Posts tagged "socialmedia"

Is County Innovation An Oxymoron?

Last Friday, the National Association of Counties held an Innovation Summit as part of their annual meeting in Ft. Worth.  I was asked to give the keynote speech on what local government leaders can do to encourage innovation in their counties, but I also attended the other discussions.

As I listened, in the back of my mind were recent articles about the increasingly important role local government can play — in the face of a dysfunctional Federal government and the global connectivity that enables local governments to work together and provide better services.

So the first question is whether these county governments can step up to the challenge, or as the title of this post puts it: Is County Innovation An Oxymoron?

While certainly not all of them are innovating, it is striking how many are.  Because so little is reported about local government innovation and there is not an active peer network among these innovators once they leave their annual meeting, the counties often don’t know what each has done.  That, of course, limits the spread of these innovations.

But that will change.  The counties are about to create a peer-to-peer online community, thanks to Bert Jarreau, NACo’s Chief Innovation Officer.  

Moreover, the cost of computer technology and networks is going down and becoming more widespread, which is great for counties with smaller budgets, who want to innovate, but have felt they didn’t have the money and staff skills to do so.

With “cloud computing”, where all kinds of software, hardware resources and data is available on the Internet, these counties don’t need to buy their own expensive equipment or hire large numbers if IT experts.  Instead, they can pay for what they use.

With many of their employees already owning smart phones and tablets, these counties can get access to mobile apps.  Since people have already figured out how to use apps on these devices, training is simple.  And software in the app market often costs dramatically less than traditional software. 

With videoconferencing, social media and other collaboration tools, it is also possible for these county innovators to support and help each other at any time.

These three big trends — widespread technology, cloud computing and mobile devices — may seem familiar to those in the IT industry.  But the reality is that this combination is relatively recent and still maturing.

All in all, however, this adds up to an unprecedented potential for innovation in local government.  It just needs the right platform and the people who will act as a catalyst for that potential to be realized.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis


New York State Technology Leadership Academy

In two weeks, the New York State Technology Leadership Academy will take place in Albany, New York.  This event brings together hundreds of the technology executives who try to make technology serve, ever better, the needs of the people of New York.

I’m on a panel Thursday, April 18, talking about Deep Engagement with the citizens of New York, enabling them to co-create public policy and deliver public services.  

As befitting the topic of the panel, there is now an opportunity to direct the conversation.  You can share your ideas or participate in the live conversation on April 18 at 11 AM Eastern Time.  Go to 

© 2013 Norman Jacknis


Does The President Need A 5th Column?

President Obama is now in his second term and he seems to realize that his ability to get things done through legislation is limited.  So he is very much dependent on his executive powers, including executive orders which can get him partly down the road he wants to go.

As chief executive, he also has at his disposal the formidable executive branch of the Federal government.  Every day, millions of Federal employees make decisions affecting the lives of tens of millions of other Americans in countless ways.  However, to an outside observer, the President has not adequately mobilized these employees to help him achieve his goals.  

Partly this is due to the fact that, like many other Presidents, Governors, Mayors and other public sector chief executives, he has focused on the formal organizational structure of the bureaucracy.  But, besides the President’s wishes, Federal employees face pressures from Congress, their own career bosses, the personal agendas of Cabinet secretaries and other political appointees.

This is why in his classic book, Presidential Power, Richard Neustadt starts with the story of President Truman speaking about what his successor, President Eisenhower, would face:

He’ll sit here and he’ll say, “Do this! Do that!” And nothing will happen. Poor Ike.  It wont be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating. 

Many a chief executive in the public sector has heard “yes” many times, only to find out six months later that nothing happened to actually implement that supposed affirmation by staff.

In the election of 2008, many Internet observers were impressed by the Obama campaigns use of Web-based tools and social organization to win a tough primary campaign against the “inevitable”, establishment candidacy of Hillary Clinton.  Yet, the lessons of the campaign seem to have been forgotten when the President took office in 2009.  

Now the President has another chance and he should consider creating his own “fifth column”.   I realize the phrase “fifth column” has negative connotations, since it has designated a group of supporters who are hidden within and undermine the enemy camp.  

But that may be exactly what the leader of an entrenched bureaucracy needs — a group of supporters, at all levels, who will help him achieve his goals.  The President can mobilize an informal network of the large number of change agents and innovators in Federal service, a network that can exist in parallel to the formal organization.  By doing this, he can also provide encouragement to those innovators, who may sometimes feel lonely and could get support from each other. 

Of course, there were be those who object to anyone, even the President, trying to sidestep the formal organization chart.  That’s nice in theory, but many long time senior executives in Federal service already know that, in practice, its the informal relationships that let them get things done.  Why shouldn’t the President learn these same techniques?

Various Internet collaboration tools, like wikis, social media and video chat, make creating this informal network a lot easier than would have been the case decades ago.  Indeed, some of this informal network already exists.  This week, for example, there is #SocialGov Summit 2013, hosted by the 18-month old Federal Social Media Community of Practice (

Build on that base, expand it to a larger network of innovators and the President may find it easier to get things done — at least in the Executive Branch.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis


Social Media In A Disaster

This is an age of ubiquitous communications, at least in the form of text and voice.  (We’re not quite there yet with video, but that’s just down the road.)

But some media have been diminishing in importance, while others grow.  The ability to reach most Americans in a hurry by just tapping into three television networks is gone, as viewership of network television decreases over time.  On the other hand, there has been a growing use of social media.

So government officials, who are responsible for handling disasters and emergencies, have been expanding their use of social media and experimenting with it.

And, of course, social media are social — which means that emergency news will be more widely distributed by those who initially receive it.  They help the government do its work.

Here are just a few examples:

  • Not surprisingly, college security officials have used social media during lockdowns and shooting incidents.
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) [check name] has its own Twitter feed @fema .
  • During the wild fires in Los Angeles a couple of years ago, the Los Angeles Fire Department also used Twitter with a twist.  In addition to getting the word out, they asked residents to use Twitter to let them know where the fire seemed to be headed.  It was a kind of instant collective intelligence arm of the fire fighters.
  • As a result of horrendous floods last year, this January, Queensland, Australia launched an app called Ready Queensland, in which volunteers are quickly mobilized using their smart phones.  See  for more information.

With collaboration among Internet/smartphone users growing, I would expect to see some other government developed the next generation of the Ready Queensland app — one which enabled people to coordinate their activities in response to a a crisis.  

I realize this poses challenges to the traditional understanding of emergency managers as to how they do their job.  But it is likely they will see the benefits outweigh the disadvantages, as people who are organized together do better in a crisis than a disorganized, ignorant and, thereby, panicked mob.  

© 2012 Norman Jacknis


US Mayors discuss social media

The last plenary session of the US Conference of Mayors ( mid-winter meeting consisted of a panel of mayors discussing their use and reaction to social media.  

But, first, one side observation about the audience.  Last year and certainly two years ago, it was rare to see much technology in the audience at a mayors’ meeting, aside from traditional cell phones.  At this session, more than half the audience of mayors seemed to have iPads and almost all of the rest smartphones.  This, in itself, is a sea change in attitudes and understanding of technology among elected officials.
Perhaps the biggest news about this session is that it was held and that the mayors were leading it.  Here are some of the, perhaps not surprising,  highlights that give a flavor of the discussion:
  • Some of the mayors, a minority, tied the rise of social media to the increase in petitions to recall mayors from office — even a short time after the election when the mayor won.
  • Social media cannot be treated in the same way that mayors used to handle a response to a letter from a constituent, in part because of the expectation of a rapid response and in part because the request and response are both visible to a wider audience.  At the same time, there is still a large constituency which is not using social media, so the traditional forms of public communications must also be accommodated.
  • The 24 hour a day nature of the Internet and social media also means that there are no private moments for mayors.  Everything they do can be recorded on video and posted shortly after the event.  
  • This also leads to a situation where the professional and personal lives of mayors get intertwined on the Internet.  Some have tried to separate these using various approaches, but the difference is often too subtle for the average resident.
  • Mayors with Facebook pages, which are completely open, find constituents using those pages to make requests for various city services.  More popular mayors in larger cities can end up maxing out at the 5,000 friend limit imposed by Facebook.  Thus, the experienced Facebook mayors recommended adopting a politician’s Facebook page.  Of course, one of the nice things about this style of page is that it is limited to “Likes”.
  • The whole experience of governing with Facebook can be overwhelming to a mayor, if the mayor doesn’t properly think it through.  The mayors who have been successful on Facebook and other social media have established a formal protocol (and staffing) within their office for managing and responding to the social media.
  • Nevertheless, none of the mayors is turning off the spigot.  They find the greater communication with residents helpful.  They noted that, especially in emergencies, social media gets the message out better than anything else.  Some have experimented with actively using social media in governing.  One example is created by the mayor of Omaha, Nebraska.

© 2012 Norman Jacknis


Questions For Academic Research

I made a presentation two weeks ago at HICSS-45, one of the largest and longest running international systems conferences.  They had a running track on e-government and related topics.

Unlike the public officials I normally interact with, this provided an opportunity to talk with the university researchers who are delving deeply into the impact of the Internet on government, politics and society.

One of their requests to me was for a list of questions that non-academics are interested in getting answers to.  I reached out to various people who are currently or have been in government positions and came up with the list below.  (I’ve imperfectly organized the list by category.)

This list is not only of value for academics looking for interesting topics, but also for non-academics to step back and think a bit about the consequences of what they’re doing.

Politics and Governance:

  • What evidence is there that governments around the world are using the change potential of new technologies, especially social technologies, to not just “do things differently” but to “do different things”?  What are the distinguishing characteristics of those governments who are doing so?
  • We have heard anecdotes about how eGovernment has increased trust in, confidence in and legitimacy of government, in place like Mexico.  What survey research, before and after the introduction of eGov, is there that demonstrates this relationship? For what kinds of citizens is the effect most positive or not? For what kinds of governments is the effect the greatest?
  • Technology is supposed to be part of a wider shift to co-design, co-production and co-development of public policy and public services.  What are the conditions that facilitate this or inhibit this shift?  
  • Is there a link between eGovernment and other aspects of the Internet that enhance or diminish the resilience of societies?

Government Services:

  • How much of the benefits promised by eGovernment have been achieved?  What are the conditions that lead to greatest likelihood of delivering on its promise and potential benefits? 
  • What is the pattern of use of eGov services and other eGov tools? Has it been increasing, decreasing, or plateauing?  How do demographic, attitudinal, behavioral, and other factors affect the degree to which a person will use the Internet to interact with government?
  • To what degree and in what ways does the experience of citizens as consumers in the virtual marketplace on the Internet affect their expectations of how government should work?
  • What are the priorities and expectations of citizens, politicians and bureaucrats for technology-enabled government?  What accounts for any observed differences?
  • How is technology changing what it means to be a public servant and public servants view their relationship to citizens?

Citizen Behavior:

  • What are factors — personal, societal, governmental, technological — that result in citizens moving from inattention to lurking to higher levels of participation in Internet based public policy discussions?
  • Is there a relationship between increasing use of social media by government “actors” (politicians or bureaucrats) and trust/confidence in government?  
  • Noting that there are a variety of Internet-based tools, how do different technologies enhance or diminish the ability of people to collaborate on public policy or political action? 
  • As technology makes it possible for people to participate in “local affairs” from a distance, how and when do they decide to participate virtually? For those who have allegiances to more than one jurisdiction, how do they decide what is their primary allegiance and concern?

Technology Challenges:

  • How do you build a network that is secure, yet integrates the technology in the homes and offices of citizens with the technology owned by the governments serving them?
  • As the movement to the Internet of things means that government covers the geography it controls with sensors everywhere, how can this mass of real-time data be quickly analyzed and correlated, and then systems control and respond to anomalies that are detected?
  • Governments have experimented with various technological means of interacting with citizens, from web-based versions of paper forms to social media to geographic mashups, etc.  What software works best for what kinds of interactions?

Please feel free to contribute other questions so we can continue the dialog between the researchers and the rest of us.

© 2012 Norman Jacknis


Three Key Success Factors For Online Citizen Participation

In his latest book, Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky notes (page 28):

"When the police want to understand whether someone could have taken a particular action, they look for means, motive and opportunity. Means and motive are the how and why of a particular action, and opportunity is the where and with whom. Do people have the capability to do something with their cumulative free time, the motivation to do it, and the opportunity to do it?”

These three questions provide a useful way to think about citizen online participation in public affairs and should be asked about any such project.

© 2011 Norman Jacknis


The Deliberatorium

One of the challenges facing those of us who are trying to use the Internet to encourage the large scale involvement of citizens in public policy making is what is an appropriate tool to use.

There have been various attempts at somehow making easy the involvement of citizens in public policy discussions, while organizing the richness of conversation and ideas from many people.  It’s not easy.

One possibility is the Deliberatorium, which has been worked on by the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence.  Their goal is to overcome the weaknesses of previous efforts, including “Disorganized content, Low signal-to-noise ratio, Quantity rather than Depth and Polarization.”

You can see a video they produced at

and more information at

© 2011 Norman Jacknis


Crowdsourcing in Michigan

I’ve been advising one of the leading local governments in the US, Oakland County, Michigan (population 1.3 million), on their next-gen government strategy.  This has included co-production, which they have cleverly combined with social media.

Recently they opened up a crowdsourcing site using IdeaScale software.  Their explanation of it is simple (see link below) and is intentionally set up in a way that looks like government, and not an edgy hip, website.  This is the heartland of the US, after all.

Aside from the internal approvals and legalities, this was pretty straightforward to set up and I expect to see other local governments of similar size to start copying this effort.  

The URL:

© 2011 Norman Jacknis


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


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 


Virtual vs. Physical Interactions

In response to my post of the Chattanooga editorial, someone wrote to me that he thought that virtual communications would make physical interaction even more important.  I won’t go into the whole argument here, but note that this is more sophisticated than the simple comparison of virtual vs. physical interactions that many people have made.

Nevertheless, I did think that it deserved a response and here it is:

I think the Internet in its current form (texting, email, social media, etc.) is still an immature form of communications.  So the crux of the matter is not so much whether the current Internet will change how people interact, but how the ubiquitous video communications of the future will affect behavior.

Our physical selves will not disappear, so there will still be physical interaction.  But I suspect that these interactions — and the cities in which these interactions takes place — will be of a different nature than what we’ve been accustomed to.  I’ve been working with the mayors, in part, on what that future city should look like and what will be its functions.  Most under threat is the urban model that primarily views the city as the dominant, centralized location of economic production.  Indeed, the traditional physical business cluster has already dissipated in many places — Detroit and Wall Street, to name just two famous clusters which are no longer as dominant in their industries as they used to be. 

Economic relationships will perhaps be more affected by ubiquitous video communications than other human relationships because video communications increases the likelihood that trust will develop between potential business partners.

Of course, how this all plays out will be a cultural question.  I remember that my grandmother believed that the telephone was only to be used for very minor or extremely urgent conversations — nothing in the wide swath of human conversation in the middle, especially not business.  If you wanted to converse with her, you saw her personally, probably preceded by a letter.  My parents thought this quaint and had no problem at all conducting important business matters on the telephone.  My bet is that the next generation will take video chat for granted as a perfectly acceptable way of doing business.

Time will tell — so let’s make a date in 20 years to see which of these opposing views gets closer to the future reality. 

© 2011 Norman Jacknis


This blog explores the future of government, the economy, business and knowledge. It will be a combination of my own thinking and pointers to interesting stuff that I see. You can follow me (@NormanJacknis) on Twitter to learn when blogs are posted.

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