Reinvent the government, bottom-up

D. Murali | Updated on January 05, 2011

03EW_BLBK4503.JPG.1   -  Business Line

Just as the modern multinational corporation sources ideas, parts, and materials from a vast external network of customers, researchers, and suppliers, so too should governments hone their capacity to integrate skills and knowledge from multiple participants to meet expectations for a more responsive, resourceful, efficient, and accountable form of governance, write Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams in MacroWikinomics (

Looking back at the first wave of digitally enabled ‘e-government' strategies, which made government information and services more accessible to citizens while creating administrative and operational efficiencies, the authors observe that ‘too many of these initiatives simply paved the cow paths — that is, they focused on automating existing processes and moving existing government services online.'

Network of public servants

The next wave of innovation has the potential to redefine the government's role in society, the authors assure, citing many examples. Such as GovLoop, the world's fastest growing network of public servants, founded by Steve Ressler when he was with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The first thing Ressler noticed, new in his job, was that there were few other young people around, the book narrates. “And everywhere he looked there were silos. Departments weren't talking to one another and there was no online home for connecting with colleagues or sharing ideas.”

When the department banned Facebook, Ressler called it the single most demoralising thing management had ever done, the authors inform. “It said to us we don't get collaboration, your tools, your generation, and we don't trust you,” is a snatch of Ressler-speak. Not surprising, because, in college he had majored in social network analysis and was an early adopter of networks such as Friendster, MySpace, and Facebook. “He'd hoped that by joining DHS he might get an opportunity to apply his expertise to the business of tracking down terrorist cells. But as a rookie, he quickly got bogged down in bureaucratic minutiae.”

Response to deficiencies

The growing popularity and influence of networks such as GovLoop, in the authors' view, are a direct response to some of the well-known deficiencies in government, such as rigid HR (human resource) policies, insufficient training, sclerotic decision-making, hierarchical management structures, and a lack of inter-agency collaboration. “Young people, in particular, turn to these informal networks to navigate their way through an exceedingly cumbersome institutional environment.”

Thankfully, there are examples of networks flourishing inside government, such as NASA's Spacebook, a social network for space scientists; and a government-wide brainstorming application called Spark in British Columbia, spurred by enthusiasm for open collaboration. In Spark, “Ideas posted to date range from new options for expanding online citizen self-service opportunities to operational ideas like establishing an internal talent bank to reduce the need for external contractors.”

Tackling tomorrow's challenges

Though these are early days, networks in government can lead to its bottom-up reinvention, the authors foresee. They postulate that informal networks could do 80 per cent of what traditional departments do, but arguably they could do it better. “Think about it – what's GovLoop at the end of the day: a repository for organisational knowledge; a source of new ideas and innovation; a forum for ad hoc cross-departmental collaboration; a provider of training and mentorship; or all of the above?”

Yet, this is the way to go, as we step into the future, urges the book. For, sustaining societies and economies in the face of climate change, energy shortages, poverty, demographic shifts, and security threats will test the ingenuity of those who wish to see, do, and participate in the public good, reason Tapscott and Williams. “In each of these issue areas governments face a reality in which they are increasingly dependent for authority on a network of powers and counterinfluences of which they are just a part.”

IT dashboard

The chapter titled ‘Creating public value: Government as a platform for social achievement' opens with a description of the office of Vivek Kundra, the chief information officer of the US. His ‘IT Dashboard' monitors in real time the portfolio of federal technology projects, showing how much was budgeted, how much was spent, and so on.

“There are plasma screens displaying information about tasks happening in the schools, streets, and administrative offices of the country. New tasks on the big spreadsheets come up in yellow, past due tasks in red, and completed tasks in green.” It works a bit like a stock market, as Kundra sees. “We make the decisions on which ones to sell, which ones to buy, which ones to… sink more investments into,” is a sample of Kundra's thinking.

And he is not alone, the authors inform. There are federal administrators who take over the performance data at management accountability meetings with Jeffrey Zients, the US government's chief performance officer, one learns. And, “Across town, the head of a D.C.-based government watchdog is preparing for her prime time media appearance by downloading exactly the same information. In the meantime she's plotting trends on Google Earth and releasing new insights on her Twitter feed…”

App store for government

Innovations that Kundra is pursuing are genuinely laudable at a time when most people associate government with waste, inefficiency, and graft, the authors laud. They note that where most governments build mainframes and buy expensive software, Kundra is encouraging federal agencies to use free Google services and open-source wikis for everything from word processing to performance measurement to service improvement.

“He calls it the government cloud, but think ‘app store for government' – a place where employees can access a vast ecosystem of secure applications and data sets for doing their jobs. It may sound like a no-brainer, but it's an enormous improvement over the stubborn industrial age models that still prevail throughout much of government.”

Old ways of working

Tracing back the nearly half-a-century of ‘improvements' in governments in the form of data processing automation, the authors fret that, in reality, old procedures, processes, and organisational forms were just encoded in software. They rue that huge, unwieldy mainframe beasts not only cemented old ways of working, but also required still greater levels of bureaucracy to plan, implement, operate, and control. “Even the most surgical IT experts have utterly failed to resolve the chaos of inconsistent databases, duelling spreadsheets, and other data anomalies that plague most government agencies…”

Thanks to the new Web, and a new generation of social innovators, open-source models of government are not just possible; they are often the best way to get things done, declare Tapscott and Williams. They cite an example from Estonia, which regained independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991, acquiring thus new political freedom, but also ‘a mass of rubbish – thousands and thousands of tonnes of it scattered across illegal dumping sites around the country.'

Time to clean up

When concerned citizens of Estonia decided that the time had come to clean up the trash, they turned not to the government, but to tens of thousands of their peers, the authors recount. “Using a combination of global positioning systems and Google Maps, two entrepreneurs (Skype guru Ahti Heinla and Microlink and Delfi founder Rainer Nõlvak) enlisted volunteers to plot the locations of over ten thousand illegal dump sites, including detailed descriptions and photos.”

If that sounds ambitious, the second phase was outrageous – clean up all of the illegal sites in one day, using mass collaboration! Dream stuff? No. “On May 3, 2008, over fifty thousand people scoured fields, streets, forests, and riverbanks across the country, picking up everything from tractor batteries to paint cans. Much of this junk was ferried to central dumps, often in the vehicles of volunteers.”

To those who wonder what else could Estonians do, if 50,000 of them could clean up their country in one day, albeit a relatively small one, the answer comes from this quote of Tiina Urm, a spokesperson for the initiative: “It is not really about the rubbish. It is about changing people's mindsets. Next year it might be something else.”

A book that can trigger the dismantling of many old ways of working.



“We found that we could make public 100 per cent of our ministry's data, except…”

“How it measures against performance targets?”

“No, the finer details about how our minister spends his time, and ‘earns' his money!”

Published on January 05, 2011

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