What is Government 2.0?

With last year’s Gov 2.0 Summit and the explosion of social networking service GovLoop, “government 2.0” has become a buzzword in technology and government circles. What does government 2.0 refer to? And what exactly was the government 1.0 that we’re improving on? This article attempts to define the term and unearth some of the hidden assumptions and implications that result from applying concepts developed in Silicon Valley technology startups to the complex and age-old problem of governance.

The term government 2.0 is a deliberate reference to the term “web 2.0,” coined by publisher Tim O’Reilly to refer to interactive, social websites like Wikipedia and Facebook, which have revolutionized how people use the web. Before delving into the meaning of government 2.0, we should consider government 1.0, the government analogue to web 1.0. Although less common now, the term most often used for this initial approach to technology in government is e-government.

The Center for Technology in Government defined e-government as having three components: e-management, e-services, and e-democracy. The first two have been largely realized. Governments have adopted, to varying degrees of sophistication, internal information technology systems such as networks, databases, and intranets. As we will see, government 2.0 practices often rely on these underlying systems. Governments have long provided e-services to constituents through websites, email, or APIs, including tax payments, service requests, and digital applications and paperwork. The last component, e-democracy, has been more elusive. In the web 1.0 world, this has most often meant emailing elected officials or signing petitions on topics. These activities have grown, although in the U.S. context exist mainly outside of government websites or structures.

At a lecture hosted by the Kennedy School Government 2.0 Professional Interest Council this fall, Nicco Mele suggested we adopt Tim O’Reilly’s web 2.0 principles as a starting point for government 2.0. My essay builds on his interesting lecture.

1. Government as Platform

Apps for Democracy - An Innovation Contest by iStrategyLabs for the DC Government and BeyondO’Reilly’s first principle is “the web as platform,” adjusted for our purposes to be “government as platform.” The most obvious examples of this are where government agencies provide data or host competitions to encourage creative ideas that serve the public interest. The “apps” competitions in Washington, D.C. and New York and sponsored by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, are a start to this trend. In these competitions, government provides the data, and an ecosystem of third party developers and tools helps unleash the value for the public, creating new tools, resources, and analyses.

Another example where government acts as platform is the phenomenon of participatory budgeting, pioneered by cities in Brazil and now has spread to a number of cities around the world. This approach puts budgetary decision-making, or some part of it, directly in the hands of citizens, bypassing existing representative models of decision-making. The technical dimensions of this are only now being explored, and in the Brazilian case above deliberation and voting online complemented conventional public meetings.

When it comes to service delivery, it is less clear what “government as platform” means. It may echo a broader political agenda that has sought to re-define the role of government through systematic privatization of formerly government functions, such as education or public services. After all, when governments provide educational or housing vouchers, aren’t they acting as the intermediary, or a platform? The political implications of shifting government from a service provider role to a facilitating role deserves consideration. This issue is connected to a host of issues surrounding contracting and public private partnerships. Governments may want to retain some types of service delivery if the good cannot be contracted for, or the public wants to enforce certain service standards.

2. Harnessing Collective Intelligence

The second principle is “harnessing collective intelligence.” Obama’s Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government identified collaboration as a policy goal for the federal government. In fact, Obama’s Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Open Government Beth Noveck experimented with collaboration tools to create an open government policy last summer. In other areas there are limited successes of citizen-government collaboration. Next Stop Design | WelcomeThe Peer to Patent program pools expert opinion to speed the patent process. The Next Stop Design project in Salt Lake City, Utah used crowdsourcing to select the design for new bus shelters. One of the people involved in the project, Daren Brabham, is writing a PhD dissertation on the application of crowdsourcing to public problems. In Melbourne, the consulting firm Collabforge ran a wiki as a component of a conventional planning process to generate the new city plan.

Fundamentally, this trend will face several types of powerful resistance.

First, it can run counter to traditional concepts of representative democracy, where elected officials work “down” through an expert bureaucracy to create and implement policy. Archon Fung has proposed “empowered participation” can be deployed as a governance method for specific issues, such as Chicago’s school committees or neighborhood policing committees. However, creating these structures depends on modifying existing forms of governance. Existing projects have avoided this in several ways. The apps competitions aren’t about creating policy, and the government hosts can always disavow responsibility. Idea-generation contests usually reserve final decisions to designated juries. Policy-creation projects retain the final decision-making power with conventional authorities. However, pushing this further into what Beth Noveck calls “wiki government” will require addressing this tension with existing practices.

Second, a host of public problems require technical expertise to analyze or solve. The question of how to integrate technical forms of knowledge with citizens is far from resolved. The cutting edge involves putting modeling tools in the hands of citizens, who use them as “decision support tools,” but this runs counter to existing models of professional practice and the very real need for significant expertise to complete complex analyses.

Lastly classified data and national security, a major governmental function, may never be opened to the public. Interestingly, Department of Defense has been interested in the collaborative potential of internal communication across their vast bureaucracy through wikis, for example launching a wiki to improve the Army Field Manual.

3. Open Data Standards

lod-datasets_2009-03-05-scaled.png (PNG Image, 700x533 pixels)The third principle is the use of data standards. Expanding access to government data is a major trend, with initiatives underway at the federal, state, and local level to create data portals. The concept of linked data, emerging out of the Wikipedia project, seems poised to move into government datasets. In fact, greater linking and cross-comparison among the expanding amount of available government data will create a positive pressure to ensure cross-compatibility. Within Massachusetts state government, for example, town-level data has become a standard for comparison and analysis. With the federal government in setting metadata and other standards already, this may happen slowly but some signs are already in place. Using this to evaluate government may be misleading: the primary purpose of government isn’t to create data, although it is an important one. The technological viewpoint threatens to be reductionist, viewing the government as primarily engaged in collecting and hosting data. In reality, most money and effort in government is spent on delivering healthcare, education, national defense, grant programs, and regulatory actions, where data can play a supporting role (perhaps as indicators) but is not even always a mandatory input to governance.

In Boston, the author of a recent major report studying the city’s transit agency said in November he wouldn’t ride the busy Red Line due to serious maintenance issues that threaten to cause a train derailment. At roughly the same time, data enthusiasts were demanding real-time data about bus and train arrivals at the MassDOT developers conference. When our transit systems are in real danger of catastrophic failure, shouldn’t we spend all available funds preventing disaster for the existing riders, rather than inventing technology to make use more convenient? How can these important goals be balanced properly?

4. Customer Service

The last principle discussed by Nicco is customer service, based on O’Reilly’s “rich user experience.” An emphasis on customer services is undeniable at all levels of government. Cities have launched successful 311 systems for managing citizen requests, and governments have been subscribing to the “plain language” movement make government information more understandable and usable to citizens. However, just like “government as platform,” this principle too often reduces government to a consumer-producer relationship where the government provides services just like private firms might in the marketplace. Customer service is important, but so is engaging with citizens to generate ideas and implement solutions. In exchange for expecting service, citizens have the responsibility to understand the resource and legal limitations of government.

5. Incremental Policy

O’Reilly has several additional principles: end of the software release cycle, lightweight programming models, and software above the level of the single device. Of these, I think the principle for government is the advent of more iterative forms of policy making. The field of planning has developed theories of incrementalism or “muddling through,” to reflect the real-world pace of change. The web supports both short bursts of activity but also long-term archiving, and professionals are only now learning how to use the tools to develop sustained interest and engagement through ongoing conversations and communications.


What do we learn from this exercise? First, I’m not sure government 2.0 is yet a new type of government, instead a collection of promising trends. The adoption of new social and technical approaches of idea creation and governance don’t resolving age-old questions about what government should be doing, and how it should approach principles of equity and justice. In fact, what could emerge is a new, technically-enabled model of in the tradition of the “developmental state,” the concept that the state itself is engaged in economic and community development. This is perhaps the most important lesson of these trends: existing government processes should be examined and where they are not working be re-invented to take advantage of the ability of technology to expand the activity of governance beyond the institutions of government.

Author: Rob Goodspeed