One of the first documents our new President signed within his first day in office is this memorandum on Transparency and Open Government. It is a memo that I am personally very happy to see, not only because I agree so strongly with its content. For the last couple of months I have been a member of the Technology, Innovation & Government Reform (TIGR) transition policy group focusing on innovation and government. This Presidential memo covers precisely the area that we worked on.
The TIGR Group
Right after winning the November 4 election, President-elect Obama's transition team established a series of Policy Working Groups "to develop the priority policy proposals and plans from the Obama Campaign for action during the Obama-Biden Administration." There were seven such Groups: Economy, Education, Energy & Environment, Health Care, Immigration, National Security, and Technology, Innovation & Government Reform.
The TIGR group that I was part of was charged with developing "a range of proposals to create a 21st century government that is more open and effective; leverages technology to grow the economy, create jobs, and solve our country’s most pressing problems; respects the integrity of and renews our commitment to science; and catalyzes active citizenship and partnerships in shared governance with civil society institutions." We were organized into four sub-teams: Innovation and Government, Innovation and National Priorities, Innovation and Science, and Innovation and Civil Society. I was part of the Innovation and Government group.
I cannot say enough about what a memorable experience this was for me. My team members represented a variety of experience in technology, public policy, business and all levels of government - federal, state and local. Some of us were external advisors, while others had taken leaves of absence from their day jobs and were working full time in the transition.
We had frequent meetings, some physical, many virtual. We were constantly in touch with each other over e-mail. We collaborated in writing quite a number of documents. We had excellent discussions on a variety of topics. After a while, our work focused on a specific set of initiatives and concrete recommendations. These were used to put together an internal briefing book that will hopefully help the appropriate officials in the new administration get up and running quickly once they are appointed and take office.
Our discussions, writings and recommendations very much reflect President Obama's agenda for a government that is more open and transparent, participatory and collaborative, as well as efficient and effective. We strongly believe that in the 21st century, technology must play an essential role in bringing this vision to life through new tools and applications that enables everyone to have greater visibility into the workings of government and to get involved and participate in the decision-making process.
It was a very disciplined group, very aware of the importance of the task at hand. Our focus was on developing points of view and recommendations to be passed on to the new administration. We also had a very collegial team. We enjoyed working with each other.
The subjects we covered are fundamental to move the country into the future. Let me say a few words about them.
Open, Transparent Government
"Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their government is doing," says the President's memorandum. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis succinctly captured the power of openness and transparency when he wrote that Sunlight is the Best Disinfectant.
Note that one of the principal preoccupations of dictatorships and totalitarian governments is to control their citizen's access to information. It is thus not surprising that such governments are deadly afraid of the Internet and the World Wide Web. They either forbid access to them altogether, or awkwardly try to censor access to those portions of the Web that disagree with their public pronouncements.
Democratic governments require transparency in order to insure that they are accountable to the people who elected them. To strengthen the transparency of his new administration, President Obama also signed a memorandum on The Freedom on Information Act (FOIA).
It says that "The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fear. Non disclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of Government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve."
Later on it adds, "The presumption of disclosure also means that agencies should take affirmative steps to make information public. They should not wait for specific requests from the public. All agencies should use modern technology to inform citizens about what is known and done by their Government. Disclosure should be timely."
Making information available is absolutely necessary, but not sufficient. There is so much data that it is often hard to find, let alone make sense of it. We need new ways to help us better analyze and understand what is behind all that information.
For example, one of the most innovative IT concepts that has emerged in the last few years is that of mashups. A mashup is a simple applications that that can be quickly developed and put into operation. The applications are typically written using a variety of open, web-based tools and combine data from different sources using open interfaces.
The biggest appeal of mashups is that rather than having to carefully pre-plan how data will be used and delivered, you can simply make that data available in industry standard formats and then encourage the public to apply their own innovative ideas to extract insights that the original data owners had no idea were there. These are the kinds of technology-based innovations that will take openness and transparency to a whole new level.
Participatory, Collaborative Government
In the industrial economy of the last century, most companies were centrally organized, with a hierarchic approach to management, where authority and information flowed down from small groups of executives in headquarters. This model worked well in kindler, gentler times, but as technology and market changes have accelerated, companies have had to embrace a more distributed, collaborative organizational style in order to become more flexible and adaptable and keep up with the changes all around them.
Such participatory governance models require that all those working together have access to the information they need to make decisions, as well as having an effective means of collaborating with each other. Such models would have been very difficult to implement only a short time ago. New technologies and platforms have changed all that.
It is now time to apply similar Internet-based participatory models to government itself at all levels - from local to national - in order to tap into the expertise and energy of all citizens.
While participatory democracy emphasizes the involvement of its citizens in government, this involvement is often limited to voting, leaving actual governance to elected politicians, their staffs and appointees. Voting, is absolutely critical to a good representative democracy, but it is not enough. Given the increased complexity of our society, we now need all of us to become more actively engaged in the work of government in order to help it make better decisions and to help it better manage those tasks for which it is responsible.
The President's Transparency and Open Government memorandum calls this out explicitly. "Public engagement enhances the Government's effectiveness and improves the quality of its decisions. Knowledge is widely dispersed in society, and public officials benefit from having access to that dispersed knowledge. Executive departments and agencies should offer Americans increased opportunities to participate in policymaking and to provide their Government with the benefits of their collective expertise and information."
It directs that "Executive departments and agencies should use innovative tools, methods, and systems to cooperate among themselves, across all levels of Government, and with nonprofit organizations, businesses, and individuals in the private sector. Executive departments and agencies should solicit public feedback to assess and improve their level of collaboration and to identify new opportunities for cooperation."
In his Inaugural Address, President Obama minced no words about the challenges we face: "That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood." He then added "Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this America: They will be met."
He dismissed the tired ideological debates whether government is the problem or the solution: "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works -- whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account, to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.
Our country's ability to innovate is critical to help us deal with the challenges we face. And one of the most critical such challenges, is our ability to transform government itself so it can better serve all of us. In the end, we are all in this together.