On Language: Putting Government 2.0 in Context

Does the public need to understand what the term Government 2.0 means? Many look to my publisher, Tim O’Reilly, to explain, given that he has written eloquently about the topic and worked with Dick O’Neill to convene the Gov 2.0 Summit last year. O’Reilly talked with CBS News this summer about what Gov 2.0 means to him. Others might ask the nation’s technology executives, US CIO Vivek Kundra and CTO Aneesh Chopra, both of whom participated in the Summit in Washington last summer and will join it again this year.

In 2009, the attendees of that summit explained “What Gov 2.0 means to you?” in an online contest, offering up a multitude of interpretations of the nebulous term. Here at Govfresh, Jake Brewer wrote that Gov 2.0 means accountability, better services and economic opportunity.

If you turned instead to Wikipedia for the crowd’s opinion, the entry for “Government 2.0” defines it as:

“a neologism for attempts to apply the social networking and integration advantages of Web 2.0 to the practice of governmentWilliam (Bill) Eggers claims to have coined the term in his 2005 book, Government 2.0: Using Technology to Improve Education, Cut Red Tape, Reduce Gridlock, and Enhance Democracy.[1] Government 2.0 is an attempt to provide more effective processes for government service delivery to individuals and businesses. Integration of tools such as wikis, development of government-specific social networking sites and the use of blogs, RSS feeds and Google Maps are all helping governments provide information to people in a manner that is more immediately useful to the people concerned.[2]

Well and good. The line I find most compelling in the above explanation for the term is the “attempt to provide more effective processes for government service delivery to individuals and businesses.”

If I had to explain the idea to my technophobic friends, that’s the tack I’d take. O’Reilly defined government 2.0 as a platform, which I also find to be a useful metaphor, if one that demands the explanation that O’Reilly himself provided at TechCrunch. More takes on what a definition might be can also be found at Govloop, the government social network, or elsewhere around the Web.

Getting technical with government

For those more technically inclined, it might be useful to talk about open data, mashups, Data.gov, the Open Government directive, XML, XBRL, virtualization, cloud computing, social media and a host of other terms that have meaning in context but without prior knowledge do little to inform the public about what, precisely, the “2.0” means.

Most people have some sense of what “government” is, though there’s no shortage of opinion about how it should be constituted, run, regulated, managed or funded. Those discussions go back to the earliest days of humanity, well before organizing principles or rules emerged from Hammurabi or were enshrined on the Magna Carta or constitutions.

In all of that time, the body politic and its regulatory and enforcement arms have been equipped with increasingly sophisticated tools. In 2010, agencies and public servants have unprecedented abilities because of the rapid growth of online tools to both engage and inform both their constituencies, relevant markets and others within government. The question that confronts both citizens and public servants around the globe is how to turn all of that innovation to useful change. Savvy political campaigns have already found ways to leverage the Internet as a platform for both organizing and fundraising. Few observers failed to see the way that the Obama campaign leveraged email, text messaging, online donations and social networking in 2008.

One area that will be of intense interest to political observers in 2010 will be whether that same online savvy can be harnessed in the Congressional mid-terms. Micah Sifry wrote about an “Obama Disconnect” at length; I leave it to him to explore that question.

What I find compelling is whether any of these technologies can be turned to making better policy or delivering improved services. In theory, good data can be aggregated to create information, which can then in turn be used to form knowledge. Whether the Open Government Directive dashboard at White House.gov reveals information or simply adherence to defined policy is on open question.

Where Web 2.0 matters to Government 2.0

So does the public need to know what Government 2.0 is, exactly? One might wonder if the public needed to know about what “Web 2.0″ was? Judging by search traffic and years of Web 2.0 Conferences, my perception has been that there’s interest, if only to know what the next version of the World Wide Web might be, exactly. After all, the Web that Tim Berners-Lee’s fecund mind brought into being has been one of the most extraordinary innovations in humanity’s short history: what could be better? The short answer has often reflected the definition of Government 2.0 above: a combination of technologies that allows people to more easily publish information online, often with a social software or computing component that enables community between their online identities.

In 2010, the dominant platforms that represent Web 2.0 are well known: Blogger, Wikipedia, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Flickr, Delicious, Digg, Ning, WordPress, StumbleUpon and a host of new mobile communities or platforms. In each case, the company is often defined by what it allows users to do: upload pictures or video, stay connected to friends, track and discover news, save bookmarks or create communities that do all of those things.

When it comes to government 2.0, I believe that’s precisely how any service be defined: by its utility to helping citizens or agencies solve problems, either for individuals or the commons. The “2.0” term provides an umbrellas term for the movement and the technologies. That greater point is precisely the one that Booz Allen’s social lead, Steve Radick, makes when he wrote that the public doesn’t need to know what Gov 2.0 is but they do need to experience it.

Why explaining Government 2.0 matters

As a thought experiment, I asked five different people in the hotel lobby in Los Angeles where I was writing if they knew what “government 2.0″ was.

I asked the same question of “Web 2.0.” In every circumstance, no one could explain the term. And yet, in every circumstance, people knew what Facebook, Twitter or YouTube was, including the use of those technologies by government officials.

That’s one reason why Bill Grundfest’s talk at Government 2.0 Camp Los Angeles was a useful balance earlier this year, not least because as a Hollywood resident the creator of  “Mad About You” is thoroughly outside of the Beltway echo chamber. Christina Gagnier, an IP attorney located in LA, wrote about Grundfest’s approach at the Huffington Post in “Gov 2.0: A message from Hollywood to the Beltway.”

As she captured there, the focus of Grundfest’s frequently entertaining interview with Alan Silberberg was grounded in the entertainment business: communicate clearly, humanize what’s being offered and move away from jargon. G

Grundfest had listened to the morning’s unconference sessions and took copious notes, in a way that was novel to this author, capturing the themes, memes and jargon shared in the talks on coffee cups.

That message was delivered to a room, by and large, that knew and used the jargon often used around Gov 2.0. For that audience, getting advice from a true outsider held utility in both its clarity and lack of pretension. Grundfest may not have developed or managed government programs to deliver services but he has certainly learned how to tell stories.

And that’s the rub of it: Storytelling, as journalists and teachers know well, is one of the most powerful ways to share information. It’s an art form and human experience that goes back to our earliest days, as hunters and gatherers huddled around fires to share knowledge about the world, passing on the wisdom of generations.

The activity is scarcely limited to our species, as anyone who’s watched a honey bee shimmy and shake to pass on the details of a pollen gathering trip knows, but humanity’s language skills do tend to advance our ability to convey knowledge, along with the technologies we have at our disposal.

To get beyond the circle of people who are advocates for open government, transparency or innovative use of technology in government, the storytellers will have to get more involved.

That won’t be easy.

As the comments on ReadWriteWeb co-editor Marshall Kirkpatrick’s meditation on getting people excited about government data stories suggest, releasing bulk XML isn’t going to do draw more interest in an over-saturated media environment.

To help people understand what Gov 2.0 is, in other words, focusing on the contributions of people to platforms have to be balanced with explanations of the platforms themselves. Grundfest recommended the use of video, testimonials and other narrative forms to provide an entrance point into the what, how, where and, especially, why of new government technologies or platforms for engagement.

That impetus is why I wrote about a lesser known example of Gov 2.0: putting SEC data online in 1993 this month. Instead of dwelling any further on what Government 2.0 might be or couching discussion or branding in jargon, explain what the technology or platform will do — and what problem it will solve. And at the end of the day, remember that on language, usage drives meaning.

About Alex Howard

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.

11 thoughts on “On Language: Putting Government 2.0 in Context

  1. As a concerned citizen becoming aware of Gov 2.0 via all of the avenues identified in the article, I met with a couple of city officials. I feel a need to be in communication with others who have succeeded or are attempting to concertize the movement at a local level. Learn to strategize, connect with existing technolgize; for example, how to implement the ClickFix process, again at the local level. Any thoughts?

    Dick

    1. That’s a great question. You can find a real-time stream of people sharing Gov 2.0 news, case studies and insights on Twitter. Here’s my Gov 2.0 list.


      And, of course, please look through all of the people, platforms and stories at the Gov 2.0 Summit.

  2. Right on, Alex.

    We’ve discussed this ad nauseum over at GovLoop (thanks for the link, by the way!) and it’s impossible to define – even among the “goverati”!

    I agree that it’s less important to define it. Let’s just make it a reality so that citizens efficiently get what they need from government and contribute more actively to the processes around governing.

  3. Whether or not people understand Gov 2.0 (and Web 2.0 for that matter) is an extremely valid question. It seems that many people know that the concept has something to do with government and something to do with the internet and that’s about it. However, this quote sums it up:

    “Government 2.0 is an attempt to provide more effective processes for government service delivery to individuals and businesses. Integration of tools such as wikis, development of government-specific social networking sites and the use of blogs, RSS feeds and Google Maps are all helping governments provide information to people in a manner that is more immediately useful to the people concerned.”

    Gov 2.0 solutions enable agencies to harness the power of citizen involvement to better understand the needs and priorities of citizens, act on these needs with greater effectiveness, improve efficiencies and reduce costs associated with public outreach, and increase public trust through open dialogue.

  4. Gov 2.0 is about our realisation that we have the tools to solve many scalability problems on which our government engagement structures are predicated. Those solutions are waiting to be applied and deliver the new mechanisms that will inevitably result. We can see it, but we don’t know how to do it – the current “let’s get social, crowd-sourcing, public participation etc. into government processes!” dialogue is recognition that we have new tools for solving old scalability problems. We’re still trying to work out how to use the tools.

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