COMMENTARY

Web 2.0 enables transparency goals

Government can achieve goals with minimal effort thanks to new technology tools

The Obama administration has made significant progress toward transparency through the launch of the Data.gov and Recovery.gov Web sites and the Open Government Initiative. Although those initiatives present promising opportunities for increased transparency, federal agencies must balance the need for openness with legal and privacy concerns.

That balance is achievable, and once attained, it will clear the way for new levels of public participation and understanding of the business of our nation.

Vivek Kundra, the federal chief information officer, has talked eloquently about developing a digital public square so the federal government can use emerging technologies to make government data easier to access and improve communication and collaboration with citizens. The good news is that Web 2.0 technologies enable the government to greatly improve both without a tremendous amount of effort.

A few simple changes can yield huge dividends. For example, agencies can make all public databases available as data feeds using common lightweight Web data standards. Once the information is published to the Internet, citizens can combine the data feeds in value-added ways using mashups, a method of Web programming that melds data from different Web sites to create a new service. That, in a nutshell, is the strategy of the Data.gov initiative: Publish government data to the Internet in an open format and let private citizens astonish us with their creativity.

Furthermore, agencies could create videos of all public events and publish them on YouTube. The Office of Management and Budget and other agencies could use wiki technology to improve public participation in the rulemaking process. Agencies could use social networking technologies to facilitate productive working relationships between citizens and officials. They should also consider placing more emphasis on search engine optimization to ensure better placement of government information in commercial search tools.

However, technology is only one lens through which to view the challenge of achieving transparency and open government. Three other aspects — legal, policy and cultural — must be addressed to have a successful government transparency initiative.

For example, laws such as the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act govern what information the government can collect and how it can subsequently use and publish that information. Both laws should be updated to keep up with rapid changes in technology. FOIA reforms could include streamlining mandatory disclosure procedures to provide for disclosure of information in “Internet time." The Privacy Act, on the other hand, should be strengthened because recent advances in automation have exponentially increased the amount of potential damage from unauthorized disclosures of privacy-related information.

Existing policies limit the techniques and technologies that government agencies can use to track Web site visitors. That practice usually becomes an issue when agencies use commercial Web services to disseminate information. Many commercial service providers use advertising and routinely track Web site visitors to provide targeted ads. To mitigate that, agencies could negotiate agreements with commercial Web services to provide a privacy-enhanced viewing experience for government information published on those sites. The recent agreement between the General Services Administration and Web 2.0 providers such as YouTube is an excellent example.

There are also cultural aspects that must be addressed. For example, most citizens will tell you, in the abstract, that they favor more government transparency rather than less — until a government agency posts information online, such as land ownership records, that they consider private.

Government transparency is clearly a worthy objective with many positive outcomes, including improved public confidence in government operations; greater accountability among government officials; fewer instances of fraud, waste, abuse and corruption; and increased citizen participation in public policy matters. However, open government must be implemented in a manner that achieves those outcomes while protecting the privacy of individuals.


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