One might ask Tim O’Reilly, who has written eloquently about the topic and emceed the Gov2.0 Summit last year. One might also ask Mark Drapeau, who asked the question above earlier tonight on his blog, or Laurel Ruma, his co-chair at the Gov2.0 Expo last year, which showcased software and online platforms that used government data in innovative ways.
Or one might ask the nation’s technology executives, like US CIO Vivek Kundra or CTO Aneesh Chopra, both of whom participated in the Summit in Washington last summer. The attendees of the summit were asked by the organizers to define the term themselves in an online contest, offering up a multitude of interpretations of the nebulous term. Unfortunately, tonight I didn’t seek comment, turning instead to Wikipedia for the crowd’s opinion. As of tonight’s version, Wikipedia’s 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 government. William (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. 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.“
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.
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
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: YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Flickr, Delicious, Digg, Ning, 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.
Why explaining Government 2.0 matters
As a thought experiment, I asked five people in the lobby where I write 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, 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 a “Government 2.0 Camp in Los Angeles was a useful balance this past weekend, not least because as the creator of “Mad About You” he’s part of the cultural and business fabric of Hollywood.
Grundfest sat through the morning’s sessions and took copious notes in a way that was novel, at least to this author, capturing the themes, memes and jargon shared in the talks on coffee cups.
As she captured there, the focus of Grundfest’s frequently entertaining talk was grounded in the entertainment business: communicate clearly, humanize what’s being offered and move away from jargon.
That message was delivered, by and large, to a room that knew and used the jargon. 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.
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.
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.
Couched in humor, his audience responded with interest to the simplicity of the message. Embedded below is a video on the Gov2.o LA unconference from Govfresh that reflects that recommendation. (For others, visit YouTube.com/digiphile) By and large, I believe Grundfest’s message was delivered to a crowd of “goverati” for whom the message was valuable.
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.