I arrived at Gov 2.0 via a circuitous path that placed me in DC at just the right time.
My undergrad was in engineering at the University of Michigan and I spent seven years at the family manufacturing business, designing products and working in every aspect of the organization. When dad and I disagreed about how best to move the business forward, I left and began a seven year process of answering Aristotle's riddle: â€œWhere your talents and the needs of the world cross, there lies your vocation.â€ Along the way, I travelled all over the country, repaired computers and set up networks, catered celebrity events in New York and LA, designed and coded web sites, practiced as a hypnotherapist, and helped pass electoral reform legislation in New Mexico. I topped this off with a master's degree in international relations from New York University and moved to DC to get a job in foreign policy in 2007.
Naive and unconnected as I was in our nation's capital, this proved very difficult. After a year of job hunting (a skill I have never learned), I got an email from the United Nations Association with the call to action, "Click here to notify your Congressman!" Something struck me as strange about this: I knew it would only take 35 seconds to send that message, but I was also certain that it wasn't worth 35 seconds. I had no confidence that the message would have any impact on policymaking.
A little voice in the back of my head said, "What? This is not the democracy I grew up in!!" And quickly followed up with, "This is 2008! I can video chat with people in India but I can't get a message to my elected officials? That doesn't make any sense!!"
With this, I had discovered where the needs of the world crossed my diverse experiences and talents: the proper application of technology to create meaningful citizen engagement with elected officials. I started the Open Forum Foundation and when the Gov 2.0 movement gained steam in early 2009, I was in the middle of it all!
There are a lot of challenges that come with running a non-profit, but to me the most interesting ones are working with people, and maintaining focus on our long term vision in the changing landscape that is Gov 2.0.
As I said above, my early training was in engineering and while this may come as a surprise, engineers are not well-known for their people skills. Consequently, coming to grips with my own (and even accepting that I have some) has been an ongoing challenge for me. At this point, it's increasingly rare that I fumble for a name or past association, but the complexity of government titles still completely eludes me.
Part of my growth in this regard has been learning to appreciate skills that I previously considered to be trivial. As it turns out, there is a great deal of complexity and skill required to organize events, understand other people's passions and capabilities, and connect people together so that they can accomplish greater things in concert than they could have separately.
My current project utilizes all of these skills as I assemble the Open Model for Citizen Engagement. It's an association where software vendors are defining and implementing a new paradigm of citizen engagement with elected officials. The founding members include vendors that focus on the needs of Congressional offices, advocacy groups, and citizens; work at federal and state levels; and represent both startups and well-established companies. My responsibilities include rounding out the membership and developing stakeholder communities to ensure that the solutions created by the association meet the needs of everyone involved in citizen engagement, as well as managing the needs of the members, some of which are direct competitors. While the website is still a work in progress, please join us at om4ce.org/.
The main reason I go to events these days is to find out what's going on in the Gov2.0 community. I have no need to re-create good work that's already being done and there are new players in this field every month. In addition, the conversation turns, the expectations shift, new tools are introduced and become popular while old ones fall out of favor. It's easy to get caught up in the desire for a quick fix, or a solution that only meets the needs of Congressional offices or a single government agency or that may capture the heart of the public and become the "Facebook for political discussion".
I've come to realize however that there will be no immediate solution to the problems that Gov 2.0 confronts and aims to solve. Fully transparent and publicly available data does not instantly create accountable government. The best public-facing citizen engagement technology ever devised does not necessarily draw an audience. And an open channel for public comment may be co-opted by a well-organized group of concerned citizens. In short, these issues are complex and how they will be solved is partially determined by who it is that's working on solving them.
When I established the Open Forum Foundation, my goal was to build THE communication channel between citizens and governments. That hasn't worked out so well. In the abstract, the idea is fine but in reality, there are dozens of other players in the market and many of them are well-established and profitable. At some point, I had to ask myself, "Is my goal to build software or is it to solve the communication problem?" Given those options, I relinquished the trail I was on and found a new way to contribute to bringing a legitimate solution to fruition. The market as it stands today will not accept a single communication channel managed by a single entity. Instead, it demands a distributed system with multiple points of entry for innovation from competitors new and old. Sometimes, accepting reality is a challenge in and of itself. Doing so without losing sight of the end goal is even more difficult.
To answer the original question, the main way I've dealt with challenges is by continuously questioning what I'm doing. Frankly, I've changed direction so many times, it feels more the norm than the exception, and I mean this in the most positive of ways. I try to live by the belief that the only time you can be wrong is when you decide that you're right. As long as you hold open the possibility that you're wrong, life is just one continuous string of growth opportunities, each of which leads to a better understanding of who you are and what you can do to make a difference. This is the biggest factor in how I overcome challenges – by simultaneously believing that I can while being uncertain about whether or not I'm going about it the right way.
I think the most interesting thing about the open government movement is the fact that while those of us in it tend to view technology as a panacea of solutions, it can just as easily create problems. In fact, a significant portion of the problem that the Open Forum Foundation is trying to solve was created by technology! It is the advent of effortless web-based communications that created the deluge of messages into Congress and has rendered the majority of the communication between representatives and their constituents meaningless.
I believe that our job as early adopters, promoters, and developers of open government is to see that technology is implemented in ways that solve problems, and not just for the sake of doing it. Clearly this is our goal, but realizing that it is not pre-destined to work out to our benefit adds an additional importance and perspective to everything we do.
In the last two or three months, I have found the maturation of the movement fascinating. Up until that point, discussions have been primarily abstract and guess-based. This lead (appropriately) to a lot of trial and error that only recently has enabled the discussions to shift towards experience-based discourse and advice, eg how to responsibly implement transparency of data, how to engage with citizens to achieve specific goals, and how to get buy-in from both senior management and throughout government bureaucracy. I think there is also a growing awareness that the open Government movement is not about implementing technology or establishing a new department, it's actually about culture change both within government and within citizen expectations of government.
If it isn't obvious from what I've written so far, I tend to focus on people and the long term perspective. Consequently, I get most of my information first hand (and that includes through Twitter) and am always encouraging people to think in terms of 5 or 10 year plans for what we're doing. That said, we are blessed with some great 'reporters' within the space – GovFresh (of course) and Gov 2.0 Radio covering things from the West Coast and Digiphile (now with O'Reilly) right here in DC.
I happily recommend the book Millennial Makeover to almost everyone I meet because it places the American political system into a historical (and cyclical) context that begins with the Revolution and continues to hold true today. It fundamentally changed the way I consider politics and also enhanced my appreciation for, and understanding of, the Millennial Generation and their abilities.
While it's slightly dated at this point, I'd also throw in Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody for anyone that hasn't read it and wants an informed and optimistic perspective on how technology is remaking our society.
I briefly mentioned Twitter above, but it bears elaboration that a well-curated group of Twitter followers will tell you everything you need to know about anything you're interested in.
GovLoop – especially if you're inside government, you need to be part of the social network for govies.
Also, while it can't be recommended to everyone: I love WordPress. It's blogging software at its core, but dreamy as a CMS. I know Drupal 7 is supposed to have made great strides for back-end user interaction, but WordPress has had that licked for 5 years. It's great. In addition, I recently discovered their social networking plugin BuddyPress, which you should definitely consider if you're going to put up a community site.
Finally: Mission, Tools, Metrics, Teach. Jeffery Levy's early Gov 2.0 mantra still holds true. If you haven't read it, do so. There will be new adopters of what we're doing for years to come and Jeffery has covered the basics, including the importance of sharing what we learn with those that come after.
Envision. Do. Repeat.
I struggled with this, but I think the most important thing about Gov 2.0 is Envisioning the future, Doing something that takes a step towards that vision, and then Repeating the process based on what was learned.