WhiteHouse.gov: Pragmatism and the Nobility of Public Service

WhiteHouse.gov is a great start, and is part of something much bigger that we're only beginning to understand.

It's part of a number of social media efforts that also include recovery.gov, nationalservice.gov, the new HealthReform.gov and the entirety of the accountability and transparency movement.

While I'm pretty excited about what we can do with social media, I feel the greatest potential related to these efforts is not about the technology. It's about the culture, the people working on these efforts.

They're combining pragmatism, a spirit of the doable, with a deep commitment to public service. That public service commitment is shared not only by government workers but also by workers from private industry, an emerging collection of public/private partnerships. That is, this partnership involves people committed to public service, regardless of employer.

Dealing with the challenges we currently face does require getting very pragmatic, working with the system as it exists, with a commitment to improving that system. That's why the people involved in these efforts come from two cultures, which do have considerable overlap:

* Pragmatists with deep experience in Washington culture. They know how to get stuff done.

* Innovators with real experience in transformative culture in real organizations, focusing on applied social media. They know how to improve systems.

There are a lot of people who hybridize those cultures, which means this distinction is overly simplistic, but it makes the conversation easier.

(I hear one tends to refer to the experienced Washington pragmatists as "wonks.” The innovators are "nerds," including myself, not that I'm all that innovative.)

Please note that this isn't as novel as I'm implying, since clusters of pragmatists and innovators have been working together for some time in Washington. They tell me they've kept a very low profile until recently.

I have great hope for this administration, since we see it bringing together the pragmatists and innovators in hybrid organizations. I've seen this first-hand in the White House, in offices including Science and Technology Policy, New Media, and Citizen Participation and Engagement. Also, I've seen it first-hand in the State Department, focusing on Public Diplomacy.

Small things matter: In one case I've seen someone from the pragmatic, bureaucratic world sitting right next to someone from the social media world, in the White House. That's symbolic of the cultural changes in process.

I think we're seeing the slow transformation of Washington culture, from the bottom up, by people passionately committed to public service and its transformation. It's a slow, incremental process, but very real.


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