As the high season of political conventions fade and the general election kicks into gear, online communicators are positioning their top issues and agenda for the upcoming U.S. Presidential transition.
An exciting brew of ideas is perking. Time will tell if any of them stew into real change, but it sure is fun watching the pot boil. The ideas include:
- a call from academia for government to shift away from publishing sites and into exposing data
- a radical streamlining of sites in the UK that may hold promise for other nations to follow
- an anti-corruption flag planted for transparency by the good-government crowd
EXPOSE THE DATA OR PUBLISH WEBSITES?
A Provocative and Unwise Call for Change. A group of academics from Princeton are circulating an essay to appear in the Yale Journal of Law and Technology in the fall of 2008 called Government Data and the Invisible Hand. This provocative piece makes a case to ditch the language from the landmark eGov Act of 2002 that called on agencies to put information on public websites.
Their alternative is to focus instead of making government focus on exposing the data as their primary publishing responsibility. Advocating for an open platform that lets third parties use the data and mash it up in interesting ways for profit and fun, they envision a spectacular shift in the face of government websites. Whether it is an altogether wise move is open for debate.
Their vision of more flexible, sharable data with better search, more RSS feeds, discussion forums, automated content as well as crowd-sourced analysis, their vision is thought-provoking. Getting agencies to use the same API for citizen feedback is an idea they offer that is especially relevant to the role agencies have in public comments on rule-making.
The authors also round-up an all-too familiar litany of web publishing snafus, with zingers for the FCC, the Library of Congress, Regulations.gov as well as the confusing and unenforceable list of legal mandates web managers must follow.
It is a familiar rant to those who know this community. One boffo web mishap that didn’t make their list: the story of the online form at FEMA for victims of Hurricane Katrina which only worked with Internet Explorer 6 browsers and Microsoft Windows operating systems. Apple MAC owners and Linux users who needed to file claims got locked out.
What’s wrong with their approach. The trouble with their remedy is two-fold as I see it. First, it gives away taxpayer-funded information for businesses to make money from. The robust industry that repackages free government information and sells it to the public is not going away soon, but I find its very existence a cause for alarm. The idea of giving these beltway bandits more juice to grow seems like an enormous rip-off for the tax-paying public. This is a powerful constituency to go up against.
Unfortunately, it is expected white-hat advocates are happy with the status-quo. They repackage and re-use government data to advance their agenda, so making data more accessible is their stock in trade. The opensecrets folks mash-up political contribution data they get from the Federal Election Commission. The folks at the Environmental Working Group publish a regular report using USDA data on agricultural subsidies to shine a light on taxpayers funding millionaire farmers not to grow crops.
The possibilities of using a like-minded President in office to take over the poorly performing government sites and make the government sites expose the data seems like a non-starter for these guys. They’ve invested too much in building an alternative gateway to information to fix the root cause of the problem. Too bad.
The second big flaw of the academics’ proposal is the lack of authoritative information in this new world they want to create. Now a dot gov domain is highly trustworthy by the public, who has confidence they will not see advertising and knows no phishing or scams will occur when they visit the site. Once others are in charge of publishing the information the confidence that comes with using a dot gov domain slips away forever. We should protect the dot gov domain, not break it.
That said, there is no reason the public sector shouldn’t embrace the ideas about exposing the data for others to use in addition to, but not as a replacement for, dot gov websites. Indeed, at USA Services the folks at Webcontent.gov are doing their best to promote long published best practices that urge government web managers to do just that.
In a recent e-newsletter they flagged their article promoting appropriate access to data. It said, in part, “You should facilitate the public’s ability to make new uses of your data by providing it in open, machine–processable formats.” The article pointed out that current OMB policies require agencies to “provide all data in an open, industry standard format permitting users to aggregate, dis-aggregate, or otherwise manipulate and analyze the data to meet their needs.”
DUPLICATION AND TRANSPARENCY IN FOCUS
Eliminating Duplication in the UK. Meanwhile, across the pond in the UK even more radical changes are happening as a program moves forward to consolidate and streamline government web publishing. Some 951 websites are set to become two super-sites for citizens and business audiences. Of the original sites, only 21 will be safe and at least 551 websites will be wiped off the map.
As Candi Harrision has observed, it’s a remarkable and gutsy transformation. When people connected with U.S. Government sites say they have no idea how many sites exist or how much money is spent on them, it makes you wonder if the U.S. is ready for a similar bold stroke.
Transparency in Government Act of 2008. At the Sunlight Foundation, their public markup project is preparing model legislation called the Transparency in Government Act. True to their agenda, they are narrowly focused on corruption in government instead of taking a wider view about exposing data.
So there is a heavy focus on lobbying, the Freedom of Information Act, contracting and the like and absolutely nothing in this legislation found on a broader agenda of making information more citizen-focused or curbing waste and duplication. On their core issues and anti-corruption agenda, they fly their flag high and proud. It’s a noble agenda, but just too timid on the bigger ticket issues in my view.
The one thing we can count in the upcoming transition is that there will be an opportunity for change and new ideas. With the election of the next President, my hope is that an ambitious agenda is in store for us that protects and promotes the interests of citizens and taxpayers while not giving up on what’s working with federal websites.