Anderson started off with an interesting example – the infamous Twitter fail whale. Countless users have bemoaned the unreliability of Twitter, though in fact, the service has been down only occasionally and it’s gotten dramatically better of late. He contrasted this with a couple of stories about government sites. In the first, he had to pay taxes in Delaware for his corporation but their web site was down for the entire weekend before his taxes were due. In another example, he wanted to pay a traffic ticket he received in Truckee, CA, but the town did not take credit cards online, something a teenager could’ve set up. These are much more critical tasks than updating your Twitter feed.
Four Web Rules of the Google Generation
In Anderson’s view, the Google Generation (those who grew up with the Internet) expects government sites to work as well as commercial sites. But I think any regular user of the web thinks this way, no matter the age. He listed four rules of the Google Generation. This is what they expect:
- Everything should work all the time.
- If you can’t find it on Google, it doesn’t exist.
- Meet us where we live (Facebook, Flickr, Twitter).
- We want to interact with your content.
Unfortunately, as Anderson listed in his Delaware example, not everything works all the time on .gov sites. Also, while optimizing your content for Google is a great idea, not all .gov sites do this and some government content is hidden in databases which Google has a hard time searching. There are just a few examples of government in Facebook or Flickr though this is a common practice in the .com and .org worlds. And the idea of people discussing, rating, ranking and remixing government content on a .gov site is something I’ve never seen before (but would love to).
Obstacles to Web 2.0 in Government
Any discussion of Web 2.0 in government soon turns to the innumerable obstacles to bringing social media to government sites. Anderson made the point that these barriers are similar to those to any large company or organization. They include:
- Outdated technology
- Legal concerns
- Privacy worries
- Procurement hassles
- Archive issues
- Lack of urgency
In the commercial world, this is why smaller companies are the innovators. They are not saddled with a content management system purchased in the 1990s nor IT policies not updated in more than a decade.
Black Wire/White Wire
Anderson had a story bound to terrify any government CIO. At Conde Nast, he was saddled with many of the same restrictions that afflict any large organization. Old emails got deleted after 30 days, server space was limited, vital email got stuck in spam filters and no one could install software on their machines without approval. His team was frustrated by these restrictions which hindered their effectiveness.
His solution was to opt out of IT support by setting up his own DSL network and servers in his office. Anderson showed the setup, with a black wire for the IT department’s connection and a white wire for his DSL hookup. The black wire only got plugged in to print. In his view, the role of the CIO should be to provide a fat pipe to the Internet and maintain the printers, not tell people what technology they can use.
Consumer Apps > Enterprise Apps
One reason that Anderson cited for seceding from his IT department was that his staff was used to consumer applications (like Gmail and Google Docs) that were superior to their enterprise equivalents (Outlook, Word). Not only were these consumer apps easier to use, they were also available anywhere. Anderson uses Google Docs exclusively. He also listed the new US CIO, Vivek Kundra, as a proponent of using consumer technology in the public space. In his previous role as CTO for the District of Columbia, Kundra brought these apps in-house and established wikis and data feeds to make local government more efficient.
Web 2.0 Thinking
Finally, Anderson presented a list of good and bad words. These are words and phrases to be encouraged, with their bad counterparts in parenthesis:
- fail fast (approval process)
- hosted/cloud (client/server)
- nimble (planning cycle)
- experimental (safe)
- beta (signed off)
- messy (static)
- sure! (maybe next year)
Anderson is an inspiring speaker, particularly on the subject of “failing faster”. He made the point that he’s failed lots of times, in lots of different ways, but each experience taught him something. Failing is a necessary byproduct of experimenting, something that should be encouraged across government.