Does Government Have To Be Perfect?

[Note: This was originally posted on a blog for government leaders, March 1, 2010.]

“A group of leading social and information scientists and government practitioners met February 23-24, 2010 at the National Science Foundation (NSF) to lay out a research agenda to address grand challenges in information, technology, and governance.” – as the organizers of the workshop described it.

I was among the three dozen people who participated in this wide ranging discussion about the various trends in government and its use of technology.  But there was one critical, if unstated, question that was just below the surface in most of these discussions: how perfect does government have to be?

Traditionally, most government leaders would say that the public sector is expected never to make mistakes – although plenty of mistakes do happen.  Some of the participants in the workshop pointed out the various ways that e-government systems are vulnerable or can be the source of erroneous information.

Certainly, in some areas – such as protection of children from parental abuse – a single mistake can have tragic, fatal consequences.  But not all imperfections in government are that serious nor does every program area result in fatal tragedy when things go wrong.   Nevertheless, many elected officials feel they live in a world where the slightest imperfection is blown up in the next day’s media reports. 

In the face of the intensely combative style of politics that many of us have gotten used to, it is difficult to imagine getting a break from voters for any imperfection.  But consider the expectations that people have developed as the Internet has become a more important part of their lives.

One of the most successful Internet websites and perhaps the best example of Internet-based collaboration and collective action is the open encyclopedia, WikipediaClay Shirky, in his compelling book “Here Comes Everybody: The Power Of Organizing Without Organizations”, compares Wikipedia to traditional encyclopedia companies.

“Wikipedia … a chaotic process, with unpredictable and wildly uneven contributions, made by nonexpert contributors acting out of variable motivations, is creating a global resource of tremendous daily value.  A commercial producer of encyclopedias has to be efficient about finding and fixing mistakes… Wikipedia … does not have to be efficient it merely has to be effective.  If enough people see an article, the chance that an error will be caught and fixed improves with time.  Because Wikipedia is a process, not a product, it replaces guarantees offered by institutions with probabilities supported by process: if enough people care enough about an article to read it, then enough people will care enough to improve it, and over time this will lead to a large enough body of good enough work to begin to take both availability and quality of articles for granted, and to integrate Wikipedia into daily use by millions.”

To the point about quality, researchers have found that the error rate in Wikipedia articles is no worse than those in the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

With Wikipedia as just one example of the kind of Internet-based activity that people value, despite its short term imperfections, is it possible that citizens may be more open to a similar approach in the public sector? an approach that emphasizes citizen engagement (and even citizen delivery of services to other citizens), despite the imperfections of citizens, in contrast to the promise of perfection by government agencies?

Because it is seems so difficult to get things done perfectly in government, many newly elected officials start out proclaiming one or two major goals they want to accomplish.  Often, the major consequence of this approach is to make it easier for political opponents to know what to attack. 

The alternative that is more in synch with the way people increasingly operate on the Internet is to start many more than just a couple of initiatives, with a promise only of improvement, but not perfection. 

There are two other benefits.  First, this certainly makes it harder for those who oppose you merely for political reasons to decide what to attack.  Second, and partly because of the first benefit, you may find that only 5 of 100 initiatives fail. The rest eventually succeed in providing improvements that are visible and supported by the voters. 

So perhaps government does not have to try to be perfect all the time and if it doesn’t try to be perfect, it may actually work better.

For more about Wikipedia and its implications, one of the best recent books is: “The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World’s Greatest Encyclopedia” by Andrew Lih.  See

© 2011 Norman Jacknis


I put together this PowerPoint to help government officials understand how the Internet is changing people’s perception about how government should operate and to scare them a bit if they don’t respond to this trend.  It is intentionally edgy and provocative.

© 2011 Norman Jacknis


The Misalignment Between The Economic Success of Local Government and Their Residents

As you can see from some of the other posts here, at the request of the US Conference of Mayors, I’ve been focusing on an economic development strategy that will work in the future.  As a result of that work, I’ve been presenting my ideas in many places and before many audiences, generally including mayors or other senior officials of local government.

Without going into the whole line of reasoning, I discuss the combined effects of (1) a future with ubiquitous high quality communications and (2) the shift of the labor force to providing ideas and other intangible services.  One implication of these trends is the disaggregation of the monolithic big company that would concentrate jobs in a city and, as an alternative, the empowerment of fluid teams of individuals.

To drive the point home, I argue that the true measure of the economic success of a city is the sum (or the median?) of the income and wealth of its residents – and not the total sales of companies that might have a local postal address there.  

In what sometimes comes across as a provocative statement, but isn’t, I put up an equation: economic growth does not equal real estate development.   I say that because a large part of the economic development expenditures of local governments have been about real estate development.

A few times in recent weeks, I’ve met with mayors or economic development directors who understand exactly what I’m talking about and see the future as I present it.  Then comes the response: “We should be thinking about the amount of money in the pockets of our residents, but you’re missing something here.  Our business – the city government – is mostly dependent upon property taxes and commercial real estate is the golden goose that lays most of those tax eggs.  We focus on real estate development because that’s where we get the return in the form of taxes later.”

That’s a fair argument for the year 2011, as far as it goes.  Of course, often what is a key part of the incentive package is a reduced property tax bill.  More important, commercial real estate will have a hard time maintaining itself in the face of the trends that I discuss.  Indeed, over the last ten years, many big companies have found that they need half the square footage per employee that they used to.  Even now, many employees telecommute or operate remotely somewhere out of the office.  So in the long run, this equation between real estate development and economic growth will break down.

This raises a more serious public policy question, though.  How did we get into such a situation where a smart mayor realizes that the economic success of the city government is misaligned with the success of the city’s residents?  And, for the viability of our democracy, how do we align these?

Or, if you want to ask a related and more pragmatic question: if the goose that laid the golden eggs – commercial real estate – is getting ready to retire, what replaces it?  

Either way you look at it, local governments in the United States need to shift away from their dependence on commercial property taxes.  There are various alternatives that cities have been forced to pursue and may have to depend on more.  Some examples: income taxes, property taxes on residences (which the Internet has now also made places of work and shopping) or even sales taxes on the goods/services that are sold directly into residences.  I’m not suggesting that any of these is perfect or even good, but they all share one characteristic – the revenue base grows as the city’s residents have more money in their pockets.

Whichever of these or other possibilities is selected, cities and counties will be forced to align their financial success with the economic success of their residents.  This is a good thing for their residents because their local government will then emphasize the development of each resident’s income potential.  Even from the narrow interest of the government as a business, this is a good thing because government will have a more assured revenue stream that is appropriate for a 21st century economy.

© 2011 Norman Jacknis 


Customer Service? Ask a Volunteer

[Note: This was originally posted on a blog for government leaders, April 27, 2009.]

This post is not about a completely new idea, at least not for readers of this blog. It is a continuation and reinforcement of an earlier post, titled “Create Public Services By Enabling People To Serve Each Other”, in which I described the idea of government leaders facilitating citizen collaboration as a way of delivering at least the first line of public services. We’re not talking about just getting citizen “input”, but instead this is about creating citizen action.

The reason for this posting is an article in today’s New York Times Business Section,titled “Customer Service? Ask a Volunteer.” It describes the way that Verizon uses unpaid volunteers to supply customer service —

If you remember the last post, this isn’t new. Among other companies, ATT has done the same thing for awhile at But the article describes in some detail how Verizon runs this service and what motivates the minority of volunteers who are willing stand up and become leaders of the volunteer community. 

In government, we would call these people auxiliary deputies in a police force or doyennes in a special park.As I noted before, what these private companies have learned is that people who do not work for the company are often more credible with other customers than employees. 

When these companies use these public forums, of course, they need to have a certain tolerance for criticism. Looked at the right way, though, this criticism is a form of free market research and can alert a company early to a brewing problem before that problem gets completely out of hand. That same logic applies to government. 

Given the declining fiscal outlook for the next few years, citizen collaboration may be the only way that some public services can be adequately sustained in the future. I suppose that Verizon, which arguably does not have the greatest reputation for customer service, feels that it cannot do any worse with volunteers. That Verizon can get people to do this is a marvel to me. It should be much easier in the public sector, since people have a direct interest in the success of their community and government.

And government can start with some basic services where the only necessary expertise is having gone through the process before. So, a senior who has gone through the process of applying for “meals on wheels” or para-transit can help a senior who hasn’t done so yet. Similarly, a parent with older kids can be the one who can explain how to another parent with younger kids how to enroll for Parks Department programs. 

What examples can you add to this list? Please write to me at

© 2011 Norman Jacknis 


Government Consists Of Conversations

[Note: This was originally posted on a blog for government leaders, December 6, 2009.]

More than ten years ago, in what many governments considered the early days of the Internet, a now classic book, “The Cluetrain Manifesto”, was written for and about the Internet.  The authors began the book with what they called 95 Theses, which they hoped that businesses would follow as they established a presence on the Internet – instead of using the Internet the way they had used all other forms of public communications.

These statements, though, have as much, if not more, relevance to government.  So – with extraordinary respect for the original authors – I decided to take their basic 95 Theses and substitute public sector words where they had words from the business world.  The result is below.  Hopefully this will trigger some new perspectives on your part as well.

  1. Governing consists of conversations.
  2. Society consists of human beings, not demographic sectors.
  3. Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.
  4. Whether delivering information, opinions, perspectives, dissenting arguments or humorous asides, the human voice is typically open, natural, uncontrived.
  5. People recognize each other as such from the sound of this voice.
  6. The Internet is enabling conversations among human beings that were simply not possible in the era of mass media.
  7. Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy.
  8. In both internetworked citizenry and among intranetworked employees, people are speaking to each other in a powerful new way.
  9. These networked conversations are enabling powerful new forms of social organization and knowledge exchange to emerge.
  10. As a result, citizens are getting smarter, more informed, more organized. Participation in a networked society changes people fundamentally.
  11. People in networked societies have figured out that they get far better information and support from one another than from government agencies. So much for government rhetoric about the value of their professional way of doing things.
  12. There are no secrets. The networked citizenry knows more than governments do about their own services and programs. And whether the news is good or bad, they tell everyone.
  13. What’s happening to citizens as a whole is also happening among employees. A metaphysical construct called “The State” is the only thing standing between the two.
  14. Governments do not speak in the same voice as these new networked conversations. To their intended online audiences, governments sound hollow, flat, literally inhuman.
  15. In just a few more years, the current homogenized “voice” of government —the sound of mission statements and press releases —will seem as contrived and artificial as the language of the 18th century French court.
  16. Already, governments that speak in the language of the spin, the dog-and-pony show, are no longer speaking to anyone.
  17. Governments that assume online citizens are the same citizens that used to watch their messages on television are kidding themselves.
  18. Governments that don’t realize their citizens are now networked person-to-person, getting smarter as a result and deeply joined in conversation are missing their best opportunity.
  19. Public leaders can now communicate with their citizens directly. If they blow it, it could be their last chance.
  20. Governments need to realize their citizens are often laughing. At them.
  21. Government officials need to lighten up and take themselves less seriously. They need to get a sense of humor.
  22. Getting a sense of humor does not mean putting some jokes on the government web site. Rather, it requires big values, a little humility, straight talk, and a genuine point of view.
  23. Governments attempting to “position” themselves need to take a position. Optimally, it should relate to something their citizens actually care about.
  24. Bombastic boasts—”We are positioned to become the preeminent nation/state/county/city“—do not constitute a position.
  25. Government officials need to come down from their Ivory Towers and talk to the people with whom they hope to create relationships.
  26. Public Relations does not relate to the public. Governments are deeply afraid of their citizens.
  27. By speaking in language that is distant, uninviting, arrogant, they build walls to keep citizens at bay.
  28. Most news releases, press conferences, and other government “messaging” programs are based on the fear that the citizens might see what’s really going on inside the government.
  29. Elvis said it best: “We can’t go on together with suspicious minds.”
  30. Patriotic loyalty is the government version of going steady, but the breakup is inevitable—and coming fast. Because they are networked, smart citizens are able to renegotiate relationships with blinding speed.
  31. Networked citizens can change which government officials they prefer overnight. Networked knowledge workers can change employers over lunch. Your own service reductions, furloughs and layoffs taught us to ask the question: “Loyalty? What’s that?”
  32. Smart citizens will find public leaders who speak their own language.
  33. Learning to speak with a human voice is not a parlor trick. It can’t be “picked up” at some tony conference.
  34. To speak with a human voice, public leaders must share the concerns of their communities.
  35. But first, they must belong to a community.
  36. Governments must ask themselves where their bureaucratic cultures end.
  37. If their cultures end before the community begins, they will have no support among the citizens.
  38. Human communities are based on discourse—on human speech about human concerns.
  39. The community of discourse is the whole community.
  40. Public leaders who do not belong to a community of discourse will no longer be leaders.
  41. Governments make a religion of security, but this is largely a red herring. Most are protecting less against threats than against their own citizens and workforce.
  42. As with networked citizens, people are also talking to each other directly inside the government—and not just about rules and regulations, executive directives, budgets.
  43. Such conversations are taking place today on departmental intranets. But only when the conditions are right.
  44. Governments typically install intranets top-down to distribute HR policies and other procedural information that workers are doing their best to ignore.
  45. Intranets naturally tend to route around boredom. The best are built bottom-up by engaged individuals cooperating to construct something far more valuable: an intranetworked organizational conversation.
  46. A healthy intranet organizes workers in many meanings of the word. Its effect is more radical than the agenda of any union.
  47. While this scares companies witless, they also depend heavily on open intranets to generate and share critical knowledge. They need to resist the urge to “improve” or control these networked conversations.
  48. When intranets are not constrained by fear and legalistic rules, the type of conversation they encourage sounds remarkably like the conversation of the networked citizens.
  49. Org charts worked in an older economy where plans could be fully understood from atop steep management pyramids and detailed work orders could be handed down from on high.
  50. Today, the org chart is hyperlinked, not hierarchical. Respect for hands-on knowledge wins over respect for abstract authority.
  51. Command-and-control management styles both derive from and reinforce bureaucracy, power tripping and an overall culture of paranoia.
  52. Paranoia kills conversation. That’s its point. But lack of open conversation kills the effectiveness of government.
  53. There are two conversations going on. One inside the government. One with the citizens.
  54. In most cases, neither conversation is going very well. Almost invariably, the cause of failure can be traced to obsolete notions of command and control.
  55. As policy, these notions are poisonous. As tools, they are broken. Command and control are met with hostility by intranetworked knowledge workers and generate distrust in internetworked societies.
  56. These two conversations want to talk to each other. They are speaking the same language. They recognize each other’s voices.
  57. Smart companies will get out of the way and help the inevitable to happen sooner.
  58. If willingness to get out of the way is taken as a measure of IQ, then very few governments have yet wised up.
  59. However subliminally at the moment, millions of people now online perceive government agencies as little more than quaint legal fictions that are actively preventing these conversations from intersecting.
  60. This is suicidal. Citizens want to talk to public leaders.
  61. Sadly, the part of the government a networked citizenry wants to talk to is usually hidden behind a smokescreen of hucksterism, of language that rings false—and often is.
  62. Citizens do not want to talk to flacks and hucksters. They want to participate in the conversations going on behind the bureaucratic firewall.
  63. De-cloaking, getting personal: We are those citizens. We want to talk to you.
  64. We want access to your government information, to your plans and strategies, your best thinking, your genuine knowledge. We will not settle for the 4-color brochure, for web sites chock-a-block with eye candy but lacking any substance.
  65. We’re also the workers who make your agencies go. We want to talk to citizens directly in our own voices, not in platitudes written into a script.
  66. As citizens, as workers, both of us are sick to death of getting our information by remote control. Why do we need faceless reports and third-hand studies to introduce us to each other?
  67. As citizens, as workers, we wonder why you’re not listening. You seem to be speaking a different language.
  68. The inflated self-important jargon you sling around—in the press, at your conferences—what’s that got to do with us?
  69. Maybe you’re impressing your media acolytes or your contributors or your peers. Maybe you’re impressing Wall Street. You’re not impressing us.
  70. If you don’t impress us, your supporters are going to be wasting their effort and money. Don’t they understand this? If they did, they wouldn’t let you talk that way.
  71. Your tired notions of “the citizens” make our eyes glaze over. We don’t recognize ourselves in your policies —perhaps because we know we’re already elsewhere.
  72. We like this new polity much better. In fact, we are creating it.
  73. You’re invited, but it’s our world. Take your shoes off at the door. If you want to barter with us, get down off that camel!
  74. We are immune to public relations spin. Just forget it.
  75. If you want us to talk to you, tell us something. Make it something interesting for a change.
  76. We’ve got some ideas for you too: some new tools we need, some better service. Stuff we’d be willing to pay taxes for. Got a minute?
  77. You’re too busy “doing business” to answer our email? Oh gosh, sorry, gee, we’ll come back later. Maybe.
  78. You want us to pay taxes? We want you to pay attention.
  79. We want you to drop your trip, come out of your neurotic self-involvement, join the party.
  80. Don’t worry, you can still hold power. That is, as long as it’s not the only thing on your mind.
  81. Have you noticed that, in itself, power is kind of one-dimensional and boring? What else can we talk about?
  82. Your services are broke. Why? We’d like to ask the guys who deliver them. Your vision for society makes no sense. We’d like to have a chat with the President/Prime Minister/Governor/Mayor. What do you mean she’s not in?
  83. We want you to take 50 million of us as seriously as you take one reporter from The Wall Street Journal.
  84. We know some people from your government. They’re pretty cool online. Do you have any more like that you’re hiding? Can they come out and play?
  85. When we have questions we turn to each other for answers. If you didn’t have such a tight rein on “your people” maybe they’d be among the people we’d turn to.
  86. When we’re not busy being your “voters,” many of us are your people. We’d rather be talking to friends online than watching the clock. That would get your name around better than your entire million dollar web site. But you tell us speaking to the citizen is the Public Information Officer’s job.
  87. We’d like it if you got what’s going on here. That’d be real nice. But it would be a big mistake to think we’re holding our breath.
  88. We have better things to do than worry about whether you’ll change in time to get our votes. Government and politics is only a part of our lives. It seems to be all of yours. Think about it: who needs whom?
  89. We have real power and we know it. If you don’t quite see the light, some other public leader will come along that’s more attentive, more interesting, more fun to play with.
  90. Even at its worst, our newfound conversation is more interesting than most legislative proceeding, more entertaining than any photo opportunity, and certainly more true-to-life than the government web sites we’ve been seeing.
  91. Our allegiance is to ourselves—our friends, our new allies and acquaintances, even our sparring partners. Public leaders that have no part in this world, also have no future.
  92. Governments are spending [spent] billions of dollars on Y2K. Why can’t they hear this citizen timebomb ticking? The stakes are even higher.
  93. We’re both inside the government and outside it. The boundaries that separate our conversations look like the Berlin Wall today, but they’re really just an annoyance. We know they’re coming down. We’re going to work from both sides to take them down.
  94. To traditional governments, networked conversations may appear confused, may sound confusing. But we are organizing faster than they are. We have better tools, more new ideas, no rules to slow us down.
  95. We are waking up and linking to each other. We are watching. But we are not waiting.

You can find most of the original book at

© 2011 Norman Jacknis


Dirty Jobs

[Note: This was originally posted on a blog for government leaders, November 1, 2009.]

Tuesday is another election day.  It’s especially important to many local elected officials since so many local elections occur this year.  As this election season comes to a close, there is that frustrating feeling among public leaders that many voters just don’t understand what the government does. 

Sure, the obvious public services – for example, public safety and education – are known.  But the full extent of government services is unknown to great numbers of those who benefit from those services.

What can be done about this?  Some governments have taken ideas from non-fiction cable television channels, including two mainstays of the Discovery Channel – Dirty Jobs and Mythbusters.

With the low cost of video equipment, this is easy to do.  There are even products now, like the Flip HD video cameras that are smaller than a cell phone, easy to use and quick to upload to the web.

Miami-Dade County has created a series of videos that show some of the “dirty jobs” that County workers do for the public on its “Inside County Jobs” television show.  This started as one-minute video about training of firefighters and led to the realization that Miami-Dade could do more.  See the first installment at

So, following the model of Discovery’s “Dirty Jobs”, with its own host/participant, there is compelling footage of filling potholes, unplugging storm drains, fixing stop signs, lab testing, trash recycling and the other activities seen and unseen that residents often take for granted.  Here’s another example —

The video is available both on the County website and on YouTube.  In addition to its success with the public, the videos have had a positive effect on employees, who now take to their jobs with a greater sense of purpose and pride.

Westchester County, for example, had a volunteer team put together a movie in the style of a 1930s film noir detective story.  During the course of his investigation, the “detective” interacted with all kinds of county workers.  The County Executive played an abridged version of the movie in one of his “State of the County” speeches in an effort to educate the public about the variety of activities of county government.

Video isn’t the only tool.  The leaders of Oakland County, Michigan, responded to the gaps in public knowledge by taking the “Mythbusters” title to attract attention, but presenting their material on the web.  They tackled some of the toughest issues posing a question in True/False form and then busting the myth for the wrong answer.  

So there is hope to engage a distracted public and upgrade their knowledge of what your government does, by using some of the inexpensive tools now available.  Your creativity is the only limit. 

© 2011 Norman Jacknis

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