Government 2.0: The Midlife Crisis

Excitement about the government’s use of Web 2.0 technology has swept Washington, DC. One of President Obama’s first acts in office was to issue a directive calling for a more transparent, collaborative, and participatory government. Websites like USA.gov have launched new Web 2.0 features, such as RSS news services. And the President got to keep his precious BlackBerry.

At the grassroots level, a group of knowledgeable insiders, the so-called “goverati,” is spreading information across social networks. The recently formed Government 2.0 Club, modeled after the popular Social Media Club, will provide a further mechanism for branding events and sharing wisdom. And non-profit organizations like The Sunlight Foundation are developing applications and hosting events in an effort to make government more transparent and ultimately more accountable to the public.

From the outside, everything looks splendid. But the truth on the ground is that Government 2.0 is gummed up like molasses on a steamy afternoon.

Problems Bubbling Up

Relatively archaic government policies, rules, and customs that impede progress are being covered by the Washington Post and reach the highest levels of government. To this day, Department of Defense workers, even some of whom are in charge of new media output, cannot access YouTube. At one government agency, public affairs employees use government-purchased Macs and wireless cards to circumvent social networks being classified as “dating sites” — by other employees! And in extraordinary cases, contractors hired by agencies to carry out the work of Government 2.0 are banned from doing the very job they were hired to do.

Meanwhile, amid rapid iPhone sales and the permeation of mobile technology throughout society, senior counter-intelligence officials publicly discuss security risks they face while traveling. Hackers have a new priority target: the President’s PDA.

All this is happening while many of Government 2.0’s supposedly biggest fans — the Web 2.0 enthusiasts — behave like the biggest critics of government efforts, particularly regarding citizen participation in policy making. The rejuvenated WhiteHouse.gov website, the newly launched Recovery.gov site for making the economic recovery more transparent, and the preferential use of YouTube to share information with the public have all been criticized, often in near real-time. Adding to the confusion, social media news reports about such things as the White House’s use of Twitter have turned out to be unfounded because of spoofed accounts and guesswork rather than source checking. And salivating hackers at events like DEFCON discuss the many vulnerabilities of social networks like LinkedIn and Facebook, which are nearly ubiquitous among young professionals.

The Midlife Crisis

Government 2.0 has reached its midlife crisis. Despite some leadership from influential individuals on using social software in government, there is still in many cases a disconnect between authorities issuing directives and ground troops carrying them out. In some corridors of Washington, this impervious middle section of government is jokingly referred to as “the clay layer,” the layer through which no light shall pass. Resistant to change and adhering strictly to doctrine even when nonsensical, people in the clay layer can halt progress. Despite their intentions and being in a strategic position, they often stop the progress being called for.

This midlife crisis was pointed out by one of Government 2.0’s most outspoken evangelists, Chris Rasmussen, of the U.S. intelligence community, at a well-attended event held recently in the Washington area. As covered in a widely read trade press article, Rasmussen lamented the impossibly high standards that social tools are held to, even within government firewalls. Furthermore, many tools, such as Intellipedia, are used as supplements to (rather than substitutes for) legacy systems. As Clay Shirky once quipped, this is like putting an engine on a rowboat to make the oars go faster.

At this crossroads, “creative destruction” will require hard decisions about shutting down certain systems and processes and focusing employees on new ones. Employees at the grassroots level need to be given true executive empowerment, rather than dictatorial directives. But how to achieve this?

A Way Forward

In about a month, thought leaders from Washington and beyond will convene for the Government 2.0 Camp, an “unconference” designed to hash out these issues. The event is expected to build on previous ones, and its output will surely guide future agendas. Even now, organizers and other thought leaders are debating how Government 2.0 Camp can and should be used, and they are doing it in the open. On the agenda? How social software affects information security; social technology as part of everyday work versus fad products to be procured; and how to get citizens more involved in solving government problems.

An influential military thinker, Vice Admiral Arthur Cebrowski, once said: “You have a choice: you can either create your own future, or you can become the victim of a future that someone else creates for you. By seizing the transformation opportunities, you are seizing the opportunity to create your own future.” How will Government 2.0 advocates create their own future?

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