Chapter 10. Two-Way Street: Government with the People

Mark Drapeau

During the 2008 elections in the United States, then-candidate Barack Obama’s campaign made excellent use of new media to not only raise an unprecedented amount of money, but also market him as the candidate that would bring change to the country. Inspired by this, citizens prominently used new media such as YouTube, Flickr, and Twitter to share their experiences during Obama’s inauguration week celebration in Washington, D.C. And after President Obama took office, his first orders of business were to reveal a modern White House website and to issue a memo[137] directing the federal government to be more transparent, participatory, and collaborative (see the Appendix A).

But the wheels of government do not turn merely because the president gives an order—even when that order comes from a leader as popular as Obama. Disagreements between people in the executive and legislative branches over policy, strategy, and tactics can delay progress for months, if not years; not to mention outside pressure from think tanks, special interest groups, and super-empowered individuals. Engaging in spirited debate is the core of democracy, but it periodically feels like participating in a nationwide traffic jam.

Pockets of Excellence: The Goverati

An interesting byproduct of leaders encouraging government to be more transparent, participatory, and collaborative is that people are increasingly if inadvertently taking matters into their own hands. Encouraged by high-profile uses of social software, government employees previously hidden in “pockets of excellence” have used personal blogs, microsharing, and other new communication technologies to promote their ideas with wider audiences than ever before, in the process circumventing to some extent their normal chains of command. And outsiders who have become enthusiasts regarding changing the way the government operates have increasingly been sharing their ideas, hosting events, and creating websites and applications that use government data to help people.

These evangelists for a transparent, participatory, and collaborative Government 2.0 are a group of people I previously dubbed the Goverati.[138] They are a unique and empowered band of insiders and outsiders using an understanding of government, a passion for technology, and a gift for communication to change governance and help people. Two things set the Goverati apart from other special interest groups that want to lobby or change government:

  • The technologies they are encouraging the government to use are the very things that enable them to better communicate their messages to their audience, increase their reach, and gain recognition for their work. Practicing what they preach, they endorse technologies they use themselves (and criticize ones they dislike). Their personal passions feed back onto their mission in a positive way, and their messages come across as more authentic because of it.
  • The Goverati are a loosely organized groundswell lacking formal organization or a designated leader. There are catalysts within the movement, to be sure; but while some persons have emerged as temporary thought leaders, many of them disagree with each other over various issues, and no one clearly leads the tribe by himself. Nevertheless, modern communication technology has enabled the decentralized[139] Goverati to network with each other and empowered them to become very effective at educating people about the topic of Government 2.0 and its potential. As author Robert Waterman, Jr., would say, the Goverati is an “adhocracy”—a highly adaptive organization cutting across normal bureaucratic lines to capture opportunities, solve problems, and get results.[140] Adhocracies can be seen as everything bureaucracies are not, and they are perhaps what are needed most at a time when the world is grappling with many serious issues.

An interesting subphenomenon, perhaps crucial to the growing influence of the Goverati adhocracy, is that while some members have decades of experience in government, technology, or both, others have relatively little. Nevertheless, some fresh thinkers in this area, typically from Generation X, have become extraordinarily talented at using social technology to spread their views or innovate using pilot projects. Cynics sometimes judge this pattern as abuse of intellectual personal branding or even annoyingly viral self-promotion; regardless, a new class of influencers[141] has risen from the bureaucratic ooze to network and partner with experienced and prominent leaders.

GovLoop and BRIDGE: Networks for Government Employees

In perhaps the best-known example of a relatively young member of the Goverati having a major impact, an informal Government 2.0 social network named GovLoop was developed by a U.S. government employee in his spare time on the popular platform Ning. In the span of just one year,[142] it gained more than 12,000 members at all levels of government inside and outside the United States, and its rate of growth seems to be accelerating as excitement about Government 2.0 spreads. Its membership includes advisors at the highest levels of the Obama administration. Incredibly, GovLoop was made possible simply because one passionate, empowered young person filled a void that employees felt they needed but that the government left empty. Now members of the government are some of its biggest fans.

Government taking the lead from citizens about the benefits of using social software is also evident on a more individual scale, as government leaders both in the United States and elsewhere continue to embrace new media tools, both personally and professionally. The examples set by senior leaders at the top of the hierarchy are trickling down throughout government, empowering others to start new projects or revive old ones shelved as unimportant in a more stovepiped era. One excellent new example of this is BRIDGE, which is an unclassified U.S. Intelligence Community virtual environment that debuted in 2009 to allow analysts to network with subject matter experts outside government.[143] Not long ago, collaboration between intelligence analysts and outsiders on national security challenges in an online environment would have been unthinkable to many; now, open collaboration is becoming the default place to start new projects.

Web-based social networking innovations such as GovLoop and BRIDGE may result in the public-facing parts of government appearing more personable. At a time when citizens are thinking about government more than ever, this can almost certainly be a good thing. As evidenced by the Goverati, however, this is a partnership of sorts—the government has the ability to be more personable toward citizens, and citizens have the ability to more easily tell the government what they think. The technology to make this possible is available. Decisions about who will take advantage of it, and when and how to utilize it, vary considerably. This two-way street is fraught with obstacles.

Reversing the Obscurity of Public Servants

There is, however, pushback on the ideals of Government 2.0, for many different reasons ranging from lack of understanding about emerging technologies to ordinary resistance to change within a very large bureaucracy. It is often said that battles in government are usually won by the most persistent party; decentralized organizations such as the Goverati have the ability to work on many things at once, adapt quickly to changing situations, replenish members and even leaders who move along to other passions, and reinforce their influence by using social media to spread their ideas. Increasingly, large (more than 500 attendees) events such as Government 2.0 Camp, Personal Democracy Forum, and Gov 2.0 Summit—formally organized independent of the government, but with government’s participation—are viewed as opportunities for networking and hearing the best ideas. Whereas the government previously held events to tell citizens about what it was doing, the government now more often finds itself in the position of taking advice from a subset of those very citizens who have more reach with their thoughts than ever before. And there is nothing wrong with this meta pattern. Who declared that government had to have all the answers? Citizens are smart, too.

In the not-so-distant future, when a citizen is asked to name an individual government employee, the ideal end state should be that a person working in a microniche of interest to her (finance, farming, health, etc.) immediately comes to mind. Unfortunately, interesting and talented people working inside the government are often not known to the public despite the great importance of their work to everyday life. This state of affairs is mostly a vestige from the days when communications were controlled by professionally trained public relations staff members dealing with mainstream media. This was understandable—equipment was expensive, channels were few, and citizens trusted authenticated, official sources for their information. But this media structure that worked well for half a century is now outdated. Reversing the obscurity of public servants[144] should be a principal goal of an open, transparent government.

In the Web 2.0 world[145] where the Internet is used as a platform, every individual is empowered to be not only a consumer of information, but also a producer of it. Published words, pictures, and video are searchable, discoverable, sharable, usable, and alterable. The bloggers formerly known as kids in their parents’ basements have morphed into a powerful society class of listeners, questioners, writers, editors, publishers, and distributors; some bloggers have even become household names. Interestingly, this is beginning to happen not only outside the government but also within it. Take “Blogger Bob” from the U.S. Transportation Security Administration’s blog; true, he isn’t as famous as Tom Clancy, but he’s been empowered by his organization to write with a personal viewpoint that showcases the personality of a human being rather than the coarseness of official jargon.

The developed global citizen is not an empty vessel waiting to be filled with press releases and government website updates. Even a sophisticated government website such as that of the White House can expect to attract only a subset of citizens a subset of the time, because there are simply too many avenues of information flowing toward these people formerly known as a captive audience. No matter how compelling the government information, they are not waiting to hear about it. Nor are they necessarily waiting to hear from the New York Times, the BBC, or any other mainstream organization. From the government’s viewpoint, rather than assuming citizens are eagerly awaiting government information, it is more productive to imagine them as interwoven networks of individuals having conversations over dinner with their families, in their workplace cafeteria, and on social media websites.

Such online and offline social networks are an increasingly important and powerful force in the lives of adults.[146] But while governments have to some degree embraced new media in the form of publishing official blogs and reading comments, or using Twitter and Facebook to accumulate “fans” and answer questions, they appear in many cases less adept at deploying individuals to become trusted members of microniche citizen networks based around the topics on which they work. Asking people to tune in to a live news chat on Facebook is not much different from asking them to tune in to a televised news conference. Come-to-us is not being replaced by go-to-them, and yet trusted people within communities of interest have become filters for the multimedia vying for citizens’ attention.

Bureaucracies cannot have conversations with citizens; only individual people who work within the bureaucracy can. Ideally, such people having conversations can become “lethally generous” trusted community members.[147] How does one know whether someone has achieved that status? I posit that such lethally generous community leaders are known to the community by name. In other words, when a citizen who is passionate about environmental issues or health care reform or veterans’ benefits is asked to name a government staffer working on those topics, he should be able to answer, because that staffer is also a trusted member of his community of interest.

Harnessing Social Capital

Anecdotally, few government employees consider “marketing” part of their job, and similarly most citizens don’t think of “lobbying” as part of theirs. But when every person can be a writer, publisher, and distributor, everyone cannot be immune from these responsibilities. Granted, both private sector companies and government agencies have rules about what you can and cannot write about your job, and not everyone wants to participate. But many people have already chosen to opt-in to publishing blogs using WordPress, belonging to social networks such as Facebook, and sharing real-time experiences on Twitter. The key question is how do organizations channel such preexisting social communication talents of their workforce for better networking between government and citizens?

Social capital within large organizations should be harnessed, not punished. Such people engaged in communities of interest may very well be more in touch with grassroots conversations[148] than the public affairs office of an agency, which traditionally tends more toward unidirectional outward information flow. These employees may also already be trusted members of a community of interest, flush with knowledge and generous with assistance. It’s difficult to think of good reasons to not use such preadapted social engagement to the government’s advantage.

Government “social ambassadors” should be fully accessible, transparent, authentic, and collaborative leaders that inspire people to cooperate and engage with their government and with each other for the sake of common concerns. As part of their missions, government brand ambassadors should conduct community-based research to better understand the grassroots interests of the average person, which are sometimes misunderstood or overlooked. Listening to and participating in online conversations is quickly replacing polling as a way to understand what communities of interest are actually interested in.

Conclusion

With government social ambassadors using new media to more effectively reach out to communities of citizens, and with citizens using those same tools to lobby[149] their government, a two-way channel of information flow—a two-way street, if you will—may slowly become a “government with the people.” While governments certainly face challenges in using social technologies, experts estimate that the benefits of using these tools to engage the public outweigh the negatives.[150] Social technologies can make networking and engagement with the public simple and powerful, make informal research faster, identify influencers in useful microniches, provide mechanisms for combating negative publicity, and measure public sentiment to help inform public policy and improve governance.

About the Author

Mark Drapeau is currently adjunct faculty in the School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Until recently he was a research fellow at the Center for Technology and National Security Policy at the National Defense University. He is a cofounder of the Government 2.0 Club, a cochair of the O’Reilly Media/TechWeb-produced Gov 2.0 Expo, and a frequent guest speaker and writer on topics related to government, social media, technology, and society. Previously, in his career as a laboratory scientist, he held postdoctoral fellowships from NIH and AAAS and studied the genetics and neurobiology of animal behavior. He has a B.S. in biology from the University of Rochester, and a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of California, Irvine.



[139] Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom, Penguin, 2006. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, Clay Shirky, Penguin, 2008.

[140] Adhocracy, Robert H. Waterman, Jr., W. W. Norton & Co., 1993.

[141] Interestingly, this phenomenon may be responsible for the fast-growing influence of the Goverati. According to a new research paper (“Effective Leadership in Competition,” Hai-Tao Zhang et al., 2009 preprint: http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/arxiv/pdf/0907/0907.1317v1.pdf), relatively few new leaders within a large group can shift the balance of power by distributing their ideas broadly and retaining allegiances well. Social media can facilitate exactly that when used well.

[143] BRIDGE was funded by the deputy director of National Intelligence for Analysis. Information about how BRIDGE is helping the U.S. Intelligence Community connect with outside subject matter experts who understand emerging technologies is available at http://about.bridge-ic.net/index.html.

[147] The term lethally generous with regard to social media usage was coined by author Shel Israel and means that rather than adopting a command-and-control strategy, someone seeking to be a thought leader in a community should participate in its conversations and add the most value possible. See http://redcouch.typepad.com/weblog/2008/10/using-lethal-ge.html.

[148] Good online community managers tend to have a unique combination of skills, including those of a magazine editor, orchestra conductor, teacher, and parent. See “What do you need in a community manager?”, Simon Young, June 5, 2009.

[149] The recent White House experiment called the “Open Government Initiative” is a good example of how social technologies are empowering citizens to contribute to the government policymaking process. It was directed by the Office of Science and Technology Policy. See http://blog.ostp.gov/2009/06/22/open-government-directive-phase-iii-drafting/#TB_inline?height=220&width=370&inlineId=tb_external.