The rise and fall of the Government 2.0 Think Tank

Back in June 2006, when Facebook was still a university phenomenon, a group of civil servants started up the Government 2.0 Think Tank (G2TT) in Ottawa. Led by Patrick Cormier, then a military lawyer and a project director at the Department of National Defence (DND), G2TT’s aim was to provide a forum to connect people who want to use open source and Web 2.0 concepts to make governments more efficient and interactive.

The initiative attracted dedicated, energetic civil servants across all levels of the Canadian government, the U.S. and even far-flung places such as New Zealand united in their desire to devote their personal time and expertise to develop concrete solutions to common problems.

After getting clearance from public affairs and other authorities, G2TT’s executive group of about 20 people drew up a charter, developed an interactive Web site and created a list of key projects to tackle. A glowing review about the initiative that appeared in The Ottawa Citizen newspaper attracted more new and enthusiastic members. The group seemed primed and ready to get going and get things done.

But shortly thereafter, G2TT’S Web site disappeared without explanation, and the initiative faded away.

Now retired from the DND at age 37 after 20 years of service, Cormier reflects on the experience. One major source of inspiration was the open source movement, in which he’d participated for several years. “I really like the open source software development approach, not so much as a product but as architecture for participation,” he explains. “It promotes people who are good at what they do, so it’s a meritocracy. And you can push things forward – years down the road, the project may still be alive even though it’s not with the same people as at the start.”

Another source was the Information Management Leadership initiative (IMLI), an 18-month training program sponsored by the Treasury Board Secretariat that brought people together from across the government on a regular basis. “We quickly discovered the problems we were struggling with were the same and not peculiar to our individual environments,” he says.

These two central ideas came together in a presentation Cormier made at a government conference in 2006. “Why not create a similar architecture of participation for government to advance solutions instead of open source code? The deliverable for us would be a report, something that can be tabled and published, and that governments could consult and use as they see fit.”

People working in government silos are only exposed to their areas and have no forum for sharing experiences about similar issues, he explains. And they’re bound by whatever legislation exists in their area, so they don’t have the freedom to think outside the box. Even a fresh, viable solution can get quickly bogged down by records management, bilingual and other requirements.

But these should not be used as excuses for inaction, he says. “There may be obstacles right now, but you don’t stop because of those obstacles. Instead, you just lay out a report about the nature of the problem, what the potential solutions are, and what steps are needed.”

Cormier believed this approach would not be threatening to superiors, as they would be free to accept or reject a report’s recommendations as they saw fit. “My gut feeling was, if a report is prepared by knowledgeable people in government that’s comprehensive and covers all bases, it would create the interest to allow the solution to move forward.”

It can’t be seen as threatening in a democracy, as this is what society is about. There are many groups, NGOs, and think-tanks out there that put ideas and studies on the table, and G2TT would have been just another group.”

But his assumption was wrong. Although the G2TT executive took great pains to clear the initiative from legal, ethical and public affairs perspectives, and made it clear they would not pursue questions of policy, there’s nevertheless a culture of control in government, he says.

“Some supervisors didn’t like the fact that they didn’t have control over the agenda, who could be nominated to the group and so on. Even if you only hear about one or two instances of supervisors objecting, it’s a chilling factor. No one wants to antagonize their supervisor, even if they’re not doing anything wrong technically.”

Some of the negative reaction may have stemmed from a misperception about staff loyalties, he speculates. “This was not a forum for disgruntled employees, and we set that out clearly in the charter. But some supervisors believe their people are supposed to provide advice within their own agencies or departments – advice which is supposed to be privileged – and then they see them participate in a public forum. But in our people’s minds, there was a clear distinction between what was confidential and what could be shared.”

For these reasons, the Web site was shut down by the G2TT executive itself, he says. “No one commanded its shutdown; no one said it was an unethical initiative or anything like that. It was more subtle than that – but subtle is sometimes all you need. We decided conditions weren’t right for something like G2TT to flourish.”

Over a year after the shutdown, the government climate is slightly warmer but some essential ingredients are still missing, says Cormier. He notes there’s a lot of talk about Web 2.0 and its possibilities to improve government nowadays, but nothing tangible has been put forward.

“There’s a lot of visionary stuff but nothing’s concrete,” he says. “The government isn’t actively encouraging submissions of proposals on a specific set of dates and then committing to screening for the best. You only need one person to monitor those submissions and establish a dialogue with interested parties, and one person in the whole of government isn’t hard to do.”

Nevertheless, Cormier believes change will inevitably come to government as Web 2.0, social media and other collaborative technologies become mainstream in the near future. “I still believe in the idea,” he says.

The G2TT Web site still exists although it’s offline, and Cormier says he’s set up a corporation called G2TT Incorporated as a consultancy. G2TT was a new creature which didn’t fit preconceived notions of how a government advisory group should operate, he says. “But people know consulting and how it works, so we can promote the same idea differently now.”

Cormier’s recipe for Web 2.0 success:

To create an environment that nurtures Web 2.0 solutions to common problems in government, Cormier believes these three ingredients, based on open source principles, are essential:

– The government needs to actively encourage this collaborative approach. “There’s a big difference between tolerating and supporting an initiative,” he says. “We would need a statement inside government that it not only supports but encourages this approach. The only way to counter inertia is if it’s clear there’s upper management support.”

– The statement should state clearly that the reports will be considered. “It must state who will review and consider them, be it the CIO Council, central agencies or whoever is selected. It’s not a commitment to act on them or change anything, just a statement that the reports will get read and considered.”

– A Web 2.0-friendly IT environment in which to operate

Rosie Lombardi is a Toronto-based freelance writer. Contact her at rosie@rosie-lombardi.com
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