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Encouraging Signs, Roadblocks Ahead for E-Gov

WASHINGTON -- It's easy to look back at the last five years and marvel at the transformations ushered in by an increasingly open and collaborative Web. Industries across the board -- from media to entertainment to finance -- have been stood on their heads.

And yet, to some, government seems stubbornly left behind.

Here at Google's (NASDAQ: GOOG) Washington office, the search giant hosted two panel talks today focusing on the Internet's role in connecting citizens with their government.

The panelists, comprised of campaign workers, Capitol Hill staffers and other advocates for open e-government, generally agreed that the recent Obama campaign signaled a major shift in the use of the Web for building political momentum. But that's a far cry from bringing the nuts and bolts of the governing process online so that anyone with an Internet connection could view and comment on transcripts of markup sessions or access archived videos of hearing.

"We don't know all the benefits of a participatory government because we haven't tried it yet," said John Wunderlich, program director at the Sunlight Foundation, an organization working to make the government more accessible using the Internet.

The panel comes on the heels of the victory of a presidential candidate who ran on a platform of change and open government. Obama has been widely credited for his campaign's skillful use of the Web, and many hope to see that tech-savviness carry over into his administration.

Some early signs that it might include the Change.gov site, where Obama's team has posted blogs, videos and other information about the transition. Obama has also taken to posting his weekly radio address on YouTube, and recently began allowing viewers to post comments to the videos, reversing an earlier policy.

By offering some insight into the policy discussions taking place among the transition staff, Change.gov is "giving life to ideas" that otherwise would not have seen the light of day, Wunderlich said. But for proponents of truly open government, that site is at best a good start.

A question of storage

Part of the problem is logistical. The sheer glut of electronic data makes organizing current government records a daunting task, according to Meredith Fuchs, general counsel for the National Security Archive.

Fuchs said that the digital records from the Clinton administration totaled about 3 terabytes. When all is said and done, the outgoing Bush administration is estimated to leave a data trail of about 100 terabytes.

"Right now, there's a lot of information that's available on government Web sites, but there's a lot of information that isn't available on government Web sites," Fuchs said. "And that's the kind of information that's really going to tell you whether the agencies and the executive branch are doing things well. That's information that has to do with accountability."

She also noted the apparent sloppy systems management that led to the deletion of some 5 million White House e-mails.

But simply posting documents or other information on a government Web site isn't enough. Karina Newton, director of new media for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said that the data needs to be posted in a standardized format so it will be accessible to search engines and available for developers to include in their applications.

"It's not about PDFs, it's about XML," Newton said.

Getting digital, slowly

Still, the panelists agreed that posting government documents online in a clunky format is better than not posting them at all, and lawmakers have been showing some interest in digitizing more information.

"Over the course of the session of the 110th session of congress, language about putting things online has been included in many more bills," Newton said.

The drive toward open government took a step forward in September 2006 with the passage of the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, more commonly known as the "Google for Government." That bill, introduced by then-Sen. Obama and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., called for the creation of a Google-like search engine for federal grants, earmarks, loans and contracts.

But legislation to open access to government records isn't an easy thing to get passed, said Chris Barkley, one of Coburn's staffers who worked on the bill.

"Congress is actually one of the biggest obstacles to getting any legislation done," Barkley said. "Clearly, this is where the legislation begins and ends, and this is where we have the folks who have a vested interest oftentimes in keeping things from the public."

The availability of congressional proceedings is also highly inconsistent because there are no chamber-wide rules regarding what information must be available online. Each committee sets its own rules. The panelists said that the House generally does a better job of making information about its proceedings available online than the Senate, but that both have a long way to go.

An increasing number of committee hearings are being Webcast, but most are not available as archived videos. Roll-call votes, markup-session transcripts and a great volume of other congressional data is still offline.

But just because that's the way it's been doesn't mean that's how it always has to be, Fuchs said.

Going forward, she is hopeful that Obama will take the lead on opening the doors to government, and that Congress will hold oversight hearings on the subject and ultimately pass more e-government legislation.

"Congress has to make clear that the information the government has belongs to the people, and it should be accessible to the people," she said.