Government 2.0 Through Successive Approximations

With ‘Government 2.0‘ receiving a disproportionate amount of coverage in the press lately (due in part to the new administration’s focus on transparency – a good thing in my opinion), there have been a number of pundits who have asked, ‘When will we know that we’ve reached Government 2.0, and how long is that going to take?’

I think that begs the question of exactly what constitutes Government 2.0, as well as sets an unrealistic expectation of a finite process that has a clear beginning and end. Clearly, any effort designed to fundamentally change within the Government such things as technology acquisition, transparency, or collaboration will not be a ‘forklift revolution,’ but an ongoing and constantly reviewed process. I think most intelligent and knowledgeable folks within government realize that successive approximations are the only realistic way to make this happen.

There has been good progress on some of these fronts (both for internal government & public collaboration) – notably data.gov, Intellipedia, A-Space, whitehouse.gov, and even Forge.mil. However, one of the recent approximations that I believe is critical to this effort has happened within the Department of Defense – a call to streamline the acquisition process for Information Technology. Currently, the IT acquisition process is the same one used for things like tanks and missiles, systems that require a large up-front investment in requirements analysis and a strict process to ensure they can perform the necessary mission before the ‘crank is turned’ and thousands of items are produced and delivered.

Software, as most of us know, doesn’t operate that way, and in fact, needs to be able to adapt to changing technologies and requirements throughout the life cycle of deployed systems. The DoD will be fielding 10 systems in fiscal 2010 to be acquired under the new, more streamlined process, and if these are successful, there is a strong chance that the program could be expanded to add more systems in the future.

I should also note that there need to be approximations within approximations. I know this sounds silly, but the best example I can think of is cultural change in how IT and other software support systems are developed and fielded. A large change in the culture that we are attempting to engender with the Forge.mil effort is shared (and in many cases, ‘open’ within the DoD) collaboration. There are approximations within this cultural change effort aimed at getting people used to not developing in silos, looking for, and building reusable components, and accepting contributions from qualified members of the department outside of their immediate project team.

Once I fully realized the need for these approximations in my efforts as one of the Forge.mil community managers, it was easier to relax and treat this entire effort as a continuous process, not as a finite deliverable. I believe it is critical that the larger government community adopt this same approach as well – attempting to build out all parts of what Government 2.0 could or should be right away would be expensive, and doomed to a lackluster reception by those in the community who need it most. The new DoD acquisition plan seems to correctly recognize a need for ‘course corrections’ or ‘approximations’ as we move forward toward building a more participative technology infrastructure for government. I’m hopeful that it will become the model for other government agencies going forward – quite honestly, doing it any other way probably portends failure from both the technology and fiscal perspective.

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