Mar 16, 2009

Thinking the Unthinkable in Gov?

Guttenberg Press, clipart courtesy of FCITClay Shirky's latest blog post, Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable, has got me thinking and thinking, some of it may be unthinkable for dotgov.
Revolutions create a curious inversion of perception. In ordinary times, people who do no more than describe the world around them are seen as pragmatists, while those who imagine fabulous alternative futures are viewed as radicals. The last couple of decades haven’t been ordinary, however...

When reality is labeled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry. Leadership becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en masse. This shunting aside of the realists in favor of the fabulists has different effects on different industries at different times. One of the effects on the newspapers is that many of their most passionate defenders are unable, even now, to plan for a world in which the industry they knew is visibly going away.

While Shirky is talking directly about the newspaper industry, he is also talking about our current world and all our communications and interactions. Including those interactions that kept people at arms' length from government--finding the legislator, writing a letter, addressing and mailing the letter; or making appointments to stand in line at the DMV; or even knowing that there was a regulation that affected your neighborhood or industry that you might find, read, and write or fax a comment about--are falling around us.

The printing press didn't just give us books, it gave us literacy.

That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen. Agreements on all sides that core institutions must be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the agreeing. (Luther and the Church both insisted, for years, that whatever else happened, no one was talking about a schism.) Ancient social bargains, once disrupted, can neither be mended nor quickly replaced, since any such bargain takes decades to solidify.

And so it is today. When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.

So when you ask me what this means, I can't tell you. We are living it. And it is happening all around us. And someday we will know the results. Right now, though, citizens are demanding services to be delivered with an immediacy they expect from Amazon or Craig's List or Netflix or Hulu or Limewire.

People will ask, why are you making a four color tri-fold brochure? I just want the information on my cell phone. Why can't I access my student loan information online from my own bank? Why do you have a paperwork reduction act and then make me fill out a form in triplicate, asking me for the same information I gave you before? Why can't I look at a bill 5 days before the President signs it? And more importantly, why can't it be written in English? Can't we get the clever bloggers to rewrite it?

And many people serving in government will be confused. Some will resist. Some will be the experimenters. But no matter what, we are living in a time of great change.

So, what are the unthinkable thinkings for our government?

Read Shirky's entire post here.


  1. My "Thinking the Unthinkable" for govt? Moving away from using formal communication channels for most all comms between agencies, agencies to OMB, agencies to whitehouse, and formal comms up and down the heirarchy. My perspective is that our communication channels in govt have long since ossified - if we don't address this, there is no way govt can be flexible enough to support openness and transparency.

    Yes, some things need to be formal, but probably more like 10-20% of the communications, not the 90% that we now have.

  2. The hardest part will be integrating new technologies into day-to-day work flows. Elected officials, in particular, have handling of written correspondence and telephone calls down pat, and are making headway on email. Handling inputs in multiple places will require staffers to acquire new skill sets. Add public records and other legal requirements and it gets quite complicated.

    Our approach in MA has been to start samll, so you can figure out the ramifications as you go, but to get started. It's new, so the only way to get actionable data is to gather it yourself. And it's important to have some sort of governance structure so the data can be analyzed and findings incorporated into the next steps. This is much different than "make a committee to study this" approach that is so common and comforting to many.

    The good news is that government officials and employees have personal lives. They see for themselves the chasm between commercial and community sites and the online offerings of their agencies. Frankly, this part will probably be easier than it was to convince them to have websites to begin with, when they didn't even know what a website was.

  3. @Noel, thanks for bringing up the challenges to internal communications. I was thinking very much citizen-gov interactions, but you are so right that the whole game is changing!

  4. @Sarah, thanks for the thoughts. I agree that we need to work and begin piloting and trying stuff out. Ultimately, though, if Shirky's analysis is right, we won't know which will be the footnotes and which the homeruns. At least not for a long while.

    Although if everything is moving at the speed of light, will the historical analysis come faster, too?

  5. Great topic, Gwynne. As a social media strategist for several companies, the unthinkables come up many times a day - for example, a tedious email-driven planning session to create an email-based newsletter...when use of our existing wiki and internal blogging platform will work just fine.


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