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Does Government Have To Perfect?

“A group of leading social and information scientists and government practitioners met February 23-24, 2010 at the National Science Foundation (NSF) to lay out a research agenda to address grand challenges in information, technology, and governance.” – as the organizers of the workshop described it.

I was among the three dozen people who participated in this wide ranging discussion about the various trends in government and its use of technology.  But there was one critical, if unstated, question that was just below the surface in most of these discussions: how perfect does government have to be?

Traditionally, most government leaders would say that the public sector is expected never to make mistakes – although plenty of mistakes do happen.  Some of the participants in the workshop pointed out the various ways that e-government systems are vulnerable or can be the source of erroneous information.

Certainly, in some areas – such as protection of children from parental abuse – a single mistake can have tragic, fatal consequences.  But not all imperfections in government are that serious nor does every program area result in fatal tragedy when things go wrong.   Nevertheless, many elected officials feel they live in a world where the slightest imperfection is blown up in the next day’s media reports. 

In the face of the intensely combative style of politics that many of us have gotten used to, it is difficult to imagine getting a break from voters for any imperfection.  But consider the expectations that people have developed as the Internet has become a more important part of their lives.

One of the most successful Internet websites and perhaps the best example of Internet-based collaboration and collective action is the open encyclopedia, Wikipedia.  Clay Shirky, in his compelling book “Here Comes Everybody: The Power Of Organizing Without Organizations”, compares Wikipedia to traditional encyclopedia companies.

“Wikipedia … a chaotic process, with unpredictable and wildly uneven contributions, made by nonexpert contributors acting out of variable motivations, is creating a global resource of tremendous daily value.  A commercial producer of encyclopedias has to be efficient about finding and fixing mistakes… Wikipedia … does not have to be efficient − it merely has to be effective.  If enough people see an article, the chance that an error will be caught and fixed improves with time.  Because Wikipedia is a process, not a product, it replaces guarantees offered by institutions with probabilities supported by process: if enough people care enough about an article to read it, then enough people will care enough to improve it, and over time this will lead to a large enough body of good enough work to begin to take both availability and quality of articles for granted, and to integrate Wikipedia into daily use by millions.”

To the point about quality, researchers have found that the error rate in Wikipedia articles is no worse than those in the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

With Wikipedia as just one example of the kind of Internet-based activity that people value, despite its short term imperfections, is it possible that citizens may be more open to a similar approach in the public sector? − an approach that emphasizes citizen engagement (and even citizen delivery of services to other citizens), despite the imperfections of citizens, in contrast to the promise of perfection by government agencies?

Because it is seems so difficult to get things done perfectly in government, many newly elected officials start out proclaiming one or two major goals they want to accomplish.  Often, the major consequence of this approach is to make it easier for political opponents to know what to attack. 

The alternative that is more in synch with the way people increasingly operate on the Internet is to start many more than just a couple of initiatives, with a promise only of improvement, but not perfection. 

There are two other benefits.  First, this certainly makes it harder for those who oppose you merely for political reasons to decide what to attack.  Second, and partly because of the first benefit, you may find that only 5 of 100 initiatives fail. The rest eventually succeed in providing improvements that are visible and supported by the voters. 

So perhaps government does not have to try to be perfect all the time and if it doesn’t try to be perfect, it may actually work better.

Norm Jacknis March 1, 2010

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Government Consists Of Conversations

More than ten years ago, in what many governments considered the early days of the Internet, a now classic book, “The Cluetrain Manifesto”, came out about the Internet.  The authors began the book with what they called 95 Theses, which they hoped that businesses would follow as they established a presence on the Internet – instead of using the Internet the way they had used all other forms of public communications.

These statements, though, have as much, if not more, relevance to government.  So I decided to take their basic 95 Theses and substitute public sector words where they had words from the business world.  The result is below.  Hopefully this will trigger some new perspectives on your part as well.

  1. Governing consists of conversations.
  2. Society consists of human beings, not demographic sectors.
  3. Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.
  4. Whether delivering information, opinions, perspectives, dissenting arguments or humorous asides, the human voice is typically open, natural, uncontrived.
  5. People recognize each other as such from the sound of this voice.
  6. The Internet is enabling conversations among human beings that were simply not possible in the era of mass media.
  7. Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy.
  8. In both internetworked citizenry and among intranetworked employees, people are speaking to each other in a powerful new way.
  9. These networked conversations are enabling powerful new forms of social organization and knowledge exchange to emerge.
  10. As a result, citizens are getting smarter, more informed, more organized. Participation in a networked society changes people fundamentally.
  11. People in networked societies have figured out that they get far better information and support from one another than from government agencies. So much for government rhetoric about the value of their professional way of doing things.
  12. There are no secrets. The networked citizenry knows more than governments do about their own services and programs. And whether the news is good or bad, they tell everyone.
  13. What’s happening to citizens as a whole is also happening among employees. A metaphysical construct called “The State” is the only thing standing between the two.
  14. Governments do not speak in the same voice as these new networked conversations. To their intended online audiences, governments sound hollow, flat, literally inhuman.
  15. In just a few more years, the current homogenized “voice” of government —the sound of mission statements and press releases —will seem as contrived and artificial as the language of the 18th century French court.
  16. Already, governments that speak in the language of the spin, the dog-and-pony show, are no longer speaking to anyone.
  17. Governments that assume online citizens are the same citizens that used to watch their messages on television are kidding themselves.
  18. Governments that don’t realize their citizens are now networked person-to-person, getting smarter as a result and deeply joined in conversation are missing their best opportunity.
  19. Public leaders can now communicate with their citizens directly. If they blow it, it could be their last chance.
  20. Governments need to realize their citizens are often laughing. At them.
  21. Government officials need to lighten up and take themselves less seriously. They need to get a sense of humor.
  22. Getting a sense of humor does not mean putting some jokes on the government web site. Rather, it requires big values, a little humility, straight talk, and a genuine point of view.
  23. Governments attempting to “position” themselves need to take a position. Optimally, it should relate to something their citizens actually care about.
  24. Bombastic boasts—”We are positioned to become the preeminent nation/state/county/city“—do not constitute a position.
  25. Government officials need to come down from their Ivory Towers and talk to the people with whom they hope to create relationships.
  26. Public Relations does not relate to the public. Governments are deeply afraid of their citizens.
  27. By speaking in language that is distant, uninviting, arrogant, they build walls to keep citizens at bay.
  28. Most news releases, press conferences, and other government “messaging” programs are based on the fear that the citizens might see what’s really going on inside the government.
  29. Elvis said it best: “We can’t go on together with suspicious minds.”
  30. Patriotic loyalty is the government version of going steady, but the breakup is inevitable—and coming fast. Because they are networked, smart citizens are able to renegotiate relationships with blinding speed.
  31. Networked citizens can change which government officials they prefer overnight. Networked knowledge workers can change employers over lunch. Your own service reductions, furloughs and layoffs taught us to ask the question: “Loyalty? What’s that?”
  32. Smart citizens will find public leaders who speak their own language.
  33. Learning to speak with a human voice is not a parlor trick. It can’t be “picked up” at some tony conference.
  34. To speak with a human voice, public leaders must share the concerns of their communities.
  35. But first, they must belong to a community.
  36. Governments must ask themselves where their bureaucratic cultures end.
  37. If their cultures end before the community begins, they will have no support among the citizens.
  38. Human communities are based on discourse—on human speech about human concerns.
  39. The community of discourse is the whole community.
  40. Public leaders who do not belong to a community of discourse will no longer be leaders.
  41. Governments make a religion of security, but this is largely a red herring. Most are protecting less against threats than against their own citizens and workforce.
  42. As with networked citizens, people are also talking to each other directly inside the government—and not just about rules and regulations, executive directives, budgets.
  43. Such conversations are taking place today on departmental intranets. But only when the conditions are right.
  44. Governments typically install intranets top-down to distribute HR policies and other procedural information that workers are doing their best to ignore.
  45. Intranets naturally tend to route around boredom. The best are built bottom-up by engaged individuals cooperating to construct something far more valuable: an intranetworked organizational conversation.
  46. A healthy intranet organizes workers in many meanings of the word. Its effect is more radical than the agenda of any union.
  47. While this scares companies witless, they also depend heavily on open intranets to generate and share critical knowledge. They need to resist the urge to “improve” or control these networked conversations.
  48. When intranets are not constrained by fear and legalistic rules, the type of conversation they encourage sounds remarkably like the conversation of the networked citizens.
  49. Org charts worked in an older economy where plans could be fully understood from atop steep management pyramids and detailed work orders could be handed down from on high.
  50. Today, the org chart is hyperlinked, not hierarchical. Respect for hands-on knowledge wins over respect for abstract authority.
  51. Command-and-control management styles both derive from and reinforce bureaucracy, power tripping and an overall culture of paranoia.
  52. Paranoia kills conversation. That’s its point. But lack of open conversation kills the effectiveness of government.
  53. There are two conversations going on. One inside the government. One with the citizens.
  54. In most cases, neither conversation is going very well. Almost invariably, the cause of failure can be traced to obsolete notions of command and control.
  55. As policy, these notions are poisonous. As tools, they are broken. Command and control are met with hostility by intranetworked knowledge workers and generate distrust in internetworked societies.
  56. These two conversations want to talk to each other. They are speaking the same language. They recognize each other’s voices.
  57. Smart companies will get out of the way and help the inevitable to happen sooner.
  58. If willingness to get out of the way is taken as a measure of IQ, then very few governments have yet wised up.
  59. However subliminally at the moment, millions of people now online perceive government agencies as little more than quaint legal fictions that are actively preventing these conversations from intersecting.
  60. This is suicidal. Citizens want to talk to public leaders.
  61. Sadly, the part of the government a networked citizenry wants to talk to is usually hidden behind a smokescreen of hucksterism, of language that rings false—and often is.
  62. Citizens do not want to talk to flacks and hucksters. They want to participate in the conversations going on behind the bureaucratic firewall.
  63. De-cloaking, getting personal: We are those citizens. We want to talk to you.
  64. We want access to your government information, to your plans and strategies, your best thinking, your genuine knowledge. We will not settle for the 4-color brochure, for web sites chock-a-block with eye candy but lacking any substance.
  65. We’re also the workers who make your agencies go. We want to talk to citizens directly in our own voices, not in platitudes written into a script.
  66. As citizens, as workers, both of us are sick to death of getting our information by remote control. Why do we need faceless reports and third-hand studies to introduce us to each other?
  67. As citizens, as workers, we wonder why you’re not listening. You seem to be speaking a different language.
  68. The inflated self-important jargon you sling around—in the press, at your conferences—what’s that got to do with us?
  69. Maybe you’re impressing your media acolytes or your contributors or your peers. Maybe you’re impressing Wall Street. You’re not impressing us.
  70. If you don’t impress us, your supporters are going to be wasting their effort and money. Don’t they understand this? If they did, they wouldn’t let you talk that way.
  71. Your tired notions of “the citizens” make our eyes glaze over. We don’t recognize ourselves in your policies —perhaps because we know we’re already elsewhere.
  72. We like this new polity much better. In fact, we are creating it.
  73. You’re invited, but it’s our world. Take your shoes off at the door. If you want to barter with us, get down off that camel!
  74. We are immune to public relations spin. Just forget it.
  75. If you want us to talk to you, tell us something. Make it something interesting for a change.
  76. We’ve got some ideas for you too: some new tools we need, some better service. Stuff we’d be willing to pay taxes for. Got a minute?
  77. You’re too busy “doing business” to answer our email? Oh gosh, sorry, gee, we’ll come back later. Maybe.
  78. You want us to pay taxes? We want you to pay attention.
  79. We want you to drop your trip, come out of your neurotic self-involvement, join the party.
  80. Don’t worry, you can still hold power. That is, as long as it’s not the only thing on your mind.
  81. Have you noticed that, in itself, power is kind of one-dimensional and boring? What else can we talk about?
  82. Your services are broke. Why? We’d like to ask the guys who deliver them. Your vision for society makes no sense. We’d like to have a chat with the President/Prime Minister/Governor/Mayor. What do you mean she’s not in?
  83. We want you to take 50 million of us as seriously as you take one reporter from The Wall Street Journal.
  84. We know some people from your government. They’re pretty cool online. Do you have any more like that you’re hiding? Can they come out and play?
  85. When we have questions we turn to each other for answers. If you didn’t have such a tight rein on “your people” maybe they’d be among the people we’d turn to.
  86. When we’re not busy being your “voters,” many of us are your people. We’d rather be talking to friends online than watching the clock. That would get your name around better than your entire million dollar web site. But you tell us speaking to the citizen is the Public Information Officer’s job.
  87. We’d like it if you got what’s going on here. That’d be real nice. But it would be a big mistake to think we’re holding our breath.
  88. We have better things to do than worry about whether you’ll change in time to get our votes. Government and politics is only a part of our lives. It seems to be all of yours. Think about it: who needs whom?
  89. We have real power and we know it. If you don’t quite see the light, some other public leader will come along that’s more attentive, more interesting, more fun to play with.
  90. Even at its worst, our newfound conversation is more interesting than most legislative proceeding, more entertaining than any photo opportunity, and certainly more true-to-life than the government web sites we’ve been seeing.
  91. Our allegiance is to ourselves—our friends, our new allies and acquaintances, even our sparring partners. Public leaders that have no part in this world, also have no future.
  92. Governments are spending [spent] billions of dollars on Y2K. Why can’t they hear this citizen timebomb ticking? The stakes are even higher.
  93. We’re both inside the government and outside it. The boundaries that separate our conversations look like the Berlin Wall today, but they’re really just an annoyance. We know they’re coming down. We’re going to work from both sides to take them down.
  94. To traditional governments, networked conversations may appear confused, may sound confusing. But we are organizing faster than they are. We have better tools, more new ideas, no rules to slow us down.
  95. We are waking up and linking to each other. We are watching. But we are not waiting.

Norm Jacknis December 7, 2009

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The Wiki Way To Improve Your Message

We’ve all been reading about wikis for a few years now.  A wiki is a collaborative web site that allows people to make changes to a common document.  The most famous and successful wiki is Wikipedia [], which is a global encyclopedia on almost every imaginable topic – more than three million articles in English alone.

In 2006, the CIA and fifteen other agencies in the intelligence and security community launched Intellipedia, an internal wiki to share information.  Similarly, the State Department, as part of its public diplomacy efforts, created Diplopedia.  

There are lots of uses of wikis in government, which I’ll explore another time.  But I want to focus on an unusual use – marketing.

While we don’t often admit it, many governments engage in what looks like marketing efforts.  Tourism promotion bureaus and, more generally, economic development offices do a lot of marketing to encourage people to come to their location.  Health departments engage in a form of marketing when they encourage residents to exercise and follow other patterns for good health.  Parks departments try to encourage the public to take advantage of the public recreational opportunities they provide, which also looks like marketing.

What all these efforts usually have in common is that they approach the development of their marketing messages in a traditional way.  They sit down together, come up with what they think is the best message and then blast that message out in a variety of ways, hoping for the best.

They may conduct a survey to find out what people want to hear, but usually they can’t afford to do so.  Surveys, though, too start out with the view of the people who design them – much like the way the marketing materials are started.  It’s very much an internal effort.

There have been a small number of attempts to do things differently.  For example, the major developer of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, encourages people to tell them why they love the place.  See  You can send videos, pictures and stories for a chance to win up to $10,000.   This helps the developer to identify the right message.


The theory behind this approach is that your residents, your customers – anyone whom you are aiming your marketing message at – are the people who can best tell you what makes a difference to themselves.  And this is where wikis come into the picture.

Instead of just going from the marketing message straight to its delivery on a large scale, why not try to use a public wiki to refine and modify that message so it says what they want to hear.  This is as simple as posting the marketing materials you’ve developed and letting the public change them.

If opening a wiki to anyone seems too adventurous, then maybe send invitations to a particular part of the public.  For example, in economic development, ask the businesses that came to your area to go to the wiki.  Ask people who actually came to your area as tourists to write what they would tell others to encourage them to come.  Get people who have gone hiking on your trails to add to the description of how wonderful your parks are. 

In case you’re worried that a public wiki could be defaced, it’s worth noting that most wiki software provides for various controls.  Even Wikipedia has its editors and controls to prevent things from getting out of hand.  But they seldom do.  Most people are pretty responsible and other users will help police the website.

And the cost of doing this?  Very little.  There are several good wiki software packages available on the Internet that are free, including the one that Wikipedia uses.  Give it a try – you may be both surprised and pleased by what people tell you are the reasons they use your public services.

Norm Jacknis November 16, 2009

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Dirty Jobs

Tuesday is another election day.  It’s especially important to many local elected officials since so many local elections occur this year.  As this election season comes to a close, there is that frustrating feeling among public leaders that many voters just don’t understand what the government does. 

Sure, the obvious public services – for example, public safety and education – are known.  But the full extent of government services is unknown to great numbers of those who benefit from those services.

What can be done about this?  Some governments have taken ideas from non-fiction cable television channels, including two mainstays of the Discovery Channel – Dirty Jobs and Mythbusters.

With the low cost of video equipment, this is easy to do.  There are even products now, like the Flip HD video cameras that are smaller than a cell phone, easy to use and quick to upload to the web.

Miami-Dade County has created a series of videos that show some of the “dirty jobs” that County workers do for the public on its “Inside County Jobs” television show.  This started as one-minute video about training of firefighters and led to the realization that Miami-Dade could do more.  See the first installment at

So, following the model of Discovery’s “Dirty Jobs”, with its own host/participant, there is compelling footage of filling potholes, unplugging storm drains, fixing stop signs, lab testing, trash recycling and the other activities seen and unseen that residents often take for granted.  Here’s another example —

The video is available both on the County website and on YouTube.  In addition to its success with the public, the videos have had a positive effect on employees, who now take to their jobs with a greater sense of purpose and pride.

Westchester County, for example, had a volunteer team put together a movie in the style of a 1930s film noir detective story.  During the course of his investigation, the “detective” interacted with all kinds of county workers.  The County Executive played an abridged version of the movie in one of his “State of the County” speeches in an effort to educate the public about the variety of activities of county government.

Video isn’t the only tool.  The leaders of Oakland County, Michigan, responded to the gaps in public knowledge by taking the “Mythbusters” title to attract attention, but presenting their material on the web.  They tackled some of the toughest issues posing a question in True/False form and then busting the myth for the wrong answer.  Here’s one example concerning regional efforts —

So there is hope to engage a distracted public and upgrade their knowledge of what your government does, by using some of the inexpensive tools now available.  Your creativity is the only limit. 

Norm Jacknis November 2, 2009

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Broadband Networks & NYC Subways

Many governments around the world are struggling to find the best method to get broadband networks created within their areas.  (Maybe it is the USA which is especially struggling.)

I thought about some historical precedents for major local infrastructure projects.  While the US Interstate Highway system is often cited as such a precedent, it falls short of representing the current debate because no one proposed in the 1950s that we should “let the private sector do it.”

But the huge New York City rail transit system is perhaps a better historical analogy.  It is important to note that the way the current system operates – as a single government owned and operated system – is not how it started or operated for many of its early years.

It seems that New York City government used every possible method including:

  • Let private companies own, build and run mass transit lines.  (Then take them over when they fail – due to underlying economic properties of such infrastructure which makes them more like public goods than private goods that can sustain a profit.)
  • Own the rights to the transit line yourself, but let a private company build and operate it.
  • Build the transit line yourself, but let a private company operate it.
  • Build the transit line and also run it.
  • Fake it – act as if a new transit line is going to be run and built by a private company, but do it yourself when no private company does so.

One other aspect of this history is of interest, which is the use of the “dual contracts.”  Those allowed more than one rail operator to use the same tracks and is analogous to the open network approach in today’s broadband world – whether the fiber backbone of broadband networks should be open to all users.

This opportunistic strategy perhaps made it easier and quicker for New York City to bring its great transit system to life.  Of course, eventually, this same lack of coherence created future problems and inefficiencies.  And by the time the great expansion of transit lines was finished, the government ended up owning and operating the whole system and sporadically filling some of the remaining unserved areas. 

Was the trade-off of a fast growth opportunistic strategy against longer term problems worth it?  Given the success and the role that the subways have played in New York City’s development, the answer is likely yes.

I’ve combined excerpts from a couple different sources (especially the now ubiquitous Wikipedia) to highlight some aspects of that system’s history, which you can read by clicking “Read More”.

Norm Jacknis October 12, 2009

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