Today’s Wall Street Journal carried a good article about the adoption of Web 2.0 technologies by the Federal government titled Federal Government Mulls Web 2.0. It was, for the most part, a positive article about the Federal government’s efforts to implement social media technologies. In the article, Aneesh Chopra the new Federal CTO, does a great job of towing the Administration line saying that “It’s a safe assumption that the federal government will be more likely to adopt Web 2.0 technologies in the months ahead.”
Being a former Federal employee who was working on eGovernment efforts 10+ years ago, I have a lot of respect for the job both Aneesh and Vivek Kundra have been appointed to do. But I also think they have succumb to Beltway Psychosis.
Beltway Psychosis is a common disorder generally found inside the Beltway that comes from a delusional belief that any new administration has an unshakable mandate from the people to change how government is run immediately. It is a common illness that effects any incoming administration member and results in unshakable illusions about the significant changes that will be made in government in the first 100 days, 6 months, first year, etc. Symptoms include grand announcements, press releases, stage time and photo opportunities with key members of industry, etc.
I saw the same thing when the previous administration came into office concerning government performance in what eventually became the PART effort. Under the Clinton Administration it was the Reinventing Government effort. Every recent administration seems to have fallen prey to this sickness.
Too often the result of this is that political appointees come crashing to the ground, realizing that the very nature of our model of government makes it difficult if not nearly impossible to change. Once this realization is made, other realizations quickly follow including that people tend to have short memories and low expectations, that the political backlash of a lack of success a lot less than they expected, and that the strategy that works is targeted incremental change. When it comes to the drive towards Web 2.0, my predicted result for current efforts will be mediocre at best.
As a proponent of social media in government, why am I so pessimistic? Three reasons.
- They Still Haven’t Gotten Web 1.0 Right. I am not sure if this Administration has done an evaluation of Department, Agency and Bureau Web sites, but there are a number of them that need a significant amount of work and resources just to bring them into the 21st Century. Now, before I get a lot of hate mail, yes there are some agencies that have really good Web sites. The problem is that these are the exception and not the rule.
- They Have A Short Institutional Memory. Contrary to what is implied in the article and by some current administration officials, many of the successful efforts around “social media” have been going on for quite a while. For example, I worked as a small part of the original FastLane team at NSF to allow researchers to submit their grant applications and interact with NSF online. That was about 10 years or so ago.
- They Don’t Understand Their Customer. Federal agencies remain hamstrung by OMB requirements around information collection that make it nearly impossible to gather the necessary data to develop solid constituent personas, select the appropriate channels to reach those constituents, and to design an experience that is both useful and usable for the citizen. Yes, every once and a while an Federal agency hits a home run, like the Where’s My Refund widget on the IRS web site or the Federal Student Aid Application from the Department of Education. But again, these are the exception and not the rule. Until the information collection requirements change, government agencies will be left stumbling around in the dark trying to design an experience that really meets people’s needs.
Though the article mentions it, I am not going to get into the whole set of issues around an entrenched and biased procurement process. I will save that for another post.
The Bottom Line: Aneesh, Vivek and others may be able to move the needle with most agencies adopting some forms of social media, but don’t expect most of these efforts to significantly increase the effectiveness of Federal agencies and programs.
Your Turn: I have given you my thoughts, now what are yours? Do you expect significant levels of adoption of social media technologies in the Federal government? Will social media be able to improve the effectiveness of Federal programs? Improve engagement with citizens?