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Creating new opportunities for open and participatory government

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The video below is taken from the recent 2009 Tech Agenda and Open Government talk at Google. The panel features (from right to left): Andrew Mclaughlin (mod), John Wonderlich from the Sunlight Foundation, Karina Newton (New Media Director for Speaker Nancy Pelosi), Meredith Fuchs (National Security Archive General Counsel) and Chris Barkley (Legislative Assistant to Senator Tom Coburn). There was also a discussion related to this available on Google Moderator.

The discussions expand on many areas of Open Government within the United States. The panel outline their hopes and exceptions of the new administration and where they should focus their attention. I’ve highlighted some of the interesting points below, but it’s well worth watching the video in its entirety.

What is Open Government?

The discussion began with an question relating the what open government means. The response from the panelists ranged from:

‘public means documents are online’

‘government needs to recognize how we communicate has changed and must catch up accordingly’

‘openness in government is a belief in accountability and transparency. It’s about bringing a Google type approach to government information i.e. that it is easily accessible and searchable’

The problem is that most government agencies have ‘no way of managing their electronic information’. In order to improve this Congress needs to put pressure on the White house and Agencies to keep records (and not repeat the 5m lost emails), and make these accessible to all.

Karina noted that the language about putting things online is being introduced into more bills and that this is a good step forward. For example, transactions relating to the financial rescue package must be published online within 48 hours.

On the innovative use of technology John spoke about electronic digital records management, but also the importance to have people in senior positions that believe in open government and subscribe the the inherent concepts and ways of work that it epitomizes. In this vein, a responsibility and jurisdiction over technology should be co-ordinated by a body like the prospective Office of the CTO. This Office could mandate agency databases to be interoperable and work together to increase efficiency.

Chris identified Congress as one of the obstacles in getting legislation passed. Some members of Congress would rather information was restricted and shared on a need to know basis e.g. the various research reports created for Congress, but which are not available to the public.

There was hope, however, that changes to create a more open and participatory Government could be mandated by executive order from President elect Barack Obama.

Participatory democracy

Andrew raised the question as to whether public participation actually contributes to the work and decision making of Government, or whether it’s role is to somehow placate people and make them feel as if they are being listened to. He questioned the orientation of participation given the power of certain organizations to create mass public engagement for their particular viewpoints.

John responded that we don’t know all the benefits of a participatory democracy, but cited the example of Peer to Patent as a working model of public engagement delivering concrete results in reviewing the improving the quality of Patents. He went on to say it was important to error on the side of experimentation as the benefits far outweigh any potential negative consequences. Such participation is only possible to achieve through free public access of information.

Nevertheless, the argument Andrew proposed was that participation can be most successful where there is a relatively black or white answers, whereas most Government issues are nebulous with a variety of opinions having equal merit depending on what perspective is applied. Along with this the ways in which opinions are evaluated and weighted is unclear. For example, which should be given more weight; A  few sound well structured analytical argument based on facts, or a large number of emotional responses based on individual experiences.

In the end it was considered that participation online is not designed to create direct democracy. Rather sites like change.gov provide a place for ideas to become public and achieve recognition and debate.

Innovative uses of Technology

John mentioned mySociety in the UK as being a leader in the innovative use of technology for openness and civic participation. The site FixMyStreet was mentioned as providing a simple yet powerful solution to connect the public with those in Government responsible for maintaining the public sphere. CrimeReports.com was also mentioned as providing an innovative solution to a public issue by using Government data to create an accessible and usable information tool.

Leadership

President elect Obama was suggested as being the person to promote a culture of openness and transparency across Government and its various agencies.

Meredith thought Congress should be involved:

Congress needs to make clear that the information the Government has belongs to the people, and it should be accessible to the people and there shouldn’t be obstructions to the people getting access to it.

Another view was that the office of the CTO should manage this and ensure communication between those responsible for the technology and those who care that the public get access to information.

Virtual versus Real

An interesting question was raised that online participation does not have the same visceral impact as real people physically gathered together. Given this, what is the character of online participation that makes those in Congress take notice.

Chris noted it was character of participation online and its diversity that makes an influence. There is, however, a tendency towards those most organized. Nevertheless, it’s the quality of the information and the coherence of the argument that carries weight.

Freedom of Information

A question was raised regarding the Freedom of Information act, and whether information obtained under this procedure should be made publicly available.

John thought it is first necessary to have a requirement for electronic FOI responses – something like that available in the UK. Meredith’s fantasy was for an electronic archive in the sky that would include everything that anyone has ever asked under FOI. She thought this was something the Government should be doing, and its lack of leadership and innovation in this area was a sign it has yet to fully join the world of the 21st century (i.e. a world epitomized by open and participatory Government).

Summary

Overall the panel’s view was that technology should be used as a means of increasing transparency, accountability and openness within Government. Public data means online and the placing of data in specific libraries for public consumption is incongruous to a Google world and generation of Digital Natives. Government must embrace open standards and error on the side of experimentation in its policies towards civic engagement.

Whether we’ll get a wiki generated law passed though Congress soon is questionable, but at least having this collaborative technology in the lexicon of Government broadens minds and perspectives when speaking about legislation.

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