Advances in communications technology have accelerated sharply since the Chinese first invented the printing press in 305 AD. This razor's edge, allowing for government and citizens to interact, was on display at the recent Gov 2.0 Expo in Washington, as experts and innovators from around the world gathered to initiate the next advancement of digital connectivity in government.
During the three days of keynotes, sessions and interviews, there was plenty to excite the interests of this "technology native" millennial interested in politics and government, who has only known a world with email, video-chatting, "blogging," and "friending," despite the radical idea of a government, version 2.0.
The clear optimism and challenges facing those involved in this task - fundamentally changing the performance of government and political discourse - were anything but ordinary.
Out with the Mundane
"How many people do other things during a webinar?" asked Dr. Paulette Robinson of a room full of expo attendees, many engrossed in their smartphones and laptops. Robinson, an assistant dean at the National Defense University, had her answer about the usually mundane online meetings, but she was not finished.
Along with a panel of fellow experts, Robinson heralded the potential for government communications using virtual spaces with a similar feel to the Second Life or World of Warcraft. Government agencies and other organizations can create stimulating online worlds for hosting meetings and open forums to connect with their constituencies.
"With social media sites, you don't get a feeling of presence, of being there," said Erik Hackathorn, a computer engineer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
By the end of the talk, the only audience members still absorbed in their computers were those live-connecting to the example world.
These were far from the only presenters to look at online communications from a different angle. Cammie Croft, the former deputy new media director for the Obama-Biden Transition Project, and Judith Freeman, who also worked on the Obama new media campaign, stressed the importance of leadership in the digital age. This leadership is not just limited to developing new initiatives, they stressed, but also having the courage to support someone else's seemingly crazy idea.
"Try things," Croft emphasized. "Listen to your audience and learn and employ. That's most important."
Lt. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sorenson explained how the United States Army turned to public participation to develop new smart phone and internet applications for soldiers through the first "Apps for the Army" contest, which just closed in May. In an age of continued public skepticism of the military-contractor relationship, it was refreshing to learn that 52 or the 71 submitted apps projects came from civilians.
"Facebook has been fantastic for us, and we're still experimenting" the Department of Veterans Affairs Chief Technology Offier Peter Levin, told OhMyGov.com. "We're unique because of the size of the agency and its constituency." As the second largest federal department, the VA has already matched its more fashionable compatriots at the DoD and Department of State, and continues to grow its social media following.
"[Ours] is the fastest growing Facebook site within the government," Levin said.
Don't just shake The Machine
Technological benefits were not restricted to the loftiest offices of our society. Tim Kephart presented his GraffitiTracker.net, a simple yet ingenious site which allows locals to post pictures of graffiti in their neighborhoods and catalog the spray-painted words along with their location. Local law enforcement departments have already successfully tracked patterns among gang members' "calling cards" facilitating more arrests.
The evolution of technology is now moving at a lightning-quick pace, and government needs to adapt accordingly.
"We need to get away from...the ‘vending machine government,'" said Tim O'Reilly, CEO and founder of O'Reilly Media, which sponsored the expo. He noted the inefficiency of simply paying taxes and expecting services, and occasionally "shaking the machine" in the form of protests when recipients don't like the end result.
Just like the American Bill of Rights or Articles of Confederation, it's important to create an infrastructure that can adapt with the times, or be thrown out all together, he said.
"We must have the courage to start over," O'Reilly said. "Fight, be defeated, and come away strengthened."
It was clear at the Expo that innovation leads to greater innovation, and technology progresses faster, more broadly and with more inclusion with each generation.
Yet finding the appropriate balance between government and private industry is particularly tricky and potentially divisive as participants fall on different sides of an issue. For example, many citizens have expressed concerns about the privacy and security ramifications of the city of Los Angeles' recent decision to join "the cloud" by switching their municipal email server to Google Mail. The city's official email archive now resides with a large for-profit company.
If technology is as important to good governance as the Gov 2.0 crowd seems to believe, perhaps it's time for the government's top technology officials to be held directly accountable to the voters. This idea was tossed around over lunch on the Expo's final day by an Internet security expert, who noted, "We elect sheriffs and school boards, why not the CTO?"
It is certainly an idea worthy of a great debate.
Spending three days focusing directly on this next stage of governance offered great clarity in the mission of this movement, what has been achieved so far and the great potential that lay ahead. Now it's critically important to engage and educate both citizens and those in government on the great technological possibilities at their fingertips.