Commentary

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.

It’s a great moment in time to be a patriot

There’s a huge wave of government transparency and citizen engagement building that will change the way we interact with our government like we’ve never seen before. We’re witnessing a revolution that will build a stronger America, and it couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.

As local, state and federal budgets see less funding and more scrutiny during these economic times, innovation and collaboration from civic-minded developers, open government advocates and fresh-thinking public servants will usher in a democratic process that brings public officials and citizens closer than ever.

On a whim, GovFresh quickly launched, leveraging social media tools like FriendFeed and WordPress, producing a simple “Government News Network.” Since then, I’ve been exposed to a different Washington, D.C., than I left 10 years ago. I naively posted a critique of government Web operations and immediately engaged with some of the brightest minds in the new government movement. Social media has changed the face of public debate and my experience with GovFresh is just one example.

Silicon Valley and the Nation’s Capital are having a meeting of the minds, and patriots from sea to shining sea are rallying to build a truer democracy, for the people, by the people.

Gov 2.0 efforts from federal to local, such as Data.gov, USAspending.gov and social media engagement are strong signs the U.S. Government is beginning to accept the changing nature of transparency, public policy-making and participatory democracy.

Citizen 2.0 projects such as White House 2, GovLoop, TweetCongress, and thousands of other Web, social media and mobile applications are making it easier to connect with public officials and voice opinions, direct to the source. Direct representation has never been more so than it is today. Transparency organizations like Sunlight Foundation are challenging citizens to get creative, engage, try new ideas, even fail, knowing that we’re on the path to building a more perfect Union.

America 2.0 will be built on the abundance of creativity, innovation, collaboration and energy of today’s citizens and its government.

It’s a great moment in time to be a patriot.

Why Gov 2.0 means the U.S. Government must centralize its Web operations

In an earlier post, I offered recommendations on centralizing U.S. Government Web operations, which seemed naive or misinformed to some.

Here’s what I recommended:

  • Centralize all government Web operations under one agency
  • Hire a Chief User Experience Officer
  • Unify look/feel of all government/military Web sites
  • Hire talented writers and editors to produce quality content

As I’ve added new GovFresh feeds for various departments, agencies, military branches, and more, I’ve visited many of the government-operated sites over the past month.

Here’s what I’ve found:

  • Lack of unified design
  • Disjointed use of Web platforms
  • Inconsistent editorial and content
  • Outdated Web design practices
  • Development redundancy

While all of the above don’t hold true for every site (there are several fantastic government sites), at least one of the above does.

Here’s why the U.S. Government must centralize its Web operations:

Development

One open-source platform would allow for a more agile development process and more scalable, cross-site features to be built quickly. Code could be re-purposed, rather than re-created. Eventually, interactivity, preferences and personalized updates could easily be built, which would allow citizens to actively engage in the political process or manage their government services, 21st century style.

Usability

Centralized usability tests and site metrics reviews across a more unified design would allow managers to re-vamp the UI/UX accordingly. Best practices could be realized and executed immediately across all sites. This includes design and editorial. Actively soliciting user feedback and executing cross-sites would be invaluable to the user experience as a whole.

Brand/design unity

In the corporate sense, “U.S. Government” is a brand. When a user arrives on an official U.S. Government Web site, it should be apparent. The brand and aesthetic should convey “this is an official U.S. Government Web site.” Fonts, colors, consistent top-level navigation or a uniform toolbar could achieve this. You can still retain micro-brands within the major. Agencies wouldn’t dilute their individual branding. They would just be more aligned with the U.S. Government style guide.

Content

A content management strategy, standardized writing style guide, solid editorial staffing and content managers that liaison with respective agencies would go a long way in presenting content in a more clear, concise, accessible format.

Financial

An open-source platform would allow for cheaper development costs. Not having to wait for budget allocation or go through the government contract proposal process for an entire Web project means more agencies will get a stronger Web presence. You could better staff and meet demands, especially with a strategy.

Strategic

A strategic management team would see the entire U.S. Government Web operations from a high-level perspective and direct the user experience accordingly, free from silo operations. It would work with key contacts within various agencies to assess objective, mission and help focus and execute the appropriate Web strategy. This includes social media activity.

Transparency

The more user-friendly the Web site, the easier it is to understand what’s happening throughout the public system. Agencies can receive feedback and interact with their core constituencies to know what services should be offered, and what shouldn’t. The side affect of a unified Web platform breeds transparency that allows us to hold the government accountable and more actively participate in the democratic process.

While I understand each agency may have a need for different tools or design, non-standard needs can be addressed and properly integrated. It doesn’t have to be cookie-cutter, just more unified, efficient and strategic. Actively collaborating with internal agency contacts allows them to focus on what they do best and leverage the expertise of a solid Web operations team.

America has the best and brightest Web minds in the world. There’s no reason why we can’t build a flexible but “united” U.S. Government Web platform that gives citizens a better customer experience than the 1.0 version we’re getting today.

Thoughts or solutions from others?