Sunday, May 31, 2009

Government Of, By, and FOR the People

I just read a little article quoting Congressman Mike Honda saying, "...Congress must take advantage of Web 2.0 technologies to transform the relationship between citizens and government. Instead of viewing the public as a customer for services, I believe that we should empower citizens to become our partners in shaping the future of our nation." I realize he was talking about Congress – not necessarily the Executive Branch. But my feeling is the same - this doesn’t have to be an either/or situation, folks. It should be both. It must be both!

Be clear. I’m all for citizen engagement. I’ve been advocating using the internet to involve citizens in their government longer than some of the current prominent advocates (see HUD’s State of the Web report that I wrote back in 2001). But Lincoln got it right, in my book. Government should be of, by, and FOR the people. So in our quest to start the “of” (transparency – because we own it) and “by” (engagement – because we should be part of it), let’s not forget the “for” (the services that government provides for its citizens, paid for by their taxes).

Believe it or not, some folks really don’t want to engage in their government. I’ve been surprised when I’ve talked to folks who have no interest. But they still want – and depend on – government services. Whether or not they become your partners, they always will be your customers.

So why did this article get my dander up? Because, Web Managers, I worry that – in your excitement to work on the “of” and “by” stuff right now – you might be neglecting the extensive work that still needs to be done on the “for.” I know that many of you have been chomping at the bit to move out on transparency and engagement for years. I know that there’s a lot of pressure/support both inside and outside government for you to move out on this. And, heck, it’s fun! But you’ve still got that elephant in the room – those way-too-many, morbidly obese, poorly written, poorly organized websites that citizens do (and often must) use to get government services.

When I look at some of the major government websites, I still see press releases and agency news where top services (tasks) should be featured, so the public can find them. When I look at some of those services, I still find convoluted organization that makes no sense to me and, more commonly, explanations and instructions (writing) that are – well – just plain bad. I haven’t come across one single government website recently that doesn’t need pruning and cleanup and improvements to make those services easier to find, more useful, and more usable.

I know fixing that “for” stuff isn’t glamorous. I know it can be slow-moving, thankless drudgery. I know you sometimes have trouble getting support for making the changes that turn worthless web junk into real online service. But I believe it’s the most important thing you do. If not you – then who?

So yes, absolutely facilitate engagement and transparency. Proselytize. Encourage policy makers to use the web to interact (both ways) with citizens. Design your website so that opportunities for engagement are obvious and usable. Encourage program managers to get their data out there and make government more transparent. Take advantage of the backing you have now to make government “of” and “by” the people. But don’t lose site of your obligation to finish (if that's possible) what you started – to improve the way government provides services FOR its citizens.

Government should be “of,” “by,” and “for” the people. We can – and should - have all three.

Related post:

To Everything There Is A Season

No comments: