Will Obama open the government through IT?

As the inauguration approaches, technology and public policy experts continue to speculate on how the Obama administration will use information technology to make good on promises to increase openness and transparency in government.

Since President-elect Barack Obama’s victory, magazines, newspapers and blogs have been speculating on how his administration could use new media and IT to change the relationship between Americans and their chief executive. Views differ on how the social networking tools that were used so successfully in fundraising and getting grassroots support will be used in governance.

“For me the big question is how do we focus this energy in a meaningful way?” said Sascha Meinrath, research director of the Wireless Future Program at the New America Foundation.

Meinrath made the comment at “Wiki White House,” an event held Jan. 9 and sponsored by New America, Google and Wired magazine. He said expectations were high for how the administration could improve government transparency, and how it could reinvigorate civic engagement. He also said that high expectations could lead to disappointment.

“What I would ask for would be this governmentwide mega-[Freedom of Information Act],” he said.

He said making vast amounts of government data available would result in the exposure of "decades and decades and decades of skeletons in closets all across government agencies all over the place.”

Obama has promised to use technology to create a more transparent and connected democracy. On Change.gov, the transition's Web site, Obama's team promises to “use technology to reform government and improve the exchange of information between the federal government and citizens while ensuring the security of our networks.”

Mindy Finn, who served director of e-strategy for the Mitt Romney presidential campaign, said she gives the Obama team the benefit of the doubt because it already uses technology in new ways. However, she said, Obama's supporters are not going to get complete transparency.

“I think an ounce of action is better than inaction -– I really subscribe to that,” she said. “The question is whether all of us in this room and Obama’s voters are going to be satisfied with that ounce of action rather than the whole pie, the whole enchilada. … They’re not going to get the whole enchilada.”

She gave the example of how the Obama campaign allowed for mass connectedness and mass participation in a way that had not been previously seen, but senior decision makers kept the most important information and strategies secret.

Finn said a truly open government and an open discussion tends to give an advantage to loud and angry people. She also said a challenge confronting the Obama administration would be how to deal with the millions of supporters Obama communicated with electronically during the campaign in addition to dealing with the rest of the country.

“When you’re in a campaign you are looking to win over a specific constituency, active voters, an active voting base,” Finn said. “When you come to government you’re supposedly going to be representing the entire nation.”

Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for government transparency, said it is important to understand the difference between improving transparency and improving mass communications.

“It’s really important for this administration to own the notion that transparency is government’s responsibility,” she said on panel.

Miller said the incoming administration should make a point of making everything available online and focus on data quality and presentation. She also discussed some of the legal constructs that prevent government officials from using social networking tools.

However, Craig Newmark, the founder of craigslist.org who also spoke on the panel, said he saw culture as the bigger challenge to opening up the government through the use of IT.

“The challenging part has to do not with the actual rules, but with cultural conventions,” he said.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.


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