Tim O'Reilly on the History and Future of Government 2.0

Tim O’Reilly is telling the Aspen Ideas Festival crowd about the history of Government 2.0. He starts it with Carl Malamud and SEC data online; next, he cites the Brits and TheyWorkForYou.com; gives Sunlight Foundation their due; and says that then-candidate Obama’s claim that we would connect people and ideas to transform government as the final breakthrough (not to mention all that great web 2.0 work in the campaign).

The hard question, as O’Reilly rightly notes, is whether these tools can work as well during times of governance as it does during the time of campaigns (or crises). To get it done, he says, we should build from a set of principles, which sound great to me:

1) We need to embrace open standards, because it leads to generative systems (with a very nice shout-out to JZ and his book, The Future of the Internet);

2) Build a simple system and then let it evolve. Twitter has 11,000 applications now build upon it — in no time (another nice shout-out to JZ here and his “hourglass architecture” slide is shown). One such simple intervention: by default, make government information open and accessible to the public.

3) Design systems for cooperation. Presume that people can work well together, even if they don’t know one another. Think of the difference between Linux development and traditional software development within a single firm. Think also of the DNS. O’Reilly also credits Cong. John Culberson, R-TX, as a leading user of social technologies in DC and someone who gets the need to set up systems that allow for cooperation (and who cites a Jefferson letter of the early 19th c. for inspiration). Make rules like: the only requirement for participation is that you participate.

4) Learn from your users, especially ones who do what you don’t expect. In the mash-ups world: 45% are built on Google Maps, with only 4% on Microsoft Virtual Earth, 3% from Yahoo! O’Reilly says the others were too slow to open up APIs; Google just went for it. One of the first hackers to do this was HousingMaps, which a hacker name Paul did using Maps (in a contravention of the Terms of Service, O’Reilly says). Did Google sue Paul? Nope. They hired him.

5) Lower barriers to experimentation. Failure has to be an option. He quotes Edison: “I didn’t fail ten thousand times. I successfully eliminated, ten thousand times, materials and combinations which wouldn’t work.” O’Reilly says that Amazon’s cloud services make this kind of rapid experimentation, iterative development, and parsing through huge data sets possible.

6) Build a culture of measurement. Systems should respond automatically to user stimuli. Real-time measurement is crucial. Throughout his talk, O’Reilly credited Vivek Kundra, the new federal CIO, as a wonderful leader in making a great deal happen already within the Obama government. As Google and Wal-mart do, the government needs to be close to a living organism, responding in real-time to extensive stimuli. We need to instrument our world to be able to respond to useful data.

7) Throw the door open to partners. Apple’s iPhone has given rise to more than 50,000 applications in less than a year. The App Store made a fine tool into a phenomenon. More than 1 billion applications have been downloaded as of April, 2009. Everyone else in the smartphone business is eating their dust, at least in the apps business. And yet, O’Reilly says, the government is still making no-bid contracts. Government has to get out of its own way. Throw it open, and let everyone compete. Apps for Democracy is much in the right direction. (He gets a big laugh when he cites a Congressman who asked: why do we need NOAA when we have Weather.com? Pretty impressive case of some people in Washington still not getting the point…)

Fundamentally, government is a vehicle for collective action. O’Reilly is right, here, too. That also happens to be what distributed digital networked technologies are good at doing — supporting collective action.

All these principles together can lead us to the Digital Commonwealth. (Hear, hear!)

Bottom line: I think O’Reilly nailed it. These are great principles and a fine time to be discussing them.  Turns out, Beth Simone Noveck, deputy CTO in the White House, and others in the Obama Administration are actually now DOING all this right now. My only amendment to the O’Reilly talk would have been a cite to Beth’s brand new book, Wiki Government (Brookings, 2009) which includes a terrific commentary on these and related themes.

Look to EthanZ‘s blog for his better-live-blogging than mine here.

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