Paving the cowpaths that lead to Government 2.0

Government 2.0 was the theme of couple of recent podcasts. On Phil Windley’s Technometria show, Britt Blaser discussed his Independence Year project, which places “the organizing tools of the best political campaigns” into the hands of citizens who want to organize themselves. And on my own show I spoke with W. David Stephenson, a veteran political operative who has recently focused on the same theme.

On both of these shows, I harped — too much — on how online tools and services do, and don’t, enable citizens to make sense of, and engage with, the processes of governments. But of course, as Adina Levin helpfully reminds me, it isn’t all, or even mostly, about tools and services. Adina’s comment:

Call the Senator’s office. And don’t just talk to the person who answers the phone. They are motivated to take your comment and end the call. Find the staffer who specializes in the policy area. Get their name. Get their email address. Contact him or her directly. They’ll know, and be able to answer the content and procedure questions if you ask nicely and intelligently.

Once you find the information, posting to your blog, hyperlocal news outfit, or political group blog will spread the information and increase the social context about the sausagemaking process.

The net enables new tools, but it also makes this sort of older technique informative for more people.

Elsewhere she adds:

Udell points to tools like GovTrack which are attempting to create a substrate for communities following bills. I’m seeing a trend that is fascinating and a little bit lower tech. National blogs like FireDogLake, local blogs like TransBayBlog, social network communities like the Get Fisa Right network in MyBarackObama.com, provide their communities with more detailed context on the dynamics of legislation and the process of adding ingredients to the sausage. In the context of a community, members learn more about the legislative process than civics 101 class, or than getting email from the Sierra Club.

Points extremely well taken. Those of us wired to imagine and build advanced tools and services are invariably surprised when The Simplest Thing That Could Possibly Work turns out, again and again, to actually work.

One of my favorite examples here is LibriVox, a hugely successful collaborative project that to this day runs mainly on a PHP-based bulletin board. It’s a perfect illustration of what Clay Shirky points out in this interview:

A brutally simple mental model of the software that’s shared by all users turns out to be a better predictor of adoption and value than a completely crazy collection of features that ends up being slightly different for every user.

Of course tools and services matter. The trick is to introduce them in incremental and appropriate ways. On this forum page at LibriVox you can see a nice example of that incremental approach. It’s the Completed Projects page for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Pellucidar. No database-backed workflow software created that forum page. There’s just a convention, evolved organically by LibriVox participants working together, about using certain forum topics to represent certain phases of workflow.

As I understand it — and Hugh McGuire will correct me if I’m wrong — the project ran for a while with no other database than the one supporting phpBB. Participants simply agreed to use that database according to certain agreed-upon patterns.

Later, a separate database was developed to maintain the catalog in more flexible and powerful ways. But look at what’s happening on that forum page I mentioned. A project view from the database is wrapped in an iframe and included within the bulletin board page. It’s a sweet example of how to inject a more advanced service non-disruptively into a simple system.

In the realm of Government 2.0, as elsewhere, advanced tools and services can play crucial roles, but only if we can weave them into the patchwork quilt of brutally simple systems that people understand and use.

8 Comments

  1. It is almost too trivial to mention, but a certain level of tool support is essential. The real trick is identifying what is this minimal core which is essential for making the social interaction work.

    Librivox, for example, publishes RSS feeds (probably from the earliest days). Without this, a BB system might not be ideal as a podcasting platform. Moreover, the RSS feed is for completed books etc. not for work in progress. This is “The Right Thing” to do in this case, since most people would prefer not to start listening to a book that will never be completed. But this is a micro-choice that had to be made.

    In contrast, on another BB system I follow the RSS feed is broken, almost from day one, and while the BB functions ok, the benefit of the system is severely limited for me due to this fact.

    It’s an either/or situation between tool support and innovative use. Almost to trivial to mention, as I said…

  2. @jon, yes, our backend database came a year or more into the project, and importantly was built around existing usesage patterns that had developed as we figured out ways to use phpBB to manage the project. for the average librivox volunteer, the db is almost completely invisible, except as that little magic window you see telling them what chapters are asssigned to whom in a particular project.

    but yes, the main tool we use is the phpBB forum.

    @ehud the feeds for our podcasts are generated by wordpress, not the forum … the forum is for project management, pre-release of completed books. RSS doesn’t come into play (well there is a disabled RSS feed for every post on the forum)… you log on to the forum and check the updates in your projects.

    There is an “static” RSS feed for each book in our system tho, thanks to Jon, which has made downloading books so much easier for people – since each book can go into a podcatcher as a “podcast” all in one shot.

  3. > while the BB functions ok, the benefit of
    > the system is severely limited for me due
    > to this fact.

    And it would be for me too. But many people, maybe most, succeed quite well without making any explicit use of feeds, either as producers or consumers. This is hard for me to learn and accept. Like you I regard the pub/sub pattern as essential. Except clearly it isn’t, at least not yet.

  4. Hugh, I understand that. Perhaps I wasn’t too clear: What I meant to say is that the RSS provide the right functionality for the librivox SYSTEM, regardless of the fact that the BB system is not what produces them (and in fact couldn’t be, in the sense that the BB is workflow and the feeds are mainly for the end product).

    Jon, I general I agree, but in the case I was thinking of I think two forces are in play: most users don’t use RSS, so there is no real pressure (aside from me) to get the feeds to work correctly, and on the other hand the lack of RSS may be one reason why people who might be more enthusiastic to use the forum are not that involved. That’s part of the dialectic of technology adoption…

  5. The last sentence of my original message should have read “It’s NOT an either/or situation between tool support and innovative use.”

    Sorry…

  6. I loved your comment in that interview calling for journalists to publish their data. Unfortunately, I think there are some fundamental reasons why that vision is far from today’s journalism.

    Reflections here

    Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities to start.

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