What Government Managers Can Learn From Google

April 2, 2009
By H. Mosher

In Christopher Dorobek's latest Incoming column, he bids readers to have a look at What Would Google Do?, a book by Jeff Jarvis that examines how people can learn from the search engine giant. The lessons, he says, are particularly important for government managers to wrap their brains around:

The book taps into the idea that information is power, but that the real power of information comes in the sharing. Among the principles the book outlines are: give up control; get out of the way; and make mistakes well.

These three principles are useful particularly for government. They are almost directly applicable to government management, and applying them will be particularly challenging.

For giving up control, the book argues that Google does not try to be everything for everyone. To the contrary, it tries to link to everyone. Government agencies tend to want to control information. They become concerned about people misinterpreting the information that is presented. These days, people do not want to be controlled. Agencies still must perform their assessment of data and make it relevant to citizens, but they also must cede control and make data available to people in raw form.

Getting out of the way is related to giving up control, but too often agencies believe that they have to do everything. That is not true. A case in point is the District of Columbia's remarkable Apps for Democracy program. Under former district Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra, who was named the Obama administration's chief information officer in March, the program gave up control by making government data available-and then held a contest for applications using that data.


To make mistakes well is one of the most difficult aspects for agencies-and currently the most disconcerting. Government is terrible at making mistakes. Nobody tolerates them-not Congress, not those involved with oversight, not even the media. This approach has created an ultraconservative culture that is intolerant of any change or innovation. What would Google do? Google would beta-test everything. Gmail is still in beta, for goodness' sake. That is largely because the company still is making changes.

Read more, including additional examples, in the column What Would Google Government Look Like?, from the April 2009 issue of SIGNAL Magazine. And we'd like to hear from you on any of these topics. Can government learn to "make mistakes well?" Can it get a new perspective on controlling information? Will government get out of the way?

And, perhaps more importantly, if it indeed has to: How will it?

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