Month: September 2010

The dark secret behind the De Leon, TX, website makeover

De Leon, TX

The dark secret behind the City of De Leon, TX, Website was that it was designed, developed and deployed in 24 hours.

As part of the manor.govfresh ‘City Makeover,’ I re-designed and developed the new De Leon Website using the free GovFresh WordPress Theme as the foundation.

I did some simple customization on the flight from San Francisco to Austin. When I got to my hotel in Texas that night, City of Manor CIO Dustin Haisler and I set up the WordPress site, installed the theme and added content from the legacy site. We also integrated 311, social media and Google Docs features. All of this was done via Skype chat.

There was no design by committee, and I didn’t make it my personal art project. This was a rapid-development process and a practical approach to modernizing one town’s Web and social media presence.

De Leon officials knew they were getting a WordPress-powered site using the GovFresh theme and that it would resemble the City of Manor Website. They weren’t concerned with color or design minutiae. They wanted a Website they could easily manage themselves and update immediately, and that’s what they got.

It wasn’t perfect on Day 1, but within 24 hours a local government had a modern-day Website. Within 48 hours, De Leon published its first blog post and began using Facebook and Twitter to communicate with its citizens.

This is a perfect example of how local governments can use new technology to save money, empower themselves and better serve citizens. See also the White House Blog post about the De Leon Makeover.

The end of a GovFresh era

This will sound crazy coming off the heels of one of the best professional experiences I’ve had in my entire life (see manor.govfresh), but it’s time for me to change gears as far as GovFresh is concerned.

For the past 15 months, this has been a civic adventure driven by pure patriotic adrenaline. It has been an amazing learning experience, and I have met the most incredible, passionate, patriotic group of people I’m proud to now call friends.

Over the past few months, I’ve tried to work on establishing a sustainable business model, but the challenge around building an immediate solid foundation has turned into a case of ‘too little, too late.’

I’ll have more information about what will happen to GovFresh once I have a little more time, but just wanted to relay this as soon I reasonably could. For now, I must step away and seek professional opportunities more focused and sustainable (contact me at luke@lukefretwell.com if you have ideas).

Thank you to everyone who’s believed in what we’ve done with GovFresh. This has been as much yours as it’s been mine.

Introducing GovFresh Voice

One of the more striking ironies of the Gov 2.0 movement is that despite the development of scores of new technologies, protocols, platforms and networks for enabling sophisticated interactions between citizens and their governments, a large number of people prefer to interact with their government the way they have for a long time – using the telephone.

A recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that many citizens are looking to new channels when communicating with government:

“Citizen interactions with government are moving beyond the website. Nearly one third (31%) of online adults use online platforms such as blogs, social networking sites, email, online video or text messaging to get government information.”

But the same study also found that the granddaddy of communication technologies (the plain old telephone) still reigns supreme as the method for citizens to contact government:

“As we found in our last survey of e-government in August 2003, telephone contact is the overall most preferred contact method when people have a problem, question or task involving the government. Currently, 35% of Americans say they prefer using the telephone in these circumstances, a figure that is relatively unchanged from the 38% who said so in 2003.”

Even those that are rich in broadband Internet access seem to prefer to use the phone to contact government:

“…it is notable that the telephone remains relatively popular even among the technologically proficient, as one-third of home broadband (32%) and wireless Internet users (32%) say that the telephone is their favorite means of contact when they need to get in touch with government.”

This is not a new finding, and I have written about it many times before.

What is new are the opportunities that governments now have to leverage the ordinary telephone (and the sophisticated new ones as well) to provide improved customer service, and to enable citizens to proactively report issues in their community. A host of platforms and tools now exists that have significantly lowered the barrier to entry for smaller governments to build sophisticated communication applications.

These platforms are enormously more powerful than they were just a few years ago. With the tools that are now available to governments, its relatively easy to build sophisticated applications that serve multiple communications channels (phone, instant messaging, text messaging, and even social networks like Twitter) from a single code base. It’s never been easier or less expensive to build telephone and communication applications. Ever!

As part of the Manor.GovFresh event that will be taking place in Manor, Texas next week participants will be giving a “Gov 2.0 Makeover” to a small Texas municipality. As part of this makeover, I’m working with a company called Tropo to build a sophisticated cloud-based telephony system for De Leon Texas.

The GovFresh Voice project (which will run on the Tropo platform) will enable De Leon – as well as other towns and cities – to leverage the latest in Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), speech recognition and cloud-based telephony. It leverages all of the functionality of the most sophisticated and powerful cloud telephony platform to empower a small municipal government to fully exploit a preferred communication channel to interact with its citizens.

The GovFresh Voice project is open source – the code is available on GitHub – can run on a commodity web server, is easily configurable and customizable, and requires no up front investment in expensive or sophisticated hardware. It’s cloud-based telephony at its simplest and most powerful.

The hope is to enable De Leon to use this new application and to show other towns what can be done with it. Ultimately, the plan is to donate the code for GovFresh Voice to the new Civic Commons project so that other municipalities can make use of it.

If this project sounds like something your town might like to use, or if you’d like to learn more about how telephones and other communication devices can be used to improve government service delivery, you should consider joining us for the Manor.GovFresh event.

Applying new technologies to old problems is part of what Gov 2.0 is about. Telephony might seem old school, but there has never been more opportunity than right now to exploit it cheaply and efficiently to improve communications between governments and their citizens.

Gov 2.0, vendors, vibe and industry as patriot

sf.govfresh was an incredible event that brought together San Francisco’s finest government technology leaders, local area public servants and citizens sincerely passionate about building effective government. Adobe supported us in making that event happen and received an incredible amount of appreciation from the community.

We’re seeing this happen more. There are a number of new, niche, tech-focused, Gov 2.0 community events and gatherings happening at the local, state and federal level, all offering innovative approaches to bringing leaders and in-the-trenches foot soldiers together to better understand how we can solve our government problems.

Fostering and engaging this type of civic vibe is the future of vendor sales and marketing outreach.

Having said that, vendor emails like this are frustrating:

“To be honest, I feel that decision makers at ***** are waiting to get a better understanding of the long-term impact of Gov 2.0 before they insert ***** into the Gov 2.0 conversation at a deep level.

To this person’s credit, they added:

“I hope that ***** will continue to see the impact and relevance of Gov 2.0 and work to align our offerings with the changing landscape of the public sector.”

I hope so, too. My reply:

“Decision makers there know best, I’m sure. My bet is that the ‘Gov 2.0’ market will start to reward vendors that support community engagement and peer learning opportunities amongst public servants and civic technologists. Brand affinity around building social capital will be the smartest, most sustainable sales/marketing strategy. Harder to measure short-term benefits, but once you have that affinity, harder to lose it.”

Many vendors incorporate a spirit of patriotism into their government sales and marketing strategies, but if industry really wants to show its true colors, now is the time to get serious about building Gov 2.0 into its business model. Foster community, engage, learn, invest in a solid foundation for your country’s future.

Given the direction we’re heading, your government needs you now more than ever.

Transparency is Dead. Long Live Transparency.

As sovereign power passes to the new king upon the death of the old, so do I propose that Ellen Miller’s proclamation that “the drive for data transparency has stalled” [Speech video 0:49 ] yields a pursuit for transparency and open government that is filled with renewed vigor – and new perspectives.

While I agree that enshrining mandates for data transparency and open government principles in law would be the easy way to ensure that they continue in perpetuity, I don’t believe that it’s the best way to forward the movement.

In fact, I’m going to go so far as to say that open government will only be accomplished by:

  1. Relegating transparency to an equal position with participation and collaboration.
  2. Building civic responsibility in citizens.
  3. Changing government culture.

Relegating transparency

Transparency has enjoyed a special (and dominant) place in the open government movement such that I feel as though I speak sacrilege when I say it is a false god. Now don’t get me wrong, I love transparency and completely agree that it is a necessity for open government. But transparency alone is not enough.

I say it’s a false god because the real goal is accountability. Transparency is only the lens through which accountability can be determined. Once data is verified, or a transgression is uncovered in the data, what do we do? Well today, we announce it publicly and expect the appropriate agency to respond out of fear and embarrassment.

There has to be a better way!

Enter participation and collaboration. How nice would it be if every time a transgression was discovered, there was a reliable way to not only ensure that the information could get to the people within government that could fix it (participation); but in addition, if the various offices and individuals that were responsible had the ability to work together to actually solve the problem (collaboration).

Sounds kinda like a fairy tale or a children’s story, doesn’t it?

But I believe that is what we’re pursuing – we don’t want a government that we can monitor, we want a government that we can monitor and that’s responsive to our needs and input as citizens.

Building civic responsibility

The Open Government movement has largely been focused on what all these cool new technologies are enabling – and that makes perfect sense. In order to utilize any tool, you have to understand it first; and in order to understand it, you have to play with it. We’ve been doing that.

Now however, we seem to have moved to another plateau. There are a lot of conversations about what the goal of the movement actually is. For me, it’s about a sea change in the relationship between citizens and government in the United States of America. I grew up with no concern for, nor belief in anything the federal government or any representatives said or did. Unfortunately, this is more the norm than the exception today.

I see the Open Government movement as a panacea for the ills of our current government system. The technology creates the possibility of a government like the one taught in our childhood civics classes – the American Dream: all people are equal and live in a true meritocracy that is fairly governed by a system that perfectly balances service provision and minimal interference in the lives of its citizens, enabling each and every one to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, in whatever way they choose to define that.

As soon as I realized that this fantasy is driving my involvement in the movement, I also saw a flaw in the fantasy. Where is civic responsibility in this idyllic vision we were raised with? Does the average American want to sign up for selective service, pay taxes, serve on a jury, vote, or even serve as a representative in government? Of course not! We’re all good with the life-liberty-and-pursuit-of-happiness-greatest-country-in-the-world thing, but you can keep the rest of it – thanks, but I’ve got other things to do.

Now, you and I can pretend that this isn’t part of what we do. We work on technology implementation and adoption. We’re revolutionizing government. Right?

Unfortunately, a transparent, participatory, and collaborative government isn’t worth much if no one looks at the data, participates, or collaborates with it! If you haven’t realized this yet, open government is actually going to add more civic responsibility to an already jaded and apathetic citizenry. What are we going to do about that?

Oh. And don’t fool yourself that there will always be watchdog groups that are passionate about specific issues. These groups are merely a proxy for citizens, and their legitimacy rests on being able to engage a broad constituency.

To make a long story short, if you’re working in this space and your strategic plan doesn’t include some means of empowering, impassioning, or educating citizens on why they should care, you’re missing something.

Changing government culture

I simply don’t believe that mandating open government will result in open government. Granted, without President Obama creating the climate in which change can occur, it would be much more difficult than it is currently, but that has already happened. The political cover necessary for drastic change has been laid out.

What is required is the laborious process of changing government culture. I will not claim to be an expert on agency open government plans, but I was looking at NASA‘s the other day and was pleasantly surprised by their three flagship initiatives: Policy, Technology, and Culture. That pretty much says it all, doesn’t it? If you can change those three things, you can successfully implement open government internally. I do think there is an order that needs to be followed here however (and you’ll notice that culture gets the limelight):

  1. Technology needs to be understood. I’m not going to talk much about this because this is mostly what we’ve all been doing so far. Nonetheless, technology creates opportunities and in order to leverage them, you need to understand how it works and what it’s capable of.
  2. Culture needs to change. The first step is figuring out what the change is that you’re trying to bring to fruition (I think the Open Government movement’s current introspection that I referenced in the previous section is a form of this). In keeping with the principles of the movement, it’s probably good to do this in a way that is transparent, participatory, and collaborative – with the civil servants that will be directly affected as well as all stakeholders, be they at other agencies, organizations, or actual citizens. There is no better way to lead than by example. The exciting part of this is that the process itself will also set the change in motion. (for more detailed cultural change hints, Lovisa Williams recently wrote a great post about effective culture change within an agency called The Elephant of Change).
  3. Policies will need to change to support the new technologies and culture. That is their job after all – to provide a structure that produces reliably consistent results. I would encourage policy changes to be liberal when providing more freedoms and very conservative when creating restrictions. This is a time for trial and error, and (where appropriate) the mantra of ‘fail early, fail often’ will actually help to shorten the transition period. At that point, it will be possible to create intelligent policies that are crafted not only with the knowledge of what works and what doesn’t, but also with all of the benefits that the open government movement will have brought to government.

In my estimation then, the key to successful Open Government implementation is a focus on changing the culture of your agency or department or office to be transparent, participatory, and collaborative. Exactly what that means in your specific case is where the complexity lies, and most likely you’ll get it at least partly wrong the first couple of times you try to figure it out. It doesn’t matter – mitigate the risks, fail where you can afford to, and move on. This is how transitions work, and if we are proactive about our intentions, maybe we can build that idyllic country that we grew up believing in – although with responsible and engaged citizens that make it even better and ensure its longevity!

‘Jobs That Matter’ and how to find a stable, fulfilling career in public service

Join a conversation with Gov 2.0 Radio and career counselor Heather Krasna about her new book, Jobs That Matter – Find a Stable, Fulfilling Career in Public Service. Heather talks about finding the right job for the public good, the process of writing her first book, and how she uses social networks such as GovLoop, LinkedIn and Twitter.

[audio:http://www.blogtalkradio.com/gov20/2010/09/13/government-20-radio.mp3]

Innovation for local government

Join a fast-paced conversation about innovation in local government and emergency management with GovFresh founder Luke Fretwell, City of Manor, TX, CIO Dustin Haisler and Bob Greenberg of G&H International Services. We discuss the upcoming manor.govfresh conference, and how emerging technologies are empowering first responders.

[audio:http://www.blogtalkradio.com/gov20/2010/09/11/big-ideas-for-local-america.mp3]

Challenge.gov brings citizens, government together for civic solutions

The General Services Administration has launched Challenge.gov as part of an effort to help “government and the public work together to find solutions.” Citizens can vote to support a challenge, contribute to a discussion board and federal agencies can post their own challenges to the site. According to the Challenge.gov Website, “this platform is the latest milestone in the Administration’s commitment to use prizes and challenges to promote innovation.”

Challenge.gov is powered by New York-based start-up ChallengePost. You can follow @ChallengeGov on Twitter. See also GovLoop’s in-depth interview with GSA’s Director of Center for New Media and Citizen Engagement Bev Godwin about the new site.

Godwin announces launch of Challenge.gov at Gov 2.0 Summit:

Video overview of Challenge.gov and how to post a challenge: