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Jarvis Describes Government in the Google Age

NEW YORK -- Jeff Jarvis, blogger and author of the book "What Would Google Do?" took the stage to answer a question from the organizers of the Personal Democracy Forum 2009: How should government take advantage of the lessons of Google?

Jarvis said that the Web has taught us a few simple rules.

First, either give the people control and we will use it, or don't and you will lose us. Craigslist, he said, is a great example of some code that people adopted and used in ways that its author had never considered.

The second lesson has to do with transparency. "It is true that Google is not transparent, but Google expects us to be transparent," Jarvis said.

As for transparency in government, Jarvis simply reiterated advice he'd given the year before. "I joked last year that we should abolish the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) because we shouldn't need it," he said. "Government should have to ask our permission to keep things from us."

Google is famous for its "don't be evil" motto and code of conduct. Jarvis said that in essence this is a license for employees to question the company's decisions, and that government employees should have the same license.

Had Wall Street allowed employees to question corporate decisions on this basis, some of the present problems might have been avoided, he contends. But would it work? "Should we do this on Wall Street," Jarvis asked. "I'm an optimist to a fault."

Jarvis said that like Google, government should focus on core competencies. "Efficiency means we do what we do best and link to the rest," he said.

He added that Google's ability to release products in beta and accept input from the Internet community is a strength.

In contrast, he added, government is stuck in a mythical industrial age where every product was perfect in its initial release. "We must move beyond the myth of perfection," he said. "We must give government permission to fail. Experimenting is good. We can learn by failure."

He said that the only danger of transparency is that it's driven by a desire to "get the bastards" rather than to improve government, and that it could exacerbate paralysis caused by government employees who are afraid of failure and not rewarded for success.

A new government will have audience participation

Jarvis then dashed around the audience with a microphone, soliciting ideas. One attendee said that government should be more like an open source project, a meritocracy with revision control and a community.

An attendee replied that there should be no bugs, but Jarvis said that was not possible. The suggestion ran counter to Jarvis' rule that government must be allowed to fail.

"It should be measurable," one said, perhaps unaware that the Obama administration is attempting to make it so with the Web site data.gov.

Another said that government employees should have "20 percent time" like Google employees, to spend on projects of their own design.

When one attendee asked whether people were willing to pay higher taxes for better government, Jarvis replied that with a sufficient number of volunteers, government could deliver better service without raising taxes.