Government Collaboration: How Far Can It Go?

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One of the biggest challenges for CIOs is preparing their agencies to work in the “new” world of collaborative technology and services. Citizens already are quite comfortable in the new world. We now use the Internet for everything from bargaining for and purchasing items that are delivered by the next morning to reconnecting with old friends and even collaborating on a family tree. Business services and our personal lives have changed rapidly, so it only makes sense that government services are changing in order to remain relevant.

Collaborative technology (Web 2.0) has been embraced by the federal government. Blogs are commonplace and internal wikis are going strong in many agencies. These are good steps, and I would argue that blogs and wikis done well can help foster openness. But technology is the easy part – creating truly collaborative services is much harder and brings big changes. True government collaboration means being open and transparent with data, assumptions, debates and decisions. It won’t be easy, and in some ways its counter to the culture of federal agencies. The mission of many agencies is to regulate in one way or another, thus their natural tendency is not to share and educate.

Collaborative services, on the other hand, bring people together to improve or advance their community goals. And that means giving away knowledge that is not normally shared. Apple’s iPhone is a great example. Apple’s goal is to sell phones to a wide variety of consumers. Those consumers want to maximize the use of their phones. In order to make consumers happy and to reduce its own investments, Apple decided to expose the code that runs iPhones enough to allow others to build applications (a.k.a. apps) that will work on the phone.

These mobile apps, can be developed for fun –like the one that turns your iPhone into a light saber–or to be useful—such as the one that helps find nearby restaurants. Apple encourages developers to create apps by making sample code publicly available. The applications, in turn, inspire more people to buy iPhones. So Apple meets its goal while satisfying consumers.

This kind of exposing and sharing of data is the first step toward true collaboration. I’ve long advocated making government data more available in usable formats. Agencies spend so much time collecting data it only makes sense to leverage and use it, or to let others do so.

Over the years, I’ve seen citizens, companies, and organizations tie themselves in knots trying to obtain and use government data in reports, analysis and tools. Traditionally, federal data lived in information management systems that made it hard to extract. Those who sought to use it tried to export the data into spreadsheets, or re-enter into their own tools. People always have tried to use government data – it just hasn’t been easy and the contortions they went through to retrieve it often compromised its quality.

This tortured history makes Data.gov all the more important. Data.gov is a site people can go to obtain government data in usable, retrievable formats. Data.gov is finally forcing government agencies to design their systems so they can share data, not just collect and enter it. Whether or not Data.gov survives and thrives in its current form, its impact will endure.

Exposing data in usable formats challenges government. With more people using government data in new ways, errors will crop up and people will draw incorrect conclusions because they don’t understand the real purpose and intended use of the information. The big stumbling blocks for federal data exposure and sharing always have been quality and context.

But if the federal government can withstand the media and political criticism that assuredly will come with the new era of openness and collaboration–and already has been seen on Recovery.gov–data and understanding of it eventually will be improved. The discomfort of this first phase of collaboration just might force federal agencies to invest the time to improve their data, the process by which it is obtained, and the context in which it is presented. Exposing data already serves this purpose in the private sector.

Once data is made available, government will need to decide its future role in collaboration. Do agencies want to follow Apple, whose iPhone apps are being developed by consumers, organizations, and other companies? Apple approves apps it hasn’t developed and lets customers download them onto their iPhones. The company even allows the app creators to charge for downloads. Apple does not support the apps, but rather links to the developers’ sites for resolution of problems. Some of developers provide little support, but when apps are free or inexpensive, most iPhone users are willing to assume the risk and don’t get too upset if applications sometimes don’t work perfectly.

This raises some interesting questions: Can government be this collaborative? Do citizens want it to be? Do agencies want to be?

The Sunlight Foundation is holding an open contest for developing apps using federal data available from Data.gov. Federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra held a similar contest when he was Washington, D.C.’s chief technology officer. Just like iPhone applications, some contest submissions will be toys, others “nice to haves”, and a few will add real value. It’s the latter that most interest Kundra and other open government advocates. It is my hope that by exposing its data to collaborate with citizens, government will be pressured to improve, gather and provide the data people really want and need, and come up with some valuable new apps. Citizens and companies are building applications that use this data in new ways that are fun, interesting or important to them.

Once the contest is over, will people continue to develop apps for government, especially as more data becomes available on Data.gov? If so, will government be expected to manage these apps as Apple is doing for the iPhone? Will this become a new government service? If it does, how will the federal government determine which apps to accept and which to reject? If an app fails due to poor development or bad data, will citizens be as accepting as they are of faulty free apps for the iPhone? I doubt it.

A few agencies have developed widgets. I will loosely define them as a kind of app that can be easily downloaded and placed on consumer Web sites. Widgets can help citizens track a hurricane or display the countdown to Earth Day on their websites. But they were developed in-house or through traditional procurement or contract vehicles. The more collaborative approach being used in the private sector challenges traditional government partnerships and procurement rules. If the federal government decides to begin to collaborate more broadly, then policies, procurements, and rules will need to change.

I’m not sure government or citizens are ready for or even thinking about the implications of collaboration. For many citizens, the idea triggers fear of Big Brother government knowing too much about them. For many agencies, it triggers fear of bad publicity, privacy breaches and violations of regulations, if not the law. Despite our fears, the future surely will be more collaborative, so we all need to begin imagining how.

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