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Why Can't Government Be More Like the Internet?

Government and Tech
WASHINGTON -- One of the great lessons of the Internet is that innovation can come from anywhere. It's spontaneous, it's unpredictable and it harnesses the collective intelligence of a vast base of users to solve some incredibly difficult problems.

So, with the country facing what seem to be unprecedented challenges, why can't government work the same way?

"It's a cliché to say that this is one of the great crises that we've faced, but this may be one of the toughest economic times that most of us will face in our lifetimes," Google CEO Eric Schmidt said during a policy talk before a crowded audience here in the Ronald Reagan Building amphitheater. Yet despite the grim assessment, Schmidt declared himself an "optimist," owing to the Internet's potential for opening up conversations around policy decisions to anyone who's interested.

"Every American can now create and publish their ideas," he said. "I don't think we fully understand how liberating that is."

The list of problems that a more open, receptive government could tackle is long, he said. Clean energy, the subject of much of Schmidt's talk, is at the top.

For Schmidt, who speaks of an energy revolution in almost evangelical terms, the path to clean energy would uncover the solution to some of the most urgent problems of the day. It could blunt the effects of climate change, create new growth industries to reignite the nation's economy and sharpen its competitive edge, while at the same time reducing dependence on foreign oil.

"Think about what that does to ... oil-producing [nations] and their ability to set oil prices, and have us go through the kind of teeter-totter that we just went through in the last six months," Schmidt said. "Why don't we figure out a way to never let that happen?"

Not surprisingly, his company is also exploring how it can leverage cleaner energy. Google has developed an energy plan of its own that calls for carbon-free electricity by 2030, and has launched an ambitious partnership with General Electric.

But Schmidt is hoping to see action taken at a policy level on pushing clean energy. For instance, policymakers have lately been debating the merits of a second economic stimulus package -- which President-elect Obama supports -- as well as a bailout of the nation's slumping auto industry.

Schmidt,said that if a second stimulus plan is deemed necessary, an appropriate use of the money would be to jumpstart the green-energy revolution by putting the infrastructure in place, creating a wellspring of jobs in the process.

[cob:Special_Report]At the same time, he suggested that any bailout for Detroit be tied to incentives to produce more fuel-efficient cars, particularly plug-in hybrids.

But he argued that we can't count on the industry heavyweights alone to solve the energy problem, or any great challenge of the day. After all, the Internet has proven that innovation can come from unlikely corners.

"It's really important that small startups with funny names -- the next generation of Googles -- get founded, get funded, and become successful in this new regime," he also said. "Because that's where the wealth will be created."

Next page: Can Web 2.0 launch Government 2.0?