I had high hopes for ‘Government 2.0′ when I first heard the term used earlier this year. While this concept may not be directly related to crime or Neighborhood Watch, the idea that private citizens and organizations can partner with local government agencies to enhance existing services for all involved parties underpins what we’ve been doing for the past several years.
I’ve recently listened to Tim O’Reilly discuss his concept of Government as a platform and read through the list of selected presentations for the upcoming Expo Showcase and, I have to admit – I’m a little disappointed. I’ve spent more time than I probably should thinking about the interaction between local government and citizens and what I’ve heard so far leaves out some important issues. Here are a few of those issues that I hope to hear discussed at the upcoming Gov2.0 events.
Full disclosure: I submitted a proposal to speak at the showcase (in the ‘Government as Protector’ category) that was not accepted. I am planning on attending.
Facebook, Twitter and the iPhone are tools and the phrase ’social networking’ is vastly overused. They are not an end in and of themselves. Gaining exposure for any web based project is so intensively competitive that it’s natural to try to coat-tail on the success and brand recognition of Facebook, Twitter or the iPhone, etc. However, I don’t want to pay to hear about it. I’m doing it too and so is my Mother. It’s neither new nor novel. In order to deliver on it’s promise, Gov2.0 must be much more than a marketing strategy or a shiny techni-color widget on a government agency website.
Profiting from public data
Many of the data streams utilized by Gov2.0 projects are generated with public funds. Where do we draw the line with regard to non-government organizations profiting from that data or acting as the sole gatekeeper to that data? We’ve geocoded incidents and published crime maps for Jefferson County, WV since 2002. We’ve manually entered much of the data by hand, working from photocopies provided by the Sheriff’s Office. We entered the data and geocoded it – do we own the data? While this is an extreme example, the general question applies to many Gov2.0 projects.
Does serving as the gatekeeper to public data offer the gatekeeper undue influence over public opinion or government process? To extend the personal example from above – I’ve been contacted many times by researchers or news media inquiring about the effect of gambling on crime rates in Jefferson County. I point to the data and ask them to draw their own conclusions. However, this is a local issue of great importance to me and it would be easy to use the data to show an adverse effect. There is an important trade-off inherent in displaying data. We need to format the data so that it is meaningful but without drawing conclusions.
Authority vs. responsibility
Do non-government organizations handling public data have the same responsibilities as the agency that collected or generated the data? What responsibilities does a non-government organization collecting data on behalf of a government agency have? While most Gov2.0 projects publish government data to the public, Nation of Neighbors also collects data from the public and provides it to citizens and to government. We often act to intervene, sending certain reports directly to law enforcement rather than making the report public. One recent example is a woman who filed a report saying that she had been locked in her bedroom by an abusive husband and couldn’t access a phone to call the police. We contacted the appropriate authorities and police were at her door within minutes. Similar scenarios have also played out with Twitter posts.
Government is more than data
Government is a discussion and everyone needs to be able to contribute. Many Gov2.0 projects focus on elegant or novel display of data for its own sake, forgetting that data needs to be useful as well as beautiful. Portals, such as the Utah Public Safety Portal, fall into this category as well. While I’m sure it’s great, it only serves select members of the media. There are many good reasons to not make that kind of data public, but let’s not call it Gov2.0.
Outside-in vs. inside-out transparency
Transparency efforts primarily fall into one of two categories. The most common among Gov2.0 projects is outside-in transparency. – That is, forced transparency. Data is usually obtained through a freedom of information request or by placing political pressure on the appropriate agency – that’s hardly conducive to cooperation. The other problem for many projects is that they follow the philosophy of ‘if we build it, people will mass behind us and we will gather sufficient clout so as to make the powers that be sit up and take notice and participate.’
The less common category is inside-out. Government agencies willingly provide data to the public. The problem is that the data is often tightly controlled and selective.
Often times citizen driven efforts at ‘collaboration’ are seen as a threat or a challenge. And government driven efforts are seen as insincere or misinformed. And both assumptions are usually right.
The best solution is when the non-government organization works closely with the government with the mutual goal of involving the public. That’s easier said than done and deserves discussion at any event promoting Gov2.0.
Is transparency always a good thing?
Just as there is increasing doubt that social networks bring us together, there should be doubt as to whether transparency for its own sake improves government. It may be that increasing transparency will lead to increased pandering to interest groups and more focus on maintaining image than on outcomes. Just ask any county level employee in a county with televised County Commission meetings if their elected commissioners are the same on camera as off camera…
Government 2.0 vs. business 1.0
I realize that O’Reilly has to generate revenue and that means having some well known projects / names present at the event. However, I do wish that fewer of the presentations fell into this category. As an example, I present http://www.areyousafedc.com/ – self described on their website as “for novelty purposes only”. Don’t misunderstand me – it’s cool and I wish I’d thought of it. If I had an iPhone and lived in Washington D.C. I’d likely pony up the $0.99 to download it from the App store. This App may take advantage of government data sources but I fail to see how this has anything to do with a Government 2.0.
The bottom line is that, although I really want to be excited about the possibilities of O’Reilly’s vision for ‘Government 2.0, I’m not convinced that O’Reilly is really concerned with promoting democracy and transparency in government. I wonder if Gov2.0 isn’t instead a business opportunity, creating a new market for conferences, books and the magazine that’s sure to follow.