I just read an article on NextGov about some members of the open government community (I’m not exactly sure how that’s defined) expressing dissatisfaction on the fact that the White House would be too techno-centric in dealing with transparency issues.
The article also mentions the relatively slow progress in drafting the open government directive (see previous post). The drafting phase is over and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is in the process of planning the next steps (there should be something on their blog shortly).
It is certainly true that the current US administration has shown a strong technology push so far, by both establishing new leadership roles that give prominence to technology issues, and making significant inroads into new technologies (such as social media or cloud computing). For those who have been through the early e-government and dot.com excitement though, there is little surprise. Several politicians at the end of the nineties bet on the role of technology to modernize government service delivery and operations. When I read or hear about governments venturing into national broadband investments or wi-fi for all citizens, I can’t but go back ten or fifteen years ago and think about governments cabling cities or entire regions, as well as the birth of hundreds of web sites, then portals, that would allegedly make governments more citizen-centric.
As most of those experiences showed, technology alone cannot achieve much. However the Obama administration has started with a clear mandate and with a genuinely new attitude to engage all possible stakeholders in the decision-making process.
As I’ve said a few times, they have to deal with two problems, and I am not sure they recognize those as such yet:
- Crowdsourcing is a great idea but has to have boundaries and a clear, almost narrow purpose to work. Beth Noveck, who leads Obama’s open government initiative, has been the trigger behind PeerToPatent, but policy-making on a topic as broad as transparency is a completely different game from crowdsourcing patent applications.
- it is not for granted that transparency and centralization of data access go hand in hand. Forcing agencies to publish “transparent” information on a single site (data.gov) may hamper agency-specific initiatives and won’t anyhow cover state & local. Further a single repository or key to public information may always be perceived as an opportunity for government to exercise control about who access that data and for what purpose. What would be more needed are lightweight standards for agencies at all levels to conform to in order to provide information on their web sites (or other channels of choice). Central initiatives like data.gov should be one but not the only channel (see previous post).
I am looking forward to the next steps that will shape the open government directive. But I anticipate a bumpier road than some think.