The Complexity of Government 2.0
In today’s post, I would like to address three issues related to Government 2.0: transparency, citizenship and agenda hi-jacking.
First, while we read a lot about transparency, it is easier said than done. For example, transparency levels may be highly dependent on the government context and its potential (unintended) impact on either discloser or public behavior–whether citizens or corporations. Second, when participation is emphasized–whether online of offline–, we need to revisit our understanding of citizenship today and in the future. Thirdly, political agendas/policies may be „hi-jacked“ by bottom-up Internet-based approaches of proposing alternatives which also relates back to the question of citizenship and legitimacy.
Government 2.0 is the flavor of the year. Other terms now being introduced are WikiGovernment, Collaborative Government, Information Government or the U.S. administration’s Open Government. While the terms might differ and the authors that introduce them slightly vary in their description and priorities, all of them intend to convey the same ideas: participation, collaboration, transparency and technology jointly allow for a new form of government and governance. Certain things are here to stay; others will pass out of fashion quickly.
The following quotes may illustrate my concerns:
A memo released by the White House, called federal agency heads to „upgrading the capacity of regulatory agencies for using the Internet to become more open, efficient, and responsive“. The National Performance Review (NPR) recommended to „[u]se information technology and other techniques to increase opportunities for early, frequent, and interactive public participation during the rulemaking process and to increase program evaluation efforts.“
This sounds familiar. However, the White House memo dates back to Dec 17, 1999 and NPR’s recommendation back to September 1993. Therefore, policies that connect openness and responsiveness to the potential of technology have been around for over 40 years in government. Some think that eGovernment is dead. But its ideas are quite alive; especially thoughts on eDemocracy seem to finally become reality. eGovernment (the internal/external use of technology in government) does not contradict Government 2.0 anyways. On a 50.000 foot level the use of social media in government is the use of technology.The envisioned transformation requires patience and long-term support from policy makers because government is a complex ecosystem which is resilient to change.
Of course we should not let the past constrain our vision about the future. Yet, the past may prevent us from being overly optimistic or in other words, overly disappointed when all things envisioned don’t become reality.
The Obama administration’s agenda on transparency (the latest move was making information on government IT spendingavailable) is amazing but these policies as a form of regulation are not new to government. For an overview of transparency initiatives and regulations visit freedominfo.org, wobsite.be or Wikipedia. The European Commission also introduced a directive on the re-use of public sector information in 2003. Unfortunately, it is difficult to get a full overview and understanding of the level of progress of the latter in EU Member States. Consequently, it should openly be discussed how the level of transparency of a government or any of its agencies can be measured. All of us might test our administration by requesting access to documents granted through e.g. in Germany the „Informationsfreiheitsgesetz“
While Vivek Kundra agrees in principle that all public government data should be online, he also cautions that the reality is government data sits in more than 10,000 different systems, many of them written in old programing languages or are still locked in dusty paper archives. Accordingly, eGovernment is not dead. Without the appropriate infrastructure (interoperability standards, electronic records management, enterprise architecture) projects such as data.gov can only achieve parts of their true potential.
In general, for transparency we have two primary actors: the discloser and the user. There are many ways for discloser to provide less than complete information or hide important information by providing excessive amounts of information. Placing data in the public domain does not guarantee that it will be used or used in the intended way. Data may be ignored, approached with indifference, misunderstood or misused. For example, data may make it easier for special interest groups to lobby for their own interests. Transparency activities are complex and need full commitment of a government body.
Finally, government and politics are based on the type and flow of information. Transparency policies, social media and the influx of „believers of openness“ in government have slightly altered the process. That may have two effects.
On the one hand, it has become more difficult to contain information. At the same time the need to monitor the „global thought stream“ is increasing to be able to proactively react to emerging „crisis“. These continue to be defined by traditional media (tv, radio, press) once they declare some Internet trend „news“ (Note the change: Digital collective action can quickly lead to more media coverage; past: media leading to collective action).
On the other hand, transparency and social media could lead to even tighter confidentiality protocols and altered behaviour of elected officials. „Negative“ media coverage/spin continues to be „sunlight“ which government tries to avoid at all costs. A recent episode of „The Daily Show“ provides a case in point.
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c|
Mainstream media now like to quote twitter messages of U.S. members of Congress and adding their spin to 140 character thoughts (see also Daily show episode). Some of the early adopters of Twitter in government still offer unique commentary. How long will this be he case?
Citizenship and Participation
Despite all the anti-American sentiment around the globe, the Obama administration has remarkably managed to export its open government policy around the globe. It spread virally. Inspired by U.S. and UK based initiatives, individuals (citizens/politicans/very few government officials) in other countries have started applying these initiatives to their national context (mostly exact copies) or supporting calls for government action („democratization of x and y“). Numerous „experts“ are presenting (mostly the same) ideas and good practice cases to government officials. Many of those officials are still struggling with the topic. For example, many are still wondering about the best way of „eParticipation“ which is the current buzz.
However, there is an underlying question we need to answer that is far more complex and fundamental than eParticipation:
How do we define citizenship in an era of Government 2.0?
This requires a return to political theorists such as Aristotle, John Rawls and Jurgen Habermas as well as multi-disciplinary deliberation of what we would like citizenship to be. Because in the near future, every established form of decision making–especially on the political level–will experience collective action based on the increase of expressive capability of the Internet (Everyone can claim for a democratization of „something“ pointing to the potential use of social media). In addition, the digital divide between those who are offline, those who are online and those who „live“ online („Netcitizen“) continues to exist.
Similar to transparency, the opportunity to participate may simply be neglected until a true need arises. An average worker might only have 2-3 hours available per day to engage in participatory action which are competing with many other leisure activities. Consequently, there is also the issue of legitimacy of those participatory actions that were either offered by government or started by citizens.
To prove my last point, I would like to draw on a current example from Europe. In November 2009, the EU Ministerial eGovernment Conference will take place in Malmoe, Sweden. It is planned to present a ministerial declaration on eGovernment in the EU for the next seven years. This declaration will be the result of back-room dealings between EU Member States (MS).
social media facilitated bottom-up approach to create a declaration alongside the official one in Malmoe for eGovernment 2015 It is also their goal to get official endorsement of their version from the European Commission. As the content of the platform is openly accessibly, ideas might even find their way into the official document. The group’s motivation is probably a mix of self-marketing, fascination for social media and spirit to influence policy making.
So far, 75 individuals participated in the activity. It will be interesting to see how many people will sign the declaration. If you are interested in eGovernment, you might want to visit the site and add your commentary/vote. It will also be interesting to see whether and when the media will pick-up the story of alternative agenda and how much pressure this will exert on policy makers. Considering the total population of 500 Mio EU citizens, legitimacy of this initiative is questionable.
Nevertheless, the EU is at a crossroads: If it does not open up more, it will further strip itself of legitimacy. Gov 2.0 type activities provide one avenue to strengthen the EU and its institutions.
(by Alexander Schellong. An altered version appeard on Harvard’s Complexity and Social Networks Blog)