Why Doesn't Government Use the Web to Organize Its Work?

I’ve been reading Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky. It’s a brilliant book on the information revolution that we’re going through. He believes that this revolution is as momentous as the development of the printing press, which triggered the Reformation and religious wars. The rise of amateurs and the expansion of consumer choice has meant the end of seemingly unassailable institutions like newspapers.

Seeing how the world is rushing to adapt to the web, I had a practical question. Why doesn’t the government use the web to more efficiently accomplish its work? For example:

1. Why is there no actual Facebook for feds? Govloop (a social network for government employees) is a brilliant idea, a way for federal employees, contractors and other interested parties to communicate and collaborate. Why didn’t the federal government provide this tool (just a Ning social network) to its employees years ago? Think what a tremendous aid this would be to organizing and working together.

Why isn’t there, at the very least, a government-wide directory showing photos, titles and contact information?

Some have argued that there are legitimate privacy reasons for not providing this information to the public though it is the public that pays the salary of these civil servants. There’s a great call for transparency in government. Yet, like with taxes, it’s always transparency for someone else’s program – not yours!

2. Why isn’t there an online project management tool? So much of government work is managing projects – people, inputs, resources, deadlines, deliverables and so on. I’ve seen people use spreadsheets, Word docs, MS Project, Sharepoint, wikis and even crossed-out to do lists. Why doesn’t government adopt a tool like Basecamp (my fav), a web-based project management tool?

The objection to this is that big government likes to put things behind firewalls. A service, like Basecamp, that exists outside of the secure government environment is almost impossible to get approved.

3. Why is so much of government work done on paper? Reimbursements, training requests and purchases so often require the walking around of paper forms and the collection of signatures. Think how much more efficient government would be if these forms were made electronic.

The argument against this is that government regulations require the keeping of records on paper. These rules need to be updated; we’re no longer using typewriters.

4. Why doesn’t government publish all of its photos on Flickr? Shirky lists Flickr as a great example of crowd-sourcing, where amateurs post and tag exponentially more photos than a newspaper or magazine would publish. What if you could visit a National Park Service page and see countless NPS and amateur photos of Yellowstone, all carefully geotagged?

This is an area where the federal government is experimenting. EPA has an Earth Day photo contest in Flickr and the Library of Congress has its own Flickr photostream.

5. Why can’t I just click once to apply for a government job, like I can do on Monster? USAJOBS, with its complicated password requirements, lengthy disclaimers, pages of explanations to wade through, laborious KSAs to complete and endless duplication, is a usability nightmare. And this is how potential employees are introduced to government.

It’s not just the technology. The job descriptions are the very antithesis of the plain language that government aims to promote. Here’s the first line from a recent job announcement for a Program Analyst

At the full performance GS-13 level, establishes and administers assigned administrative programs in accordance with Department requirements and other related directives.

Umm, this is a little vague.

For the most part, the ideas I listed above are not revolutionary. This is not Web 2.0. Online directories, web-based forms, improved usability, one-click applications – this is Web 1.0, from the 1990s. Investing in these common-sense processes would make government more efficient, effective and creative.

Author: Joe Flood

Joe Flood is a writer and photographer from Washington, DC. He is the author of the mystery novel Murder on U Street, as well as articles, short stories and screenplays. In his spare time, he likes wandering about the city with a camera.

1 thought on “Why Doesn't Government Use the Web to Organize Its Work?”

  1. Ironically, Monster is the prime contractor for USAJobs. You may find Monster easy to use, but I don’t, and from the perspective of this developer who has had to integrate with USAJobs, Monster’s support to external developers and internal development and release practices are abysmal.

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