For quite some time, there’s been a theory drifting around that government can be made more open and efficient via the same crowdsourcing and social-networking tools that created such successes out of Facebook, Twitter and Kickstarter.
Anyone looking for a good distillation of this theory can find it in “Citizenville,” a nonfiction book by former San Francisco mayor (and current lieutenant governor of California) Gavin Newsom. A government that can more efficiently solve its problems, he writes at one point, is one that “makes use of social media, networks, peer-to-peer engagement, and other technological tools.” He advocates that government open up its vast datasets to legions of third-party developers and engineers, who can presumably transform them into software that serves a civic function; he also argues that online chat rooms and social networking are more effective tools for interacting with representatives than the old-style method of gathering the citizenry in a physical chamber somewhere.
Newsom isn’t the first to advocate such ideas, of course. Numerous pundits and analysts have advocated the development of “e-government” or “government 2.0.” But what if the idea isn’t as great as it seems? What if government should be reformed—just not in the image of a social-networking startup?
That’s the angle embraced by Evgeny Morozov in a recent essay for The Baffler. Structured as a lengthy takedown of open-source advocate and O’Reilly Media founder Tim O’Reilly, the piece veers off to fire a few torpedoes at the idea of making government more responsive and transparent through technology (the latter something that O’Reilly readily advocates).
“One of the main reasons why governments choose not to offload certain services to the private sector is not because they think they can do a better job at innovation or efficiency,” Morozov writes, “but because other considerations—like fairness and equity of access—come into play.”
He continues: “The real question is not whether developers should be able to submit apps to the App Store, but whether citizens should be paying for the apps or counting on the government to provide these services.” At its extremity, government 2.0 pushes an “economic-innovative dimension” that all but ensures “the private sector always emerges victorious.”
If O’Reilly himself argues that a government “stripped down to its core” into a form more transparent and collaboration-friendly, Morozov counters with the idea that the “participation” envisioned by most government 2.0 scenarios is limited, little better in practice than the comments section at the bottom of a corporate blog posting. “There is nothing “collective” about such distributed intelligence; it’s just a bunch of individual users acting on their own and never experiencing any sense of solidarity or group belonging,” he writes. “Such ‘participation’ has no political dimension; no power changes hands.”
There’s much, much more within Morozov’s actual essay, including a discussion of how the U.K. government’s “Big Society” plan—which emphasizes a lot of transparency and information-freeing initiatives—can be viewed as a rather cynical way for the Powers That Be to cut costs.
It’s worth jumping back for a moment to “Citizenville,” specifically the chapter in which Newsom discusses government bureaucracy. “Our government is clogged with a dense layer of bureaucracy, a holdover from an earlier era that adds bloat and expense,” he writes. “But technology can get rid of that clay layer by making it possible for people to bypass the usual bureaucratic morass.” In fact, Newsom argues that relatively few government functions—security chief among them—should remain “closed.”
Whether or not one subscribes to that idea, it’s perhaps worth considering that government and private enterprise—particularly tech companies interested in making everything “social”—are different animals with vastly different goals, and the best practices developed by one might not necessarily apply to the other.