David Eaves has been writing some interesting posts (how gcpedia will save the public service; emergent systems in government: let's put the horse before the cart; and others) on how the Canadian government could/should be leveraging Web 2.0 technologies to become more responsive and transparent. Which is all good but like all technocrats he seems all too willing to embrace technology as the panacea for all government ills.
Here are two examples. In the "emergent systems of government" post he criticizes Paul McDowell, Knowledge Management Advisor at the Government's School of the Public Service, for suggesting that only leadership and adequately trained people (craftsmen) will be able to give purpose to the technology to enable success.
Eaves response is twofold. First, that because the costs of deployment are so low you don't have to plan for release. You simply "release, test and adapt (or kill the project)". Secondly, Eaves feels that the last thing government needs is more leadership, that government should become more employee centric: "Users - not their bosses or a distant IT overlord - decide a) if they want to participate and b) co-develop and decide what is useful."
There has been a fair amount of debate lately about how the emergent nature of web 2.0 technologies will democratize large organizations (not just government. Dennis Howlett triggered a firestorm last month when he wrote "Enterprise 2.0: what a crock". Essentially, as with McDowell, Howlett feels that without structure, Enterprise/Web 2.0 technologies won't be very successful. You need to start with "simple identifiable solutions to internal problems. I can let those solutions increment so that what emerges is a changed organization." An essential ingredient to this success? A "different type of engineer -- a business mentor capable of understanding the DNA of each business with which I interact. That's the job of educators, organizational social psychologists and wise business managers." In other words what you need is strong and effective leadership to give structure and purpose to the technology. Otherwise it ain't going to work. Howlett's evidence? Decades of failure in BPM for not embracing these values.
Interestingly, in some very important ways, Mike Indinopulos, VP Professional Services and Customer Success at Socialtext agrees with Howlett. In essence Indinopulos argues (Transparency, not Anarchy) that the power of these tools is in improving transparency but not in pooling decision rights:
"Enterprise 2.0 pools information, so that workers can benefit from enhanced access to their colleagues and their colleagues' work. That's transparency. But Enterprise 2.0 does not pool decision rights. Embracing Enterprise 2.0 does not mean that workers can assume decision rights that formerly belonged to others. That would be anarchy. But fear not, oh champions of freedom and enlightenment, all is not lost! Enterprise 2.0 can still free you from the chains that oppress you!
"Hierarchy" is a pejorative term, often used to suggest that senior decision-makers are ignorant, out-of-touch, or otherwise unqualified for the responsibilities the organization accords them. The more transparent an organization is, the less likely that problem is to occur. Open, ongoing conversations with staff, customers, and channel partners make management better-informed, less isolated, and more engaged with what's really happening in the organization and the marketplace. It's easier to focus on what really matters, and harder for managers to succumb to yes-men and wishful thinking. And it's easier for staff to understand management decisions, even when those decisions are controversial or unpopular.
When decisions get made in a transparent organization, we don't call it Hierarchy. We call it Leadership."
In placing technology before leadership, Eaves is effectively putting the cart before the horse.Without clear purpose the potential for failure is much greater. And the costs are likely much greater than Eaves proposes. While the costs of implementation might be low, the potential for costs in diverted employee effort are much greater
The lack of purpose and direction may also hurt government open data initiatives. While the Vancouver municipal government should be applauded for exposing data, doing so without some form of analysis and decision process will undermine the effort. Putting garbage schedules on line and allowing developers to mash the data with geo-location data may be "neat" but how much value does it really have? I'd argue not much -- it's just a shiny toy.
It also gives governments to hide behind these efforts without becoming truly accountable. Take the Canadian federal governments Economic Action Plan website. It provides a cool looking Google map mashup that shows all of the projects that the government has theoretically funded.
Unfortunately without integration to actual procurement data, there's no real accountability as you can't see what's really happening on the ground. Which is why the Kevin Page, the Parliamentary budget officer gave the government a failing grade on it's reporting of stimulus spending. Ensuring that high value data takes planning, analysis, and yes, leadership.
Government is not a platform, it's an organization made of people that use technology to serve the people who elect and finance them. The tools in and of themselves can do nothing. Which is why leadership and purpose are essential elements to success.