I’m sure you know the joke where a number of blind men are placed in front of an elephant and all asked to describe what the object is. They all provide various descriptions based on where on the elephant they are placed. What they don’t know is they are all describing the same beast even though the descriptions seem significantly different from each other.
I feel this is also true with what is happening to government. We are all blindly trying to figure how how these new disruptive technologies are changing what government is. We all have different ways of describing what is happening and in providing solutions. A number of people have attempted to tell us what Government 2.0 is. Some will talk about data as the savior of government, others will talk about government as a platform, more will talk about a great new tool that will change the world and government. These seem to be the majority of the conversations that occurred at O’Reilly Media‘s Government 2.0 Summit. But they all seem not to see the elephant in the room. And this elephant is change.
Change in what government is, how it works, what it provides to people, and who makes up the government. This change has been caused by the introduction of new technologies that provide us with both opportunities and challenges, but they are only tools. In order to take advantage of these tools, the government needs to redefine who it is and how it works. It needs to conquer and embrace the changes coming through the introduction of these disruptive technologies.
This is not an easy thing. It requires us to be self reflective and critical. These are traits that are not normally characteristics associated with government. It also asks us to develop a vision of who we, the government, wants to become – What role in society should government play? How should it provide services to citizens? What do we need to change about ourselves to be successful? What are our goals for changing? How will changing provide a better world for our citizens and our nation? These answers are not easy. There will be a solution provided by the Administration and probably variations developed by individual agencies. Depending on the size of the agency, some agencies could have multiple solutions depending on their specific mission. One thing is for sure, there is no single solution nor should there be. This concept in and of itself is not something easily digested by government. We are used to a hierarchical chain of command with direction coming from the Administration. But in this new world, this approach will not help us achieve what we are striving for.
What we are striving for is a way for government to adapt and change how it does business. The answers will depend on what our mission is and the changes we will need to make at a micro level. Attempting to implement broad changes and mandating agencies all implement a series of changes uniformly would do a disservice to those agencies’ respective missions. Government is a big complex beast. It has been working more or less the same way since Roosevelt. It is past time to take a hard look at how government is doing business and determine a new path.
Tools are easy to learn and to teach. But changing an entire organization’s way of doing business is challenging to say the least. I believe there are six areas we need to focus on when it comes to institutionalizing these changes.
The first is people. All organizations are made up of people. Those people are a community with their own culture and ways of interacting with each other. We will need to identify change agents in each organization who can help people adapt to the changes being introduced. We need to find ways to support the change agents and others who are working to ensure the agency successfully transitions to this new iteration of government.
The second change area are the laws all agencies must adhere to that govern how we do business. It is easy to change a process, but very difficult to change a law that must go through Congress. Let’s admit it, Congress is not known as an entity where decisions come quickly. This is an significant disadvantage to those agencies who have to determine how to implement and uphold the current laws with changes in doing business and new technologies. It is a delicate balance. Some laws need to be modified for operation in this new age, others should probably be repealed. None of these actions will happen overnight.
In the third change area we need to recognize the introduction and evolution of a new set of positions in government – community managers, social media strategists, new media directors, social media analysts and more. Each of these positions is a disruption in and of itself. They introduce new responsibilities, new ways of thinking, new reporting structures and more. These are not easy for large organizations to absorb easily and with little friction. Turf wars begin at even the thought of this conversation. We need to establish these positions so we will be able to have the resources in place to do this kind of work. This means we need to create new positions, job descriptions and get them approved not only by our respective agency’s Human Resources Department, but also by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). This can take several months or more for one position. We need these people in order to successfully manage online communities and ensure government is taking advantage of the opportunities offered by these technologies. These people are the change agents and are critical for success.
Training is the fourth area. Training is one of the primary ways we implement a new way of thinking and doing business. We explain why, we show people how, and we reassure the fears people are having. Without proper training, we risk running communities that alienate people instead of bringing them together. We also run the risk of upsetting the delicate balance we have formed between the laws we must uphold and how to operate in this new space. If we upset this balance, we risk loss of reputation or perhaps worse. The stakes in government are not based on loss of profit, but on the lives of the people we serve. Both figuratively and literally.
The fifth area is the development of a social media policy. This provides the vision for how the agency views social media and how it proposes to implement it into the organization. Most policies talk about what you should not do. Some, like the policy from the Department of State, takes great pains to tell you the use of social media is not only permitted, but encouraged. These policies form the cornerstone of change that we will all be building on.
The sixth area is the rise of user generated content and the need to customize content for the intended community. We must customize it for location, language, demographics and the culture of that specific online community. This change of needing more tailored content and managing more user generated content requires us to hire different skill sets and perhaps more people to accommodate these requirements. Currently, most agencies are not equipped to deal with either of these requirements.
All six of these change areas are things we need to be aware of if we intend to change how government works and the quality of services it provides to the citizens. Each in it’s own way is critical to the adaption of these new technologies and in the ability for government to transform itself into something that resonates in a modern age. These changes do not happen overnight. Just like trying to eat an elephant. The best way to do so is one bite at a time. (sorry, couldn’t resist!) I hope, unlike the current conversations, I’ve been able to offer you some concrete things to consider as you begin to work on changing how government works.
Do you have other change areas I may have neglected? I would love to hear about them.