Government Should Give Citizens the Tools to Help Themselves

Web 2.0 enables agencies to provide the next generation IT workforce with leadership experience, to be nimble and to reduce risk.

by / May 20, 2008 0

Photo: Wired's Chris Anderson

Be nimble, fail fast and embrace the notion of perpetual beta, Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine urged attendees in his opening keynote address at the Conference on California's Future held recently in Sacramento. The 21st century is much more consumer-centric and the one-size-fits-all model of bringing products and services to market is losing prevalence.

Anderson pointed out that there has been a 21st century shift in consumer culture in the United States particularly centered on the media. This shift, he said, has been driven by the Internet and the adoption of other technologies such as printing-on-demand and just-in-time manufacturing. Whereas in the 1950s the majority of Americans tuned in to and discussed the same shows around the office water cooler, now audiences have many more choices-not to mention more control over when and where to watch that programming. Examples of this shift, he said, can be seen in many other products including music, movies on DVD, books and even beer.

Anderson pointed to 'N Sync's release of their album No Strings Attached in March of 2000. This album sold 1.1 million copies on the first day it was released and 2.2 million in the first week. Incidentally, after its release, the number of albums being awarded gold sales awards started to decline dramatically. Anderson contends this was not due to a decline in the quality of music being produced, rather an increase in the number of albums being produced for more narrowly defined audiences.

Evidence of this can also be seen in beer, he said. Just consider the increase in choices Budweiser has offered customers between 1997 and 2000. There has been quite an expansion in choice.

Even more broadly, Anderson noted that fastest growing segment of the market for books and DVD movies is on the Internet, not in retail stores. Supporting this, iTunes recently became the number one music retailer in the country.

Lessons for Government

So what does all this have to do with government? Anderson said chief information officers and technology employees should embrace the above examples of what is known as "the long tail" in developing services for citizens. Rather than a few "one size fits all" products, the long tail describes a huge marketplace of narrowly targeted products and services that continue to meet the needs of a smaller number of consumers.

The long tail describes a curve of a product popularity graph where 20 percent of products in a given sector are known by all consumers while 80 percent of products are popular with only 20 percent of consumers, for example. The result is a diversity of products to meet a diversity of tastes.

As for product and service development, Anderson suggests moving away from conservation of resources and toward the exploitation of resources -- to stop annoying people with scarcity thinking (i.e. that storage is expensive at $240 per terabyte). The bureaucratic culture of big business and government alike can benefit from a shift to a "we'll figure it out" mindset as opposed to the current thinking that requires return on investment memos and includes a fear of legal liability.

Anderson noted Wired's parent company Conde Nast has embraced the idea of giving consumers more control of content with their style blog while maintaining editorial control with Vogue. What's more, Conde Nast launched for very low cost over a weekend using tools available for free on the Internet, Anderson noted, giving the company a very low barrier to exit in case of failure.

So what should government agencies do to embrace the

niche markets present among citizens? Anderson suggests using web 2.0 technologies, as Conde Nast has done, to empower a new generation of workers to gain experience developing projects, taking risks and learning from mistakes. He noted that the benefits of nimble application development and rapid delivery to market, along with the idea of the project being in "perpetual beta" outweigh the risks of bringing a product to market few will want to use.

Anderson gave an example of a traffic ticket he received while in Truckee, Calif., and the difficulty he had in paying the ticket because the service wasn't available when he needed it. The letter he received directing payment of the ticket -- after multiple exchanges with the city -- was partially hand written and partially typed, he said. Anderson contended that the whole thing could have been typed and saved both him and the city considerable time.

In the end, government should give citizens the tools to help themselves; much as Google has done with its free Mail, Maps and other applications.