THE BLOG
05/10/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Education vs. Condescension: Talking to the Public about Gov 2.0

Steve Radick recently posted an entry on his blog, Social Media Strategery in which he argued that

The public doesn't need to understand what Gov 2.0 or open gov is -- but they do need to understand that their government is actively trying to do more to communicate and collaborate with them.

With respect, I disagree.

Though I've written a three-part essay on what Gov 2.0 is, I've since come to boil it down to these 25 words -- and I believe every John and Jane Public can understand and agree with me: Gov 2.0 describes initiatives that use digital access to data, analytical tools, and government services to shift power from governments, corporations, and organizations to individuals.

Indeed, if Gov 2.0 were nothing more than a new collaboration tool (Google Wave, anyone?), I would have no quarrel with Steve's assertion. But that's simply not the case. Gov 2.0 isn't a communications campaign, a mobile app, or way to share information solely for the sake of checking the "transparency" box in a government directive. It's about ensuring that power is decentralized and all citizen have a share in their government.

The set-up for Steve's post is an imaginary letter from "John Q Public" that says:

You people in DC sure are talking a good game -- trotting out your iPhone apps, Twitter feeds, blogs, and wikis -- and I suppose I should care about those things, but in reality, I haven't got the slightest clue why any of that matters to me. I, like 95% of America, don't use Twitter, I don't have any idea how to mash anything up, and I don't care enough about your agency to read your blog.

The allure of the internet and emerging digital tools is also its danger: it allows for individuals and organizations to amass great power. Mr. and Ms. Public may not use Twitter, or have a GPS-enabled smartphone, or read government blogs, but the people who do have a leg-up in determining government policy and accessing government services. Shouldn't it be our job, as advocates of Gov 2.0, to explain this to John and Jane?

It's patronizing to tell people that they don't have to understand the technologies and regulations that are going to shape their lives, just because mass adoption of those technologies is some time in the future.

What percent of America used SMS in 1995, I wonder? In 2008, more than 4 trillion text messages were sent around the world. Who knows what the demographics of twitter (or some other microblogging platform) will look like in 13 years? Whether it will be used to solicit political donations directly from the browser or mobile app or desktop? Or used to send stock tips linked to the ability to buy (or sell) right in the message? Shouldn't average Americans start thinking about it now?

But how can they start thinking about it if they have no framework or vocabulary for it? I'm not saying that everyone needs to have an opinion on the exaflood, or what whitespace frequencies should be made available for private transmitters, but they should know that these decisions are being made right now here today and how they can get involved in the process.

I'm not alone in thinking that we need to do more to educate average citizens. Mark Drapeau, Microsoft's Director of Innovative Social Engagement, wrote last month that:

Creating open government websites, providing more data, and asking for citizen feedback are all necessary but not sufficient for innovative social engagement with communities. Proactive, real-life engagement with constituents is also necessary (politicians know this well), but nearly everyone involved with the OGD seems to be very concerned about technology, and not very concerned about meeting the people who will supposedly benefit.

And everyone will benefit.

Two of the ongoing functions of Gov 1.0 are to determine what can and cannot be sent through the US Postal service and what is the safe speed limit for various kinds of roads. These decisions -- revisited and revised with input from experts and average Americans alike -- have a direct impact on us all. Two of the emerging functions of Gov 2.0 are to decide the question of Net Neutrality and determine what EM frequencies may be used by what kinds of devices. These decisions, too, have a direct impact on us all.

I think it's our job to educate John and Jane about what Gov 2.0 is and why they should care. And when we do that, we shouldn't shy away from the terminology of the discipline; to do so would be condescending. That's why I write about Government as a Platform, and (I'm sorry, anonymous letter writer!) Law by Wiki.