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.Kozba has some specific recommendations for improving future forays, but finishes by saying:
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.
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.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.
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.
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.