As Congress returns to Washington after this weekend's somber anniversary, the conversation on Capitol Hill will inevitably shift to the midterm elections. The White House is faced with high unemployment, the long war abroad and domestic priorities that range from education to energy policy to immigration to cybersecurity.
In that context, it might be easy for citizens and officials alike to let deep discussion of open government be subsumed under the tsunami of partisan rancor, entertainment news and horse race coverage of the elections. That would be a mistake. There are legitimate arguments to be had about the tech policy choices of Congress and the White House, and they will no doubt be on display in the pages of the country's newspapers and hotly debated in comment threads.
What's not in contention, however, is the exploration of technology-enabled platforms for a government of, by, for and with the people. This deserves close scrutiny.
Patching open government
As Nancy Scola noted at techPresident in a post about Thomas.gov, "Skepticism about the transformative effect of open government isn't surprising," but backing that critique up with rigorous analysis is crucial. That's precisely what the White House's open government directive received last week, when the Sunlight Foundation's executive director, Ellen Miller, delivered a bracing analysis of its progress.
As Miller said in our subsequent interview, the launch of open government was inspirational, but the "follow through has left something to be desired." The bottom line "is that we're not seeing the kind of data made available that we were promised," said Miller. We talked more about whether a change in Congress will give a boost to the transparency movement, and the commonalities between open government in the United Kingdom and the United States.
Miller sees congruency in finding accountability for government, across the ideological spectrum, in finding efficiencies and effectiveness. She said the Sunlight foundation is working on two sides: helping and prodding entities to publish data, and helping government engage with citizens to co-create government. That's enabled through the tools created at Sunlight Labs, like Poligraft.com or InfluenceExplorer.com, TransparencyData.com or "Sunlight Live."
Miller's strong speech prodded open source advocate Gunnar Hellekson to respond that government doesn't look good naked, which is to say that transparency through open government is a messy, iterative process that inevitably reveals some ugly truth in the process. If people look back at how far open government has come, as Derek Willis wrote, the perspective shifts. In responding to Tom Lee's post on open government carrots and sticks, Hellekson borrowed from the open source world to describe Sunlight's role as a welcome patch.
That considered approach was adopted by MIT professor Andew McAfee's post on Gov 2.0 vs the Beast of Bureaucracy, where he weighed the reasons to be optimistic against the reasons to be concerned. McAfee wrote:
There now exists a fantastic set of digital tools to make government data and services available, and to make the work of the state more open, transparent, and participative. The idea of "government as platform" that Tim [O'Reilly] has been so eloquent about is not a pipe dream; it's feasible right now, and is only going to get easier to realize thanks to relentless technology improvement and innovation.
The challenge for innovators is the inertia and immensity of a self-perpetuating bureaucracy, which waits out reformers, whether they're working to implement open government or other initiatives. Like Miller, however, McAfee pulled no punches in his final assessment of whether improvements are necessary, particularly in providing e-services to veterans:
The VA has rolled out an ebenefits resource where veterans can instantly see the status of their claims, and the agency is to be applauded for this Gov 2.0 innovation. But the overall lack of state-of-the art digital tools at the VA, and the persistence of a bureaucracy that takes more than 160 days to let someone know if they'll receive disability payments for the limbs they lost in Iraq or Afghanistan is not a problem that needs to be fixed. It's a moral stain on the country. Sometimes it's important to speak plainly.
No open government tool has addressed that backlog. However, Peter Levin, the CTO of the Department of Veterans Affairs, appears to be focused on working toward improving that situation.
New open government initiatives
Four initiatives launched at the Gov 2.0 Summit are relatively modest in their immediate impact, but they could fundamentally improve different aspects of government.
First, the FCC launched new APIs and a developer engagement platform, extending the notion of government as a platform to the country's top communications regulator. The launch of FCC.gov/developer is the precursor to a larger plan to reboot FCC.gov with open government, as I've previously reported. We should see the launch of a new FCC site by January of next year.
Second, the General Services Agency launched Challenge.gov. Does Challenge.gov deserve a fist bump? Is it an excuse killer? As CityCamp founder Kevin Curry pointed out, "what people may not understand about Challenge.gov is that it isn't about the website. It's about changing the procurement model."
The question of whether crowdsourcing national challenges leads to better solutions will remain outstanding for months time to come.
Third, in an unscheduled moment, deputy White House CTO Andrew McLaughlin was joined by Carl Malamud on-stage to talk about Video.gov, a "platform that will connect all of the disparate video archives of the federal government departments and agencies, as well as easy access to feeds and an inspiring presentation of live video feeds from across the government."
McLaughlin's conversation with Malamud follows Beth Noveck's talk on "Ten Ways to Change The World," which offered insight into the administration's perspective on open government progress over the past year.
Finally, Civic Commons launched at Gov 2.0 Summit. Civic Commons is a code-sharing initiative between cities aimed at helping city governments cut IT costs. One of the first chunks of code in Civic Commons is an open-sourced federal IT dashboard. DC CTO Bryan Sivak, Code For America's Jen Pahlka and OpenPlans' Nick Grossman announced Civic Commons.
Open government? Yes we scan
The most rousing invocation of the conference was delivered by the man who has done as much as anyone outside of government to open it up. Carl Malamud's talk, the "Currents of our Time", provided historical context and it challenged the feds to go much further with open government.
Malamud defined three steps government needs to take:
- Finish the open government revolution: Define bulk data standards and enforce them. Release more data online. Update the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for the Internet Age, and publish those materials gained online.
- Get serious about digitization: Embrace a national scanning initiative. "If we can put a man on the moon, surely we can launch the Library of Congress into cyberspace."
- Start an open systems revolution: Create a "Computer Commission" with the kind of authority the Civil Service Commission created in the 19th Century. This commission should "conduct agency-by-agency reviews and help us reboot .gov, flipping the bit from a reliance on over-designed custom systems to one based on open-source building blocks, judicious use of commercial off-the-shelf-components, and much tighter control of the beltway bandits."
Recapturing the open government genie
What to take away from Malamud's "technohomiletics," Miller's open government scorecard, Noveck's citations or the rich online discussions about accountability stimulated by Gov 2.0 Summit?
First, open government is complicated. It's risky. It's incremental. It's a largely unfunded mandate. Cost savings founded in reducing FOIA requests by publishing public information online often remain anticipated, not realized. The cultural shifts required for full adoption are not in the DNA of many federal or state agencies. There are new security and privacy risks that the intelligence directorates, citizens, and developers are just beginning to appreciate. Consider what it will mean to bring open government to courts, for example. As Jim Stogdill argues in his take on Gov 2.0 and open government: "... fixing government IT may also mean fixing incentives and making a cognitive leap to intentional emergence."
Second, open government patches like Clearspending.org can make a difference in holding transparency to account. But none of it will be easy, or fast, or certain. Any "Government 2.0 beta" will have crashes, bugs and failures. Mistakes can't be tolerated in the code for a nuclear launch vehicle, but in the messy intersection of citizens, open data, civic hackers, government agencies, new media and private industry, they are inevitable.
Finally, the Internet's disruption to communications and secrecy -- as recently embodied by Wikileaks -- is not a genie that can be stuffed back into a dusty archive. Would the electorate tolerate Thomas.gov, Data.gov or Recovery.gov being shut down? Will Australia or the United Kingdom roll back their Gov 2.0 efforts? As citizens turn to the Internet for government data, policy and services, the importance of relevant and accessible information only grows.