Government 2.0 – Are Rumors of its Death Premature?

In a recent article in the European Journal of ePractice (quite a useful resource by the way), the authors examine Government 2.0 and perform a rough reality check. Unsurprisingly, their assessment is rather gloomy. Another good place to read about reality checks on a regular basis is the excellent blog by Andrea diMaio at Gartner, which I recommend. I am not writing this because I am an opponent of government 2.0 and love to quote articles proving how much nonsense it is (quite the contrary). But we are at a point, where I think two things need to be considered: one, that government 2.0 (and all that comes with it) is about to fail and die unless politics learns to deal with it rather soon (this is the urgency dimension), and two, that unless the advocates and practitioners learn to readjust their actions according to what they really want to achieve and stop following fashion trends and cool products, they will never be entirely successful (this is the conceptual dimension). Here is a short quote:

(Source) Too often, governments simply adopt social media tools, trying to replicate the existing communication and participation paradigm, rather than embracing more profound innovation – just as in government 1.0. As such, government 2.0 is destined to be little more than hype: the real impact is only enabled by institutional and cultural change. This implies the need for legal innovation, in particular in the field of Civil Service Code, Freedom of Information, Data Protection and Re-use of Public Sector Information. But most of all, government 2.0 implies a different way to manage public policies, based on openness, trust and meritocracy. Across public policy domains, governments have to learn to promote innovation and create public value not through direct intervention, but by leveraging and enabling the best capacities of citizens to be deployed and fully realised.

Government 2.0 is a term that refers to a ‚package‘ of innovations in politics and public administration inspired by the new possibilities of the ‚web 2.0‘ changes that have swept the world wide web. The problems with this term are, that the web is approaching the next „version number“, while government is struggling to make the transition from „1.2“ to „1.3“, and will probably not reach a state „2.0“ before the rest of the world is already at „5.3“. That is because the public sector does not embrace change as rapidly as the free market, and elites and bureaucracies are resistant to change the deprives them of power. Closely related to this problem, is the fact that government 2.0 is too much associated with certain web technologies, from social networking platforms to proprietary mobile phone applications. Already, much of what happens in this area, has nothing to do with modern social media (Open Data for example has little to do with social media, let alone web 2.0). Many popular technologies change too rapidly, are often products by certain companies that may disappear or become obsolete (does anyone remember MySpace?). They are often hype (Myspace, Twitter), fashion item  (iPhone) or market failure (Google’s dominance), but not a suitable word-replacement (like saying kleenex when you mean paper tissue) for the underlying technological innovations and possibilities that are actually responsible for what we really mean by the web 2.0, or 3.0

I think the public sector needs to react more quickly to what is currently happening world wide. Politics and administrations need to innovate fast enough to keep track with those „2.0“ developments that promise sustainable solutions and provide immediate public value. Particularly, many countries need to learn to open up and let young and skilled talents into their leadership to make this change possible in the first place, and shed off some of the old-fashioned structures and processes, which are unsuitable for the 21st century. Otherwise, we are in trouble, because the world will not stop changing just because politics is unable to keep up.

I think the advocates, mavericks and practitioners need to drop the term „government 2.0“ immediately from their vocabulary, rid their ideas of all brand names and trendy products, and remodel their approach towards the greater ends. What do I mean by that? Lets talk about Open Government as opposed to Government 2.0, just as one possible alternative, because what we really want to achieve is openness, and all the possibilities of participation and collaboration, open value chains and transparency that come with it. Tweeting ministers, half-empty message boards, fancy iPhone Apps or Tag Clouds are not really the goal we are ultimately trying to achieve. Going along with that, why waste all this energy on persuading officials to adopt Twitter if we don’t know if it will still be here next year, and who on earth came up with the idea of interfering so blatantly in competition by promoting the services of this one company? When have we started equating Apps with iPhone Apps? What happened to promoting open interfaces, standards and APIs to let the market come up with apps for any device? The open government „movement“ needs to sit back, take a deep breath and take a blank sheet of paper. It needs to draw a horizontal line and write „government 1.0“ at the left end, „government 2.0“ a little to the right of that, and aaaaaall the way at the right end, but not completely at the end, it needs to write „open government or something like that“. And then, under government 2.0, we need to write 2011, because that is how long „government 2.0“ will last, in its current form, with all the inconsistencies in the terms being used, with all the overlap with modern e-government, and so on. What is too often overlooked and underemphasized is the need to first and foremost fight for changes in political culture, bureaucratic mentality, civic life and legal frameworks. In order to realize innovation, we need to ensure that there is a conducive environment for that. Without necessary legal changes to create certain freedoms in the public sector, without a different mindset within agencies, and without a culture of openness and transparency in politics, none of all the „gov 2.0“ things can produce lasting change, it will merely be a continuation of business as usual with nifty new toys to spread the same old gospel. If we do more to positively influence the institutional context and societies we live in, we may actually succeed in creating new ways of doing things, or these new ways will emerge on their own. Just as the internet, because of its openness, produced a change in the way we use it, so can the public sector. If it becomes an open platform, it will invite change, so that change does not have to break into it with clumsy brute force.

I hope I made my point and provoked a few of you to leave your comments. I hope to refine my argument continuously and incorporate feedback. Thanks for reading.

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Sebastian

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