Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Just How Realistic is "Government 2.0"?

Just How Realistic is "Government 2.0"?

OK, I promise this is the last thing I write about gurus for at least a year or so. I was ready to give up the topic after last week’s post, but then I heard Don Tapscott on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” this afternoon. Don is a pleasant fellow, and I admire his ability to grab onto new topics quickly—from the business implications of the Internet, to the “net generation,” to “wikinomics,” the subject and title of his most recent book. I used to be a couple of spots ahead of him in (my own) guru list, but this year he passed me by a couple of spots (though, I must point out, there is no statistical significance to small differences). He was talking on the radio today about the transformation of government by Web 2.0/Enterprise 2.0.

I don’t doubt that these tools will have some impact on how governmental information and services are delivered. I also don’t have any doubt that they will not drive as much change as Don (and his co-author Anthony Williamson as quoted in a CIO Insight article ) apparently believe they will. Don said that “government 2.0” was the most important change for government in more than a century. Williamson (and Tapscott, to a slightly lesser degree) “foresees Web 2.0 technologies being employed to transform service delivery, make smarter policies, flatten silos and, most importantly, reinvigorate democracy.”

Of course, there may be a few hitches in this miraculous transformation. One caller who works in the U.S. federal government called in to Don today, saying something like, “I can’t even get a replacement for my six year old computer—how will the federal government be able to transform itself with wikis?” Don basically replied, “Sure, there will be some cultural obstacles, but this sort of change is inevitable.”

I don’t want to get into whether a few interesting technologies can transform the most hidebound of organizations, or even if these 2.0 tools somehow are more important than nuclear power and weapons, the internal combustion engine, and airplanes as tools that can transform government. No, my question is whether these exaggerations, which are typical of pronouncements emanating from the heights of gurudom, are helpful or not.

One could argue that they are helpful because they motivate us to strive for greater impact from new technologies or management approaches. Perhaps they help us keep our “eyes on the prize.” Without such optimism, maybe the pressures of everyday life would keep us from ever accomplishing anything. Maybe people are just looking for something new and different—what’s objectionable about that?

On the other hand, this sort of techno-utopian argument could be harmful. It might lead, for example, to disenchantment with the technology when it doesn’t lead to the promised result. Companies and organizations might end up spending more on the technologies than their utility warrants. If gurus were ever held accountable for their proclamations (and they hardly ever are), it might also lower the credibility of all management experts.

Of course, the proper role of the eternal optimist is not a new issue; it’s been discussed in literature since Candide wrote about Dr. Pangloss. But are there any new wrinkles? What do you think—should management and technology gurus moderate their expressed views, or is it the more utopian and visionary the better?

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