Can We Implement O’Reilly’s ‘Government as a Platform’?

One of the most visible supporters of technical innovation in government recently has been Tim O’Reilly. Perhaps best known for popularizing the term “Web 2.0,” O’Reilly’s media company publishes popular software manuals and organizes industry-leading conferences for Internet entrepreneurs. In the past few years, he’s increasingly turned his attention to applying innovative internet technology to government, organizing in 2009 the inaugural Gov 2.0 Summit and Expo in Washington, D.C., events which bringing together high-ranking government officials and technology gurus.

O’Reilly’s agenda includes nothing less than the complete transformation of government. The internet has unleashed tremendous creativity through Web 2.0 websites, he reasons, so why can’t similar results be organized for government? The argument is presented as a chapter in an edited volume published by O’Reilly Media last may titled Open Government. The chapter, titled “Government as a Platform,” is also available online, and summarizes the argument he’s made in many blog posts and lectures:

Web 2.0 was not a new version of the World Wide Web; it was a renaissance after the dark ages of the dotcom bust, a rediscovery of the power hidden in the original design of the World Wide Web. Similarly, Government 2.0 is not a new kind of government; it is government stripped down to its core, rediscovered and reimagined as if for the first time.

And in that reimagining, this is the idea that becomes clear: government is, at bottom, a mechanism for collective action. We band together, make laws, pay taxes, and build the institutions of government to manage problems that are too large for us individually and whose solution is in our common interest.

Government 2.0, then, is the use of technology—especially the collaborative technologies at the heart of Web 2.0—to better solve collective problems at a city, state, national, and international level.

For too long government has been nothing more than a vending machine, O’Reilly argues, dispensing services to citizens in exchange for taxes. When we didn’t like what it produced, we resorted to shaking the machine — political protest. What we should be doing, O’Reilly argues, is creating a government which enables collective action, and captures the energy and innovation of the marketplace. In short, government should be a “platform of greatness,” coordinating and empowering individuals to serve the public interest.

The concept has caught on in some circles, embraced by groups like New York City’s Open Planning Project, a nonprofit dedicated to open source mapping software, open data, and democratizing the planning process, who included O’Reilly in a recent film about the value of publishing transit data. O’Reilly showed this film during his opening remarks at this year’s Gov 2.0 Summit, which concluded earlier this month. However, the opening began with a sober tone. After the enthusiasm of the first event, achieving Government 2.0 is “harder than it appears,” he conceded. However, O’Reilly said he still believes “Gov 2.0 answers the debate we’ve been having whether government is too big or too small … and creates the possibility of doing less and getting more.”

Indeed, technical innovations are slowly filtering into government. With open standards and the growth of sophisticated free and open-source technology, more and more proprietary and difficult-to-use vendor products are finally feeling healthy competition. Government data has the potential for improving journalism, access to services, and the evaluation of policy.

However, if we are to follow the metaphor to its logical conclusion, to truly reinvent government along different lines, what are the obstacles might we face? How might the lessons of Wikipedia, Facebook, and Youtube be applied to the ancient art of government? Unpacking these reasons may help explain why the path of government reform is a difficult one.

1. What’s a “Platform” Anyway?
In his thoughtful recent article “The Politics of ‘Platforms’” Tarleton Gillespie argues web companies use the word platform in a variety of ways. To regulators, they’re merely neutral platforms not responsible for the views expressed by participants and exempt from regulation. To users, it’s a privildged platform subject to detailed terms of service and censorship of offensive content. To other media companies, they’re lucrative platforms for profit. He concludes, “in other words, [these examples] represent an attempt to establish the very criteria by which these technologies will be judged, built directly into the terms by which we know them.”

In addition, all the private “platforms,” have some kind of internal governance who set the rules for participants. Whether groups of editors on Wikipedia or a corporate board, none institutionlize a type of governance anywhere near the complexity of real government. In fact, most are basically benevolent dictators with CEO’s held accountable by market forces. And if they can establish a monopoly, they’re only restrained by goodwill (such as “don’t be evil”) and any applicable laws. This issue brings us to the second obstacle.

2. The Federalist System
From outside of government, it’s easy to assume government has the power to do whatever it wishes so long as the elected officials agree and can obtain sufficient funds. Not true. Public power is carefully and deliberately divided between a bewildering array of states, agencies, municipalities, districts, quasi-public entities. As an example of this, some of the best ways to curb harmful externalities (like carbon dioxide emissions) are through taxes. In Massachusetts, cities cannot create new taxes without the approval of the state legislature. Period. The federal government often seeks to reform education. The only problem? Schools are run by local school boards. Federal education policy does have a variety of carrots and sticks at its disposal, but only local school districts control every aspect of schooling, or implement radically innovative new programs. This brings us to the next obstacle: who’s in charge.

3. Politicians
It’s easy to think Federal agencies are out there advancing, say, transportation or health and human services, in a general way. To the contrary, they operate under specific legislative guidelines . At the local level, although more policy entrepreneurship is possible, it always occurs under the watchful eye of lawyers and generally subject to legislative intervention. In fact, in theory elected or appointed officials run the whole operation of government. Implementing Government 2.0 therefore must involve the hard work of crafting detailed proposals, lobbying, and promotion used by any interest group. Which leads to the most incorrigible force of resistance of all.

4. We the People
O’Reilly is confident his vision of Government 2.0 transcends ideology. I’m not so sure. Any proposal for how government should operate is inherently ideological. His is no different. It includes a celebration of the market, belief in the power of individual creativity, and a desire to get government out of the business of providing direct services. In these ways it can be said to resemble neoliberalism quite closely, although perhaps with an assumption collective action outside of the market is necessary. This ideology may seem appealing to technologists, but a host of Americans may think otherwise. Leftists may prefer the old vending machine (where we can ensure the quality of public services), and conservatives may want to continue to shrink government. Even if it costs less, they might argue, we shouldn’t be tackling some problems through government at all.

The goal of this post is not to deflate the momentum of Government 2.0 advocates, but temper their enthusiasm with some realism. Publishing open data about transit service does seem somehow new for government. Yet we should never lose sight of what’s happening: a marginal increase in convenience for citizens, and some modest profits for software developers. Organizing a distributed, crowdsourced alternative to the subway? If it were even possible, this would require the cooperation of multiple government agencies, breaking union contracts, re-writing state law, and convincing everyday citizens an alternative to the existing one-agency system is desirable.

For these reasons, achieving public benefits through technology is often easier to organize completely outside of government. For example, a grassroots movement to clean up Estonia in one day was very successful, but nearly impossible to imagine under the guidance of a government agency. (What about liability? What about union rules? Did the legislature authorize everything properly?)

In Boston, we’ve anxiously awaited real-time arrival data for buses and trains. However, I’m not sure how that relates to the health of the underlying service, with billions of dollars of debt and backlogged maintenance. Until we can figure out how to use technology to tackle those problems (Crowdsourced railcar maintenance? DIY track inspections?) Government 2.0 will remain a buzzword and not a true reform movement.

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. Thanks for posting this, Rob. I think you’ve clearly touched on at least one critical point, which is the complex meaning and implications of the term “platform”.

    The idea that sticks with me the most about “government as a platform” is the notion of “generativity“. I’m reading Jonathan Zittrain’s “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It” right now, and he draws a clear distinction between single-use “information appliances” and “generative” technologies that don’t predetermine the uses that can come from them.

    When I hear O’Reilly talk about “govt as a platform”, it’s really the notion of generativity that comes through for me, regardless of the other nuances of the “platform”.

  2. Pingback: Goodspeed Update » Blog Archive » The Problems With ‘Platforms’

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