The Great Gov 2.0 Cultural Divide

The Big Gov 2.0 Show will soon hit Washington, D.C., where geeks, govies, wonks and Beltway media will be abuzz, giddy with high hopes of ‘Barack Obama meets Steve Jobs’ expectations of change.

There’ll be a flurry of live tweets, hashtags, transparency, open source prophesies, gurus, keynotes and big-picture announcements. Everyone, in one way or another, even Microsoft, begrudgingly, will have their head in the clouds.

Beneath the surface of this live-stream, .gov confab will be the elephant in the room:

‘The Great Gov 2.0 Cultural Divide’

I grew up in the Washington, D.C., area, went to school, lived and worked inside the Beltway for years and sympathize with the cynicism I’ve been hearing from within, the feeling they’re seen as Luddites in need of a lesson in modernity. I felt the same way during the dot-com boom when Silicon Valley strutted into town with innovative tech solutions, sure to save democracy and transform a centuries-old system in Internet time, all with the click of a mouse.

When the bubble burst, Silicon Valley’s sun set West and Washington, D.C., carried on, business as usual.

Ten years later, Silicon Valley’s back, armed with a different funding model, less time-to-market hurdles, a decade worth of source code and best practices and a slight ‘geek shall inherit the Earth’ arrogance. While Washington is embracing the Web 2.0 technology and culture, it’s still ambiguous on adoption as a whole and, perhaps for the best, will never meet the expediency expectations of Silicon Valley’s start-up mentality.

Much has changed, but much has stayed the same.

As Gov 2.0 matures, and entrepreneurs seek ways to capitalize on these opportunities, both cultures would do well to better understand one another, because this time, Silicon Valley 2.0 is sticking around.

Washington, D.C., needs to understand Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are no different than GSA Schedule government contractors or corporate-funded trade associations, all seeking to profit on an industry that will never file for bankruptcy and can always print more money. Let go of the carpetbagger mentality, because the gregarious enthusiasm of most ‘outsiders’ truly is to build a better America. As we’ve recently learned, Washington can always use a good dose of change.

Silicon Valley needs to understand tech celebrity is no different than Hollywood on Capitol Hill. Everyone’s star-struck, but there’s always another celebrity or foreign dignitary coming around the corner. Washington’s power dynamics aren’t built around valuations, acquisitions or innovation. They’re built on adjudication, legislation and donations, all of which are part of a long, deliberative process. Let go of the ‘open data, open source’ movement will solve all of democracy’s problems mentality, because it won’t. Ingratiate yourself to the public servants, and not just to the newborn CIO/CTO rock stars.

Gov 2.0 in its infancy will test America’s coastal cultural differences. It’s understandable each are cynical of one another, but from sea to shining sea, everyone owns a piece of Washington, and every citizen has a right to voice how he or she believes it should run.

As with any misunderstanding, it’s a waste of time to focus on our differences or perceived intentions. Be constructive and focus on the common objective of building a more open, engaged and smarter government.

In true Web 2.0 fashion, the crowd will migrate to humility, sincerity and honest intentions. Stay true to those values and your specific contribution to the process.

Time will sort out the rest.

About Luke Fretwell

Luke Fretwell is the founder of GovFresh, co-founder/CEO of ProudCity and co-host of the podcast, The Government We Need. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn or email at

9 Responses

  1. Ironically, your comments about Silicon Valley’s view on Washington (“they’re seen as Luddites in need of a lesson in modernity”) is not much different that of Washington on Detroit! Great article! Thanks for the insights.

  2. Great post, Luke. Next week’s Gov 2.0 Expo and Summit, provided that enough folks make the cross-country trek to DC, could be a key step in creating a bridge across the chasm between East and West. It should also be encouraging that leaders like Vivek Kundra, Aneesh Chopra and John Barry are meeting with “West coast” companies to learn lessons and replicate best practices.

    A quick idea that stems from your remarks above: what if we could create something akin to a flash mentoring program where SV entrepreneurs and DC leaders are matched for a weekly or monthly brainstorming/feedback session? Program participants could be rotated for the maximum amount of exposure. Granted, the program would have to ensure that none of the companies are competing for contracts now or in the near future, but it could be a formal way of bridging the gap and infusing a bit of the SV innovation culture in DC…and fostering a bit more respect in SV for the smart folks in DC who want to break out of the old mold.

    Your thoughts?

  3. Mahalo, Luke, for what seems to be a very insightful piece. There really are many exciting POSSIBILITIES in the new “gov 2.0” push, but anytime we are observing attempts or even just predictions about massive and fundamental change in large, complex systems, we have to be both patient and at times skeptical about the notion that one new thing or one new perspective will induce an overhaul. As you say, the fresh insights and enthusiasm of the “outsiders” are critical to refreshing things, but expecting the federal government to rewrite its constitutional code overnight might be stretching it.

    But here’s where I think we can watch for some important seeds being planted: despite that implicit notion that gov 2.0 “democratizes” things more, from both a larger and a deeper view, if some of this is successful in both creating new value for citizens and officials, we could be witnessing the emergence of a new constitutional discourse. Is it time to explicitly alter the character of American citizenship? Are the tools, enthusiasm, and enlightenment there to sustain a new set of governing relationships? Are these gov 2.0 apps merely add-ons to the underlying constitutional order, or do they really presage a new bridge from representative government to some new form (dare we even suggest real democracy?).

    Mahalo again.

  4. Kelcy

    I really don’t think your real cultural divide is between east and west. This comment is a little haphazard but I’ll just spill out some ideas. May need to blog separately on it later.

    1. One problem that I believe is dividing people is “technobuzz” – e.g. “Gov 2.0”. That term was created out of Web2.0 to indicate changing the way the government does business. And yet there are some good things (and good people) in the US government. And adding technology does not necessarily mean that radical change will occur. The IC started looking at wikis in 2005 which led to Intellipedia. While Intellipedia did encourage some cross-agency collaboration, it has not in any way affected the “engines of production” that continuously grind out intelligence reports in a somewhat stovepiped fashion. Technology facilitated collaboration but it didn’t change any of the management thinking about how the larger enterprise should be run.

    2. When the focus for change is on technology, we are missing on how we change people and processes. Additionally, all three levels of people in an enterprise (grass roots bottom, middle managers and top level) must be involved at some point to make real change happen. Most of the people who currently attend Gov2.0 conferences are the early adopters of government. Where are the middle managers and the top level managers who need to work with the early adopters to make it all happen. Where are the contrarians asking the hard questions that need to be addressed.

    3. It’s costs money to make change happen. There is no magic wand to put in even open source technologies even if all levels are in agreement. People addressing Gov2.0 are looking for sexy change – put in twitter, put in facebook, etc. But there are legacy databases that need to be maintained or transferred to new capabilities; there are issues of privacy and security; there are a lot of issues that everyone is ignoring. Why does everyone assume that technology solves everything easily? There are any number of good case studies from industry that talk to the problems of bringing in new technologies without relooking at the business processes. Most of those are about automating an existing process. They don’t even begin to look at what happens if the technology is disruptive and implemented on top of a broken process. There might be change but it might not be pretty.

    The cultural divide is multi-dimensional and covers any number of people and agendas. We need to take off the rosy glasses and think seriously about who needs to be involved and how to do it. Until then, we’ll just have conferences that are the equivalent of self-licking ice cream cones where the same early adopters talk amongst themselves (saw that happen in Sep 2008 with an IC conference).

  5. Very thought-provoking Luke…
    I think that another aspect of the cultural divide is generational. The younger generation born into a world where text messages, IM, email and social networks are built into the fabric of life will embrace the philosophy of government as a platform more readily perhaps than an older generation.
    I also firmly believe that not all “Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are no different than GSA Schedule government contractors or corporate-funded trade associations, all seeking to profit on an industry that will never file for bankruptcy and can always print more money.” Many of us trekking across the country for this event are actually seeking to make our country better.
    We face a set of problems that will take a sincere cooperative effort between government and private industry, using all the technological innovation and American ingenuity we can muster. I believe that our nation is approaching a crossroads and I am thrilled to see so much activity and interest.

  6. Sometimes I do feel like the West Coast does feel they have a sense of they are better than us here in DC. As someone who has been pushing for new tech and policy for the past decade I do at times feel a bit jealous that it seems for change to happen we need outside help.

    I don’t think its necessarily the case. As you know there is a lot of good being done in and around the beltway to improve processes and transparency, as demanded by this administration. However, this was all in motion long before Jan 20, 2009. And I also feel that this week should be highlighting that more, rather than speak to us like we are children.

    I am hoping that I will be proven wrong by the end of the week. The evangelists for change are very much aware of the outside world of industry use of social media to connect with their consumers, government has their constituents. The real game changer will be getting the Senior Level Government heads to be aware of the work and efforts of the workforce and not shy away from our suggestions. If these people can make it to the summit, then maybe there is hope.

  7. Great post – I do hope to see such different world views come together. Having had my toe in both worlds (6 years in the Valley and the balance in Ottawa), I can offer this perspective.
    It will be a challenge to fund a start-up entity that will sell exclusive to government orgs. At a former company, we tried this with CDN and US VCs. They said show us more markets, customers and dollars.

    I think you are going to see a different set of entrepreneurs coming to the show and pitching solutions.

    They will be looking to solve application specific problems, tailor-made for each government department and its stakeholders. My view is, the smart ones will realize building a panacea solution for all government is a thing of the past. It would take too long, VCs will get impatient and someone else would likely build something close to it with a boatload of open source software.

    IMHO, GOV 2.0 is all about long tail applications built be people really interested in solving problems and dreaming less about LARGE scale market caps, IPO’s and a fast buck. Ellison said it best during a quarterly earnings call…”how can Ariba be worth more than Daimler-Benz?” He was spot on with the question.


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