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Luke Fretwell's Bittersweet GovFresh Experience

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, September 23 2010


"It was bittersweet," says Bay Area resident Luke Fretwall of standing in central Texas this Tuesday watching the wrap up of the two-day Manor.GovFresh open government event. Yes, the event had managed to attract more than 120 open government advocates to tiny Manor, not exactly heretofore an innovation hot spot; among the attendees was even Beth Noveck, White House's point person on open government. But says the 30-something Fretwell, "I knew in the back of my head that I had to do something about the sustainability of GovFresh," the event's namesake online community. On Wednesday, yesterday, Fretwell penned a note on the GovFresh blog saying that he need to "change gears." It read like a goodbye note.

I caught up with Fretwell early this morning to ask why the GovFresh era was ending. It was early for me on east coast time. He was very early for Fretwall, back home on the west coast but still on Manor time. And that's where he begins.

"If you had told me 15 months ago that I'd have been doing" an event like Manor's, "I would have laughed in your face." Fifteen months ago is when Fretwell, a self-described C-SPAN nerd originally from northern Virginia who put in time in DC's non-profit world before heading to San Francisco just before the dot-com bust, starting pulling together the various YouTube and Facebook and Twitter feeds of federal agencies and offices into integrated livestreams, hosted on ("I was lucky to get the domain," he says.) To find the feeds, though, he spent time trawling a good number poorly-designed federal websites and, he says, "I thought to myself, 'these are literally federal disasters.'"

He started blogging about what he was finding. His metric then, he says, was, "Is this GovFresh? Or is it GovStale?" He says with a laugh, "I was fueled by civic adrenaline." Others asked if they could join in. He welcomed them. The site filled up with blog posts and video blogs. He continued doing consulting work, but as he went along, he began to think same easy tools he was using to build GovFresh -- WordPress, Twitter, Facebook -- could be used by local governments. This September, he put together sf.GovFresh, a one-day open government event in the Bay Area, largely funded by Adobe. Contacted by forward-thinking Manor CIO Dustin Haisler, Manor.GovFresh was born. Fretwell had visions of a GovFresh Portland event, maybe Seattle, maybe even an open government celebration inspired by Burning Man.

But even as the Manor event was taking shape, Fretwell was also having doubts about the short-term sustainablity of being an open government start-up in the open government space, which is itself a start-up. Content, he says, is his first love. And it is, in his view, the basis for whatever there might become of an open government community. But as so many publishers, editors, and journalists are finding out, making online content pay isn't an easy feat.

Events, says Fretwell, are an easier sell, but not always. Funding a sponsor in San Francisco is one thing, he says. Finding a sponsor to hold an event in Manor, Texas, is another. The problem as Fretwell sees it, is that the companies at the heart of the industry -- Adobe, Microsoft, HP, IBM, Intel are among those he names -- aren't alive yet to the business case to be made for participating in open government not as a vendor, but as a collaborator alongside government and developers. Those companies and others, says Fretwell, spend too much on marketing products and not enough time building long-term relationships in the open government field. "The should be be supporting more grassroots efforts and helping to redefine how we run government," he says. If there aren't immediate profits in that, he says, "there's huge civic capital."

The key, as Fretwell, is community. Groups like the Omidyar Network and the Sunlight Foundation, in his estimation, should spend more time thinking about building that than on building websites. "You can make websites all day long that show how government spends money, but who's looking at it?," he says. "Is government looking at it? Are citizens looking at it?" But Fretwell understands some of the motivations that he sees as behind a drop-off in interest in organizing he's seen in recent months. "You can't really make a business case around bringing community together. You can make a business case around, 'I built five websites this year.'" But, he says, "people are getting tired of hearing about new websites that they don't have time to go to." Fretwell would rather see groups and foundations put some sustaining capital into holding bar camps, one-day events, anything were community can form. "We need to stop building vanity projects," he says, "and start building community."

Preferably, he says, a community and community-driven projects that value those with a little life under their belt, that harness both youthful energy and learned experience. Of the contests and collaborations that seem to rely upon considerable amounts of free or lightly-paid work, Fretwell is critical. "The completely discriminate against people who have kids, a wife, a family." Fretwell lives outside San Francisco with his wife and two kids. "There's just no time for people with those obligations to commit to this stuff, and so there's a huge intellectual drain happening."

Fretwell isn't calling it quits on GovFresh, not completely. He needs more financial stability, he says, and would like to build something as part of a team. He's open to the idea that GovFresh might morph into something else, and says he'll evaluate the opportunities as they come. In the meantime, he'll keep the blog open, if people have the time and interest to contribute.

"It'd be silly," he says, "for me to tear it down."