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Obama Aide Looks to Open Source Government

White House and the Internet
BALTIMORE -- The dream of an effective and open e-government, a great hope of the Obama administration, rides on the ability of government officials to emulate the Web 2.0 model in the private sector, where some of the biggest success stories have been built through a decentralized, crowd-sourced model, a White House official said today.

Here at a conference hosted by the National Association of State CIOs, Beth Noveck, an adviser in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, appealed to her audience of government IT workers and business partners to embrace technology so that government might follow in the footsteps of Mozilla and Wikipedia to create a more collaborative relationship between citizen and government.

But remaking the highly regimented and procedural operations of the federal government in the image of the open source, wisdom-of-the-crowds model is no small feat.

On his first full day in office, President Obama issued a memo calling on the agencies to experiment with new technologies that could improve citizen engagement, a risky proposition in a bureaucratic culture where failure is a famously bad career move.

"In the Silicon Valley culture, you're not someone unless you've failed at a company," Noveck said. "That's totally different from the political mindset where failure is not an option."

Obama has recently brought in a pair of veterans of state-level government to fill the newly created positions of chief technology and information officers, roles that will presumably elevate the goal of using technology to drive citizen engagement across the agencies.

Noveck said that the administration's vision for e-government is much larger than simply making more data available in a more accessible format. That gets at the notion of transparency, a key selling point of projects like the $787 billion economic stimulus package, which is accompanied by the Web site Recovery.gov, where citizens can find information about where the money is being spent.

But simply making data available isn't collaborative, Noveck said, appealing to her audience to move away from the "misconception that we in government are the sole repositories of the best knowledge and the best expertise."

She added, "tapping the intelligence and expertise of the American people is a well-known idea from which I think we've come too far away."

As an example in place well before Obama came to office, she cited the Patent and Trademark Office's Peer-to-Patent project, where members of the scientific community are invited to assist in a patent examiner's review of an application.

Patent examiners are famously overworked. The backlog of applications is believed to be around 1 million, and examiners have less than 24 hours to determine if an innovation is, in fact, new. Tapping into the community of scientists, engineers and inventors who are experts in the field has proven a practical way of crowd-sourcing patent reviews, with the ultimate goal of improving the quality of patents and speeding up the process, Noveck said.

"Within one institution within one firm we don't always have all the skills necessary to actually do the tasks at hand," she said. "This is the phenomenon that I like to think of as collaborative governance."

If the wisdom of the crowds can improve the Patent Office, why not other areas of government? The idea is similar to the torrent of innovation unleashed when the developer community was given access to the platforms behind popular technologies and devices like Facebook and Apple's iPhone.

Noveck envisions the same type of phenomenon occurring across government if concerned citizens with a little technical expertise were invited to develop applications using government data. Bringing government on board could lead to a flood of data-driven mashups that would expand some of the efforts already underway by nonprofits and private-sector groups, such as the search tool for public data Google unveiled on Tuesday.

Those apps and mashups could be a catalyst for wider civic engagement, Noveck said, noting that too much government data is presented in an uninspired text or numeric format. Presenting data about the spread of swine flu in the form of a heat map, for example, is going to resonate with more people than simply listing the number of outbreaks in each state in a static column.

In its most basic form, the idea of driving citizen engagement through the Web starts with opening a dialogue. Simple as it seems, government is a slow ship to turn, Noveck said, noting that the first blog in the executive branch to allow comments launched only last week.

For advocates of a collaborative e-government, that's a start, and miles ahead of a common feature on government Web sites that Noveck described as the "e-mail off into nowhere."

"What we've typically seen is a lot of data being provisioned top down, but not in the other direction," she said.

But Noveck, like anyone who's spent any time wading through the interminable comments appended to blog posts, understands that some structure has to be applied if any meaning is to be extracted from that feedback.

To that end, she said the government agencies are developing and applying technologies to help create order out of the feedback people supply on their sites, often as simple as a Digg-like voting system.

But the government can help its cause out when it is seeking feedback by asking better, more targeted questions, Noveck said.

"It's a very targeted type of conversation that's designed to elicit very specific information," she said. Asking citizens more precise questions in online forums will tend to cut down on the unconstructive, negative comments, as well as helping to avoid the unruly free-for-alls that often characterize town-hall-style meetings.

"If we simply ask people for feedback and nothing more, we will get exactly what we asked for -- undifferentiated mass-level input, a lot of it garbage, nothing particularly useful," Noveck said.