Gov 2.0: The Promise Of Innovation
Tim O’Reilly, 08.10.09, 6:00 PM ET
Over the past 15 years, the World Wide Web has created remarkable new business models reshaping our economy. As the Web has undermined old media and software companies, it has demonstrated the enormous power of a new model, often referred to as Web 2.0.
Now, a new generation has come of age with the Web and is committed to using its lessons of creativity and collaboration to address challenges facing our country and the world. The Facebook Causes application has more than 60 million registered users who are leveraging the power of social networks to raise money for charity. Meetup.com helps interest groups formed on the Web get together in person–and a remarkable number of groups do so for civic purposes. A quick search turns up nearly 20,000 meetups devoted to cleaning up local parks, streets and neighborhoods. Twitter and YouTube have played major roles in helping organize political protests in Iran’s recent election. Everyblock and Stumblesafely take government crime statistics and turn them into public safety applications for the Web or iPhone. The list goes on.
Meanwhile, with the proliferation of issues and not enough resources to address them all, many government leaders recognize the opportunities inherent in harnessing a highly motivated and diverse population not just to help them get elected, but to help them do a better job. By analogy, many are calling this movement “Government 2.0.”
President Obama exhorted us to rise to the challenge: “We must use all available technologies and methods to open up the federal government, creating a new level of transparency to change the way business is conducted in Washington, and giving Americans the chance to participate in government deliberations and decision-making in ways that were not possible only a few years ago.”
There is a new compact on the horizon: Government maintains information on a variety of issues, and that information should rightly be considered a national asset. Citizens are connected like never before and have the skill sets and passion to solve problems affecting them locally as well as nationally. Government information and services can be provided to citizens where and when they need it. Citizens are empowered to spark the innovation that will result in an improved approach to governance.
This is a radical departure from the old model of government, which Donald Kettl so aptly named “vending machine government.” We pay our taxes; we get back services. And when we don’t get what we expect, our “participation” is limited to protest–essentially, shaking the vending machine.
In the vending-machine model, the full menu of available services is determined beforehand. A small number of vendors have the ability to get their products into the machine, and as a result, the choices are limited, and the prices are high.
Yet there is an alternate model, which is much closer to the kind of government envisioned by our nation’s founders, a model in which, as Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to Joseph Cabel, “every man … feels that he is a participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day.” In this model, government is a convener and an enabler–ultimately, it is a vehicle for coordinating the collective action of citizens.
So far, you may hear echoes of the dialog between liberals and conservatives that has so dominated political discourse in recent decades. But big government versus small government is in many ways beside the point. To frame the debate in terms familiar to technologists, the question is whether government is successful as a platform.
If you look at the history of the computer industry, the most successful companies are those that build frameworks that enable a whole ecosystem of participation from other companies large and small. The personal computer was such a platform. So was the World Wide Web. But this platform dynamic can be seen most vividly in the recent success of the Apple iPhone. Where other phones have a limited menu of applications developed by the phone provider and a few carefully chosen partners, Apple built a framework that allowed virtually anyone to build applications for the phone, leading to an explosion of creativity, with more than 50,000 applications appearing for the phone in less than a year, and more than 3,000 new ones now appearing every week.
This is the right way to frame the question of “Government 2.0.” How does government itself become an open platform that allows people inside and outside government to innovate? How do you design a system in which all of the outcomes aren’t specified beforehand, but instead evolve through interactions between the technology provider and its user community?
The Obama administration’s technology team has taken the first steps toward rethinking government as a platform provider. One of the first acts by Vivek Kundra, the national CTO, was to create data.gov, a catalog of all the federal government’s Web services. (Web services, as opposed to static government Web sites, provide raw government data, allowing third parties to build alternate services and interfaces to government programs.) The Sunlight Foundation’s Apps for America Contest (modeled on the successful Apps for Democracy program that Kundra ran while CIO of Washington, D.C.) is seeking to kick off the virtuous circle of citizen innovation using these data services.
Rather than licensing government data to a few select “value added” providers, who then license the data downstream, the federal government (and many state and local governments) are beginning to provide an open platform that enables anyone with a good idea to build innovative services that connect government to citizens, give citizens visibility into the actions of government and even allow citizens to participate directly in policy-making.
That’s Government 2.0: technology helping build the kind of government the nation’s founders intended: of, for and by the people.
Tim O’Reilly is the founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, a premier computer book publisher. O’Reilly Media also hosts conferences on technology topics. Tim is chairing the upcoming Gov 2.0 Summit with Richard O’Neill, founder and president of The Highlands Group. Tim’s blog, the O’Reilly Radar, “watches the alpha geeks” and serves as a platform for advocacy about issues of importance to the technical community. He can also be found as @timoreilly on Twitter.