On January 21st, President Barack Obama issued the first memorandum of his presidency on “Transparency and Open Government,” charging the Chief Technology Officer, Directory of the Office of Management and Budget, and Administrator of General Services to coordinate the creation of an Open Government Directive. The memo articulated a tripartite analysis of the topic, discussing transparency, or disclosing “information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use,” participation, or government giving “Americans increased opportunities to participate in policymaking and to provide their Government with the benefits of their collective expertise and information,” and finally collaboration, or “actively engaging Americans in the work of their Government.” Someone pointed out at the Princeton Summit I recently attended the three form an interesting logical hierarchy, with transparency required for good participation, and collaboration the culmination of the process. (Of course it leaves off the level included on some other participation scales, citizen power)
Today, the three individuals charged with creating the Open Government Directive launched the Open Government Initiative to “experiment with mechanisms for effective citizen participation” while developing the government’s policy, dividing the task into three parts: brainstorm (now), discuss (starting June 3) and draft (starting June 15th). The process includes “From the Inbox,” a collection of contributed comments, and “Listening Sessions,” or notes or recordings of meetings. Already in the inbox is collection of interesting documents mostly from established interest groups like GWU National Security Archives, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and AmericaSpeaks.
The Departments of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Transportation could create a customizable platform to allow cities and towns to quickly deploy web sites that allow residents to report local problems (e.g. broken streetlights, abandoned vehicles, potholes, tunnel and bridge problems) in a geo-coded database and display system with mark up features. Cities and towns could deploy the platform on a voluntary, and perhaps incentivized, basis and integrate it with their 311 (non-emergency) incident reporting systems.
The project idea raises several issues. First, despite the fact the initiative is for the federal government as a whole, this suggest leaps all the way to the hyperlocal level. There seems to be something intrinsic about Internet technology that makes it particularly well suited for local initiatives, perhaps due to some of the factors I discuss here. Second, it raises the issue of to what extent government should attempt to create new technology. There actually already is a website that does more or less what the Harvard folks describe that I’ve been meaning to write about — SeeClickFix. In fact, here’s some potholes, broken streetlights, and other problems already reported on this private website:
Some have argued the government should focus on data sources nearly exclusively, but I’m more of a moderate on the issue. After all, the private sector may not develop technology that suits the unique characteristics of government. Lastly, this local suggestion implies the subtle ways the Obama Administration’s innovation in transparency, participation, and online engagement could trickle down to state and local government.