10/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Polity of G21 and Why Gov 2.0 Matters

In last week's post, I talked about the technology of G21. This week, I want to talk about the other side of the government-citizen relationship -- the citizens. What do they want from government? And how can government meet these needs? Also: what happens when governments do not fulfill (or even understand) their new responsibilities? (Answer: calamity; I'll get to that shortly.) And finally, what are the ultimate goals of G21/Gov 2.0?

Information/power moves from government to citizenry

The technology to record, store, transmit, and present data decentralized many of the powers that were the sole province of governments in previous ages. This led to two seemingly contradictory developments. First, that societies would become ever more physically and technologically complex and intertwined, and so require further governmental regulation. Second, that extra- and non-governmental organizations would attain enough power to supplant -- or disrupt -- governmental activities.

I'll fully examine negative aspects of the technology in other posts. Suffice it to say that many of the spectacular failures of the Bush Administration -- notably, its inability to imagine and thus defend against the attacks of 9/11, and its inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina -- can be read as a government stuck in a 20th-century mindset trying to cope with a 21st-century polity. In the case of 9/11, because the Administration was fixated on state-actors (Iraq) rather than non-state actors (Al Qaeda), the Bush Administration downplayed Al Qaeda and played up Iraq. In the case of Katrina, because the Administration did not realize the complexity of disaster response required to save an entire city and its population, New Orleans has yet to be made whole, even to this day.

Still, I would contend that far more people use information and power for good than for ill. Likewise, it is easier for governments to foster good behavior than to block bad behavior. The US polity increasingly realizes the power of data and finds new ways to manipulate and present it. The explosion of mash-ups that rely on Google Maps, the financial tracking and analysis tools available to citizen investors, and the growing use of open-source software all point to a polity at home with technology and versed in its use.

Data Utilization: Self-Reinforcing Cycle

Moreover, the proliferation of citizen-created software that relies on government data (cf. Apps for Democracy) points to a polity that utilizes data, incorporating information into their daily practices, tying themselves to their government (who provides the data) and to their fellow citizens (who help them understand data and with whom they now occupy the same information-space).

The fundamentals of G21 become self-reinforcing. Civil life is complex and is most easily navigated and understood through careful inclusion of data analysis tools (GPS devices to help us drive from one city to another, or travel web sites to help us find the best deals on airline travel).

By simplifying our daily lives, data-analysis tools help us make way for yet more complexity, which makes the tools indispensable -- it is no longer a luxury, for example, to have a cell phone, but a near-necessity; who makes plans far in advance? We now make vague plans to meet and narrow down the time and place close to the event. Further, and more ominously, people expect to be able to contact anyone at any time and they expect a prompt response. Even voice mail is proving too time-consuming as many prefer to spend 15 seconds composing an SMS rather than a minute and fifteen seconds leaving a message.

The lives of professionals in every field are now so complex that they are functionally unmanageable without the aid of advanced data technologies.

Citizen-Government Relationship

The citizen-government relationship is different now than in previous ages, and its fundamentals get only stronger as they express themselves. The government, as primary recorder of and custodian of data, has more power than ever to monitor its citizens and shape their understanding of the world (citizen's power over their government is also a part of G21, and I'll discuss that in a future post). Only its citizens' ability to access the full range of government data -- including the index of the data itself -- prevents the government from veering into repression or manipulation of the governed.

Again, the failures of the Bush Administration can be seen as manifestations of its commitment to 20th century practices in the 21st. In its borderline-pathological secrecy, the administration sought to keep as much of its activities from the public as it could. Yet, does anyone doubt that the full record of that Administration's activities will be known -- likely before most of the principals are dead?

Successful governments -- federal, state, municipal -- will rely on their citizens to manipulate, analyze, and share data even as citizens rely on their government to record, store, and transmit that data

G21 Methods and Goals

A movement is defined by two things: its goals and its methods. I have already outlined the methods: capture and store data, and craft a regulatory framework favorable to all citizens' acquiring access (and, where necessary, subsidize or create both the infrastructure and the superstructure). But what are the goals? I believe there is one direct goal which will help achieve three complimentary ends.

The achievable goal of G21 policies and practices is to shift information (and thus power) from governments, corporations, and groups, to individuals. That's it. Transparency, accountability, efficiency, effectiveness, innovation -- they all serve the single goal of shifting information and power away from centralized government, away from moneyed corporations and well-connected organizations, and to the American people.

The ends, in increasing levels of importance are:
1. spurring innovations in private sector;
2. enabling America to regain and retain economic, cultural, technological preeminence;
3. helping Americans realize the renewing promise of individual liberty.

That's a lot to place on a new generation of government workers, but I believe that has been the ultimate goal of the American government since it took shape and through its two centuries' evolution. It's just our turn to make sure our democracy keeps pace with our technology.