Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Why Gov 2.0 Matters To Me

I posted this here last night but took it down because it felt too personal and too much about my story. The reason I wrote it this way is because I didn't want to presume why it should matter to other people, but rather describe why it matters to me and let others find commonality in it...or not. Tim O'Reilly just posed the question: "What does Gov 2.0 mean to me?" I think he may be asking a slightly different question (definition vs. motivation), but given that I decided to put this back out there.

Friends and family have been asking me why I'm into Gov 2.0 and what I get out of it. I'm going to attempt to answer these questions for them and for me here in this post.

For me, Gov 2.0 is personal. I can't answer the question without relating it to my own story:

I was born on October 14, 1970 at Portsmouth Naval Hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia. My father was stationed at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach. From where I sit writing this, Oceana is not more than a quarter of a mile away (as the jets/crows fly).


My mother was a teacher in the Virginia Beach Public Schools system. I grew up in that school system and my daughter is in it now, 5th grade. I have not always lived here. I spent about 10 years in the New River Valley of southwest Virginia for college, work, and graduate school. I did not intend to come back to Virginia Beach after grad school. In 1999 I was graduating with a Master of Science in Computer Science and Applications degree from Virginia Tech. It was decent ticket to anywhere and I was looking west to San Antonio, San Francisco, and Redmond. But events unfolded and I transitioned from a part-time graduate research assistant at Virginia Tech to a full-time Research Associate at Old Dominion University Research Foundation, in Norfolk, VA. Fast-forward to today, in the late summer of 2009, and I'm right back where I started. I think my internal magnets have this lat/lon set as my home base.

I'm not at ODU anymore. Today I'm a government contractor at a company I co-founded. Mostly I am a Defense contractor. I didn't set out to be that either. In fact, I was explicitly trying to avoid it. I don't want to get into all of the reasons why. It's far too complicated for anyone but me to understand and I'm not even sure I do. At risk of abusing a metaphor, suffice it to say that my internal magnets draw me to other things. But I have grown and learned as Defense contractor. I have banished narrow prejudices and have adopted new world views. I have also rekindled something in me that was instilled at a very early age by my parents: the importance of public service.

I can still see my dad standing in our driveway at my childhood home, as I would have looked up to him, telling me about public service. I remember he tended to talk specifically about civil service. Though he was in the Navy he didn't necessarily talk about military service. Grandma Curry worked for the U.S. Customs Service and I know my dad admired that. Dad also talked a lot about how involved Grandpa Curry was with Miami-Dade Parks & Recreation, in Miami, FL.

I've rarely shied away from taking initiative where I see something needs to be done and participation in organizations comes naturally to me. I've ignored the call to service once or twice. After 17 years growing up a Navy brat, the effects of having a parent coming and going every 6-8 months, and lacking any of my own life direction, I steered away from ROTC and a long term commitment to a military career. I could have gone into civil service, I suppose, but another thing about my internal composition: I'm an entrepreneur and I don't care much for layered, abstract bureaucracy. I'm not so much into rising up through the ranks as making my own way. It's not that rising up through the ranks is bad. It's highly admirable, in fact. It's just not me. For me, patience is a trained virtue. If there's one thing I've learned as a government contractor is that working either with or for government requires intense patience.

So here I am. I'm a Generation Xer. I have not served in the military or civil service. I am easily frustrated by government process. Yet, I have an intense inclination toward public service. How do those add up? What can I do to serve government? (I think this is a question lots of people like me are asking themselves.)

I think today the answers are non-traditional.

I am active in the PTA for my daughter's school. I try to remain active with our Community League. For the past two years I've organized our neighborhood's participation in Clean the Bay Day. Before then our neighborhood didn't participate in CTBD. Of course, these aren't government activities. I think they help government activities, though, and that's significant.

For me, Gov 2.0 represents a near-perfect fit with my personality, direction, and goals. I feel like it was made just for me or that I was made just to live at this time. I really do.

There is and will continue to be no shortage of debate about what Gov 2.0 is, exactly. In fact, during the second week of September there is a "summit" in Washington D.C. dedicated to the topic. Is it tech? Does it include non tech? How does it work? Who can participate? I'm not sure framing it is as important as learning to recognize it from multiple perspectives and acting. I tend to take a literal interpretation. For me, that means there is a distinct connection between Gov 2.0 and Web 2.0. Therefore, for me, Gov 2.0 tends to be significantly Web/tech enabled. But as someone experienced in working for government, I know that tech requires policy and that both are intended to work for people.

This year I attended three important "unconferences" for Gov 2.0 movement: Transparency Camp East, Gov 2.0 Camp East, and Transparency Camp West. I will be at the Gov 2.0 Summit in a couple of weeks and at Gov 2.0 Expo next Spring. What most interests me is how I can use Gov 2.0 techniques to improve the way my city functions. I am interested also in how my customers will respond to Gov 2.0 and how I can apply it to their needs, but my motive is not winning more contracts. Sure, some will say that if they think it's what other people want to hear. Let there be no doubt that I want my business to succeed and I want to prosper from it. But I'm willing to take it on faith that both things will happen if I just keep following my passion and don't resist the pull of my internal magnets. I just want to "work on stuff that matters."

Increasingly, I want to work on stuff that matters here in Virginia Beach and in my region. But I also want to work on stuff that matters for my state, our nation, and our world. I am particularly drawn toward applications in education, where I see a growing gap between public and private education that is not just affecting the fringes, but is squarely squeezing out the middle and making our nation "dumber" as a whole. I see Gov 2.0 as a means for correcting this troublesome situation. (In general, I think Gov 2.0 can be particularly effective in areas that lack models, process, and funding.)

Early next year I hope to be kicking off the inaugural CityCamp, along with Jen Pahlka from Tech Web. Our goal is to start an unconference around the theme "Gov 2.0 goes local." Jen also has another project in the works that is very much in line with this theme. It's called Code for America and it's modeled after the successful Teach for America program. I look forward to seeing that take shape.

So, this is about the examples set by my parents (and their parents) and the lessons they taught me. It's about wanting to be a part of the solution in my community and my school system; not just a sideline complainer. It's about recognizing that I have something to offer that government needs. This is my opportunity to serve. This is why Gov 2.0 matters to me.

2 comments:

rls03 said...

Kevin, great post! Very moving and passionate.

Erin said...

Excellent post. While I can't recall specific conversations with either parent about the importance of public service - I do know that it was somehow instilled in me. I guess more through the actions - dad serving in the military and mom being very involved with supporting the wives. And of course from doing things like Clean the Bay day. It wasn't just telling us public service was important - they led by example.