RealTime IT News

Will e-Gov Get Its Day in Obama Administration?

WASHINGTON -- Having campaigned and won the presidency on a platform of changing the way government does business, President-elect Barack Obama is facing high expectations for making the inner working of his administration open and accessible to the public.

To many, technology is the clearest path to an open government. Speaking here at Google's offices, a panel of e-government advocates discussed some of the early indications from the Obama team of just how open it will be, and offered some suggestions for how government can get on board the Web 2.0 train and embrace the collaborative culture that has spread across nearly all sectors of the Internet.

"It's really important for this administration to own the notion of transparency," said Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington nonprofit that advocates for open access to government. "In my mind essentially that means the government should be more open and not more secret."

Miller said she would like to see an executive order from Obama within the first 100 days of his administration calling on government agencies to embrace the use of social media tools like YouTube and Twitter as a method of communicating with the public. Currently, many agencies are hamstrung in their use of those platforms by legal concerns or other restrictions.

Certainly the open government advocates have high hopes for the Obama administration. They point not only to his campaign, where his team revolutionized the use of social media to raise funds and galvanize a base, but to actions he has taken since winning the election, such as the launch of the Change.gov site, where the transition team posts videos and other materials about the new administration taking shape and takes questions from the public, as well as the move to post Obama's weekly radio address on YouTube.

But how close do steps like those actually bring us to truly open government? Mindy Finn, who recently served as director of e-strategy for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, said that they are a good start, but warned that some of Obama's online presence could be a "smokescreen," essentially meant to manufacture the image of openness while the real decisions continue to be made behind closed doors by the administration's inner circle.

The Obama team's announcement that it would begin taking questions from the public on Change.gov was heralded as an important milestone by open government advocates. But, Finn noted, that policy change coincided with the onset of the scandal over Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich allegedly trying to sell Obama's vacant Senate seat. Questions came pouring in about connections between members of the Obama team and Blagojevich, and many of them were removed from the site.

Similarly, Miller was critical of the Obama team's initial decision not to allow users to post comments on the weekly radio address on YouTube. That policy, which has since been reversed, was an example of the incoming administration paying lip service to direct interaction with the public without really embracing the spirit behind it, she said.

Aside from politicians' compulsive need to manicure their own public images, e-government initiatives that attempt to spark conversation with the public will also be challenged by the same problem that all Internet comment and forum administrators face: the trolls.

Craig Newmark, founder of the popular classified site Craigslist, said that disruptive people will always be an issue in any online comment environment. The trolls, he said, are the people who hang out on comment boards "just trying to pick fights to get attention."

And if Congress decides to start posting and seeking comment on legislation it is considering, as many are hoping it will, you can bet the trolls will come out in earnest. "To have a truly open government," Finn said, "you tend to give advantage to the loud and the angry -- that's one challenge. A lot of the angry and dominant voices can discourage those who are not loud and angry but do have some things to offer."

But that doesn't mean it's not worth trying. Newmark, who spends a lot of his time with Craigslist weeding out inappropriate posts, is hopeful that e-government initiatives will be able to get past the noise and bring citizen involvement to a new level.

Newmark spoke of the incoming Obama administration in historical terms, comparing the potential for public inclusion in government to pioneering "bloggers" of 1776 like Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin.

Newmark, who in the past two years contributed extensively to the Democratic National Committee and several candidates' campaigns, including Obama's, hopes that the promised e-gov initiatives of the incoming administration will spark an unprecedented level of citizen engagement.

"It's time for everyone in the country -- if you have the time -- to become smart about one topic and get involved online," Newmark said.

Just what form those e-gov measures will take remains uncertain. Many are looking to the new position of a federal chief technology officer to run point on bringing government into the Internet age.

"I am convinced that as many years I have lived and worked around government, that without a high-level person to marshal this that the best intentions will flounder," Miller said. "I'm absolutely convinced of that."