The Gov 2.0 Showdown

It was the event we had been waiting for. From the West: Silicon Valley. From the East: the Beltway Bandits. Dueling for a new frontier: Government 2.0. Here are my thoughts on the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the Gov 2.0 Showdown Expo Showcase & Summit.

The Good

If there’s one word that isn’t typically associated with government, it’s the word innovation. Which is unfortunate, because some of the best innovations we have today are the result of government pursuits and investments, such as GPS. While leaders like Vivek Kundra are changing this antiquated image of government, the problems that we face as a country are not ones that will be solved and addressed by a single person or organization, so when someone like Tim O’Reilly rolls into town and wants to get in the game, it’s good for us all. The fact is, government isn’t relegated to just those appointed to a position nor is it confined to district lines. At a time when our world economy is volatile and facing downward, making times tough for more and more folks, we need creative solutions to do more with less, and this is where technology presents a great opportunity. Relying on the same players and same molds of thinking can only ensure that government performs and delivers in a same ol’ same ol’ kind of way.

The Expo Showcase did a fantastic job highlighting some great innovations and efforts across the country, from the City of Santa Cruz’s feedback portal that’s using the power of citizen input to tackle the City’s fiscal problems to a collaborative effort by two Senior Fellows at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs to use Virtual Worlds to understand Islam to engender greater diplomacy. These are the types of initiatives that need to be promoted to provide greater awareness.

At the Summit, to hear from luminaries like Vint Cerf, who worked 7 years at DARPA, and Carl Malamud, who founded Public.Resource.Org, attendees were exposed to a wisdom that is gained from years of experience and dedication. We were also reminded that there are issues that are too ubiquitous not to have government participate. The need to have clean data will be as important as having clean air and water, and our digital identities will require the same level of protection and rights as our physical bodies. This is the future of government.

The Bad

First, I was disappointed that there wasn’t more time allotted for questions and answers, specifically during the Expo. I would’ve like to have seen less presentations and more conversations. The rapid-fire “Ignite-style” format of the Expo was fine but there was a need for in-depth conversation of the presentations. People want to hear the nuts and bolts – the challenges, the keys to success, the pitfalls to avoid, the nuggets of insight. Which brings me to my second point: the rapid-fire format might be more suited for the selection process, where the submissions are mandated to a 5-minute presentation that can then be voted for online before the Showcase. This would embody the essence of Gov 2.0, encouraging everyone to participate and have a voice.

Finally, the cost. There was lots of chatter about the cost of the event. While I won’t get into the nuances of pricing an event like this, I was told by an organizer that Tim O’Reilly feels so passionately about Gov 2.0, he would have done it for free. Sounds like a great idea to me. If the intent is to repeat the Showcase/Summit format next year, I would make the Expo Showcase a free, sponsor-subsidized, “first-to-register, first-to-attend” affair.

The Ugly

Last but not least, the diversity of presenters for the Summit left something to be desired. This was so much of a sticking point for me that I made the decision not to attend the Summit but after several conversations with some of the key organizers, including Tim himself, I was extended a complimentary pass to the Expo and Summit. To be fair to Tim and the O’Reilly and TechWeb staff, I have organized a conference (the 2008 WIRe/ICES Enterprise 2.0 conference) and I know first-hand how difficult and trying it is to orchestrate an event such as this, coordinating speakers with times and dates while achieving the desired content, discussion and outcome. However, I look at the Summit Program Committee and I see 8 white men and 1 white woman. The first day of the Summit featured 5 women out of 35 presenters (15%). Many have argued the benefits of heterogeneous ensembles, citing evidence of how homogeneous groups, like Wall Street and the American Automobile industry, can go astray. The fact is if government is the platform, the platform should represent its constituents and users. Diverse people offer diverse values. While I hear Tim’s argument that there are simply less women and minorities in leadership positions, we’ll be stuck in a perpetual chicken or the egg loop if a homogeneous group of decision-makers determines what constitutes a leader and who is qualified to be one. We can do better.

The final point I will make is that no matter what label it is given, government is undergoing an amazing transformation. I have spent my entire career in government and it’s truly an exciting time. Quibbling over the term Gov 2.0 doesn’t serve much of a purpose. I don’t see how vilifying or denigrating govies or contractors or technologists does anyone any good. There are people who work hard on all sides of the fence and openness and transparency does and will continue to show this.