Insiders gather to define ‘Gov 2.0’

Last week, hundreds of computer geeks, government workers and nonprofit advocates gathered in town to talk about what “Gov 2.0” means to them. With Internet technology changing by the minute, there’s much discussion about how it can help the government become a platform that engages and empowers citizens to improve how government works. Crucial to this concept, however, is that government supply people information online and in real time. You can have the best map program in the world, but if the information that underlies it is outdated, you still lose your way.

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Consider the example of the Senate. Unlike their colleagues in the House, senators are not required to file their campaign finance disclosures in electronic format. Instead, most send in paper copies to the U.S. Federal Election Commission (FEC), which must then send the records out to be entered into a database at the cost of some $250,000 a year. A curious reporter, blogger or activist who wants to know how much cash a senator has raised and from whom must either troll through PDFs of paper copies or wait for the electronic records to show up months later. Without doing this, they can’t get an accurate read on the senator’s fundraising. This is not real-time, online disclosure.

The news isn’t all bad from Congress. Lawmakers have taken initial steps to make more information available to the public. For example, members of the House will soon post their office expenditures online — but only on a quarterly basis and in the PDF format —a format that makes it difficult for computers to index and people to search through.

This online disclosure is still an improvement over the current form of disclosure — bound paper books published on a quarterly basis.

Another improvement involves earmark requests. This year, House and Senate members are posting these funding requests online. However, members are left to their own discretion to determine where to post the information (and whether to provide a link to it from their home pages) and the format in which they disclose (some members provide charts, others write narratives). Because all the formats differ, it’s difficult to analyze the information, much less create a database out of it.

In the executive branch, President Barack Obama has taken some serious steps toward opening up the government. One of his first acts in office was to issue a memo asking his OMB director to provide a memo on how government agencies should use technology to act transparently and collaboratively, and to encourage participation. We are still waiting for that memo. In the meantime, we’ve seen a two-steps-forward, one-step-back situation developing.

The administration recently announced that it would make available online records of White House visitors — but only 90 to 120 days after the fact. They get points for the transparency, but lose some of them for the lack of timeliness. Data.gov, a new website launched as a central repository of government databases and tools offers a similar example. With more than 100,000 data feeds now available, it’s an impressive achievement, but the raw data catalog does not include major consumer oriented agencies, such as the Consumer Product Safety Commission or the Food and Drug Administration. Promises made to supply timely, accurate information about stimulus spending on Recovery.gov too have fallen short — sometimes to humorous results. Back in July, the site made headlines because it reported a contract for Clougherty Packing LLC for $1.19 million for “two pound frozen ham sliced.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture had to issue a clarifying press release, stating that the $1.19 million went for 760,000 pounds of ham in two-pound units.

The rise of the Internet provides real opportunity to turn the government inside out, by making data and information available to every citizens. When people know what their government is doing — where lawmakers collect their campaign cash, how taxpayer money is spent; data that government agencies collect on the environment, food and drug safety, financial corporate information and more — they have an accurate “map” of how their government works. When people, armed with this information, engage with their government, it only builds their trust and confidence in the whole enterprise. This, at its heart, is the essence of Gov 2.0.


Watzman is a consultant to the Sunlight Foundation, a non-partisan, nonprofit group focused on Internet use as a means to increase government transparency.