Hint: the Solutions are presented in the comments below
Dr. Mark Drapeau’s Viewpoint
Feb 19, 2010
Yesterday I sat on a great panel about the Open Government Directive and the open government principles of transparency, collaboration, and engagement hosted by Adobe and 1105 Media. I'm particularly interested in how communities are engaged by the government, especially with my new job as a "director of innovative social engagement." So, as I listened to Robynn Sturm, the Assistant Deputy CTO of the U.S. for Open Government, speak before me, I couldn't help but notice one thing - technology was a huge part of the equation, and humans were not.
In my later panel, I termed this "Dangerously Digital."
There have been some clear wins for digital open government. I think that something like the Federal IT Dashboard is the kind of transparent, impersonal Government 2.0 initiative that works in a digital space. It makes sense. But then I see examples more on the collaborative and participatory side of things that have what appears to be a "sit and wait" strategy - we will make data available, press release a contest, or create a website where anyone can submit and vote on ideas...and hope something happens.
This is the equivalent of quenching your thirst for the year by putting a plastic kiddie pool outside and hoping that it rains hard.
It's not that we shouldn't have open data, or contests, or open suggestion websites. But what I wonder is, while the government surely has people in charge of all of these things, who's in charge of being a social ambassador to the communities that can help, and the communities that can benefit? For something like the Innovations for Healthy Kids Challenge (a worthy cause), who's in charge of actually reaching out to video game developers and similar people to make them aware of the challenge, let them know that their private sector skills are needed and respected and taken seriously by their govenrment, and build trust with them over the long term so they can possibly be activated at a later date?
Often times, it's remarked that going to LA pool parties hosted by video game designers isn't part of government work. But maybe it is, if that's what it takes to get more talented people involved in their government. "Social" isn't a dirty word, it's part of what government needs to do better. Social comes before collaboration. It comes before participation. That's because it comes before trust.
Do people trust your government agency enough to feel that their ideas are taken seriously in Washington?
Some side notes.
One, I still am not sure that Facebook "Fan" pages and Twitter accounts and the like branded with EPA, USDA, DOT, and so forth are the right way to go. Sorry, no one is a "fan" of the EPA. Or virtually any other government entity (I can imagine a few exceptions, like the Marines). What people are "fans" of are issues important to them, their families and neighborhoods, and their communities. I'd like to see a Facebook page about a clean environment with safe water, family farms, and energy efficiency run jointly by (say) the USDA, EPA, DOE, and DOI. Here's a decent private-sector example of this kind of non-organization pro-community Facebook page, named Bright Side of Government; I think this starts to get at the right idea.
Two, the idea of a Public Roadmap for Open Government (deadline soon!) is a good start, but this is predicated on the assumption that creating a more transparent, collaborative, patrticipatory federal government is a predictable, measureable process. To some degree it is, and to some degree it isn't. Rather than an artificial, forced deadline to decide what a roadmap looks like, how about a year within which experiments in open government are conducted, social networks are formed with the public and stakeholders, and a "roadmap" is built experimentally through trial and error? Perhaps the rules, the principles, and the grand strategy can be written down in a tidy report beforehand - the tactics? Not so much.
Three, the idea of a "high value dataset" is a little shaky. Yes, we want good data. It should be collected in a quality manner, meaning that one can trust the numbers. But trying to determine a priori what data will be more useful and which won't is a very tricky business. As a scientist, I saw numerous examples of people reviving older topics and relying on crusty old data 20 or 30 years old, to put together something novel. In fact, that's how my Ph.D. dissertation came about. Thank goodness someones published all that "low value data" for me.
In the end, I think that incorporating relatively inexpensive technologies like IdeaScale across the government is a great idea. But the idea seems to be very tech-heavy. I'm not even convinced that the CTO should be in charge of Open Govenrnment, because that unnecessarily supposes that technology is the answer to every problem. Technology is useful, no doubt. I'm using it to write this right now. I'm a blogger. I'm a Twitter fiend. I fly Virgin America and text people from my seat. And maybe the digital world is by far the best way to achieve transparency and deliver more information to more people - I don't dispute that.
But collaboration and participation are human endeavors, not robotic ones. Building websites, inventing contests, and inviting input are necessary but not sufficient for collaboration and participation, whether inside the enterprise or with the public. Only when combined with government participation in and knowledge and understanding of communities that rely and care about their missions do these things work well over the long term, repeatedly.
Sometimes government can seem intimidating. Even an "open government" website that invites input begs the question - will anyone in Washington DC really care about my idea? I don't know anyone there, and therefore I don't trust anyone there. Trust in government is at a low for the last 50 years (at least).