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.

How can government adapt to exponential technological change?

Can the agile development cycle be applied to government? Cory Ondrejka, co-founder of Second Life, offered up a provocative paean earlier this year at the Gov 2.0 LA Camp for more flexible adaption to new online platforms for citizen engagement and empowerment.

“Who will know first if the rules have changed: customers, partners, clients?”

In his talk, Ondrejka drew a fascinating parallel between today’s open government movement and an open data case study from another age: the Era of Sail.

In the The Physical Geography of the Sea,” published in the mid-1800s, a disabled sailor who could no longer serve as crew found something to do from ashore: aggregate the logs of weather, winds and current.

As Matthew Fontaine Maury started aggregating that data, he found patterns. There are better ways to travel.

After he published the data, Maury then shipped to anyone who asked for it and asked for contributions.

That became a worldwide project that created value from information. Maury saw great value in publishing the data “in such a manner that each may have before him, at a glance, the experience of all.”

Notably, President John Quincy Adams agreed. Not long afterwards, the United States created standards for reporting meteorological data and endowed the U.S. Naval Observatory.

Ondrejka suggested that government agencies and those creating applications that use open data a“when possible, write less code, get more data.” When it comes to resources, he asked “who’s cheaper: a silicon or carbon employee?”

His observation that social computing platforms will “require different level of trust, support and information” is apt; citizens now have different expectations from a government that’s gone online than existed in an analog world. As Ondrejka put it, online users represent the “largest focus group in the world.” And in that content, he says, there is a role for government innovation, and it should be occupied by both leaders and citizens.

Ondrejka provided one more “analog” example of how government data was used in the 1800s. By studying harpoon designs,  Maury found that many whales in the Pacific has previously been harpooned in the Atlantic and vice versa. He used that as evidence of a Northwest Passage. While that didn’t go well for subsequent explorers who went north and ran up against a frozen ocean, the ’49ers were able to use the data to reduce the length of time it took to get around Cape Horn. In those days, it took more than 200 days to travel from New York City to San Francisco.

As the Gold Rush was on, time was at a premium, and for “extreme clipper ships” like Flying Cloud, any advantage that could be derived from patterns in the data had economic value. A similar parallel to innovation using government data can be seen today in the use of the global positioning system (GPS) that the U.S. funded.

With any of these technologies, however, there’s a long-standing pattern in technology adoption, the data around which follows a “fairly predictable” curve, said Ondrejka.  That “linear to exponential” is something that’s been true in multiple technologies, from email to the VCR to the DVD to social media platforms like Facebook.

In government, however, applying such technology has multiple considers, including regulations, transparency and cybersecurity.“When you’re driving institutional change, you’re requiring people to be fearless,” said Ondrejka. “Experimental culture doesn’t mean just go try stuff.” Measurement is key. “Stay out of the Church of Assumption.The plural of anecdote is not evidence.”

Concerns about data ownership are also central, as are questions about vendor lock-in or the use proprietary formats. “We need to be careful about not releasing the data that taxpayers pay for,” said Ondrejka.

Ondrejka’s presentation is embedded below. You can read more of his thoughts on government 2.0 at Ondrejka.net.

Cory Ondrejka Government 2.0 LA Opening Keynote

The full hour of his talk is embedded below:

Cory Ondrejka Delivers Keynote Address to Gov20LA 2010 from Gov20LA on Vimeo.