Apr 18, 2009

Innovation Causes Failure

The idea of opening up government to her citizens--allowing anyone in the country to ask the President a question or to comment on policy or to even set the policy agenda--seems to be a natural fit for technology, but continues to baffle.

Enter a really interesting interview on Federal Computer Week with Kim Patrick Kobza of Neighborhood America. Kobza takes a critical look at the Online Presidential Town Hall held last month. He notes some good elements, but
Fatal flaw: Where the application breaks down is the volume of solution possibilities – it is not credible. Think about it this way. Most choices in policy are essentially an “alternatives analysis” -- a choice between different but well defined solution possibilities. What is happening in whitehouse.gov is that the public is being asked to create and compare an almost infinite number of choices. Who could possibly read 53,808 questions? 53,808 alternatives? Most people understand that it just isn’t credible to think that that is possible. So the application creates an illusion of meritocracy when in fact the statistical significance of any one person’s participation is negligible. Put in a network context, it treats choices as a mechanical data management exercise, rather than as one that develops and advances logic to why choices might be made. There is no exchange that takes place between members within the network (citizens) and that limits the network value (intelligence) being generated.

Another thought on design. In my view, when building citizen participation, and more importantly, in discovering great ideas it is important that these types of sites build social attention. Social attention comes from novelty, uniqueness, and experiences that are fun and that promote learning. The design of this site again is not interesting. It might be argued it was interesting enough to gain 54,000 ideas. The other side of that argument is that many congressmen receive tens of thousands of emails a week. This application has not upped the standard or participation
. [my emphasis] --Read the entire interview here
Kozba has some specific recommendations for improving future forays, but finishes by saying:
I believe that this is not a good example of how social networking adds value to public processes. In fact, in some ways these methods hurt more than help because they set the wrong citizen expectations. They are not our best effort so to speak. So citizens will ultimately be discouraged because the application as used, will not achieve results. 
...Success depends upon much more than data management and mashing up technology features. We spend a lot of time studying what works and what doesn’t, and have had experiences to validate over 10 years. That has built an appreciation for how hard it is to get this right.

What we showcase at a Whitehouse.gov should be a shining example of our best efforts. It should be state of the art and based on our deepest knowledge and experience. It should not be, and does not have to be, based on experimentation. 
Wow, this is a harsh criticism, but quite on target. Sometimes, we in dot-gov are quick to give ourselves props because we tried. But this isn't U-5 soccer, this is the big leagues. We should be competing with the best and most sophisticated technology implementations.

Yes, this is definitely a resource issue. Many smart and creative people in government are using duct-tape, paper clips and super glue to build engagement tools. People turn to"free" tools like YouTube, Blogger, Google Docs, Flickr, because the barriers are low and something can actually be accomplished.  There are world class websites in government being hand coded--no database, no content management systems. 

This innovation and creativity does not serve government well. 

The reliance on the cheap and the intuitive rather than the quality and the researched supports the lack of a cohesive government-wide approach to using technology to improve government. It allows "progress to be made" despite the absence of empirical data to drive decisions, the proliferation of stale and inflexible development methods, and a process that does not include citizens and their actual needs. It does not challenge the stove-piped agency development and procurement of technology solutions. By making things work, we aren't forced to face the requirements and to build an actual 21st century government. 

I was talking to a colleague yesterday, and she said that government is the best place to work--that the very best and the very brightest technologists and innovators in the country should be clamoring to work at the White House and HHS and the Department of Education, etc.  Where else can you work on projects and programs that have such a huge impact?

It's time to reconcile this last thought with the rest of this post.


  1. Gynne, have you seen "Can Ideas Equal Products?" on the US Naval Institute Blog? (http://blog.usni.org/?p=2251) People in USNI are also struggling with how to truly make use of input and suggestions, and touches on some of the same issues Kim noted.

    Government use of "2.0" features is different than commercial sites. We're not trying to make friends or encouraging people to drop by often to increase ad revenue. Our objective is to foster civic engagement, to put citizens back into the decisions and activities of government. You are correct to note that the freebie sites and services we are working with - because we can do things faster - in the long run are not going to be able to meet our needs.

    One of the biggest challenges we face is to convince people that we really do want to hear from them. The frisson generated by participating online is quickly quelled when you realize that your (brilliant!) idea is lost in a sea of other ideas

    This is not a game, and we need something better than toys, or we risk losing more than we gain.

  2. Gwynne - this is a terrific, insightful, and courageous post that deserves serious consideration and discussion among the government web manager community. You are spot on in the questions you pose. It's all about strategy (and I know you share this view). This is my favorite of your posts so far. Well done!

  3. @sarah, thanks for the link to the USNI discussion. I think that the objectives that you identify are the important ones--but is that really what we are doing? Do we really want to hear from citizens if our approach is ad hoc? and when engagement projects do not have budgets and staffing is a collateral duty? You are so right that we risk increasing cynicism in the long run by short run "experiments."

    Not to say that we don't learn alot from experimentation. You have been in IT long enough to know that bringing an application live always results in surprises. And I am NOT suggesting that we stop experimenting--just that we need to be more strategic. Is this a priority or not?

    I think that Kundra's approach in DC is very promising. Don't know how that will scale to the fed space. Your thoughts?

    Great comment, Sarah. Thx.

  4. @candi thanks alot! You are the standard bearer for strategy and priorities. Look forward to the discussion.

  5. Hand coding... Seems like madness in this day and age but that's the reality for many government sites. It's like going back to 1998. The adoption of an easy to use content management system would make the publishing of government information so much easier. It would spur more and better communication with the public. I think the biggest change Obama could make would be to provide a CMS to federal agencies.

  6. Thanks for the insightful post, Gwynne. I'd like to amplify upon Candi's comment, particularly her statement, "it's all about strategy." If govt is to truly get it right it has to do that with uniformity of process. S

    o I would add its also about structure, standards, attribution, moderation, and reporting. Get those aligned in your solution and strategy, incorporate it in the process across the enterprise, and we will be having some very serious, productive, and meaningful online discussions and collaboration.

  7. Excellent work, Gwynne! Of course, it always makes me happy to hear people advocate for strategy, and I think this piece touches on a core aspect of strategy development that often goes overlooked which is: "what are we doing?" Sarah's answer that we should seek "to foster civic engagement, to put citizens back into the decisions and activities of government" is good, but I'm sure she'd agree that this isn't always the case.

    What are we doing? is a deceptively simple question, and it needs to be answered before we start experimenting with new technologies. For instance: what was the core objective of the town hall? Was it to root out the most pressing issues on America's mind? Was it to be able to provide more satisfactory answers to citizens? Was it to get citizens to inform policy? These are three very different collaborative objectives, which could be satisfied simultaneously, but, as Kozba pointed out, the technology employed wasn't quite up to task—and I agree, there's no reason that the government should settle for anything less than the best.

    Thanks again for this. Inspiring!

  8. @joe, thanks and also for the cite on your blog. I think that government wide tools are the trend to push--especially looking at the tons of tools/software we use that are just commodities. I mean, l look at the tons of implementations of Wordpress or Blogger. Proves that one (flexible) size CAN fit all.

    @dan and @jed how come we can all identify, embrace (and even have success!) focusing on strategy and others brush right by. Must be a personality thing-- I am ENTP. :-)

    Voices are needed to sing this song, and especially the aria about the dirty little secret that there is no magical field of dreams that will be delivered by the newest, coolest thing. I LOVE the fads, but I love MORE to make them work.

    Thanks all for your great discussion. Do re mi...


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