Tag Archives: FixMyStreet

Social media: bubble, definitely not; revolution, probably not; evolution, absolutely

Is Social Media in general (and mobility in particular) a bubble or revolution? Is it a a powerful and disruptive force that will transform governments and social organisations? Or is it no? There seems to be a few{{1}} people{{2}} pondering this question

[[1]]The video above is less than a minute long. Please … @ bryan.vc[[1]]
[[2]]Is The Mobile Phone Our Social Net? @ AVC[[2]]

Mobile phones are interesting as they are addressable. Two-way radios made communication mobile a long time ago, but it wasn’t until mobile phones (and cheap mobile phones, specifically) that we could address someone on the move, or someone on the move could address a stationary person or service.

The second and third world showed us the potential of this technology over ten year ago, from the fishermen using their phones to market and sell their catch while still on the boat, through to the distributed banking based on pre-paid mobile phone cards. Image/video sharing is just the latest evolution in this.

The idea that this might be a revolution seems to be predicated on the technology’s ability to topple centrally planned and controlled organisations. Oddly enough, central planning is a bad enough idea to fall over on its own in many cases, and the only effect of mobile technology is to speed up a process which is already in motion. The Soviet Union might well be the poster child for this: collapsing under the weight of it’s own bureaucracy with no help from social media (or mobile phones, for that matter). Even modern democracies are not immune, and the US energy regulation policies leading up to deregulation in the late 70s is a great example of the failures of central planning{{3}}. The (pending) failure of some of today’s more centralised, and authoritarian regimes, would be more accurately ascribed to the inability of slow moving, centrally managed bureaucracies to adapt to a rapidly changing environment. Distributed planning always trumps central planning in a rapidly changing environment.

[[3]]The Role of Petroleum Price and Allocation Regulations in Managing Energy Shortages @ Annual Review of Energy[[3]]

If we pause for a moment, we can see that governments do a few distinct things for us.

  • They provide us with what is seen as essential services.
  • They create a platform to enforce social norms (policies and laws).
  • They engage with the rest of the world on our behalf.

The reality is that many of the essential services that government provides are provided by the government because it’s too difficult or expensive for citizens (and to some extent, corporations) to access the information they need to run these services themselves. Mobile phones (and social media) are just the latest in a series of technologies that have changed these costs, enabling companies and citizens to take responsibility for providing services which, previously, were the sole domain of government. From energy, water and telecoms, through FixMyStreet and the evolving use of social media in New Orleans, Haiti and then Queensland during their respective natural disasters, we can see that this is a long running and continuing trend. Government is migrating from a role of providing all services, to one where government helps facilitate our access to the services we need. Expect this to continue, and keep building those apps.

As a platform for agreeing and enforcing social norms, then it’s hard to see anything replacing government in the short to mid term. (As always, the long term is completely up for grabs.) These social norms are geographical – based on the people you interact with directly on a day-to-day basis – and not virtual. Social media provides a mechanism for government to broaden the conversation. Some governments are embracing this, others, not so much. However, while people like to be consulted, they care a lot more about results. (Think Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs{{4}}.) Singapore has a fairly restrictive and controlling government, which has (on the whole) a very happy population. China is playing a careful game of balancing consultation, control and outcomes, and seems to doing this successfully.

[[4]]Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs @ Abraham-Maslow[[4]]

Finally we come to the most interesting question: government as a means for us to engage with the rest of the world. In this area, government’s role has shrunk in scope but grown in importance. Globalisation and the Internet (as a communication tool) has transformed societies, making it cheaper to call friends across the globe than it is to call them around the corner. We all have friends in other countries, cross-border relationships are common, and many of us see ourselves as global citizens. At the same time, the solutions to many of today’s most pressing issues, such as global warming, have important aspects which can only be addressed by our representatives on the global stage.

So we come back to the question at hand: is social media a bubble, a revolution, or an evolution of what has come before.

It’s hard to see it as a bubble: the changes driven by social media are obviously providing real value so we can expect them to persist and expand. I was particularly impressed by how the Queensland government had internalised a lot of the good ideas from the use of social media{{5}} in the Victorian fires, Haiti et al.

[[5]]Emergency services embrace Social Media @ Social Media Daily[[5]]

We can probably discount revolution too, as social media is (at most) a better communication tool and not a new theory of government. (What would Karl Marx think?) However, by dramatically changing the cost of communication it is having a material impact of the role government in our lives{{6}}. Government, and the society it represents is evolving in response.

[[6]]The changing role of government @ PEG[[6]]

The challenge is to keep political preference separate from societal need. While you might yearn for the type of society that Ayn Rand only ever dreamed about, other people find your utopia more akin to one of Dante’s seven circles of hell. Many of the visions for Gov 2.0 are political visions – individuals’ ideas for how they would organise an ideal society – rather than views of how technology can best be used to support society as a whole.

China is the elephant in this room. If social media is a disruptive, revolutionary force, then we can expect China’s government to topple. What appears more likely is that China will integrate social media into its toolbox while it focuses on keeping its population happy, evolving in the process. As long as they deliver the lower half of Maslow’s Hierarchy, they’ll be fairly safe. After all, the expulsion of governments and organisations – the revolution that social media is involved in – is due to these organisations’ inability to provide for the needs of their population, rather than any revolutionary compulsion inherent in the technology itself.

The changing role of Government

Is Government 2.0 (whichever definition you choose) the ultimate aim of government? Government for the people and by the people. Or are we missing the point? We’re not a collection of individuals but a society where the whole is greater than the parts. Should government’s ultimate aim to be the trusted arbiter, bringing together society so that we can govern together? Rather than be disinterested and governed on, as seems to be the current fashion. In an age when everything is fragmented and we’re all responsible for our own destiny, government is in a unique position to be the body that binds together the life events that bring our society together.

Government 2.0 started with lofty goals: make government more collaborative. As with all definitions though, it seems that the custodians of definitions are swapping goals for means. Pundits are pushing for technology driven definitions, as Government 2.0 would not be possible without technology (but then, neither would my morning up of coffee).

Unfortunately Government 2.0 seems to be in danger of becoming “government as a platform”: GaaP or even GaaS (as it were). Entrepreneurs are calling on the government to open up government data, allowing start-ups to remix data to create new services. FixMyStreet might be interesting, and might even tick many of the right technology boxes, but it’s only a small fragment of what is possible.

GovHack

This approach has resulted in some interesting and worthwhile experiments like GovHack, but it seems to position much of government as a boat anchor to be yanked up with top-down directives rather than as valued members of society who are trying to do what they think is the right thing. You don’t create peace by starting a war, and nor do you create open and collaborative government through top down directives. We can do better.

The history of government has been a progression from government by and for the big man, through to today’s push for government for and by the people. Kings and Queens practiced stand-over tactics, going bust every four to seven years from running too many wars that they could not afford, and then leaning on the population to refill their coffers. The various socialist revolutions pushed the big man (or woman) out and replaced them with a bureaucracy intended to provide the population with the services they need. Each of us contributing in line with ability, and taking in line with need. The challenge (and possibly the unsolvable problem) was finding a way to do this in an economically sustainable fashion.

The start of the modern era saw government as border security and global conglomerate. The government was responsible for negotiating your relationship with the rest of the world, and service provision was out-sourced (selling power stations and rail lines). Passports went from a convenient way of identifying yourself when overseas, to become the tool of choice for governments to control border movements.

Government 2.0 is just the most recent iteration in this ongoing evolution of government. The initial promise: government for the little man, enabled by Web 2.0.

As with Enterprise 2.0, what we’re getting from the application of Web 2.0 to an organisation is not what we expected. For example, Enterprise 2.0 was seen as a way to empower knowledge workers but instead, seems to be resulting in a generation of hollowed out companies where the C-level and task workers at the coal face remain, but knowledge workers have been eliminated. Government 2.0 seems to have devolved into “government as a platform” for similar reasons, driven by a general distrust of government (or, at least, the current government which the other people elected) and a desire to have more influence on how government operates.

Government, The State, has come to be defined as the enemy of the little man. The giant organisation which we are largely powerless against (even though we elected them). Government 2.0 is seen as the can opener which can be used to cut the lid off government. Open up government data for consumption and remixing by entrepreneurs. Provide APIs to make this easy. Let us solve your citizen’s problems.

We’re already seeing problems with trust in on-line commerce due to this sort of fine-grained approach. The rise of online credit card purchases has pull the credit card fraud rate up with it resulting in a raft of counter-measures, from fraud detection through to providing consumers with access to their credit reports. Credit reports which, in the U.S., some providers are using as the basis for questionable tactics which scam and extort money from the public.

Has the pendulum swung too far? Or is it The Quiet American all over again?

Gone are the days where we can claim that “The State” is something that doesn’t involve the citizens. Someone to blame when things go wrong. We need to accept that now, more than ever, we always elect the government we deserve.

Technology has created a level of transparency and accountablility—exhemplified by Obama’s campaign—that are breeding a new generation of public servants. Rather than government for, by or of the people, we getting government with the people.

This is driving a the next generation of government: government as the arbitrator of life events. Helping citizens collaborate together. Making us take responsibility for our own futures. Supporting us when facing challenges.

Business-technology, a term coined by Forrester, is a trend for companies to exploit the synergies between business and technology and create new solutions to old problems. Technology is also enabling a new approach to government. Rather than deliver IT Government alignment to support an old model of government, the current generation of technologies make available a new model which harks back to the platonic ideals.

We’ve come along way from the medieval days when government was (generally) something to be ignored:

  • Government for the man (the kings and queens)
  • Government by the man (we’ll tell you what you need) (each according to their need, each …)
  • Government as a conglomerate (everything you need)
  • Government as a corporation (everything you can afford)

The big idea behind Government 2.0 is, at its nub, government together. Erasing the barriers between citizens, between citizens and the government, helping us to take responsibility for our future, and work together to make our world a better place.

Government 2.0 should not be a platform for entrepreneurs to exploit, but a shared framework to help us live together. Transparent development of policy. Provision (though not necessirly ownership) of shared infrastructure. Support when you need it (helping you find the services you need). Involvement in line with the Greek/Roman ideal (though more inclusive, without exclusions such as women or slaves).