Gov 2.0 and the Promise of Reform

By Max Novendstern

“Gov 2.0” is the name of a government reform movement predicated on the idea that Internet technology can improve the functioning of American democracy.

This idea is very modern — it’s grounded in theories about the power of online networks and the economics of digital information sharing. Yet the idea of Gov 2.0 is also very old, a product of reformist impulses that are as old, indeed, as the Republic itself: Gov 2.0 is based on the belief that the institutions of our democracy — Congress, federal agencies, local planning boards, and so on — can, through design, be made better.

In the tech sector, they call this belief “innovation”; in our Constitution, it’s known, more eloquently, as the belief in the “more perfect Union.”

Among those who advocate for Gov 2.0 reform — including disheveled professors here in Cambridge, tech gurus in Silicon Valley, and government officials in the highest ranks of the Obama Administration — none seems to seriously believe that Twitter accounts and iPhone apps will perfect our Union. What they believe, they patiently explain, is something much more profound. Gov 2.0 isn’t a faith in technology per se; it’s a faith, rather, in what might be called the “technological essence” of the U.S. Government itself.

Imagine, for a moment, a history of America told in strictly technological terms. Our Framers, like engineers, “designed” our government from top to bottom; they beta tested it as the Articles of Confederation (it flopped); they re-launched as the Constitution; and they created a system of user controls and sysadmin responsibilities, which, collectively, are the procedural protocols of our democracy. Our government, like technology, was created, and it can therefore be changed, made more efficient, more effective, more open – that, in short, is the promise of Gov 2.0.

To understand this promise – what it means, exactly, and why it might now actually be realized – you have to understand a bit about the history of the Internet. No one writing an article in Perspective Magazine in 1995 (the year Netscape IPO’ed) could have predicted that fifteen years later, the World Wide Web would have exploded in size to 1.5 trillion pages – a number roughly equal to ten web pages for every person who has ever lived.

What accounts for this growth? One compelling answer has to do with the nature of the Web as a network. The Web is open and radically distributed. Instead of connecting users to a centralized provider of data (like spokes connecting to a hub), the Web connects users to each other (“end 2 end,” “peer 2 peer”). The web is not a “service” — which you pay for and get things from — it is, rather, a “platform,” a neutral space for you to give and get from people just like you. Platforms are powerful because they are, in the words of Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain, “generative”: users can innovate, co-create, and collaborate in ways that the platform designers never dreamed of. No centralized authority, for example, needs to decide that users should get blogs with images of cats that look like Hitler; you can set up said blog yourself, and so can your friend.

The history of computers is, in a sense, the history of the victory of platforms over services. The PC beat out dedicated information appliances because PCs allowed software developers to code functions on top of them. The World Wide Web beat out centralized networks like AOL and CompuServ because they threaded together the service provision dreams of all sorts of end users. And eventually, those original end users who dreamed of services to provide to others were beaten out by a new set of websites in the wake of dot com crash of the early 2000s. These new sites had funny names like Blogger, Wikipedia, Flickr, and Facebook, and they were, without exception, platform-based rather than service-based. They didn’t provide data to users; they helped users provide data to each other. In 2005, tech visionary Tim O’Reilly dubbed this cohort of sites “Web 2.0.” It’s from Web 2.0 that Gov 2.0 derives its name. And today, Tim O’Reily is Gov 2.0’s biggest evangelizer.

Gov 2.0 suggests that just as platform thinking helped the computer industry, so too can it help the U.S. Government. Indeed, it suggests that the platform model of production — “collaborative peer production,” to use Harvard Professor Yochai Benkler’s phrase — corresponds in an essential way with the structure and function of a democratic society. In democracies, after all, there is no centralized authority, no central server, that provides services to the people from above; in democracies, the people provide for each other. Just as Wikipedia obviated the professional encyclopedia class, empowering amateurs to create, so too might technology be able to render professional government less essential, empowering citizens to provide for the solutions to the problems fellow citizens face. Rather than the government provisioning services in exchange for tax money (like a vending machine), the government can (like a platform) enable citizens to participate in provisioning services to each other. This is the “new compact between government and the public” that Tim O’Reilly refers to when he outlines his model of “government as a platform.”

Consider the following example. In 2008, the CTO of the city Washington, DC created a contest called  “Apps for Democracy.” The contest challenged DC residents to build iPhone and Facebook apps that would help solve real-world civic problems. Within 30 days, 47 teams built apps for the city – ranging from neighborhood wikis, to real-time crime reports on your iPhone, to guided tours of historic districts – at an estimated value of 2.6 million to the city, for a contest costs of 50 thousand. Note the platform dynamics: the city government, in many cases, provided the data that these apps relied on, and the city set up the context for their creation; but the apps themselves were created by citizens for fellow citizens, peer to peer.

Today, the former CTO of DC, Vivek Kundra, has moved into the Obama administration as the nation’s CIO, and is working to extrapolate this model on a mass scale. His data.gov is designed to enable private sector civic entrepreneurs to build applications on top of government data. The projects that we can expect are like those that we’ve already seen: iPhone apps for reporting potholes in your city; video games that help schoolchildren learn healthy eating habits; online forums for local political debates; neighborhood social networking services; disaster relief databases that coordinate citizen skills; etc.The virtues of platform thinking are all there: innovation beyond the imagination of the system framer; huge cost savings by the U.S. government; and deep empowerment of citizens. When Jefferson wrote that he hoped that every citizen “feels that he is a participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day,” he might well have been talking about code hackers and iPhone apps in DC.

Among the problems Gov 2.0 faces is the task of convincing people that the Internet is not a joke. For all Web 2.0 has done to empower us, its impact on the problems we face in our day-to-day lives remains depressingly small. The revolutionary potential of total worldwide connectivity manifests itself, in too many instances, in banality and ephemera — in Ashton Kutcher Twitter feeds and clips of cute cats playing the piano. The web has given us Facebook and FarmVille and Lolcats – the question remains: Can it do more? Can we use the potential for “end 2 end” collaboration facilitated by the web to solve the fundamental problems our cities and country face every day?

“Better government” was, of course, the promise of the 2008 Obama campaign. And it’s the promise of the Tea Party Movement as well. The feverish heat of our politics today, it seems to me, is only a natural response to the sickness of the American body politic. What’s exciting about the Gov 2.0 reform movement, then, is not its diagnosis, but the fact that it might actually have a cure.

Photo by James Duncan Davidson

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