Tim O’Reilly (the book publisher/conference promoter) has a piece up on TechCrunch today about his vision of “Governement 2.0”. The basic gist of his argument is this…
But as with Web 2.0, the real secret of success in Government 2.0 is thinking about government as a platform. If there’s one thing we learn from the technology industry, it’s that every big winner has been a platform company: someone whose success has enabled others, who’ve built on their work and multiplied its impact.
A little personal aside. I did not have the best of parents. By 18 they were pretty much done with me and I had to learn to survive largely on my own. I managed that because I knew technology very well. I worked on PCs and very quickly worked my way up to consulting. But in order to make it through life as a 19 year old technology consultant I had to get really good at it.
So I got really good at it.
One of the things that made me good was learning one simple rule: Technology planning isn’t about technology.
I’ll return to that later but let me focus back on Mr. O’Reilly’s piece. His mantra is “Government needs to be a platform” and I don’t disagree with that. But that’s really not a difficult thing to do.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the work itself is easy. But it’s straightforward. It doesn’t require a lot of philosophical discussion. Just take the internal programs you have, look at your database calls, translate those into web service API calls and then implement. From there you simply define what should be publicly available data and what should not and make the appropriate APIs publicly accessible.
It’s a complex technology question but not a philosophical one.
But here’s the curve ball. That won’t solve the problem. See, my problem with Mr. O’Reilly and the pundit class in general is not that their intentions aren’t good. Just the opposite. I think their intentions are good but they don’t have experience in actual problem solving . Because when you have that experience you realize the hardest part of problem solving is defining the problem. Mr. O’Reilly walked into this thinking “access” was the problem and that has led him to “platform is the answer” but he’s wrong about the problem so his answer doesn’t fix anything.
More importantly it’s obscuring the real problem. The real problem with Government information is that it isn’t collected in a way that makes it useful. There’s always been a wealth of government information online from agricultural statistics to FBI files and a simple web crawler could make much of that information available in a programmatic way. But the information itself is flawed. It isn’t collected with an eye towards what it will be used for.
Access isn’t the problem information collection is.
So creating a platform, while a nice side goal, doesn’t solve the problem.
If you want “Government 2.0” to work than you need to talk to people who would use the information and see what they need from the Government. In other words, talk to Farmers and Nurses not Scoble and Jarvis (with no offense to Robert Scoble or Jeff Jarvis).
From there the Government needs to design actual programs. Again, they should certainly design a platform to make those programs and make that platform available to others but in the end they need to focus on making useful software for people and designing a platform that helps them do that.
That’s the final point. That’s what Mr. O’Reilly misses. Yes there have been companies that created a platform and were then made successful because others used their platform for something they never would have dreamed of. But in those cases the original company still had their own goal to accomplish. They made a great platform because they were filling their own needs.
So I go back to my original point. Technology planning isn’t about technology it’s about solving a problem and often the solution to that problem has little to do with technology. In this case a platform is just one step in the solution of a much bigger problem. So focusing on it as the solution is counter productive.
Addendum: I forgot to make one really important point. If it were me, if the President of the United States showed up at my door and said "Tom, work this data access thing out", I wouldn't be looking at any of this right now. As I said above, the biggest problem right now is finding a way to learn what people want/need from their government in order to accomplish what they want to accomplish. Collecting that information is a monsterous problem in and of itself (and no, holding a Government 2.0 conference is not even close to a solution). Anyone who is really serious about solving this problem needs to first look at finding what the American public as a whole could use from their government because until you know that you really don't know what problem you're trying to fix.