking and new marketing to tell citizens and other stakeholders about the great things they’re doing. I think that proactively putting out compelling content is a great tactic, and how small, innovative, engaging events can create very memorable brand experiences. I’ve also been publicly critical of the lame Facebook Fan pages that Federal government agencies have, among other “lame” aspects of Gov 2.0 – From my vantage point, a lot of effort seems to go into avoiding bad outcomes, rather than creating incredible experiences.
There are good reasons for some of the “avoiding downsides” stuff, but where are the limits? No one ever seems to know how to answer that question for me. People tell me to praise them because, well, at least they have a Facebook Fan page – it’s new media! But at what date am I allowed to criticize you because you never took the slightest risk with it? To quote Godin:
I avoid meetings like the plague (unless they’re at happy hour), but I know a lot of people who have to attend lots of them as part of their jobs in Washington, DC. So I ask, particularly to those who are interested in “change” and Gov 2.0 and participatory government and all these other related topics: How often is the topic of your meetings about creating an incredible citizen experience?
This post was originally published on O’Reilly Radar on October 13, 2009.
To the average person, government is represented by an anonymous person on the other end of the phone, a pile of mandatory paperwork, and perhaps at best a friendly neighborhood postal carrier. If you ask the average American not living inside the Beltway to name a single individual who works in the federal government, how would they reply? My guess is that the broad majority of them couldn’t give you the first and last name of a federal government employee; In reality they would find it much easier to name their local pharmacist, garage owner, or supermarket manager. And from the perspective of the government, this is a shame. How might emerging social technologies help to bridge that gap, in combination with a modification in thinking about government public relations?
The ideal end state when a citizen is asked to name a government employee would be that a person working in a micro-niche of interest to them – finance, farming, foot-and-mouth disease – immediately comes to mind. Unfortunately though, interesting and talented people working at Treasury, USDA, NIH and other places are not well-known to the public, despite the great effects their work has on everyday life in America. Why is this? Partly, it is a vestige from the days when communications were controlled by professionally trained public relations staff and mainstream journalism teams. This was understandable – equipment was expensive, channels were few, and citizens trusted authenticated, official sources for their information. But this media structure that worked well for 40 years is now outdated.
In the Web 2.0 world, every individual is empowered to be not only a consumer of information, but a producer of it. Writing is searchable, discoverable, sharable, usable, and yes, even alterable. The proverbial “pajama mafia” of bloggers has morphed into a powerful society class of listeners, questioners, writers, editors, publishers, and distributors. And in some outlying examples from the federal government, such as the TSA’s blog, we see this same power being harnessed by individual employees (with their agency’s approval, naturally) – Individuals from the TSA not only blog, but interact with citizens who comment on the articles. But this form of government-citizen interaction is, honestly, a primitive version of how social technologies can empower citizen engagement with government.
The modern citizen is not a vessel waiting to receive press releases and government website updates. Even a sophisticated government website like the White House’s new blog can only expect to attract a subset of citizens a subset of the time. Why? Simply, there are simply too many avenues of information flowing towards these people formerly known as a captive audience. No matter how compelling your government information, they are not waiting to hear from you about it. Nor are they necessarily waiting to hear from the New York Times, MSNBC, or any other mainstream organization.
How to reach the modern citizen? It is more productive to imagine them, in the parlance of “new marketing,” as networks of individuals having conversations with each other – during dinner with their families, at the proverbial water cooler, and on popular social media sites. Increasingly, people’s online and offline social networks are an important and powerful force in their lives. Trusted people within communities of interest have become filters for the multimedia vying for citizens’ attention. So to answer the question, you have to hunt down the places they’re already talking about the topic you work on.
Acknowledging that citizens have (sub)consciously formed networks of conversations that filter the information available to them, what’s next? Logically, the government would like to be a part of those conversations. But bureaucracies can’t have conversations with people – only people who work within bureaucracies can. Government employees who wish for better public relations need to find people talking about a topic of interest, listen to what they’re saying, participate in the conversation, and then start new topics of conversation. But this is not as easy as it may seem.
A poll of government employees about whether or not part of their job was “marketing and sales” would probably reveal a lot of negative responses. But when every person can be a writer, publisher, and distributor, is anyone immune from some marketing and sales responsibility in their job? Granted, the government has certain rules about what you can write about your job, and not everyone would like to participate. But some government employees already publish blogs using WordPress, belong to social networks like Facebook, and share real-time information on Twitter. How best to use them?
There’s no sense in reinventing the wheel. The existing human capital in government employees already engaging an audience with social technologies should be harnessed, not punished. Such engaged persons may very well be more in touch with grassroots conversations than the public affairs office of an agency, which can tend more towards unidirectional information flow. They may also be trusted members of a community of interest, generous with help and information. It’s hard to think of a good reason to not use such pre-adapted social engagement to the government’s advantage.
Whether you’re talking about the White House, a Marine in dress uniform, or the image of NASA’s space shuttle lifting off, micro-niches within the federal government have brands, which in turn have reputations. Who’s defending them? It may now be the case that a formal public affairs office is not enough. Conversations among citizens occur at such a high velocity that a bureaucracy cannot respond nimbly enough. But empowered individuals can. Government “social ambassadors” should be fully accessible, transparent, authentic, and collaborative leaders that inspire people to cooperate and engage with their government and with each other for the sake of common concerns. As part of their missions, government brand ambassadors should conduct community-based research to better understand the grassroots interests of the average person, which are sometimes misunderstood or overlooked. Listening to online conversations is the new snap poll.
This post was originally published on BrianSolis.com on September 16, 2009.
Source: Shutterstock Images
Publishing “top 10″ lists is unfortunately a staple of modern journalism. But alas, writers must drive readers’ eyeballs, even when discussing serious topics like the government. And so we find a new list that mixes Web 2.0 with the government: “Top 10 agencies with the most Facebook fans.” For the record, this list is topped by the White House with 327,592 fans, followed by the Marine Corps, Army, CDC, State Department, NASA, NASA JPL, Library of Congress, Air Force, and Environmental Protection Agency. Congratulations to all these hard-working agencies.
But what exactly are we celebrating here? The fact that government agencies are embracing new technologies that the citizens they serve actually use? That’s nice I suppose, but everyone from Papa John’s Pizza to America’s Next Top Model (200,000 more fans than the White House, cough) to someone I met once at a party during Internet Week has a Facebook “Fan Page” now, so surely we are not celebrating the mere presence of them. In fact, when everyone in my social circle’s social circle asks me to become a fan of their long-standing charity, their favorite television program, or their single-person consulting firm, everything becomes a blur of meaningless, cheap invitations that become remarkably easy to decline. There is no value in simply having a fan page anymore. There may be street cred in not having one – time will tell.
Are we applauding the government’s fan numbers? The article leads with, “The White House currently has more fans than the Washington Redskins.” The most powerful global seat of power in perhaps the most recognizable office building in the world has more fans than the local football team? Earth-shattering. Let’s consider how popular the White House is. Facebook now has 300 million users; thus, approximately one out of every 1000 Facebook users is a “fan” of the White House. The other 999/1000 are not. And since many Facebook users live outside the U.S., one must assume that many White House fans do as well. Should every U.S. citizen using Facebook be a fan of the White House? Is that the goal? Who knows.
Still, the White House shouldn’t feel too bad about those stats. Rounding out the top 10, the EPA has convinced one of every 100,000 Facebook users to become their fans. Bravo. Let’s keep this in perspective. Soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo has two fan pages that total four million fans. Julia Allison, who isn’t even a real celebrity, has over 15,000 fans – if these numbers are in any way meaningful she’s roughly as popular as the State Department, the agency heading up U.S. foreign policy. These numbers seem even worse when one considers that there are hundreds of U.S. Federal Government departments and agencies, many of which haven’t a presence on Facebook or anything similar.
But perhaps I’m being too harsh. Let’s assume for a minute that these agencies are genuinely touching microniches and that the fans, whatever their numbers, are indeed fanatical about these agencies. What are they doing with that raving fan base? Not much. Sites like the Army and CDC and State Department primarily re-post their own news from their own websites. I didn’t see any original writing. I didn’t even see aggregation of information about, say, foreign policy from other sources. I certainly didn’t see any innovative contests from the Marine Corps, or crowdsourcing from NASA. And while there are fan comments posted on the pages, it’s not obvious at all what is being done with that feedback, if anything. Make fun of Tyra Banks all you want, but her show’s fan page has 286 discussion topics, hundreds of photos, headshots, names, and bios of people involved in the show, and listings of upcoming events. They’re so organized at America’s Next Top Model that we might consider asking them to inform people about the resurgent H1N1 flu virus. We might also consider hiring Bravo’s producers as government public affairs consultants.
If you think I’m joking about that, you probably have no business working with social media for the government.
The larger issue here is that the connection of any of these Facebook fan pages to agency goals and strategy is murky at best. As someone who spends a bit of time thinking about “Government 2.0,” it’s difficult to decipher how this is helping the government. True, the pages are somewhat informative, and to some degree they reach a citizen audience where they are. But it’s not novel and it’s not social and it’s not engaging. The execution is flawed, the tactics are questionable, the strategy is vague, and the goals are unclear. And all the government pages in the top 10 list effectively look the same. Monkey-see, monkey-do.
My personal Facebook page has about 2,000 connections, but this by itself is nothing to celebrate. The meaningful question is not about who has more fans, but about who can authentically and transparently – and usefully – interact with citizens to provide value and become the pulse of conversations. Here are some questions I have for governments and agencies running Facebook fan pages: What are the names of the people running the pages? What are their titles? What city is their office in? Where do they blog? Which events are they attending this year? (Can I meet them there?) How are you going to get your fans engaged in your mission? How can I tell you my stories about military service, or foreign travel, or amateur astronomy? Would those stories be helpful to you? How are you using social media like Facebook to get citizens involved in their government?
These are questions that departments and agencies, and private companies for that matter, should be asking themselves before they deploy official new media platforms like a Facebook fan page. The answers to these questions and others should be visible on day one. When the first White House memo of the new administration outlined the principles of a transparent, participatory, and collaborative government, this should have been obvious. It appears not to be so.
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.