Building an OpenGov Index

Houdini was once quoted as saying that it is easier to break out of a safe than it is to break in to one. Well, how difficult is it to break out of our government? Earlier this week, Steph Gray over at DIUS released the results of a little skunkworks project he ran to answer this question. As he describes in his original post, his objective was to:

We have the Civil Service guidance on participation online, and yet in organisations across the UK, public servants and others are being prevented from engaging online at work thanks to restrictions placed on their internet access by their IT providers. Some of these are well-intentioned: designed to prevent malicious attacks through unguarded use of attachments to webmail messages. Some are questionable, but understandable, like blocking access to webmail to prevent leaking of sensitive material. But often, they’re just bloody-minded and a symptom of a lack of understanding that social networks, wikis and online video are increasingly important tools that people need to access from work in order to their jobs properly.

To address this problem, Steph created his social media suite, a compendium of tests, and released them through his network to test. (I believe a nod also goes to Mark O’Neill at DCMS who may have started the bandwagon).

As an entrepreneur developing a hosted platform (i.e. external to government), these results clearly cause me some concern, as it means that it is entirely likely that a number of central government departments will not be able to use our software, irregardless of what demand might exist from inside policy departments, without our first negotiating some serious bureaucratic hurdles. But, to be honest, we already knew that. It is why our particular model is predicated on uptake from the outside in: from all the myriad local authorities, politicians, advocacy groups, representative bodies, etc. that form the hidden bulk of the public/third sector and who likely have a bit more freedom of motion.

But enough of my whingeing; Bravo to Mr. Gray

But actually, I didn’t want to write this post to criticise. Quite the opposite. I’d like to publicly congratulate Steph on this project (one of many from the lesteph/mlyons/DIUS skunkworks, I might add). Steph saw a need, had a good idea, and rolled up his sleeves to make it happen. It was clever, rapidly executed, and generated some important insights. It is why, during my foray into the public sector over the past several years, I have grown such respect for the civil service and its potential. Steph, like many other civil servants, could easily take his talents elsewhere – but he chooses instead to apply them to the betterment of his nation. Bravo.

Extending the idea: Building an OpenGov Index

It is also why I am moderately embarrassed to build on his great idea with my own, far less clever, suggestion: creating an OpenGov Index. Yes, yes, I know that this is an “old school” approach. But just as contemporary Govt 2.0 wisdom is to engage in those places where your constituents reside, we the OpenGov community must apply the same reasoning to our own target market – the Govt. Politicians love indices. So does the press. They make for good, quick press releases and articles.

So how about we apply this logic to shine a light on those departments which are actively trying to embrace the new world of collaboration and engagement, and perhaps shame those that couldn’t care less. The OpenGov Index could use Steph’s statiscs as part of an “Inside-Out” component of the index. These would be augmented with some “Outside-In” measures, such as a department’s use of blogs, wikis, twitter, etc. in communicating – and engaging – its constituents. I imagine it should also include an analysis of offline approaches, as well. Extra points should be given to particularly bold experiments, or rapid adoption (or creation) of new tools.

Given yesterday’s launch of the Digital Britain interim report, it strikes me that yet another star has come into alignment, all generating more pressure for an OpenGov. Steph and his colleagues have long been champions of this notion, and I applaud them for yet another exceptional contribution.

Bringing Citizen Participation to the Heart of the Administration

Over the past several weeks (and months, really) much has been made of the Obama campaign’s impressive application of the internet and Web 2.0 to connect with, raise funds from, and mobilise his supporters.

I have long applauded those activities, particularly the degree with which such efforts enabled supporters to feel part of the movement. However, I’ve also said that mobilisation is only one step of the engagement process. Despite the popularity of, it did not provide much of a mechanism for supporters and other interested parties to actively participate in the development of the his policy agenda. Activities like the Briefing Book aside (which was a great experiment, I must admit), my understanding is that his policies were generated in the old-fashioned way: by a coterie of policy advisors, think-tanks, and external experts.

Which is why I have been immensely pleased at the imminent inclusion of a Director of Citizen Participation directly within the White House. I had heard through the grapevine that such a post was being created, but saw that it was announced yesterday that Google executive Katie Jacobs Stanton is taking this appointment.

This announcement excites me for two reasons. The first, and perhaps most importantly, is that it is placing Participation with a capital “P” at the heart of the administration’s activity. As I have argued in the past, Web 2.0 at its heart is about a set of principles, not technology; principles of collaboration, and user-generated content. It is the notion that expertise, experience, and creativity are all around us, and that the more our governments embrace and engage broad participation, the better our policies will be. And the better our outcomes will be. And the stronger our democracy will be.

My sense in the past is that the resistance of government to Web 2.0 tools hasn’t been so much resistance to technology, but resistance to these principles. Broad participation is, quite simply, antithetical to bureaucratic operations. This isn’t because government is nasty and doesn’t want to involve people, but simply because the way government operates does not easily make allowance for it. The power structures, the hierarchies, the general risk intolerance, the workload, the limited resources, the need for accountability — all of these make it hard to simply open the floodgates to really broad engagement.

And this is what excites me so much about Ms. Stanton’s appointment. Because it means that — all fancy technologies aside — that the Obama administration is well and truly committed to the principles. By placing Ms. Stanton’s close to the seat of power, and with the voice of our new leader clearing her path, that the US central government writ large is better positioned than ever to chip away at the bureaucratic obstacles and infrastructure which hamper meaningful participation and engagement. Because if we can get the government to truly adopt a participative and collaborative culture, then the rest, including technology, will just fall into place.

Which brings me to the second reason that I’m excited for Ms. Stanton’s appointment: because she comes from Google – the heart of the tech landscape, and an innovative, private sector juggernaut to boot. It means that technology can’t help but be a part of her Participation Agenda. And all of my ramblings above aside, I am a geek at heart. I would so love OpenGov technology (such as polyWonk!) to be one of the primary mechanisms to help transform my government, the way policy is made, and the way the people are included at its heart. Because as many have said before me, that is the true meaning of democracy.

P.S. Thanks much to Emma Mulqueeny for prodding me yesterday to get these thoughts finally down onto paper.

Social Obamedia

Great post this morning by Emma Mulqueeny on a recent report on Obama’s social media strategy. My reaction to the Social Obamedia phenomenon has been one of contradictions: pride that the campaign’s application of key social media principles has been successful, optimism that it has generated such an avalanche of interest from the mainstream, and frustration

Perhaps my greatest frustration, to echo some of your sentiments, is that things have not advanced more rapidly here in the UK. As an American living here and devoted to the Govt Social Media realm, I can’t help but point out that for a while, the UK was further ahead . Given the size of the country, the centralised nature of its government, and the reasonably collegial nature of regional governments (so I am lead to believe), I believe that the UK has, and is, particularly well placed to innovate and scale approaches to Govt 2.0/eParticipation/etc. The eDemocracy movement has been strong here for some time. Folks like Emma and Jeremy Gould have been doing this stuff for ages and have insights aplenty. And for some time now, we have a spectacular minister at the cabinet level intensely devoted to this subject. The US has no such thing (although given the way that the West Wing operates, Macon Phillips is well positioned to play one). When I started the idea of polyWonk a year ago, I had the naive notion that I’d be able to easily arrange to get 20K out of some department to develop and run a pilot project around ‘open-sourcing policy’ (as we called it then). The government would get a tangible product and demonstration of its democratic agenda, and a strong start-up in a growing space, to boot. Alas, despite the rhetoric within government, this proved significantly harder than I had predicted, and I have had to turn to private individuals for development capital.

Let me finish on a note of optimism, however. Based upon my recent investigations across the pond, the US hasn’t cracked this nut yet. At all. As you can tell by this report, much of the discussion re: social media and govt is still focused on the political side – i.e. running campaigns, mobilising people, and communications. They still need to make the same leap to incorporating not just the tools, but the *principles* of social media into government: active collaboration and engagement, and user-contributed/generated content. The same goes for Europe, Asia, and elsewhere. There are many experiments and a growing hunger, creating great opportunity for innovation and the sharing of ideas. There are still no household names in this realm, no trade magazines for govt 2.0, no simple primer for the vast number of civil servants out there who are struggling to understand social media and their implcations. The social and commercial potential are still great. But we must act, once again allow the US to take lead in an area in which the UK has no shortage whatsoever of great ideas, and great people.

A voice for UK’s entrepreneurs

Within the past several months the government has rolled out a number of policy measures targeted at helping the nation’s small businesses: DCMS ‘Digital Britain’ initiative, BERR’s plan to guarantee up to £20bn of loans to small and medium-sized firms, and UKTI’s support of Web Missions, to name a few.  Others are still on the drawing board, such as NESTA’s proposal for a £1 billion fund to help address the increasing paucity of funding for early-stage companies.

As an occasional policy analyst focused on this space, and now as an entrepreneur, I have more than a passing interest in such interventions and discussions.  While I certainly welcome the government’s continued efforts to facilitate the development and growth of innovative early-stage firms, I occassionally wonder how much input they are getting from this very consituency which they aimsto support.

Bytes of the Roundtable

At the close of last year, I had the opportunity to discuss this, albeit very briefly, with two different government ministers.  In doing so, I made the suggestion that the government could probably make use of an “Advisory Council of Entrepreneurs” to help provide a sounding board and discussion forum for the government’s innovation and entrepreurship policies.  In those and subsequent conversations with others within government and the start-up community, I’ve become increasingly convinced of the usefulness of getting entrepreneur voices to the government table.

Now, as the head of a digital start-up (and one devoted to enabling policy and public engagement) I recognise that this suggestion of an Advisory Council is rather ‘old school’ and limited in what it could achieve.  Nonetheless, several years of operating within the policy realm taught me that frequently it is such old school approaches which are what works best to get things moving.  It is a time-tested mechanism and one which the current policy and political apparatus is familiar.  “When in Rome” and all that jazz…

What might it look like?  My gut is that it would consist of 15-20 UK innovative entrepreneurs – individuals who not only have an interest in the strength of the UK’s start-up environment, put an interest in actively engaging government to help bring it about.   It would be a roundtable, oriented at providing practical feedback to the government’s current policy proposals, as well as concrete suggestions for new policies.

While the number physically surrounding the table might be limited in a number, we could certainly apply some new media approaches (a la my own venture,  polyWonk) to engaging the larger community of innovative entrepreneurs to pool ideas, opinions, etc, and using the Roundtable to aggregate, filter, and channel these to government, in a means and format with which they are comfortable.

Entrepreneurs’ Guild

Of course, if there is really significant interest, then I see no reason that we couldn’t step it up a notch – forming a proper trade association.  Last week’s packed OpenSoho showed me that there is certainly no shortage of digital entrepreneurs around.  Again, while recognising that this may be a bit of an ‘old school’ type of institution, there are reasons that the western world contains thousands of them: they are useful, and broadly accepted, mechanisms for aggregating a set of organisations or individuals with a common purpose or interests, and representing those interests to government, the press, and society.  The UK has associations ranging from Pet Food Manufacturers, to Gin and Vodka producers, to a trade association of trade associations (One of my favourites back home in San Francisco was the Northern California Korean Dry Cleaners Assocation, with membership not just determined by profession, by geography and ethnicity to boot.  Talk about selective.).   In the start-up-related world, VC’s have one (BVCA).  Business angels have one (BBAA). Even one of London’s favourite entrepreneurs, Paul Walsh, directs a trade body for new media agencies.   While the FSB exists to represent all small and medium enterprises (from kabab shops to small factories), I believe that the needs, ambitions, and approaches of the UK’s innovative entrepreneurs are sufficiently unique to justify their own voice.

Whether such an entity should focus just on digital entrepreneurs, or more broadly to technology and innovative entrepreneurs writ large, I’m open.  Similarly, perhaps it also makes sense to leverage an existing activity or network, such as Amplified.  Again, I’m open.

So, anyone care to lobby with me?

Some words for NESTA Investments

In a recent TechCrunch article, Nick Halstead of wrote some observations on the government’s new debt-related support interventions for small and medium businesses.  For odd reasons, though, he concluded the article with a brief “scathing” criticism of NESTA Investments.  Amusingly, this last paragraph seems to have generated more debate than the substance of his article.  As an ex-NESTA employee, I felt obliged to join in the fray.

A few words in defense of NESTA: as a CEO of a web 2.0 start-up, I certainly sympathise with your frustration.  However, it would be arrogant of us to assume that “Technology” only includes Web 2.0 developments.  Indeed, Web 2.0 activity in the UK only comprises a fraction of technological development, and associated investment into this space.  As a technology fund, NESTA Investments actively pursues and manages a portfolio of investments in ICT (particularly high-tech hardware), biotech, and cleantech.

Additionally, as NESTA funding currently originates from the public purse (technically, from lottery proceeds) as taxpayers we should be pleased that they are investing their resources on areas in which they have solid expertise (and accordingly, can make more intelligent investments and provide meaningful support to their portfolio), rather than pouring money into whatever technology seems ‘hot’ at the moment.

Furthermore, as can be seen by the popularity of the myriad web 2.0 networking events, there are a number of other investors, both angels and institutional players, now active in the Web 2.0 space.  While there is certainly room for additional investment in this realm, it seems entirely appropriate to me that NESTA spend its limited resources on areas where there are fewer private sector players (and accordingly, a more significant equity gap).  Don’t get me wrong – I’d be overjoyed if they launched a web 2.0 fund – but I do understand their rationale for not having done so yet.

Finally, just because NESTA Investments is not active in Web 2.0 work, does not mean that NESTA is not involved in the social media space.  Indeed, they have an entire programmatic stream, called Web Connect, devoted to investigation and support of highly innovative applications of web 2.0 concepts.

Coming from a country (the US) with no real analogue to NESTA, I’m constantly amazed that people so harshly criticise having a quasi-government agency focused on technology, creativity, and entrepreneurship – or, in other words, the future.  I suppose that fact that it is the subject of growing debate could be seen as a sign of its growing significance and repuation.  I certainly have my own thoughts on how NESTA might improve and evolve into its next incarnation, but they are based upon experience and analysis of the organisation and its activities.  And despite such reservations, as a UK resident I can only consider myself luck that such an unusual and forward-thinking organisation exists.