THE BLOG

WhiteHouse.gov: Pragmatism and the Nobility of Public Service

05/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

WhiteHouse.gov is a great start, and is part of something much bigger
which we're only beginning to understand.

It's part of a number of social media efforts which also include
recovery.gov, nationalservice.gov, the new HealthReform.gov, and the entirety of the accountability and
transparency movement.

While I'm pretty excited about what we can do with social media, I feel
the the greatest potential related to these efforts is not about the
technology. It's about the culture, the people working on these efforts.

They're combining pragmatism, a spirit of the doable, with a deep
commitment to public service. That public service commitment is shared not
only by government workers but also by workers from private industry, an
emerging collection of public/private partnerships. That is, this
partnership involves people committed to public service, regardless of
employer.

Dealing with the challenges we currently face does require getting very
pragmatic, working with the system as it exists, with a commitment to
improving that system. That's why the people involved in these efforts
come from two cultures, which do have considerable overlap:

  • Pragmatists with deep experience in Washington culture. They know how to get stuff done.
  • Innovators with real experience in transformative culture in real organizations, focusing on applied social media. They know how to improve systems.

There are a lot of people who hybridize both cultures, which means this
distinction is overly simplistic, but it makes the conversation easier.

(I hear one tends to refer to the experienced Washington pragmatists as
"wonks". The innovators are "nerds," including myself, not that I'm all
that innovative.)

Please note that this isn't as novel as I'm implying, since clusters of
pragmatists and innovators have been working together for some time in
Washington. They tell me they've kept a very low profile until recently.

I have great hope for this Administration, since we see it bringing
together the pragmatists and innovators in hybrid organizations. I've seen
this first hand in the White House, in Offices including Science and
Technology Policy, New Media, and Citizen Participation and Engagement.
Also, I've seen it first-hand in the State Department, focusing on Public
Diplomacy.

Small things matter: in one case I've seen someone from the pragmatic,
bureaucratic world sitting right next some from the social media world, in
the White House. That's symbolic of the cultural changes in process.

I think we're seeing the slow transformation of Washington culture, from
the bottom up, by people passionately committed to public service and its
transformation. It's a slow, incremental process, but very real.