Government 2.0 in early beta

Last week I went to the “government 2.0″ session sponsored by the Social Media Club. One sign that the space is in a very early stage is that the panelists were very different:

The story that moved me the most was David Canepa. A thirty-ish former staffer for Leland Yee, Canepa keeps a blog and a facebook profile. A local tv campaign interview was posted to YouTube.  David isn’t following a playbook, he’s just trying to reach out to consitituents.

Recently, David got into hot water when he invited Facebook friends to a local African-American community event.  Apparently the event had a fee, and some people were concerned about impropriety.  He’s working to get the policy clarified so he can continue posting to Facebook.  David would love to get more comments on his blog, and to figure out how to use the net to get feedback on local development issues.

Interestingly, David is getting stuck in a different place than local officials in Menlo Park, where I live.  Local folk don’t seem to have a problem with Facebook. My favorite local Facebook status update: Heyward Robinson is the mayor.   However, the local government in my town have gotten legal advice that they can’t host public discussions online because of an interpretation of the Public Records Act.   Another local elected official, Terry Nagel, helped build her reputation by hosting a site to report frequent power outages in her city.

David was a bit nervous about being on the panel. Individual local elected officials are breaking ground on their own. David wished that the session would have more interactive advice. I think there’s an unmet need to get some of the early champions of social media in local government in the same room to build on what each is doing well, and overcome the obstacles people are finding.

Where David Canepa’s concerns in Daly City are about building a local constituency, NASA PR folk are doing outreach to a national and global community of people fascinated by space. Instead of fielding the same two simple questions from mass media interviewers with soundbite answers, Veronica McGregor is finding an audience of educated, passionate fans, eager to understand the details of NASA technology and science.  Her staff wonders how long they’ll need to continue parallel efforts to feed the traditional media and the growing community of fans.  One of the key signs of an early market is the same case study used again and again – NASA is the poster child for social media in government.

Even NASA gets stuck. Ariel Waldman’s story is funny and sad. She was hired by NASA to help with social media, through a government contractor whose contract has a firm policy against employees using social software on the job. Oops.  Undaunted, she’s now doing SpaceHack, and indie site for space science hackers.

Evan Ratliff was the quietest panelist. His article on Wired describes the hurdles in opening the federal government for online communication.  Efforts to provide access to citizens are slowed by well-meaning policies like the Paperwork Reduction Act, which requires a laborious approval process for gathering information from more than 10 citizens.  Bev Godwin, one of Obama’s egovernment staffers, comments in Ratliff’s article that “Agencies tend to avoid doing these kind of surveys… Would having users submit information to a social network or wiki count as a survey? Nobody knows.”  Ratliff reports that some federal government sites are forbidden to link to nongovernmental sites, because a link is seen as a government endorsement.  One Wired article barely scratches the surface.

The takeaway from the panel – “government 2.0″ is in very early beta. The most advanced people are learning every day.  There is plenty of opportunity to adapt lessons from the public internet and the private sector to improve democratic governance.

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