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.

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.

19 Responses

  1. bob ashley

    We all know that the semantics of gov2.0 draws directly from the application developers’ convention of numerical demarcations of incremental upgrades. It bears a family resemblance to a technical meme. It is also an evaluative term which points to “better” or more “advanced” and thus carries the sense of progress.

    I don’t think you can define gov2.0 unless you’ve got a handle on the semantics occupied by what we’d assume to be gov1.0. That opens up a huge, polemical field of political science and public administration theory.

    I think the impulse to define gov2.0 may be too fastidious, and seeks a false comfort in face of chaotic, break-neck change. It’s a gov1.0 impulse to attempt to “fix” meaning like that. I believe we should let it go and rest in a different comfort, of a fluid, amorphous, on-the-wing meaning set for gov2.0. This approach opens up an ever-evolving discussion on gov2.0, as opposed to shutting it up in a lexical vault.

    The gov2.0 community are doing a marvellous job of getting through to each other when they speak of gov2.0. The term transcends any solid grounded meaning, much in the same way that the word “cool” does. We all know what cool means, even if 1,000 different people would define it 1,000 different ways.

    Thanks for the post. Provocative. Got me thinking!


  2. bob ashley

    You make a point which deserves triple-underline. Gov1.0 is prolly what 99% of the public want, esp if we take this to mean, “just do your job”…sweep the streets, vaccinate my kids, defend my country, inspect my restaurant. Don’t fool yerself fella, this gov2.0 is really a buncha guff2.0.



  3. This was a great read, and it’s important that the opengov and Gov 2.0 communities find ways to refine these definitions so that they can be effectively communicated to larger audiences which have new talents to add to the movement(s).

    1. Additional comments on articulating the difference between OpenGov and Gov 2.0

    From GovLoop:

    On LinkedIn (must be signed in):

    More on the definition of Gov 2.0 from GovLoop:

    2. The biggest difference between Gov 2.0 and OpenGov seems to be how they approach transparency. Members of the Gov 2.0 community advocate for transparency through open data so that others can build on this data– part of the “government as a platform” idea. People who advocate for transparency for the sake of accountability (dealing with the Freedom of Information Act, White House visitor logs, etc) would definitely say they are part of the “Open Government Community” but may not see themselves as part of the “Gov 2.0 Community”. Do you also notice that difference in how people label themselves?

    From my perspective, the primary organization which seems to straddle both worlds is the Sunlight Foundation which uses open data for accountability. Nearly everyone else who uses open data does so in order to make it accessible to citizens rather than to hold government accountable. This is not to say that one approach is better than another, but this is to say that there seem to be two very different motivations for advocating for transparency, and they do seem to correlate to whether people label themselves as part of Gov 2.0 or part of OpenGov.

  4. Noel Dickover

    Sounds like you all had a good discussion yesterday – sorry I missed it. Absolutely agree with the “cool” analogy Bob raises above. There was a twitter convo a few months back where it became clear that everyone had completely different definitions of Gov20 versus opengov. Some thought of them as synonymous, but most looked at one or the other as higher, or more encompassing, and the second term as having a slightly different meaning like “technology focused” or “open data”, etc. But few had the same understanding.

    And I definitely agree with Maxine that unless we actually make progress towards our mission in govt, be it providing services or otherwise, it really doesn’t matter what its called – Gov20 gets dropped on the ever increasing stack of buzzwords foisted upon us by OMB, congress or an agency that eventually everyone forgets about. That the Open Government directive has little in the way of “directive actions” bodes ill for its long term survival.

    But while technology impacts to business have a long history of contemplating our navels every time we stumble, over time, the impact of IT to business is clear. I do agree with Tim O’Reilly that over the long term, technology will impact government to citizen exchange processes as well in significant, long lasting ways. They just won’t be top-down driven, but instead will be the result of smart people working in government who are under pressure to get something done by a critical deadline. I would argue that most of our success stories today already follow that model far more than they do adherence to open government policies.

    The interesting recent change is the WeGov approach. While this sounds ultra-buzzwordy, the idea that citizens should take ownership of their government functions is sorta revolutionary. This approach in essence says that citizens should be leading the way toward innovative change, and that government, while still intimately involved, is no longer the prime mover and central shaker of the change that matters. In some cases, WeGov plays an augment function to improve performance of the main actors – I look at the volunteer technology communities working with first responders in disasters as perhaps the best example of this.

    I would also look at the Civil Society 2.0 initiative at the State Dept as doing this on an international scale. The Government is still a convenor in that it connects the cognitive surplus of people across the world interested in social good with small but quality NGOs and grass roots orgs – but the real work that makes the difference happens outside of government.

  5. There is a great recording of Richard Boly, United States Department of State, keynote at Enterprise 2.0 that is available at:

    He talked about several of the platforms that DoS is using internally and shows screenshots.

    I definitely recommend a watch for people interested in gov.20 and Open Gov.

  6. Gov 2.0 and Open Government means you can do the Tim O’Reilly, 2010, Open Government, Chapter 1. Government As a Platform Practical Steps for Government Agencies:

    1. Issue your own government directive (done*)
    2. Create a simple, reliable, and publically accessible infrastructure that exposes the underlying data (done).
    3. Build your own websites and applications using item 2 above (done).
    4. Share your data catalogs and repository of applications (done).
    5. Provide work as open source software, standardized web services, cloud computing platform, and best practices (done).
    6. Support existing open standards and open source software (done).
    7. Create a list of software applications that can be reused by government employees without procurement (done).
    8. Create an “app store” that features applications created by the private sector as well as those created by your own government unit (done).
    9. Create permissive social media guidelines that allow government employees to engage the public without having to get pre-approval from superiors (not my role now).
    10. Sponsor meetups, code camps, and other activity sessions to actually put citizens to work on civic issues (done).

    *: and

    Please see

    Thanks to you and Tim for great advice and leadership!

  7. […] The government is required to collect much more data than just bus position data, and the potential for making this data available and to the world for valuable new services to be built is beginning to be understood beyond technology circles. In fact, one of the biggest blows to Madison moving forward in this area is the impending departure of Economic Development Director Tim Cooley, who absolutely got it and would have been a strong ally as we moved forward. Making this data available is sometimes referred to as “Open Government”, or “Open Government Data”, though open government is a much older and broader term, and historically has meant government transparency. For a better discussion of Open Government and Gov 2.0, see this post by Alex Howard on the relationship between the two, and how different people define the te… […]

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