Government 2.0: The Problems of Empowerment

Government 2.0 shares much with BI, including its premise that information empowers. It also shares some familiar problems.

The promise of the so-called Government 2.0 seems clear: well-presented government data made available online, along with a new culture of openness among officials and inspiration among the public, will let citizenship bloom -- resulting in citizen-produced information, ideas and insight. It will all operate with the same fluid ease and popularity as today's Wikipedia, blogs, and social-networking sites.

A small parade has formed to promote the idea. One bandleader is Don Tapscott, veteran visionary for things technical. He was onto the promise of the Internet early, and he is co-author of Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything (2008, Portfolio).

He believes in the wisdom of the swarm. He said during his conversation in May on National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation, "People will do the right thing if given a chance."

So far, so good.

Upon closer examination, this idea looks like a new variety of business intelligence applied to government. Like BI, it's about visibility, transparency, and empowerment. It may end up using many of the same tools for data visualization, data cleaning, harvesting unstructured data, and other needs. It may also have many of the same problems.

I looked hard for nuts-and-bolts thinking. I found examples of Government 2.0 projects, but not much on the practicalities of a large-scale push. Contacts with Tapscott's nGenera organization resulted in just more theory and fanfare.

Within hours of Tapscott's segment on Talk of the Nation, metrics maven Tom Davenport, author of Competing on Analytics (2007, Harvard Business School), expressed skepticism in his blog: "There may be a few hitches in this miraculous transformation."

The hitches may sound familiar to those who've watched BI try to grow within an organization.

One hitch might be too much faith in technology. In most of what I've seen written about Government 2.0, technology seems to come first. Tapscott points to a Wall Street Journal column by L. Gordon Crovitz, who writes, "Democracy and governing are complex topics, but this makes it all the more important to apply technology as a solution."

Technology is fine, and it does enable us to do more. I agree more, however, with BI consultant and teacher Dave Wells on its role: "Insight happens between the ears of people and in the conversations between those people."

If Government 2.0 is really all about conversation, how revolutionary is it? On Talk of the Nation, Tapscott observed that today's political culture is "predatory" and that it must change. Can technology do the job?

The actual revolution might lie in a healthy willingness to offer ideas, to listen and to tolerate disagreement. I don't see such a massive change of culture occurring without training and incentives.

Here are at least four other hitches I foresee.

1. Balky, badly designed Web sites. If a Government 2.0 program actually made things worse, would citizen engagement actually decline? Part of a special report in February in the Economist on "e-government" describes the horror of a three-year-old National Heath Service project for making appointments called "Choose and Book." Doctors and patients find the site poorly designed and dead slow.

2. Pointless digression. District of Columbia residents who someday explore and analyze city data with Tableau Software could, as the manager who introduced it to the city administrator's office feared, demand digressions in public forums. Public exploration may also prove embarrassing for some officials. Embarrassment alone is a risk every official assumes -- but they'll avoid it if possible, leading to resistance.

3. Lack of commitment within government. One Talk of the Nation listener sent an e-mail to ask how this scheme could work when he and fellow workers couldn't even procure a replacement for their six-year-old computers. Tapscott had no answer except to repeat the mantra: this change is inevitable.

One of those hitches might sound familiar to those who've seen resistance to new BI systems. Tapscott often cites Intellipedia, a wiki for the U.S. intelligence community to "connect the dots" against terrorism. Davenport writes, "The mere existence of the tool isn't going to make [people use it]." Intelligence people at a recent Enterprise 2.0 conference who are working with Intellipedia, he writes, said that only 10 percent of the eligible user population is actually using it.

4. Cost of the programs. Government 2.0 programs could be expensive. How will we judge return on investment? Results won't show up in "dollars and cents," writes nGenera's Government 2.0 program director Dan Herman. Instead, he writes, results will show up in "innovation."

One other nGenera staff member favors "investment" as a value. Nauman Haque, senior analyst with nGenera Insight's Enterprise 2.0 research program, says investment means doing something at the expense of something else, such as showing up at a rally, donating money, or contributing to online forums as valid investments.

Haque's right. I also believe that involving the public directly in government is wise. Tapscott's parade feels like a winner -- except for one thing. Alarms go off in my head when I hear nothing but optimism. Will Government 2.0 be easy? I doubt it.I could be all wrong about the potential problems, but I guarantee there will be some. Nothing as broad and profound as this marches all the way to the end without a problem. When Tapscott and company take doubting questions seriously, and when they reply to reporters' follow-up questions, I'll have more confidence in their movement. Until then, I'll reserve a healthy amount of skepticism.

About the Author

Ted Cuzzillo, CBIP, is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco area. He can be reached at

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