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Gov 2.0: Tim O'Reilly Argues for a Left-Right, Do-More-With-Less, Synthesis

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, September 8 2009

Gov 2.0 must mean more than government agencies using social media, said Tim O'Reilly, at this morning's opening of the day-long Gov 2.0 Expo at the DC Convention Center. Some 250-300 people have gathered early this rainy day to try to figure out what that might involve. While Tim says he's here to learn (and god knows, being a conference organizer means you get to talk to all kinds of interesting people and hear about fascinating and creative projects early on), his opening keynote this morning offered some very useful gleanings, and also some hints of what the ideology of Gov 2.0 might be.

As readers of this blog know, I believe people empowered by new communications technologies can make our government more open, participatory and collaborative--and god knows there's a lot of room for improvement over the system we have now. It's great that Tim O'Reilly is focusing his formidable brain and organization to help us think more deeply about these topics. At the same time, I worry about what my friend Chris Nolan long ago referred to as "progressive libertarian" thinking, which seems progressive but often is more driven by bottom-line ROI measures that can leave many people out. Here are my rushed notes, with comments from me are in italics.

* Government has always been a locus of collective action, a way of getting people to do things together, he argues. He cites Benjamin Franklin's "we must all hang together or we will surely hang separately" quote, and Jefferson on subdividing power down the level of the people who are closest to the problems they are trying to deal with. (Someone should send Tim a copy of David Post's great new book, In Search of Jefferson's Moose, which really develops this theme beautifully.). He then gives us a bunch of examples of successful web 2.0 companies, like Google and Amazon, who each in their own way have used technology to create a new kind of collective action, brilliantly harnessing user self-service contributions to improving content (search, book and product reviews).

It's true that aggregating user-generated content is a brilliant business model. But is the aggregation of individual search choices and ratings of purchases, the same thing as "collective action"? Have "we" chosen to do anything, have we deliberated and decided when an algorithm magically shows us an aggregated result? On the other hand, what is majority vote but an algorithm, albeit a very blunt one, for aggregating and enforcing group preferences?

* Customer self-service should be seen is a bridge between the Democratic view of providing more government services to the public, and the Republican view of needing smaller government, Tim argues, because it makes it possible to do more with less. He cites Craigslist as the model for this: one of the top trafficked sites on the web with only 30 employees.

There's no question in my mind that he's right about this, more participatory/collaborative and open government can also be smaller and more efficient, in some arenas. Imagine asking the people of a city to go out one day and document all the potholes, broken lamp-posts, dead trees, etc, that need to be taken care of--rather than paying government employees to drive around checking on the same problems. But can we expand this model to more knotty questions of policy debate and the drafting of laws and regulations?

* The "vending machine model" of government doesn't make sense any more. Putting in taxes and getting out services doesn't scale well. We need to do more, in response, than shake the vending machine! (Hear, hear!) Tim's response is that government should think like a platform or a web service: "Government should provide fundamental services on which we, the people (also known as the market) can build applications." Tim cites the GPS system, which was originally built for military use, as an example. By opening up that data, whole industries have been built for civilian purposes. (He notes that government data shouldn't be licensed to private companies, however).

This is all well and good for certain kinds of government services, especially ones that revolve around data and publicly-developed information. But while the "vending machine" analogy captures part of what is wrong with Big Government, the GPS-open data example doesn't quite fix all that ails us. Yes, we need public data to be open, web-accessible and as real-time as possible. (I was at the meeting with Tim where thirty open government advocates hammered out the 8 principles of open government data.) But I worry about Tim's conflation of "the People" with "the Market," though I freely admit that he may only be thinking in terms of government web services. There are too many examples of market failure (hello, Alan Greenspan?) for us to simply trust that a free market will take care of the people. Think of providing for the common defense, for public health, for clean air and water, for starters. And let's not forget how often the "Market" purchases advantages from government, by using campaign contributions and lobbying to get disproportionate access to power. Surely we still need some kind of hybrid solution.

* So what might Gov 2.0 look like in the future? People doing things together to fix stuff themselves, with government solely as the convener? DIY on a civic scale, as Tim wrote recently? Or do-it-ourselves, via services like Meetup, as its founder Scott Heiferman argued back? This is the vision Tim is wrestling with. He tells the now familiar story of a group of merchants in a rural part of Hawaii who repaired a vital road that the state didn't have the money to fix as an example of what he envisions.

Do-it-yourself government, even do-it-ourselves government, sounds really intriguing but also leaves me with some worries. What's the difference between this model and vigilante government, or a "privatopia" model where wealthy citizens withdraw (even further than they already have) from the shared burdens of being one country and roll up their moats? To go back to Hawaii, how does Tim know that road will be open to all? How does this model of do-it-ourselves government ensure equality of access? To be sure, those merchants want customers to come on that road to shop at their stores, but what about other travelers?

To be continued...