The midterm election's effect on open gov

GovLoop members discuss what the latest campaign cycle might mean for transparency efforts.

“Will the midterm election close down open government?” That was the question my GovLoop colleague Stephen Peteritas asked a couple of weeks ago.

Alex Howard, the Gov 2.0 correspondent at O’Reilly Media, responded by saying a Republican takeover of the House -- which in fact happened -- would lead “the Oversight [and Government Reform] Committee to be active under Rep. [Darrell] Issa. If that comes to fruition, that aspect of [the Open Government Initiative] will be ramped up, along with closer examination of open-government efforts at the agencies or the work of [the Office of Management and Budget’s] IT team. That scrutiny could be a good thing, with respect to accountability, but could also scuttle initiatives that are developing slowly or make missteps.”

The meaning of transparency

Daniel Honker, an analyst at the National Academy of Public Administration, agreed with Howard, but added that “there's a big difference between ‘transparency’ meaning oversight and anti-corruption and ‘transparency’ as a means to improve services and delivery. The former is often wielded as a political tool while the latter can take a long time to build and is much more a function of good management than politics.”

Of course, it’s not a one-way street. Congress should not expect to have greater oversight of executive branch transparency initiatives without being held more accountable itself. In a blog post on GovLoop, open-government strategist John Moore focused on the anti-corruption issue from the perspective of monitoring legislators. He cited the Congress app the Sunlight Foundation created for Android phones and IBM’s Many Bills application as examples of tools that enable people to keep tabs on the legislative activities of their elected representatives.

Open gov garbage

My concern with the midterm election is that 2010 could turn out to be the year when politicians polluted the Web. Incumbents are creating blogs, Twitter accounts, YouTube channels and Facebook pages that are largely branded around the officeholder rather than the office. What happens when an official gets ousted or resigns? Does a city or state retain the rights to these websites or do they disappear with the outgoing official?

Those websites should belong to the public and should reflect the people and districts the officials represent instead of serving as glorified, continuous campaign sites. Right now, there are dangerous precedents being set by blending political and policy-related content.

Balance of power 2.0

Another key issue with this election is the difference in perspective on transparency between the legislative and executive branches. If elected officials are largely using social media and mobile technologies as marketing tools to push political propaganda, will they be as supportive of executive agencies that seek to create real engagement and conversations with people through these Web-based platforms? Or will we see a significant shift in legislative branch transparency and collaboration — and find a Twitterfall in Congress and websites through which congressional staffers engage in real dialogue with fans, followers and colleagues across the aisle?

I would like to see the latter happen. But I have reason to lack hope. Tim Evans, a program analyst who works on Web analytics and customer service measurement at the Social Security Administration, posted a story by Larry Freed of The Digital Citizen about a recent survey in which ForeSee Results found “a clear and proven relationship between transparency, satisfaction and trust,” and “higher transparency leads to higher citizen satisfaction with government, which in turn leads to higher trust.”

Unfortunately, “when it comes to transparency, citizen satisfaction, trust, accountability, perceived goodwill, competence and integrity, American citizens give Congress the worst scores across the board,” Freed wrote.

What do you think? What will be the effect of the midterm elections on open government?

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