Defining Gov 2.0 and Open Government

Fireworks begin as the Killers perform on the South Lawn of the White House, July 4, 2010, during the Fourth of July celebration. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Fireworks begin as the Killers perform on the South Lawn of the White House, July 4, 2010, during the Fourth of July celebration. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Exploring what this year will hold for the intersection of government, technology, citizens and business is a fascinating – and immense – challenge.

That is, however, precisely what I plan on doing,  here, at the Gov 2.0 section of O’Reilly RadarThe Huffington PostReadWriteWeb, National Journal, Mashable, Forbes and other outlets.

Yesterday, I participated in a discussion on Twitter that touched upon “Gov 2.0,” open government and social media. I include explanations for those terms below. Dozens of people participatedusing the #SMfastfwd hashtag on Twitter or at the #SMFastFWD room at

Be forewarned: there’s some jargon below, but then the organizer of the chat specifically asked for explanations. My answers and key considerations raised by several participants for the year ahead follow.

How do you define Gov 2.0? What about open government? What’s the difference? How do these relate to transparency?

What is government 2.0? Government social software expert Maxine Teller described the concept succinctly: Gov 2.0 equals “leveraging emerging tools, techs & collaboration PRINCIPLES to improve efficiency & effectiveness,” she tweeted. “Today’s tools & tech enable us to return to founding principles: government for, by & of the people.”

That’s useful, since many days it can seem like there are as many definitions for Gov 2.0 as there are people. That’s what happens when a term edges towards becoming a buzzword, particularly anything with a “2.0” added on.

Tim O’Reilly, my publisher, has explained how Gov 2.0 is all about the platform. In many ways, Gov 2.0 could be simply described as putting government in your hands.

As I’ve previously observed in writing about language, government 2.0, jargon and technology, I believe the term should be defined primarily by its utility to helping citizens or agencies solve problems, either for individuals or the commons. Defining it in gauzy paeans evangelizing world-shaking paradigm shifts from the embrace of social media by politicians isn’t helpful on that level.

That’s particularly true when politicians are using platforms to broadcast, in the model of 20th Century, not having iterative conversations that result in more agile government or participatory democracy.

Craigslist founder Craig Newmark put it another way yesterday: “Open government includes much greater gov’t transparency, that is, tell citizens what’s going on,” he tweeted. “Gov 2.0 includes gov’t and citizens working together for better customer service, more accountability.”

That melds well with O’Reilly’s perspective, where government 2.0 is the “idea of the government as platform: how can government design programs to be generative, […] building frameworks that enable people to build new services of their own.”

In a Forbes column in 2009, he’d framed this as “the opportunities inherent in harnessing a highly motivated and diverse population not just to help [politicians] get elected, but to help them do a better job.”

“Citizens are connected like never before and have the skill sets and passion to solve problems affecting them locally as well as nationally. Government information and services can be provided to citizens where and when they need it. Citizens are empowered to spark the innovation that will result in an improved approach to governance.

In this model, government is a convener and an enabler–ultimately, it is a vehicle for coordinating the collective action of citizens.

This is the right way to frame the question of “Government 2.0.” How does government itself become an open platform that allows people inside and outside government to innovate? How do you design a system in which all of the outcomes aren’t specified beforehand, but instead evolve through interactions between the technology provider and its user community?

Open government relates to that but isn’t necessarily grounded in technology, although certain aspects of it under the Obama administration absolutely have been.

As Chris Kemp, NASA’s chief technology officer for IT, put it last year, “The future of open government is allowing seamless conversations to occur between thousands of employees and people … You can’t divorce open government from technology. Technology enables the conversation and supports the conversation. We’re finding that if we don’t stand in the way of that conversation, incredible things can happen.”

If you’ve been tracking the progress of the Open Government Directive since 2009, you know that it required federal agencies to take steps to achieve key milestones in transparency, participation, and collaboration. As 2011 begins, more of those plans are still, for the most part, evolving towards implementation.

The progress of open government in the United States has beeen slowed by bureaucracy, culture, and the context of a White House balancing wars abroad and immense macroeconomic pressures, a populace deeply distrustful of many institutions,  and, at the end of 2010, the emergence and disruption presented by the more “radical openness” of Wikileaks.

It was clear back in September that in the United States, open government is still very much in its beta period. It was in that context, that, in December, the White House made a new, ambitious request of the American people: help them to design digital democracy by creating a platform for expert consultation on policy.

In doing so, the architects of initiative embraced the notion government acting as a convener or collaborator, trying to co-create better policy or outcomes. By its nature, such open government platforms are expressed as top down, where officials work to create more participatory, collaborative model of governance.

Gov 2.0, by contrast, is more often conceived as expressly technology driven, founded in the platform principles of Web 2.0, and buoyed by the efforts of citizens and civic entrepreneurs to build “do-it-ourselves” government. Both Gov 2.0 and open government can and do increase transparency.

Consider this detail from a webcast, “What is Gov 2.0?,” which combines open government and Gov 2.0 in action:

“The first person who really put Gov 2.0 on my radar was Carl Malamud. Carl is really the father of this movement in so many ways. Back in 1993, that’s pretty darn early in the history of the World Wide Web, he put the SEC online.He got a small planning grant from the  National Science Foundation, which he used to actually license the data, which at that point the SEC was licensing to big companies.

He got some servers from Eric Schmidt, who was the chief technology at Sun. And he basically put all this data he’d gotten from the SEC online, and he operated that for something like two years, and then he donated it to the federal government. Carl’s idea was that it really mattered for the public to have access to SEC data.”

In that moment, citizens in the private sector helped government do something it had trouble accomplishing. That’s still happening today, as evidenced by Malamud’s work on and

What is the relationship between Gov 2.0, open government, and social media? How do tools go beyond Twitter, Facebook, etc.?

Ben Berkowitz, the founder of SeeClickFix, put it this way yesterday in a tweet: “Don’t just use social web platforms to communicate, restructure government to operate like a social platform.”

To extend that, and reiterate elements of the earlier answer, Gov 2.0 is a frame to rethink how citizens to participate in government using technology. Open government has been around for decades as both a philosophy and a practice.

Awareness of the concept was rebooted under the White House Open Government Initiative and new Gov 2.0 technologies and events, including numerous camps and the O’Reilly conferences in Washington.

Open government also relates to Federal Register 2.0, rules, passage of new legislation, and culture, a key aspect that requires change management that extends far beyond technology:

Social media is a key element of many emerging citizen engagement platforms. These platforms give citizens new voices and provides new channels for government workers and elected officials to to talk with them. Aides for the new Speaker of the House, John Boehner, say that he reads Facebook and constituents, as do many of his colleagues in Congress. While Facebook is an imperfect platform for government engagement, with respect to privacy or identity issues, given the hundreds of millions of users and global reach, elected officials have effectively been forced to at least pay attention to what is being said about them there. Some politicians, like former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, are shaping the national media conversation through Facebook and other media channels.

Social media, however, goes far beyond giving politicians or workers new platforms to broadcast, though that has been the approach for many first use cases. In 2011, for instance, Twitter is now home to emergency social data, including earthquake warning systems, crowdsourced weather alerts and other disaster-related information.

That’s why social media and FEMA now mix, among other reasons. Deciding to use these platforms creates complex decisions around terms of service and commercial speech, however, since civic discourse is being hosted by a third party. Those issues won’t go away in 2011.

Enterprise versions of these tools also provide the means for government to government communications, just as they do in businesses. That includes blogs, wikis, social networks, video or new forms of social media. For instance, ediplomacy at the State Department is doing behind firewall is in many ways at least as interesting as external social media use.

What should the goals of Gov 2.0 and open government be? How are you working toward those ends?

Smarter, leaner, more transparent, accountable, efficient and agile government, with data-driven policy. I’m sharing the stories of innovators.

What changes will 2011 bring in the Gov 2.0 or open government arena?

Open government will move more from theory to practice in 2011.

Certain policies, like net neutrality, will test open government goals in 2011.

In 2011, the growth of edemocracy platforms *abroad* will be fascinating.

The themes that made 2010 a huge year for Gov 2.0 will continue to matter:

Wikileaks will impact open government in the United States in 2011, as t affects “need to know” vs. “need to share.”

There will be both positive and negative outcomes from that emergence.

What are the obstacles and challenges to success with Gov 2.0 and open government?

Gov 2.0 advocate and San Francisco public servant Adriel Hampton identified a key issue here: “Education. Negative perception of gov still huge, citizens unaware of gov 2. efforts, excited when informed,” he tweeted.

Privacy and identity will be a huge issue for Gov 2.0 and open government in 2011. Follow the FTC Do No Track debate for more there.

There will be significant challenges around open government data, given the role controlling costs will play in 2011.

Another point made about accepting failures came from Newmark: “lots of Gov 2.0 open gov challenges, including normal big organizational inertia. Also, failure is stigmatized.” A more agile government would require tolerating mistakes and iterating faster based upon the lessons learned.

Government social media consultant Maxine Teller raised another angle: “Challenge is: what incentive do existing gov leaders have to embrace collaborative principles. Current system=self-perpetuating,” she tweeted. “Too much focus has been on citizen engagement. Need more on enterprise 2.0 — INSIDE government.” That goes back to the work at the State Department referenced earlier.For context on that challenge, read MIT professor Andrew Mcafee‘s piece on Gov 2.0 vs the beast of bureaucracy.

A final consideration is an open question: will open government be able to tap into the “civic surplus” to solve big problems. That’s Clay Shirky‘s “cognitive surplus,” applied to citizens and government. For open government to succeed, conveners need to get citizens to participate.  That won’t be easy, with historic frustration and lack of trust in institutions in many parts of the country.

What seem to be the biggest misperceptions in the public re: Gov 2.0 or open government? What should the public know?

For me, that’s easy: That Gov2.0 equals = social media. Many members of the media, marketers or consultants have further entrenched that perception, which is not true for Web 2.0 either.

There’s also a misperception that Gov 2.0 is all about D.C., or the White House. The state and local stories of Gov 2.0 are absolutely fascinating, as are international stories.

The public should know about and the potential for everyone to work on huge issues using crowdsourcing and open government.

What takeaways do you have from the 01.05 edition of #SMfastfwd on Gov 2.0, open government and social media?

The conversation pulled in many informed voices but clearly showed the need to extend much further to resonate with the public. We “need to mainstream the discussion by focusing on impact of Gov 2.0 concepts on agency, community missions,” tweeted Teller.

Covering Open Government in 2011

The “sweeping Gov 2.0 concept isn’t newsworthy,” tweeted Teller. We “need to show RESULTS and impact of Gov 2.0 principles on gov MISSIONS.”

It’s substantially hard to argue with that assessment, although some tech news outlets have covered it. That’s why the Veterans Administration’s Blue Button is a genuinely big deal. Newsworthy, real impact.

So here’s my goal for 2011: explain what Gov 2.0 means for citizens, how it’s impacting agencies, communities, relates to mission and outcomes, and do so in outlets that extend awareness beyond Twitter or blogs. The good news is that other outlets are waking up, as legislation and initiatives move through Congress and pilots: the Washington Post covered the COMPETES Act and recently.

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.


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