It’s amazing how much–and how little–we know about how government works. Two examples from the news last week:
First, the Obama administration agreed to publish White House visitor logs on the Internet. The president, who promised transparency during his campaign, had fought lawsuits over the visitor logs before giving up. “Americans have a right to know whose voices are being heard in the policymaking process,” Obama said in a statement. This kind of basic information–congresssional votes, campaign contributions, texts of legislation, lobbying records, court decisions–is all more accessible than ever to the public.
Second, the New York Times reported that AltaRock Energy, a geothermal energy startup funded by Google, Kleiner Perkins and your tax dollars in the form of $6.25 million from the U.S. Department of Energy, suspended a big drilling project. I wondered: How are other DOE-backed startups doing? How many have succeeded? How many have flopped? What’s the DOE’s ROI? I couldn’t get close to an answer by searching the DOE website. I don’t know if the DOE knows. This kind of data–which provides insight into the performance of the government–is much harder to find.
But the government is becoming more open, transparent and responsive, albeit slowly. When the IBM Center for the Business of Government looked for federal government bloggers a couple of years ago, they were scarce. “There were 11 blogs, and five of them were dormant,” said John Kamensky, a senior fellow with the center, who studies government operations. Today, there are too many to count.
I met Kamensky at a lunch sponsored by a new online forum called Governing People, which is about making government smarter, more efficient and transparent. (It’s owned by Social Media Today, which also owns The Energy Collective, where I’m on the blogger board.) The event was held on the event of the Gov 2.0 Summit, a big conference about how the Internet can reshape government. Interesting stuff.
Here are a few things I learned from the lunch panel:
Lots is happening behind the government firewall. Dean Halstead, a colloboration architect with Microsoft, told me that the U.S. Army is using a variety of collaborative tools so that soldiers can share information with one another and with the Pentagon. Halstead, who happens to be an army veteran, went to Baghdad a few years ago and found military guys using blogs, wikis, podcasts and video (all part of a MSFT product called SharePoint that helps people collaborate) to turn the army into a smarter organization. “The soldiers that are employed down range are the most inventive and adaptive government people that I’ve seen,” Halstead said. It makes sense, when you think about it: today’s soldiers grew up using Facebook and reading blogs. Similarly, according to Kamensky, thousands of building managers who are part of the General Services Administration are sharing best practices on how to operate their properties more efficiently. A couple of years ago, The TSA (Transportation Security Administration) held an IdeaFactory online to tap into the collective wisdom of its workers. Pretty cool.
Bureacracy remains a big problem. No surprise there, but agencies are amazingly slow to learn from one another. Each one tends to develop its own policies and practices. “We don’t have the right incentives in government right now,” said Gwynne Kostin, director of new media in the Department of Homeland Security. (Here is Gwynne’s Twitstream, which can be found on GovTwit, a government twitter directory that, as of now, includes 2,326 government twitter users. Who knew?) Drafting a terms of service for a government website can be an ordeal, she noted: “You put five lawyers in a room and they want to make it different because ‘our agency is unique in a unique way.’ Their job is to protect their agency. As long as they have a bunker mentality, there’s no advantage to cooperation.” Still, you can find useful blogs coming out of DHS and the GSA and the TSA and the DOE. As I said, who knew?
The Obama team has big ideas about open government. Check out, if you are curious, an omnibus website called Data.gov whose purpose is “to increase public access to high value, machine readable datasets generated by the Executive Branch of the Federal Government.” Or read this intriguing blogpost by Tim O’Reilly, the tech publisher and organizer of the Gov 2.0 event, who writes that “the real secret of success in Government 2.0 is thinking about government as a platform.” He explains:
If there’s one thing we learn from the technology industry, it’s that every big winner has been a platform company: someone whose success has enabled others, who’ve built on their work and multiplied its impact. Microsoft put “a PC on every desk and in every home,” the internet connected those PCs, Google enabled a generation of ad-supported startups, Apple turned the phone market upside down by letting developers loose to invent applications no phone company would ever have thought of. In each case, the platform provider raised the bar, and created opportunities for others to exploit.
An open government will provide a platform for creative people to write applications that will take advantage of the vast treasure trove of public information. Indeed, they already are. See, as a very creative example, a contest called Apps for America.
I’m no expert on this, but I’ve come away thinking that lots is happening fast in this space, as they say in Silicon Valley. It’s not happening at Internet speed but, as Kamensky reminded me, it’s been almost exactly 16 years since the first government document–Al Gore’s report on reinventing government–was posted on the Internet. We’ve sure come a long way since then.