I have been covering government technology for a long time — more than 17 years now. I started out as a reporter at Government Computer News, then worked for an early dot-com covering government called PlanetGov.com, and then at Federal Computer Week, where I eventually was the editor in chief. At FCW, we hosted the first conference on government’s use of Web 2.0 — it was 2007 and there were only a handful of agencies that were even thinking about these tools. And I have been fascinated by these Web 2.0 tools for several reasons. One is because they seem uniquely applicable to the government. (More on that below.) Another is that these tools are really evolving organically. They are largely evolving from the consumer market, so they don’t come across as an enormous enterprise application. They are also, by and large, easy — and sometimes even fun — to use.
I think government is uniquely situated to take advantage of these tools. Again — my definition of Web 2.0 are tools that enable information sharing and that information is, in fact, power, but that the real power of information comes when it is shared. Agencies have a lot of information — and it is information that can be empowered by being shared. The Environmental Protection Agency is a wonderful example because EPA officials have to try to build consensus among desperate groups — other federal agencies, state and local organizations, public interest groups, business interest groups. These tools enable organizations to be more inclusive and tap a much broader cross section of people to build “the wisdom of crowds.” And you’ve seen these concepts evolve — from blogs, the intelligence communities remarkable Intellipedia, mash-ups like Virtual Alabama, blogs such as those at EPA, TSA, Navy CIO Rob Carey and NASA Goddard CIO Linda Cureton. I am enjoying watching the Obama administration’s transparency and openness initiative and will be fascinated to see what results from that. All of this being said, these tools will not solve every problem. And they are tools — not magic. But what a remarkable time to be in government — or, in my case, to be an observer.
There is no killer app. These are tools — evolving tools — and some will work in some circumstances. Many people criticize government as being behind the private sector. With these government 2.0 tools, agencies are doing exactly what they need to do — wade into the pool. Test the waters. Find out what works — and what does. And there is all sorts of experimentation going on — innovation. The private sector is doing exactly the same thing. (There are notable exceptions — but by and large, most of the private sector isn’t doing this any better. In many cases, the government is ahead.) There are several teams who have been at the forefront and have been blazing the trails for everybody. One is the remarkable Intellipedia — a suite of tools for the intelligence communities. They are years ahead of most everybody else and they are showing everybody how they can make these tools work. Another is Virtual Alabama, developed by the Alabama Department of Homeland Security. Again, it is an innovative way of mashing up data on a map that is still remarkable years later. And then there are more simple examples: TSA’s Idea Factory, where front line employees can submit ideas that can be voted on. EPA’s Puget Sound initiative, EPA’s blogs, Carey and Cureton blogs, the TSA blog. all of them move the ball forward.
There are all sorts of opportunities out there. What excites me? I have been covering government for a long time, and for most of that time, one of the predominant issues has been effective sharing of information. These tools seem to help make that a possibility. But I’m also very excited by the challenges – particularly if people come together to collaborate on solving them. And there are a lot of challenges out there. Privacy, security, the role of the CIO, centralized vs decentralized … but there are so many people excited by the possibilities … there are so many government workers who are feeling empowered.
What an amazing time.