On a flight back from a child support enforcement conference (NCSEA 2010) in Chicago, I couldn’t help but notice the headlines that a city just outside Atlanta, Georgia is causing.
The newsworthy event?
Well if you haven’t heard, the city of East Point opened up their waiting list for Section 8 public housing. The agency required applicants to travel to a local shopping mall to pick up the paper forms that citizens must complete to get a chance at public housing.
What started as a great piece of news turned into chaos when 30,000 people fought traffic and heat to have a chance at being placed on a waiting list. By the end of the ordeal, there were about 13,000 applications picked up amidst police ready to break up any riots and ambulances taking care of several medical emergencies.
Are these the types of in-person interactions you value?
I had the opportunity this week to visit and present at the Tennessee Digital Government Summit. I always enjoy these events because they tend to be up close and personal and this particular event was no exception! I was asked to share my thoughts about open government and the implications on state government.
When asked the question, “what does open government mean to you”, the general response from the audience was ‘open access to data’ so that citizens can ‘see where money is being spent’. With almost all state and local governments across the country being under severe budget crunches, being able to account for every dollar spent is increasingly critical. In addition, a few folks also expressed that once the citizens knew where the money was spent, the citizens could now in influence policy change. These are, of course, very good answers. Open access to data equals transparency and the ability to influence change equates to participation.
A couple days ago in Minneapolis, my co-presenter John Miri (a Senior Fellow at Governing’s Center for Digital Government) threw out a provocative statistic. In one state (which I won’t name), an entrepreneur could have to file up to 35 different permits, applications, or licenses across 14 different agencies to start new restaurant. This is just state agencies. It doesn’t include interactions needed for city, county, or federal regulations. As you might imagine, this can be quite a burden on both small businesses and the agencies themselves to ensure compliance.
I don’t want to suggest it’s a problem unique to the above state. In fact, there has been a fair amount of work done to try and understand how regulation and compliance affects businesses and agencies worldwide.
I’ve written about this elusive word “open” in the past. My point was the word can mean many things depending on context and perspective. I think it has become a widely over used, misused word. That said, I was very happy this morning when Adobe took a shot at providing an explanation of what the word “open” means to the company. Even Adobe’s founders, Chuck Geschke and John Warnock, weighed in with their thoughts on the topic. (Check it out here.)
Putting this into my own words, to Adobe, “open” equates to freedom of choice. It is a spirit that permeates the culture of the company as well as the technologies it creates. Adobe’s definition is not limited to “open source” or “open standards”, but actually supersedes and embraces these ideas into a bigger concept. Does Adobe take the steps to make every single one of its technologies available as open source or push every one of its protocols into the open standards arena? Of course not. However, many of its core technologies HAVE been offered as open source (Flex, AVM+), granted to open standards bodies (PDF is now ISO 32000) or, at the very least, openly published as specifications (SWF, FLV/F4V, RTMP, AMF) for others to use to create new and unforeseen solutions.
And of course, always remember Adobe’s continued commitment to support and participate in the development of open standards.
So, does it really HAVE to be “Open vs. Choice” or should it be “Open = Choice”? The beauty of this is, everyone gets to decide for themselves!
(I thought I’d share this photo I took last week when I visited Meals on Wheels in San Francisco with Executive Director Ashley McCumber. This is a community-based organization that has the mission to provide care to the elderly in San Francisco, including 16,000 meals a week. I thought it was fitting as we think about how we can better achieve agency missions with the use of technology to always keep the mission in mind.)
A while back, longer than I really want to admit (for those of you responsible for your government websites and blogs, I hope you can sympathize), I posted an entry on a survey I did with a couple of hundred government folks that attended a web seminar I presented at. The topic was Customer Service in Government.
I noted I would delve deeper into the analysis behind the survey results. Better late than never, right?
Based on my experience with government agencies, customer service and experience is critical to ensuring that agencies’ achieve their mission, yet it is something often not considered at an technology procurement, design and implementation level.
In a company that has a relatively large portfolio of products and capabilities, it’s quite easy for many people to hone in on one or two products and ignore the rest. Adobe is one such company. I’ve always been very happy to be affiliated with Adobe, if for no other reason, it’s one of the few companies I’ve ever worked for that even my mom knows of!
But, like my mom who associates Adobe only with ‘that software that let’s me read stuff I download from the Internet’, many people have gaps in their knowledge of what the company offers.
One example is in the realm of security. There are quite a few misconceptions out there about how to manage and control digital information. Rather than steal their thunder, I’m going to point you to a recently recorded discussion between John Landwehr (Director of Security Solutions & Strategy) and John B. Harris (a member of John’s team). In this short 8 minute video, John and John talk about a number of capabilities including digital signatures and Digital Rights Management.
Within the more advanced corporate marketing communities, there is an understanding that explaining your service or products in terms of “faster, better, cheaper” leaves you open to direct attack from your competitors. No matter how fast or how much better your offering, it’s only a matter of time until your competition “one ups you”! One saying goes, “There’s no sustainable technical advantage.” Rather than highlight “speeds and feeds”, enlightened organizations focus more on the value of a product or service, described in terms that are familiar and meaningful to the target users.
So, I can already hear you ask yourself, why is this guy talking about marketing techniques in the same post with the National Broadband Plan?? Well, thanks for asking!
A couple of weeks ago, I presented at a seminar on the topic of “Transforming Citizen Interactions with Lessons from Social Media”.
If you weren’t able to make it out, have no fear, you can watch the video above and download a copy of the presentation here.
This particular version of the presentation has some innovative examples from US agencies. I have another version of this presentation with more international examples which I will also share in another post.
P.S. Thanks Heather for holding the video camera for the entire time.
As much as the social media is exciting on the technology front, I think the real impact it has is shifting the way we all think about technology from green screens to an enabler of the interactions we have with family, friends, co-workers and customers. Social media has shown that technology can be the foundation of friendly and easy-to-use applications that allows us to share ideas and information beyond the limitations of time and geographic locations.
The most important point I was trying to raise in this discussion is that although the new social media tools are very exciting, the real opportunity for government agencies is to take the lessons learned from social media and apply them to the core processes in government.
What does it matter if an agency has a Twitter account or a Facebook fan page if it is still hard for its citizens to find critical programs and enroll in them? How do we make enrolling in benefits as easy as it is these days to create and share a video on YouTube?
A case in point is a recent 60 Minutes profile of Veterans Affairs. According to the investigation, the form for applying for benefits is 23 pages long, on average 6 months to get an initial response, and the amount of paperwork generated in a case can span from one to several file-size boxes. How can lessons in social media help to transform this? I would imagine a veteran would hardly care about the VA having a Facebook fan page. Rather, they would want to see easier ways to interact with the VA that was directed to helping them receive eligible benefits faster.
In my next post, I’ll discuss some of the specific issues highlighted in the 60 Minutes coverage of the benefits backlog at Veteran Affairs. I’ll provide my perspective on how some of these issues may be improved with the pragmatic application of technology and the belief that our veterans deserve better.
I really enjoyed Vivek Kundra’s blog last week ‘They Gave Us The Beatles, We Gave Them Data.gov’ as he welcomed the launch of data.gov.uk. He writes, “It is exciting to see the seeds of openness, accountability, and transparency taking root around the world.” So I thought I’d draw attention to some of my favorite international examples of what happens when public servants, “are dedicated to breaking down long standing barriers between governments and the people they serve.”
The Australian Government Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research decided that it was unreasonable for a small business to have to interact separately with dozens of different government agencies before it could legally operate. A new hairdressing business had to first seek approval from 27 agencies for jurisdictional registration, insurance, healthcare, signage, and licenses to play music and serve food (i.e coffee.) before it could legally operate. So Australia created business.gov.au to create a single service in the cloud for business to interact with government. The results were both quantitatively and qualitatively impressive. Listen to Anthony Steve talk about it here.
The London Borough of Southwark struggled to deliver housing benefits to people in need in a timely fashion. By providing more elegant user centric tools to open up process and empower public servants to be accountable to those in need, they reduced the time to benefit from 38 days to 1 day. Listen to Dominic Cain talk about it here.
In 2009, people around the world participated in an open dialogue about international policies and priorities unlike ever before. They did so because the U.S. State Department opened up its public diplomacy to a transparent and collaborative process through its Co.nx program. When U.S. officials spoke, people were invited to listen, question and comment without limitation from their geography, nationality or technical skill. If you’d like to join the dialogue, you can do so here and if you’d like to see pictures of the application that made it possible you can do so here.
Of course all of these examples originated before Open Government became the mantra of a new generation of technologically inspired public servants. But they illustrate that promise can become practice very quickly. And as the British Invasion in 1964 marked the official genesis of ten years of musical innovation, so shall the arrival of fully sanctioned Open Government initiatives like data.gov give rise to innovations in public service. It will be an interesting decade.