Gov 2.0 Efforts are Selfish, and Rightly Should Be

Last week at a Gov 2.0 event sponsored by Fedscoop I had great conversations with several government 2.0 rockstars. But one conversation and one statement in particular really resonated with me.

Gwynne Kostin from GSA, in her brilliance, said:

“Participation and collaboration are selfish activities. Most people don’t participate or collaborate without wanting to gain something in return.”

This isn’t a revolutionary concept in itself, but it does shed a different light on the types of initiatives that have largely been pursued in the spirit of openness. Even though the rhetoric in the Open Government community has been increasingly about tying new initiatives to strategic goals, much of the action has demonstrated a “if you build it, they will come” mentality. Often the things that are easy to do in transparency, participation and collaboration aren’t those things that have a discrete tie to the mission of the organization: standing up a twitter account, starting a blog, creating an iphone app, opening up ideation tools, etc... I’m not saying that these activities can’t be incredibly valuable, if done right. However, there are countless examples of services, products, and programs that demonstrate “what we CAN do” and not “what we SHOULD do”.

“What we should do” must be strategic, and provide value both for the provider (government) and the consumer (the public, stakeholder groups, academia, industry, etc…). People will only participate and collaborate if they can get something discrete and valuable out of the experience. Gwynne’s statement made me think that a large part of what we “should do” is not wholly reinvent the process for identifying how to effectively partner to solve business problems. Individuals and groups have been partnering forever to solve problems. Gov 2.0 just gives us some new methods for partnering that are more mobile, real-time and individualized.

This got me thinking about partnership theory, which was the subject of my master’s thesis. Mark Moore from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government has done significant writing since the 1990s about the key issues that should be considered by public managers before they commit themselves and their organizations to specific actions. The following issues constitute what is known as the “strategic triangle”:

· “First, what is the important “public value (PV)” the organization is seeking to produce?
· Second, what are the “sources of legitimacy and support (L&S)” that would be relied upon to authorize the organization to take action and provide the resources necessary to sustain the effort to create the value?
· Third, what “operational capabilities (OC)” (including new investments and innovations) would the organization rely on (or have to develop) to deliver the desired results?”

Furthermore, PV, L&S and OC can be provided in various degrees by multiple people or groups. This is where partnership comes in. For example, if the OC is fully provided by the private sector, the partnership may likely be a contracting arrangement.

These are the SAME questions that we must ask when designing participation and collaboration initiatives through the Open Government Initiatives. But how is partnership in this sense selfish? It’s in its very definition. Without public value—the “so what” for the consumer—the action doesn’t have enough legs to stand on.