Linking up WhiteHouse.gov and a new US-India Partnership on Open Government

After an election that saw open government make gains in statehouses across the United States, a new transcontinental partnership offers new opportunities for international collaboration. This afternoon, Samantha Power, special assistant to the President for multilateral affairs and human rights, blogged about a new US-India partnership on open government at WhiteHouse.gov. Her post describes President Obama’s visit to an “Expo on Democracy and Open Government” at St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai and the technologies and organizations he encountered there. According to Power:

“India’s dynamism in the technology sector is well known, as is Gandhi’s legacy in India of civic action and bottom-up change, but today’s expo highlighted something very fresh: Indian civil society’s harnessing of innovation and technology to strengthen India’s democracy — by fighting corruption, holding government officials accountable, and empowering citizens to be the change they seek.”

Power’s post is thorough, descriptive and contextualizes the president’s trip and the growing use of technology to fight corruption and improve accountability in India. It also contains only one link that’s relevant to the organizations that were at said “Expo on Democracy and Open Government.” Ipaidabribe.com was created by Janagraaha to enable “Indians upload videos of their experiences in paying a bribe, in refusing to pay a bribe, and in ‘not having to pay a bribe.'”

The expo itself does not appear to have a website, or at least one that could be discovered after a few minutes of searching online.

The closest thing to an online FAQ is the White House press release on “Indian Innovations in Expo for Democracy and Open Government posted at America.gov, where the participating organizations are listed and described. Neither the WhiteHouse.gov blog post nor the release contains that most elemental of online elements: hyperlinks to the relevant person, place or thing being described. For some readers, used to the limitations of print, that may not be a huge issue. For digital natives or immigrants, the absence of links is a big missed opportunity.

The reason that critique is particularly fresh this afternoon is that one of the archetypal bloggers on the Web, David Winer, made the argument at Scripting News today that WhiteHouse.gov should be a hyperlocal blog. Specifically:

The sitting President can’t run campaign ads as an aspiring President does. But he has the ability to communicate more effectively than anyone else on the planet, if that power is developed. If you send people away to places that involve them. The White House blog should be a daily link list of ideas and perspectives on what’s happening in the world.

For instance, Power could have linked to the press briefing at USAID.gov where she, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, USAID Administrator Raj Shah and Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra talk about yesterday’s agricultural exposition, including her comments on this open government partnership. For example:

one of the things that we’ve been doing is really learning as a government just how rich the innovations are in a lot of emerging democracies, and indeed, in a lot of new democracies and transitional democracies. No one country has a monopoly on innovation in this space. And it’s indeed quite inspiring to see how even with very few resources you can see how creative nongovernmental actors are, or indeed champions within government who are stepping forward and taking advantage of new technologies and so forth to try to enhance partnership or transparency.

So having said that, I still think India has a huge number of comparative advantages. I mean, for starters it has one of the most noble traditions in human history of bottom-up change and bottom-up activism. I mean, the whole history of modern India is rooted in what you might call the original “Yes, we can” with Mr. Gandhi and the movement that he created and the billions of people that he inspired around the world, one of whom, as the President said today, was Martin Luther King, without whom, arguably, we wouldn’t be where we are in my own country.

So this tradition of bottom-up change, of citizen demand the quality of demand that one encounters out in the most rural areas and some of the most impoverished areas here, even among people who haven’t yet acquired literacy in their communities.

For an administration that’s embraced the idea and practice of Gov 2.0 in many notable ways, failing to link in even a Web 1.0 way is surprising. And to be fair, this post was an exception. The White House blog has frequently made good use of links, video and images, as shown by this week’s WhiteHouse.gov weekly wrapup.

For the sake of the broader open government community who may be interested, here’s the list of participants in that Expo from the press release, this time with links to the relevant organizations or news coverage, where such websites are not available:

An Illustrative List of Exhibitors and Roundtable Participants:

· Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathana (Workers and Peasants Strength Union – MKSS) is an organization that fights against government corruption and creates channels for citizens to oversee their local governments. Its leader, Aruna Roy, is best known as a prominent leader of the Right to Information movement in India which led to Parliament’s passage of the Right to Information Act in 2005, which has empowered millions of ordinary Indians.

· Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS) is a New Delhi based citizen’s group with a mandate to promote accountability and transparency in government functioning. SNS’s key activities have been to promote the use of the Right to Information Act (RTI) by training citizens, particularly women in slum areas, to use the RTI and on the functioning of the government in areas such as rations, civic works, education and social welfare schemes. More recently, SNS has used the RTI to collect information on the performance of elected representatives and develop report cards.

· Janaagraha is a Bangalore-based NGO that works with citizens and government to change the quality of life in India’s cities and towns, focusing on urban infrastructure and citizen engagement with public institutions, including volunteerism. They also recently launched an exciting initiative called IPAIDABRIBE.com, a web platform for where people who have been asked for or ever had to pay a bribe are encouraged to share their experiences (after only 2 months, it gets 30,000 hits per day).

· The Hunger Project (THP) is a global organization committed to ending hunger. In India, it is committed to ignite and sustain the leadership spirit of women elected to local village councils (panchayats). THP works in 13 states of India, including Maharashtra (where Mumbai is located). By partnering with more than 90 civil society organizations, THP has worked with and supported the leadership of more than 60,000 elected women representatives.

· ASER uses simple tools to empower people nationwide to test their children’s math and reading abilities, and then hold local government accountable to outcomes. With this data, ASER creates the Annual Status of Education Report, which surveys literacy in 570 districts and 700,000 children of India with citizen participation. Each year 25,000 volunteers donate 4 days of their time to gather the data for this report.

· PRS Legislative Research (PRS) works with Members of Parliament (MPs) across party lines to provide research support on legislative and policy issues. Its aim is to complement the base of knowledge and expertise that already exists in government, citizens groups, businesses, and other research institutions. PRS also enables citizens to track the progress of legislative and policy reforms through an on-line portal.

· The Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) works on building fair and transparent electoral and political processes in India. ADR has organized Citizen Election Watch for all major elections and discloses candidate background information in a timely manner, including through SMS technology, to the media and the public, helping them to make informed voting choices.

The takeaway for government – or any organization, for that matter – is that blogs and the Web offer new opportunities to share information, create more surface area to expose ideas to citizens and create conversations. If official accounts of new partnerships or events consist of plaintext press releases, lack a website or a post on the most prominent government blog in the world fails to include images, video or relevant links, that opportunity is being neglected.

About Alex Howard

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.

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