How to make Government 2.0 a reality

Today was the final day of the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco.
Written by Chris Jablonski, Inactive

Today was the final day of the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco.  This morning's mixed bag of keynotes included a fireside talk with the founders of Threadless.com and a great demo of chartbeat, a new real-time website monitoring tool.

After the keynotes, I decided to let fate decide what I'd actually cover in this future-oriented blog and followed Tim O'Reilly-the founder of the media company co-producing the event-into one of several track sessions. I took my seat as Andrew McLaughlin, the Director of Global Public Policy for Google, was about to give his talk on how to make Government 2.0 a reality:

"So here you have a Bay Area nerd who goes to Washington D.C. and encounters some tenacious obstacles and learns some hard lessons, but comes back with a renewed sense of hope," said McLaughlin, who in addition to working at Google is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School.

McLaughlin kicked things off with the promise of Government 2.0, which is to, "apply consumer-type technologies to government so that it's more transparent, participatory, collaborative, effective and efficient".  The cost of business is in a steady decline due to technology, so if you apply it right you can get these benefits, he said.  The old paradigm is defined by projects that could cost $80 million and involve contracts with consulting firms, but now, with Web 2.0 sites and tools, you can get a faster result with $10 million.

Next, McLaughlin gave some great examples of where Web 2.0 is working at various government levels:

  • CapStat (District of Columbia): A collection of apps and initiatives for putting government data in citizens' hands, modeled after Baltimore’s CitiStat.

  • Virtual Alabama: A 3D, geo-tagged application that leverages existing state asset imagery and infrastructure data into a visualization tool. It is open to the public and supports 550 agencies. The total cost to develop it was $160,000 plus two staff members, according to McLaughlin.

  • TIB GMAP Performance Management Dashboard (Washington State):  "Data driven managment isn't new, but what is new are the cheap powerful IT tools that help drive performance. These dashboards help agencies keep budgets in control, deliver projects on time, and cut corruption."

  • SeeClickFix: A nationwide reporting system that allows you to create a watch area graphically, such as a few block radius around your residence, to monitor and report non-emergency issues.

The next topic McLaughlin's covered were the obstacles. There are plentiful in the form of outdated laws, regulations, and policies. (Here's a great example recently noted by fellow ZDNet Government blogger Richard Koman).

  • Acquisition and procurement: Must government use of free online services be subjected to a competitive bidding process? Ads are also a problem as agencies are restricted from carrying them from the private sector.
  • Access problems: Government agencies often prohibit the use of social networking sites and other tools; they have to provide disabled access via Section 508 of the Disabilities Act; Iterative media poses challenges to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)
  • Privacy and security: Similar to the private sector, but there is a dated OMB Circular on cookies that restricts federal sites from using persistent cookies unless certain conditions are met.
  • Management statutes: "These are my favorite as they are the most Orwellian," said McLaughlin. He pointed to two: the Paperwork Reduction Act and the Presidential Records Act.  The former slows down the deployment of surveys that ask citizens for personal information due to a six-month approval process, whereas the latter is a burden on federal site webmasters who have to print out all electronic records for archival in written form. To be in compliance,  they'd even have to print out Facebook status messages. Talk about a burden on printers.
  • Commercial Endorsement: The White House should not be endorsing any products, so when videos are posted on YouTube is that an endorsement?  Is it different than Obama giving an exclusive interview to a newspaper? McLaughlin asserted that the administration has been pretty broadminded to include many Web 2.0 services to ensure there is no favoritism.

The session concluded with a brief reform agenda that called on us to talk to our electeds and candidates about how technology can improve government. McLaughlin said that utimately the culture of government needs to change. During his three-month stint in Washington D.C. he met engaged and tech-savvy people across serveral agencies who "get it."  And the fact that Obama gets it definitely helps, McLaughlin noted.

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