Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Government 2.0

With Barack Obama clinching the Democratic nomination today, comes a rare return to the feeling that anything is possible here in Washington. It likely won't last long, but it's stirring and wonderful, like the fresh breeze after one of our sudden, thunderous storms washes the stale, humid air of summer.

Yesterday, I had another taste of fresh air at a conference of all places. And it, too, was redolent with memory, hearkening back to the early days of the National Performance Review under President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. (Remember when they tossed the football while wearing plaid short-sleeved shirts and khakis to conjure those iconic images of Camelot in the Kennedy compound?)

The Deloitte-National Academy of Public Administration conference, "Web 2.0: The Future of Government," June 3 was awash with the inevitability of transformation, the cracking through of silos and the reconnection with customer-citizens long ago pushed out of problem-solving. It sounds familiar and even quaint to those of us who've grown jaded chasing NPR and GPRA and PART. But the hardy band of reformers who still believe government is a vital vehicle for little "d" democracy, can't help but be energized by each new effort to turn the battleship.

This time, it's collaboration that's certain to fix federal failures. A breadth and depth of collaboration within government, with it and other entities and with Americans heretofore unimaginable enabled by the tools of Web 2.0: wikis, blogs, social networking and even virtual worlds. And it's hard not to be swept away in the vision of agencies harvesting the ideas and plaints of employees and citizens online and addressing them in Internet time. Hard not to be enchanted by the notion of using Google maps and real-time information feeds to really get a handle on infrastructure, or disaster planning or improved grant making. Hard not to like the idea of smart people inside and outside the halls of power sharing what they know and what they don't without the endless, enervating vetting and cleaning process that slows most real interchange to a halt still today.

It was refreshing to learn, for example, that it's no longer true that when an FBI agent calls an NSA analyst, he or she must hand the phone to a supervisor to get permission to speak outside the silo. The success of experiments like Intellipedia, where intel analysts can post what they know and watch it grow as others in the community add to and edit it, is exciting. Improvements wrought by TSA's internal Idea Factory blog will improve all our travels. Checkpoint Evolution, for example, is a pilot project built in the factory that will bring mood lighting, ambient music and wireless headsets instead of cacophony and shouted commands to the baggage checkpoints of a few lucky airports.

And the Transportation Security Officers who screen your luggage are likely to be a bit happier now that another suggestion harvested online allows them to swap jobs with officers at other airports if they can entice their colleagues to move.

Conjuring an image of government as facilitator or as partner with nonprofits, companies, interest groups and anyone else who can help address intractable problems is fun. Imagining every manager, and even better, every policy-maker and elected official, asking "what is the public value we are trying to add? before creating or implementing a program is thrilling.

But the splash of cold water comes quickly: The not inconsequential number of federal employees using computers running Windows 98 won't have access to Web 2.0 tools. The lawyers and IT security guardians already are pouncing, finding YouTube indemnity agreements verboten and virtual world software downloads a threat. As with every cultural change, fear is the greatest enemy and incrementalism the most debilitating wound.

All this opening up and "transparency" threatens big cracks in many rice bowls. The notion that no one of us is as smart as all of us implies a sharing of information antithetical to the cherished belief that information is more valuable when it is not shared than shared. And after all, when we all have collaborated on a project, how do I claim credit to enhance my performance appraisal? How does a manager award evaluation points for collaborating?

"How can we make government a place where everything becomes possible," one speaker asked. Such a lovely aspiration but quixotic, no? Sort of like a black man as a serious contender for the presidency.

Hey, wait a minute.

Photo credit: Obama campaign


Anonymous said...


Great blog and great post on the conference. As you know, the Atlantic has an article that also brings together the two themes you discussed--Obama and web 2.0

Jeff Anderson said...

Great review of the conference,
Paul has also posted a review of the same conference on our blog at

Anne Laurent said...

Many thanks to both of you! I decided to take some poetic license with this post rather than just giving conference blow-by-blow. You can read my more traditional coverage here:

K T Cat said...

I dunno, man. Using Obama as an example of something new and different for Washington seems like a bit of a stretch. A party built upon identity politics just went through a particularly vicious campaign. There were almost no policy differences between the two candidates. They ended up nominating a charming, but utterly disingenuous and hyper-ambitious politician who did nothing but spout childish slogans.

Not too different, I'd say.

Brian Friel said...

Your article made me think of the D.C. police listserv I'm on. People in the police district I live in get on all the time and post things like "hey, what were all those sirens about last night?" and "why aren't there any cops at the park at night?" and stuff like that. The cops are actually really good about responding. It seems like a great way to get neighbors involved again.

Anne Laurent said...

Yes, and that's one of many ways people are collaborating with government. TSA's Evolution of Security blog is worth reading for ideas about how government agencies can respectfully engage a skeptical and often critical public while correcting inaccuracies and explaining some of the competing requirements government must meet while performing missions. All that, and it's fun to read, too!