Month: June 2010

Government, developers need to build a more structured, scalable approach to leveraging technology

The time has come to build a reliable, open platform that allows local governments to post development requirements and give private developers the ability to respond and build these applications for free.

Going a step further, we need to build a free, open source platform specifically for government, making it easier for government to install and implement and leverage plugins or modules for anything from standard contact forms to 311 citizen requests applications.

Fundamentally, we need a central repository for code and a governing organization, private or non-profit, that coordinates specifications and provides a reliable management process for deployment. Additionally, there needs to be sample usage and, ideally, implementation case studies that highlight how government is leveraging this tool and how others can follow suit.

We need a GitHub meets Taproot meets WordPress or Drupal for government.

Matthew Burton’s A Peace Corps for Programmers, comments like Kevin Curry’s recent “We need craigslist for government” tweet and inside open government baseball chatter echo these sentiments.

To date, contests to create killer Web and mobile applications from open data combined with developers with gumption have spearheaded much of the tech efforts. This approach has showed positive results, however, they don’t effectively address a customer-driven approach to product development (see Steve Blank), where the customer (government) defines the specification, instead of developers building applications of no direct benefit to government.

Government must begin to define the specification. Instead of putting it out to bid, government needs to put it out to BUILD.

Government needs to break the mold and take advantage of what Clay Shirky calls the cognitive surplus, leverage the enthusiasm of the civic developer and significantly lower the cost of its technology projects. Government must also move away from a ‘build our own’ approach to technology. This mindset is a waste of time and resources and financially irresponsible.

Sure, there are procurement hurdles around non-licensed software, but many of these can be re-defined, as done in places such as San Francisco, Portland, Vancouver.

Philanthropists or foundations with deep pockets need to step up and support a new organization or a current one truly dedicated to making this happen. Government could also ‘pay back’ with funding of its own, at a significant discount to what it would otherwise pay. Something like this needs sustainable investment and support.

If the private or non-profit sector and government could each eliminate any hurdles and actively engage an idea like this, we’d change the way government uses technology and how it serves its citizens.

Who can make this happen and how do we get started?

Minneapolis gives citizens free Internet access, 117 ways to get online

Minneapolis now offers citizens free Internet access from 117 “Wireless Minneapolis” hotspots.

Hotspot sites were selected based on “where people already gather and use computers, and places where free wireless access would encourage people to gather, including parks, plazas, schools and businesses.” Locations will be indicated with signs that say, “Free Wireless Minneapolis Hotspot Courtesy: City of Minneapolis USI Wireless.” A list of hotspots can be found at www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/wirelessminneapolis.

“Being a wireless city is important, but we have to be a wireless city for everyone. These new hot spots are another benchmark in our work to bridge the digital divide and create economic and educational opportunity for everyone,” said, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.

UK government launches Spending Challenge: ‘Help us get more for less’

UK Prime Minister David Cameron kicked off a consultation exercise on ways to reduce government spending. Together with Nick Clegg he has written to public service workers asking them to share their ideas on where to make spending cuts.

A Spending Challenge website has been launched to solicit suggestions from Britain’s 6 million public sector workers. The challenge states that “Every single idea will be considered and the best ones taken forward by departments, the Treasury and the Cabinet Office”. Ideas will be analysed through a five step process:

  1. All ideas considered by cross-government team
  2. Serious ideas go to ‘champions’ team in Cabinet Office/Treasury
  3. Most promising ideas sent to departments and Treasury spending teams to be worked up
  4. Selected ideas reviewed by Ministers
  5. Spending Review announced October 20th

The rational for the challenge is laid out in Cameron’s letter:

The biggest challenge our country faces is dealing with our huge debts – and that means we have to reduce public spending.

Reducing public spending will require innovative and challenging ideas, best developed by those working on the frontline of public services:

We want you to help us find those savings, so we can cut public spending in a way that is fair and responsible. You work on the frontbench of public services. You know where things are working well, where the waste is, and where we can re-think things so that we get better services for less money.

[…] Don’t hold back. Be innovative, be radical, challenge the way things are done. Every serious idea will be considered: by government departments, by the Treasury, by our teams in Number 10 and the Cabinet Office – and passed to Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee to make sure we don’t miss anything.

While the website states the government “will look at every single idea that comes in”, however, there is no guarantee any of the suggestions will make it through to the final Spending Review report in October. This will set detailed spending plans, with budget cuts of up to 25% over four years for many government departments.

The Spending Challenge will be opened to the general public from 9 July. A summary of all submissions will be published later this year.

Partner with Wikileaks

The Spending Challenge site will also monitor social media as a means of fulfilling its mandate to find innovative ideas for saving money. This represents a recognition that some of the most “out of the box” suggestions may be outlined by on blogs and forums, rather than a newly created government website:

Although this process allows you to submit ideas anonymously, we respect the fact that some people will not want to contribute directly to a government website. As part of this exercise, we will monitor a range of blogs, social networks, forums and also http://wikileaks.org.

Save Award similarities

The UK Spending Challenge has many similarities to the Obama Administration’s SAVE (Securing Americans Value and Efficiency) Award. On launching last year’s competition President Obama called for “a process through which every government worker can submit their ideas for how their agency can save money and perform better.”

David Cameron’s recognition that public sector workers often have the best ideas was outlined by Jeffrey Zients, chief performance officer and deputy director for management in the Office of Management and Budget, when he said it was important to listen to the voices of those on the front lines:

In the government and in the private sector, it is often those in the front lines that have the best ideas and who know the most… We are looking for ideas that save money, improves the way the government operates by lowering costs, simplifying processes, streamlining processes, getting rid of unnecessary red tape and that has an impact on citizens’ lives. It could be a wide range of ideas.

The competition was seen as a success with over 38,000 ideas being submitted in the three weeks of the competition. Given this, the SAVE Award was turned into an annual event with President Obama issuing his own “spending challenge” to government workers:

I’ve issued a challenge to every man and woman who works for the federal government: If you see a way that government could do its job better, or do the same job for less money, I want to know about it

Saving through Open Source

The twitter reaction to the launch of the new site has been generally positive. The initiative is one of the latest examples of the coalition seeking to harnessing the collective ideas and experience of those working outside of central government.

As a nod to this the website itself is based on a WordPress theme developed by Simon Dickson for the recent Programme For Government site. Seeing the government use Open Source tools for the website, and reusing previous themes, demonstrates the spirit of the spending challenge.

The extension and reuse of such open source technology throughout government could help to bring down the cost of government websites. The axing of many government websites has already been proposed by Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude, but ideas from the public on reducing the costs of current sites e.g. through using free templates such as Govfresh’s Gov 2.0 theme, would be welcomed – especially when some current sites have a per visit cost of £11.78.

The winning idea from the US SAVE award is expected to save $2 million for 2011, and $14.5 million between 2010-2014. Any similar savings arising from the UK Spending Challenge should help establish the power of consultation with the public as a means of saving money and improving government efficiency.

Further reading

Social media, local gov and the National Association of Government Webmasters

Gov 2.0 Radio discusses social media and local government with Morris County, NJ, Web Manager Carol Spencer, treasurer of the National Association of Government Webmasters. A veteran of IBM, Spencer calls social media the biggest revolution in technology since the personal computer. On government agencies blocking social media, she says, “You’re blocking access to the way people live.”

Listen

[audio:http://www.blogtalkradio.com/gov20/2010/06/21/government-20-radio.mp3]

Group hug and Gov 2.0 Hero Day

I heart Gov 2.0 HeroesThank you to everyone who took the time to participate in Gov 2.0 Hero Day. I hope you got as much inspiration and enthusiasm as I did, watching so many people get excited about acknowledging the work of others.

Special thanks to Brian Ahier (@ahier) for podcasting an interview about GovFresh and Gov 2.0 Hero Day on O’Reilly’s Radar, Chris Dorobek (@cdorobek) for having me on the show, and Craigslist founder Craig Newmark (@craignewmark) for promoting via his blog.

Some great Gov 2.0 Hero posts:

Plenty of wonderful tweets can be found at the following hashtags:

Andrew Wilson’s (@AndrewPWilson) sentiments really resonate and inspire me to work harder and make GovFresh better:

Honored, humbled & inspired to work harder from all the #gov20heroday mentions today – many, many others deserve spotlight on their work

And Scott Horvath (@scotthorvath) gives us a parting thought for next year:

Next year for #gov20heroday…let’s have a BBQ in D.C. and bands!

Second that. Someone reserve the Mall.

Thanks again everyone.

My Gov 2.0 Hero: Gabe Klein

Submitted by John Lisle, (Washington, DC) District Department of Transportation (@ddotdc).

Gabe KleinI want to nominate Gabe Klein, our Director here at the District Department of Transportation (DDOT). I know, very self-serving, but Gabe is still very deserving of recognition as a Gov 2.0 Hero. He has made it a priority to make the agency more transparent and to improve communications with our customers, and he has pushed us to utilize every tool at our disposal to do that. We have a thriving Twitter feed, a completely redesigned and more user-friendly website, and a Facebook page that Gabe often updates himself after hours. He also hosts regular live online chats and last week launched the agency’s first ever official blog, www.ddotdish.com.

To keep up with the times, you really need leadership that recognizes that government agencies must adapt and embrace new technology, or they won’t have a voice in the conversations happening all around them.

Gov 2.0 Hero: Wayne Moses Burke

Wayne Moses BurkeWayne Moses Burke ( Twitter · LinkedIn) is Executive Director of Open Forum Foundation, operator of projects such as Twitter citizen app GovLuv, Open Model for Citizen Engagement and CongressCamp.

How did you get to Gov 2.0?

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: “Where your talents and the needs of the world cross, there lies your vocation.” 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!

What are the challenges of Open Forum Foundation and how do you deal with them?

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.

Working with People

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/.

Maintaining Focus

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.

Dealing

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.

What's most interesting to you about the open government movement?

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.

What resources, books, blogs, apps or Websites do you recommend to others?

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.

What's your 3-word Gov 2.0 motto?

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.

My Gov 2.0 Hero: Phil Tate

Phil Tate

Manor, Texas has received lots of recognition for the innovative technologies that have come out of it, but many people don’t know all the individuals that are responsible. My role as Assistant City Manager and CIO is to steer the development of emerging technologies in Manor, but the real hero is our City Manager, Phil Tate.

Phil is a Gov 2.0 Hero because he chooses to say “yes” to new emerging technologies that allow us to be more efficient and transparent. It would be so easy for a city manager to say “no” to new ideas and concepts, but Manor has been fortunate to have such a progressive leader with the drive to serve citizens and instill government accountability.

My Gov 2.0 Hero: Luke Fretwell

Luke FretwellOne of the first people that came to mind as a Gov 2.0 Hero doesn’t even work for the government.

With this said, this individual has had a profound impact on government through his immense drive and passion to make the government a better place. Luke Fretwell is the creator of GovFresh, which has become a very important resource for agencies and citizens interested in how technology is reshaping government of all levels. Luke recognizes individuals making their mark in government as Gov 2.0 Heroes, but I think it’s time that his efforts get recognized. Luke, thank you for being a real Gov 2.0 Hero, and inspiring me to press forward no matter how difficult the challenge may be.