Good morning, Senator (or should I say “President-elect”?), and congratulations. You talked during your campaign about using the Internet to engage with regular folks, and surely you did. So did your opponent. The last time I checked, the two of you had amassed about two million friends between you on Facebook and MySpace, and another few hundred thousand followers on Twitter and YouTube.
I don’t need to tell you how useful those networks were for fund-raising and organizing. Internet outreach brought in hundreds of millions of dollars in political donations, and Web video helped you distribute viral campaign spots. Reporters fawned over Web applications and online wikis that managed canvassers and phone banks. Certainly digital media was more important in this election than it had been in any other in the history of the country.
With your inauguration just a couple months away, you’ll soon have the opportunity to convert your Web-enabled campaign — and vast community of online supporters — into a new kind of government. Forgive the jargon, but we’re talking about White House 2.0. You now have the chance to give the executive branch a complete technological makeover, endowing it with all the extraordinary capabilities of the modern Internet. This isn’t a partisan issue. A truly modern presidency would tap into the vigor and potential of all Americans, by means of searchable online databases, full-scale interactivity, and the distributed problem-solving that comes with social networks. For the first time ever, and under your leadership, the federal bureaucracy can become more accessible, more transparent and — most important — more effective than it’s ever been.
These aren’t just vague ideas and Webby catchphrases. A movement is building around the country — indeed, around the world — to work out how information technology might promote democracy and improve government. I’ve collected ideas from some of the engineers, activists and visionaries who are leading the way. And now I’d like to provide you with something of a wish list. How should you use the Internet to revolutionize government? A few suggestions.
First, a word on where we are today. I’m sure you’ve noticed that WhiteHouse.gov isn’t exactly brimming with Web 2.0 community-enabled features. The last user question posted to the “White House Interactive” section dates from March 2007 and could be answered in about a tenth of a second on Google (“George W. Bush is what number as president of the U.S.?”). Still, the federal government has made a significant IT push in recent years.
The E-Government Act of 2002 set the stage for the most significant developments, by calling for a set of standards and a public directory for government-agency Web sites, and pushing agencies to post proposed rules and take public comments online.
These are worthy initiatives, and they’ve made life easier for many of us; we enjoy the benefits of having more government services online when we pay our taxes electronically, download passport forms, or sign up for the national Do Not Call registry. But much of what has been done so far has amounted to little more than digitizing paper, or “dragging the file cabinet into cyberspace,” in the words of New York Law School professor and political-technology pioneer Beth Noveck.
To make matters worse, much of the information that’s been posted is very difficult to access, and even harder to search. Congressional votes, for example, are available online, but there’s no simple way to search government Web sites for a given lawmaker’s personal record. Imagine a voter in Ohio last week who hadn’t yet decided whether to vote for you, in part because she didn’t know your full record on, say, reducing gas prices. She might have tried to check how you voted on every energy bill that came before the Senate. But to get that information from the government, she would have had to click through literally hundreds of Web pages, scanning for your name.
I hate to say it, but some of our friends in Europe are already ahead of us in experimenting with Web-enabled government. The supposedly stuffy Brits have set up YouTube and Flickr streams for their prime minister (a riveting Twitter feed gives updates on his meetings with foreign dignitaries). And for two years now, 10 Downing Street has hosted a platform for citizen-government interactions called E-Petitions.
It’s just the kind of interactive government initiative that gets talked up so often in the media. E-Petitions allows anyone to post or sign a petition to the government, and the ones that get the most support online receive a response from the prime minister’s office.
The E-Petitions site appeals to a simple and powerful notion about how the Internet might broaden involvement in government: Let the public talk to you. This may gibe with the efforts of many lawmakers to host interactive chats and the like, but in many crucial respects, it’s still woefully old-school. Visionaries for Web-enabled government see the British site as more of a PR machine than a vehicle for truly innovative change. Sure, the government provides written responses for the most popular petitions, but these appear to be more like canned media statements than genuine attempts to engage the public. In some respects, the site functions as “brochure-ware,” another venue for messaging from on high.
THE DISTRIBUTED BRAIN
As the next president, you should strive for something more substantial than online fireside chats, open-ended forums for public comments, and town-hall meetings in streaming video. Instead of devoting resources to these superficial, large-scale interactions, think small. New York Law School’s Noveck has worked to promote a radically different vision of how the opinions and expertise of regular Americans might be tapped to improve government decision-making. Instead of asking people to sound off on whatever bee happens to be in their bonnet, she wants to present the public with a series of specific questions, for which the government needs specific answers.
Her ideas are being tested at a social-networking Web site associated with the U.S. Patent Office called Peer-to-Patent. Here’s how it works: Government employees now spend much of their time checking that the ideas contained in patent applications are sufficiently novel and interesting. Peer-to-Patent allows them to recruit unpaid specialists from around the world by posting the applications online. Users migrate toward the technologies they’re most interested in; for example, a patent for a novel way to network turbines on a wind farm might attract computer scientists and environmental engineers. They can also rate one another’s work or invite colleagues to participate. Then the group hashes out their thoughts over the Web — not unlike creating a Wikipedia entry — and passes the best ideas back to the Patent Office. That saves work for the clerks and improves the quality of their research. It might also cut the costs of patent litigation down the road.
The software behind Peer-to-Patent isn’t especially complicated or new, nor does the site strive for mass appeal. It simply tries to draw in the particular people who might be able to answer a particular question. Now imagine that instead of building some bloated, mass-interaction site like E-Petitions, you set up a multitude of these smaller, special-interest sites. Each government agency could thus reach out to only those users with the expertise relevant to a particular policy.
Last year, for instance, the Food and Drug Administration proposed a set of rules that would make sunscreen labels more comprehensive and accurate. But the agency has been swamped by several thousand comments in response, and is bound by law to review each one. In June, the FDA conceded that the final rules would be delayed indefinitely.
Now imagine if there were a system for the interested parties to manage themselves. Commenters could debate the fine points of the proposal online and recommend specific changes on a wiki version. Or users might help one another by rating comments up or down, making it easier to find the ones most deserving of a response.
OPEN IT UP
A Webby White House could go much further than this “ask a question, get an answer” approach. Your administration can become the first to post its data and documents online in a way that truly encourages transparency and accountability. For Jerry Brito, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, the holy grail of Internet-based government would be the wholesale shift of public documents into a searchable and structured database. Instead of having bureaucrats scan paper forms into PDFs or post Microsoft Word files, every public document would be converted into a browser-readable format that’s accessible to search engines. And all that data would be presented in a standardized and widely used data format, like XML, so that anyone — in or out of government — could use and reconfigure it however they pleased.
Among the many benefits of this approach is the possibility that government agencies could set up automatic feeds for specific information. For example, you might subscribe to an RSS feed that updates whenever a new comment is posted on the FDA’s sunscreen rules.
A system like that would do more than satisfy the curiosity of casual users. The release of structured data would allow people to recombine information in meaningful ways. That’s the true innovation, as far as Brito is concerned. “Subscriptions are great,” he says, “but XML also provides the ability to mix and mash and remix data.” In other words, a citizen would be able to combine information from different offices to offer a clearer picture of how the government is working. He might merge cost estimates from the Congressional Budget Office with actual spending data, to see how often the government is shelling out more than it had planned. Or he could create a Web site that merged campaign contributions with congressional votes, to see how and where lobbyists are having an influence. (Some industrious people are already developing these tools, often with great difficulty, by “scraping” government Web sites for whatever usable data they can find.)
Sure, that level of transparency might cause some inconvenience for even a well-intentioned administration that’s relatively free of corruption. But in the long run, a push toward open government will build faith and support among your voters. And it will promote better decisions and more effective policies.
I know, I know — these ideas sound interesting, but you’ve got a lot of other things to deal with. Does the country really have the resources for a technology facelift?
The beauty of all this is that it’s not as hard as it sounds. Sure, it will take effort to finish the shift from a paper culture to a digital one. But the monetary costs should be small. Many of the ideas and Internet technologies are out there for the taking. Consider that the Brits developed their open-source E-Petitions site in collaboration with a nonprofit called MySociety. This isn’t a huge software-development company but a group of four full-time staffers who work from home, plus a network of unpaid volunteers.
Several of the most important American e-government initiatives have been similarly inexpensive. The Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 set the ambitious goal of creating a searchable Web site to track all federal spending. The Congressional Budget Office guessed that the project would cost $15 million in its first five years. In the end, the feds paid just $600,000 for a prototype that had been built by a nonprofit watchdog group.
And consider those inital costs an investment. According to Andrew Rasiej, a co-founder of the blog techPresident.com and a senior technology adviser for the congressional-watchdog group the Sunlight Foundation, this kind of reform leads to money saved down the line. “It’s extremely inexpensive,” he explains, “because the data accessibility will create massive efficiencies that will make it pay for itself many times over. The biggest issue for the next president” is to recognize and acknowledge that “citizens are capable of building many of the tools that will open up government and reboot our democracy themselves.”
Mr. President-Elect, by combining radical transparency with focused and purposeful user interactions, you can ensure that your administration is more responsive to the American people and makes better decisions about how to serve them. You have the opportunity to bring us from an era of unprecedented White House secrecy to one of unprecedented openness, and transform the presidency for the 21st century. I hope you seize it.