We asked David Osborne, co-author of the New York Times best-seller Reinventing Government, to share his thoughts on Gov 2.0, and its potential to affect real change in government.
Osborne served as a senior advisor to Vice President Gore’s National Performance Review, better known as the “reinventing government task force.” He was chief author of the NPR report, called by Time “the most readable federal document in memory.” He is currently senior partner of The Public Strategies Group and serves as a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration.
He is the author or co-author of The Price of Government: Getting the Results We Need in an Age of Permanent Fiscal Crisis (2004); The Reinventor’s Fieldbook: Tools for Transforming Your Government (2000), Banishing Bureaucracy: The Five Strategies For Reinventing Government (1997), Reinventing Government (1992), and Laboratories of Democracy (1988). He has also has written for the Washington Post, the Atlantic, the New York Times Magazine, Harpers, Inc., Governing, and other publications.
How can Gov 2.0 address the points you make in Reinventing Government?
If government could get out of its own way, Gov 2.0 would give the reinvention process a big push forward–empowering communities to solve their own problems by giving them tools; empowering customers to make better choices between different service providers by giving them relevant information and control of the money; empowering citizens to judge their elected leaders by giving them data about outcomes. The problem is, governments are doing little of this, because they are still so bound up in bureaucratic rules and processes. Until we tackle that problem, we’ll continue to make progress at a snail’s pace.
What impact will social media have on getting government to make real changes around openness and performance?
I don’t see that they’ll have much impact at all. First, most people who use social media don’t relate to government at all. They aren’t activists; they don’t think about government; they can’t imagine really doing what is necessary to change things. Look at the health care reform debate. Organizations like MoveOn email us every day, trying to get us to email our congressmen. Meanwhile, insurance and biotech companies are donating millions of dollars to those same congressmen. To counteract the influence of that money it’s going to take people getting into the streets, marching, organizing, registering voters, and voting. That’s so far beyond what it takes to use Twitter that I have my doubts that social media will change government at all. We need a movement, not a better Facebook.
What would you recommend to public servants engaging with citizens via social media?
Get the focus on results, not on the latest glitzy technology. Give citizens data about the outcomes of government spending: what are the trends on health, education, employment, the quality of the workforce, the environment, and so on. Help them see the trends. Help them understand why things aren’t getting better. And help them use that information to push for better results. But that’s too threatening for most governments. I’ve found very few elected officials over the past 20 years who are eager to give their citizens good data about the results their taxpayer dollars are producing.
Second piece of advice: reinvent your procurement systems, personnel systems and budget systems. Most of the rules are embedded in those systems, and they make many good things impossible. If you want to take advantage of 2.0 technologies, you’re going to need far more flexibility than you’ve got today. Get out of the straitjackets. Again, that’s tough, because most legislators don’t understand how these systems frustrate progress, nor do they care. Everyone in the federal government understands, for instance, that the civil service system of grades and steps is a 19th century system built for a government of clerks. But is Congress interested in modernizing it? Not at all. Both Clinton and Bush tried hard, and Congress resisted all the way.