A bit of excitement about transforming government

I am officially very excited.  I was mooching the web a few weeks ago and came across Gov 2.0 Expo - a conference about using the web for transforming government - held in Washington DC - May 25-27.  Three things happened: a subconscious flashing light lit, a contract was delayed and my new passport turned up weeks earlier than expected. Portents were good, the runes aligned and Mrs F wanted me out of the house. So I went. And... it was the most interesting event I have been to for utterly ages - or longer.  I am so glad I was there. Since arriving back I have enthused about it with anyone who would listen (and some who wouldn't) and I guess I now need to write my excitement down.

The conference was about using the web as a platform both for improving the efficiency of government and for enabling a new style of much more effective government. There were several thousand attendees - mainly from the US - representing diverse interests: central government, local government, bloggers and journalists, entrepreneurs, researchers, technical people, all sorts. Although there were many technology firms present, the conference did not have an overly tech flavour.  (I admit was a tad worried.)

For me the flavour was...

Flavour of the conference

Here are some issues that struck me...

Government as a Platform

The chap running the conference - Tim O’Reilly - a prime mover in the Gov 2.0 movement (and coiner of the term), talks about moving away from a Vending Machine model of government - where citizens put in taxes to get services out - to a much more distributed model where government’s role is to provide a “Platform” for the delivery of services; a platform that can be used by anyone: government organisations, private enterprises or even citizens themselves.

We have an example of the beginnings of such a service here in the UK: FixMyStreet.com. If you know of a faulty streetlight, for example, you can use their website to log the problem and mark it on a map. They automatically inform the appropriate authority and chase them up if necessary: hugely efficient. These guys are logging more than a thousand reports a week. Some local authorities have opened up their fault logging systems to allow reports to be dropped straight in by the service: the beginnings of the Platform.

For more watch Tim O’Reilly talking about this.

Opening up Data

There was much discussion of the importance of opening up data. (As has Mr Cameron lately - see his letter to government departments.) A presenter - Joshua Robin, from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, talked about how they solved the problem of getting good quality, real-time information about bus arrivals to travellers.  They had tried to build a system using a conventional delivery approach and made little progress over many months. So, as a pilot, they decided to make their raw real-time data available on the Internet and invited a group of developers to a meeting to explain the problem. The next day one of them had produced an early solution on Google Maps, there was a live website within two weeks, live data fees to electronic signs within four weeks and an iPhone app within eight. All of this at no cost to Joshua’s Department!

It’s a relatively trivial example in the context of many government procurements but I feel that the principles of opening data up, engaging developers directly, tackling things incrementally are very widely applicable.  A simple idea with real vision.

More in Joshua's presentation

Social Media

There was much about social media - Wikis, Blogs, Twitter, Facebook et al - and the huge opportunities they present.  Although I have been involved with implementing some of these tools recently, I learned that I understood less than I thought.  Example: I was surprised when I saw, first-hand, really rich, smart ways that those involved in this Gov 2.0 thing were using Twitter and blogs to communicate ideas, build community and get things happening.

So many friends and colleagues I talk to about social media tell me the same thing; that they have heard about it but just don't have the time/need to get involved.  I absolutely understand: it's completely new and it takes time to get grips with.  I am more convinced than ever that folk involved in any way in transformative change in government, particularly leaders, need to understand social media and have a strategy for using them within their organisations.

Plenty of other folks have written about the conference: try Arianna Huffington or Publivate.


This stuff is important. It is going to happen. Get on the bus.