Letting Go of #Gov20 and Embracing #CivicTech:

A Five-Year Retrospective (Plus Thoughts on What Comes Next)


Five years ago this morning, I started my first day as the Social Media Director for the IBM Center for the Business of Government. The tulips in my garden had just started to poke out from the ground, and the DC region was still digging out from the Snowmeggedon that had walloped us three weeks prior.

One of the first series of blog posts I wrote was about what “Gov 2.0" meant and how it might be understood within the context of the history of governance in the US.

Since that time, the conversations in the Gov 2.0 community have become both more particular and more productive, as both the number of participants and the authority they bring to bear has increased. What started as a conversation about how to use emerging technologies — social media an data technologies especially — has deepened and broadened, now encompassing issues as diverse as mobile health, open government and open data, privacy and cybersecurity, the digital and mobile divides, telework and the share economy, and, still, social media: its capacities, limitations, appropriate use, and how it meshes with, enhances, and/or obviates extant government functions.

Even the term “Gov 2.0,” which some feel has lost its meaning, has been supplanted by another term that people feel has lost its meaning: “innovation.”

Tomorrow is already passé

In art and in technology, the importance of innovation is hard to overstate. And to many ears, “innovation” itself has become a stale, meaningless jingle. It is a paradox of innovation that success often means becoming so boring that what was innovative either cliché or all but invisible, subsumed into standard operating procedures (SOPs) that are so mundane, they need little or no explanation. One of the best examples in recent years of a truly successful and revolutionary innovation is email.

Bill Clinton, famously, sent only two emails as president. Equally as famously, President-Elect Barack Obama directed his IT staff to enable him to use his blackberry. Between the inaugurations of the 42nd and 44th presidents, email went from newly-instituted and barely-used technology to invaluable and ubiquitous tool.

Even as the pace of innovation picks up, the speed at which any specific innovation becomes back-office boring is also increasing. Daily, it seems, we are assailed by articles telling us that Email Is Dead, that Facebook Is Dead, that Twitter Is Dead and Google Is Microsoft and Microsoft thinks it’s going to die. Oh, also the Web is dead (totally dead) (or not) and the Mobile Web is, likewise, dead. More than anything, these articles prove what Iron Islanders know: what is dead may never die.

In that vein, I will not say “Gov 2.0 is Dead” (already done!), but what I will say is that I am less interested in the umbrella discussion that is Gov 2.0 and more interested in a two of its constituent parts: civic innovation and open government.

Assume a boat

One of my favorite jokes goes like this: An engineer, a chemist, and an economist are marooned on a desert island. They start to brainstorm a way off the island. The engineer says, “we can lash together some branches and make a crude raft and try to make our way back to land somehow.” The chemist says, “with the right materials we could build a really smokey fire and try to signal a plane.” The economist says, “okay let’s assume we have a boat…”

For the first two years that I was in this role, I spent a lot of time helping federal agencies build their Gov 2.0 boats, culminating with a class on Social Media for Government that I designed and led for the GSA in 2012. In a lot of ways, social media was the portal through which much of Gov 2.0 proceeded. Civic engagement, open government, free(er) flowing data, and the spirit of intra-agency innovation all ride on the coattails of robust social media activity. Today, social media is well-established within government SOPs. Most agencies have social media guidelines and the GSA has an entire corps devoted to getting social media right government-wide.

All this is to say: it’s safe to assume social media. Further, for the sake the conversations I’m more interested in these days, I assume a certain amount of open data, which is its own balagan. But the focus on data, to me, is like the focus on social media: that is, it’s looking at the tool in itself, rather than how people use it, or what they use it for.

Of course, at some level, any discussion becomes a discussion about tools, about means to an end, since government itself is a means to an end. At the other end of the spectrum, every discussion “assumes a boat,” since even talking about open data assumes that there’s data to be opened, that there are people who want to use that opened data, that they’re value to had in the insights the data will reveal, etc.

Where the boat is headed

A few years ago, I sat on a panel that discussed where the government workforce was headed, and I said that the future workforce would be more entrepreneurial, porous, networked, and multidisciplinary. Since then, 18F has opened its doors, the Presidential Innovation Fellowship program has launched its second and third iteration, Code for America has grown, spawning offshoots like Code for DC, and the movement of talent from the highest levels of government into technology companies and vice versa has only increased.

And with good reason. As I wrote in 2009, Gov 2.0 is a response not only to changing technology, but to the changing needs of the polity that uses (and is itself affected by) that changing technology. A prime example of this is the roll-out of Healthcare.gov.

In the two-email Clinton Administration, a Web site would be lucky to have been an afterthought. (The original WhiteHouse.gov is better not thought of at all!) But in the intervening years, Web sites have become synonymous with the programs they describe and facilitate. More Americans shop online, bank online, and file their taxes online. That shopping for healthcare was complicated on any number of levels — different states having different requirements, different companies offering different levels of insurance — did not diminish the expectations that a Web site newly-launched in 2014 would work as well as Amazon did, though it had two decades to grow and work out its bugs. When that Web site failed, the administration looked both to public sector and private sector talent to come in and fix it.

Healthcare.gov is an extreme example of how governments at all level will rely on a networked, porous, and entrepreneurial workforce. But civic innovators have been applying the same ethic to solve problems on a smaller scale that are no less pressing, for example, faster fixing of potholes, and graffiti-removal. I think this represents the current vanguard of governance and where (I hope) canny government leaders will steer their organizations: toward greater civic innovation through ever-more meaningful and deeper coordination among agencies and with private citizens and organizations.

In a blog post on GovLoop about the institutionalization of innovation in 2013, I wrote,

[F]or government leaders to harness the power of innovation, they must ultimately unleash the creativity and expertise of the employees in their charge.
Though some agencies are appointing chief innovation officers, and many more are adding an innovation component to the portfolio of existing CXOs, usually their chief technology or chief innovation officer, ideally the mantle of innovation should be taken up by as many people within the organization as possible. Innovation can be championed by individuals at any level, but it is most often effective when it is embraced by employees at all levels.

New Partners, New Voices

Looking ahead, I hope to be able to partner with and add my voice to a growing number of organizations and individuals implementing and championing civic innovation and open government. To understand what civic innovation means, one could scarcely do better than quoting Alex Howard, from 2012: “improving how society works for citizens in new ways.” And to see examples, one need only cast an eye around Washington, DC: the Open Technology Institute, Sunlight Foundation, and Code for DC as but three examples (to say nothing of the activities of the Center!)

Looking back on five years, I am struck by how far the conversation has come, and I am excited to take it in new directions at new venues and with different hashtags. So long, #Gov20, it’s been good. Hello, #CivicTech, #CivicInnovation and #OpenGov, I’m looking forward to getting to know you better.