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Turks, Tribes and Trouble

Networked approaches may be trendy but tap lack of trust in government.

by / September 7, 2006

A pair of tragic anniversaries two weeks apart is grist for the conflagration of the congressional midterms and 36 gubernatorial elections, not to mention races for statewide constitutional officers and a host of citizen initiatives, propositions and referenda. En route to 11/7, we are being told that 8/29 is the new 9/11 -- that is, Hurricane Katrina is still trying to teach us lessons we did not learn from the terrorist attacks that were defining moments of this decade.

State and local emergency management organizations continue their efforts to build new consortia to strengthen community preparedness and mutual aid response mechanisms. At the same time, communities outside of government are wrestling with the same challenges, and are simply dissatisfied with conventional bureaucratic approaches and the attendant blame shifting among levels of government.

Jeff Jarvis, blogger, veteran commentator and ubiquitous media gadfly turned associate professor and director of the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York's new Graduate School of Journalism, coined the term Recovery 2.0 within a week of Hurricane Katrina. Speaking on public radio, he asked rhetorically, "Isn't the government just the people? Isn't it better if we can rely on all of our neighbors; if our neighbors are brought together with the resources that are necessary -- we can bring in police and churches and hospitals and whatever we need to solve a problem? I think that's a better way to do things ... If the government doesn't do it, maybe we can. And what we have to do as a people is not just demand better from government, but also demand better from ourselves, and use these tools and make them available and show the way. We have to lead the government and not wait to be led."

A quote attributed to Doc Searls, perhaps still best known as the co-author of the aging dot-com treatise The Cluetrain Manifesto, is more pointed: "This is not a war on terror but a war on error."

Readers of this page would be excused for taking such things personally, but Jarvis, Searls and their ilk are not inherently anti-government, but pro-community. More precisely, they see latent potential at the intersection of the network and what Jarvis calls the tribe to put the "self" back into self-government. This nascent Recovery 2.0 movement has common cause with The Data Warehousing Institute (TDWI), a Seattle-based educational association that is leading Project Visibility. That initiative seeks to apply business intelligence technologies and open source thinking to make public organizations more transparent.

Lamenting the excesses of early federal aid to Gulf Coast storm victims, TDWI Web editor Eric Kavanagh calls for a national cadre of citizen auditors that would combine human judgment with Web services to better protect the public purse.

Kavanagh sees's Mechanical Turk -- a Web service that seems at once counterintuitive and yet perfectly suited to the work of government -- as prototypical for the project and its new generation of citizen auditors. In brief, the Mechanical Turk taps its network of prequalified humans to do things that cannot be -- or have not yet been -- automated through machine-to-machine Web services as it would any remote procedure call. Perhaps it is the revenge of "semi-automation" that dates to the origins of government modernization a half century ago, but Kavanagh takes delight in suggesting that, "Somewhere in this country of 300 million people ... someone surely knows something about anything."

Like the loosely architected Web services they rely on, both Recovery 2.0 and Project Visibility are networks of loosely joined people working on projects that reflect things about which they care the most. Such initiatives could radically redefine our understanding of public service. Or they could languish in a parallel universe, dismissed by government veterans for their naivet

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Paul W. Taylor Contributing Writer

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.

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