edemocracy

TechCrunch’s “CrunchGov” grades Congress on tech, pilots legislative crowdsourcing platform

In general, connecting more citizens with their legislators and create more resources for Congress to understand where their constituents and tech community stands on proposed legislation is a good thing. Last year’s Congressional hearings on the Stop Online Piracy Act and the PROTECT IP Act made it pretty darn clear that many technologists felt that it was no longer ok to not know how the Internet works. Conversely, however, if the tech world cares about what happens in DC, it’s no longer ok to not know how Congress works.

In that context, the launch of a policy platform by one of the biggest tech blogs on the planet could definitely be a positive development. TechCrunch contributor Greg Ferenstein writes that the effort is aimed at “helping policymakers become better listeners, and technologists to be more effective citizens.”

The problem with the initial set of tools is that they’re an incomplete picture of what’s online, at best. CrunchGov won’t satisfy the needs of tech journalists, staffers or analysts, who need deeper dives into expert opinion, policy briefings and data. (Public Knowledge, the Center for Democracy and Technology, OpenSecrets.org, the Sunlight Foundation, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation already offer those resources.)

Will “grading” Members of the House of Representatives on TechCrunch’s new Congressional leaderboard lead to them being better listeners? Color me, well, unconvinced. Will an “F” from TechCrunch result in Reps. Smith, Grassley, or Blackburn changing the bills they introduce, support or vote for or against?

Hard to know. True, it’s the sort of symbol that a political opponent could use in an election — but if Reddit’s community couldn’t defeat SOPA’s chief sponsor in a primary, will a bad grade do it? Ferenstein says the leaderboard provides a “a quantified opinion” of the alignment of Reps with the consensus of the tech industry.

Update: as reported by Adrian Jeffries at The Verge, this quantified opinion is based upon TechCrunch editorial and “data and guidance from four tech lobbies.”

Engine Advocacy, which represents startups; TechNet, which represents CEOs in areas from finance and ecommerce to biotech and clean tech; the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which represents major Silicon Valley employers; and the powerhouse conglomerate The Internet Association, which represents Amazon, Google, and Facebook, among others.

Ferenstein told Hamish McKenzie at PandoDaily that “We’re saying this is generally the view of many people who read our site.” If that’s the case, it would be useful to transparently see the data that shows how TechCrunch readers feel about proposed or passed bills — much in the same way that POPVOX or OpenCongress allow users to express support or opposition to legislation. At the moment, readers are stuck taking their word for it.

McKenzie also highlighted some problems with the rankings and the proposition of rankings themselves:

On three major issues – net neutrality, privacy, and cyber security – TechCrunch’s surveys found no consensus, which somewhat undermines the leaderboard rankings. After all, those rankings appear to be based mainly on three data points: a Congressperson’s position on SOPA, and his or her votes on the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act and the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act. It might be true that CrunchGov takes a data-driven approach to its rankings, but when three data points out a possible set of six are omitted, it’s fair to question just how useful the measure is.

As much as anything else, that speaks to the complicated definition of “those in the technology industry.” The industry is so broad and varied, from solo developers creating social games in their basements to hardware executives wanting to drive profits on their devices, that trying to establish consensus on political issues across a broad section of a relatively amorphous community is probably an impossible task. It also overemphasizes tech issues among the myriad of policy concerns that people working in the industry hold, some of which might seem tangential but are actually inextricably tied to the industry. What of climate change? What of taxes? What of puppies?

Also, applying grades to legislators puts TechCrunch in the same camp as the NRA, Americans For Tax Reform, and the Sierra Club in terms of assessing representatives based on narrow, and politically loaded, interests. It’s a headline-oriented approach that provides low-information people with a low-information look at a process and system that is actually very complicated.

More effective citizenship through the Internet?

I’m not unconvinced these limited bill summaries or leaderboard will help “technologists” become “more effective citizens,” though I plan to keep an open mind: this new policy platform is in beta, from the copy to the design to the number of bills in the legislative database or the data around them.

Helping readers to be “more effective” citizens is a bigger challenge than educating them just about how legislators are graded on tech-related bills. The scope of that  knowing who your Representative, Senators or where they stand on issues, what bills are up for a vote or introduced, how they voted, The new Congress.gov will connect you to many of the above needs, at the federal level. It might mean following the money, communicating your support or opposition to your elected officials, registering to vote, and participating the democratic processes of state and local government, from schools to . Oh, and voting: tens of millions of American citizens will head to the polls in under two weeks.

To be fair, CrunchGov does do some of these things, linking out to existing open government ecosystem online. Clicking “more info” shows positions Representatives have taken on the tech issues CrunchGov editors have determined that the industry has a “consensus” around, including votes, and links to their profiles in OpenCongress and Influence Explorer. Bill summaries link to maplight.org.

When it comes to the initial set of issues in the legislative database, there’s an overly heavy editorial thumb on the till of what’s deemed important to the tech community.

For one, “cybersecurity” is a poor choice for a Silicon Valley blog. It’s a Washington word, used often in the context of national defense and wars, accompanied by fears of a “cyber Pearl Harbor.” Network security, mobile device security or Web application security are all more specific issues, and ones that startups and huge enterprises all have to deal with in their operations. The security experts I trust see Capitol Hill rhetoric taking aim at the wrong cybersecurity threats.

CrunchGov has only one bill selection for the issue — the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) (H.R. 3523). The summary explains that CISPA proposes more information sharing, has a pie chart showing that “tech-friendly legislators” are split 50/50 on it, shows endorsements and opposition, links to 3 articles about the bill, including TechCrunch’s own coverage.

What’s left unclear? For one, that Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) – an “A-lister” who TechCrunch writes “has received numerous awards and accolades from the industry,” supported CISPA. Or that organizations and advocates concerned about its implications for privacy and civil rights strongly opposed it. If you’re a technologist, legislator or citizen, honestly, you’re better off reading ProPublica’s explainer or the Center for Democracy and Technology’s CISPA resource page.

There’s also framing choices that meant a number of bills aren’t listed — and that the Senate is left out entirely. Why? According to Ferenstein, “the “do-nothing” congress made it impossible to rank the Senate, because they didn’t pass enough bills related to technology policy.”

It’s true that the Senate hasn’t passed many bills — but the 51 laws that did go through the Senate in the 112th Congress include more tech policy issues than that statement might lead you to believe, from e-verify to online leak prevention. It’s also moved laws that every citizens should know about, like the extension of the PATRIOT Act, given that provisions affect the tech industry. (Yes, digital due process matters in the age of the cloud: your email isn’t as private as you might think it is.)

Putting a legislative crowdsourcing platform to re-use

Congressional leaderboard and limited legislative dashboard aside, CrunchGov is trying to crowdsource legislation using a local installation of MADISON, the software Congressman Issa’s office developed and rolled out last December during the first Congressional hackathon. MADISON was subsequently open sourced, which made the code available to TechCrunch.

It’s in this context that CrunchGov’s aspirations for technology to “democratize democracy itself” may be the most tested. The first test case will be a bill from Congressman Issa to reform government IT procurement. For this experiment to matter, the blog’s readership will need to participate, do so meaningfully, and see that their edits are given weight by bill authors in Washington. Rep. Issa’s office, which has distinguished itself in its use of the Internet to engage the public, may well do so. If proposals from the initial pilot aren’t put into bills, that may be the end of reader interest.

Will other Congressmen and staffers do the same, should their bills be posted? It’s hard to say. As with so many efforts to engage citizens online, this effort is in beta.

This post has been updated, including links to coverage from Pando Daily and the Verge.

A Twitter chat with @VotingInfo on voting, elections and tech

Today, I hosted a Twitter chat with the Voting Information Project. They partner with states to provide official election data that developers can use to create free, open source tools for voters.

I’ve embedded a storify of our conversation below, along with a video explaining more about what they do. Of special note: VIP is partnering with Mobile Commons to let registered voters know where to vote. Just txt “where” or “donde” to 877-877.

A tale of 42 tweets: Highlights from my first Social Media Week in DC

Last week was “Social Media Week” here in DC. The week featured speakers, panels, workshops, events, and parties all across the District, celebrating tech and social media in the nation’s Capital, including a special edition of the DC Tech Meetup. I moderated four panels, participated in a fifth and attended what I could otherwise. I found the occasion to be a great way to meet new people around the District. Following is a storify of some of my personal highlights, as told in tweets and photographs. This is by no means representative of everyone’s experiences, which are as varied as the attendees. It’s solely what I saw and what lingered from the social media week that was.

How does the State Department practice public diplomacy in the age of social media?

Millions of people around the world are aware that the U.S. Department of State is using Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Between them, the U.S. Department of State, U.S. embassies and consulates now collectively manage:

  • 125 YouTube channels with 23,940 subscribers and 12,729,885 million video views
  • 195 Twitter accounts with 1,403,322 followers;
  • 288 Facebook pages with 7,530,095 fans.

The U.S. Department of State also maintains a presence on Flickr, Tumblr, and Google+, and an official blog, DipNote. Its embassies and consulates also maintain a presence on these social media platforms and produce their own blogs.

What many U.S. citizens may not realize is that U.S. foreign service officers are also practicing public diplomacy on China’s Weibo microblogging network or Russia’s vkontakte social network. The U.S. Department of State also publishes social media content in 11 languages: Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, French, English, Hindi, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Turkish, and Urdu. Many embassies are also tweeting in local languages, including German, Indonesian, Korean, and Thai.

That’s a lot of talking, to be sure, but in the context of social media, a key question is whether the State Department is listening. After all, news about both human and natural crises often breaks first on Twitter, from the early rumblings of earthquakes to popular uprisings.

This morning, three representatives from the U.S. Department of State shared case studies and professional experiences gleaned directly from the virtual trenches about how does social media is changing how public diplomacy is practiced in the 21st century. In the video embedded below, you can watch an archive of the discussion from the New America Foundation on lessons learned from the pioneers who have logged on to share the State Department’s position, listen and, increasingly, engage with a real-time global dialogue.

Video streaming by UstreaPARTICIPANTS

  • Suzanne Hall (@SuzKPH), Senior Advisor, Innovation in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affair, U.S. Department of State
  • Nick Namba (@nicholasnamba), Acting Deputy Coordinator for Content Development and Partnerships, U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Information Program
  • Ed Dunn (@EdAndDunn), Acting Director, U.S. Department of State’s Digital Communications Center

White House offers “We the People” online petitions at WhiteHouse.gov

With We the People,” the White House has added a new page to WhiteHouse.gov and has announced a potentially disruptive feature for an American public that increasingly turning online for government information and political action: online petitions.

“When I ran for this office, I pledged to make government more open and accountable to its citizens,” reads a statement by President Barack Obama at WhiteHouse.gov. “That’s what the new We the People feature on WhiteHouse.gov is all about – giving Americans a direct line to the White House on the issues and concerns that matter most to them.”

There’s a big idea embedded in this launch, going back to the original compact between the American people and its government. The First Amendment of United States Constitution gives citizens the right to petition their government. In the 21st century, the Internet provides a new means for such petitions to be made.

“With We the People, we’re offering a new way to submit an online petition on a range of issues — and get an official response,” writes Macon Phillips, White House director of digital in a WhiteHouse.gov blog post announcing We the People.

He explains more in the video embedded below and invites people to sign up for email updates when We The People goes live.

Phillips explained the basics of how the White House e-petitions will work on the White House blog. Here’s the key takeaways:

  • Citizens can create or sign e-petitions on a “range of issues” — it’s not clear yet whether citizens can define their own issues or will have to choose from a list.
  • If an e-petition gathers more than 5,000 signatures in 30 days, White House officials will review and answer it.
  • Initially, an e-petition will have a unique URL that only its creator knows. “It’s up to that person to share it in their network to gather an initial amount of signatures — initially 150 — before it is searchable on WhiteHouse.gov. ” It’s not clear what a “network” means but it likely refers to Twitter or Facebook, like the way act.ly works.

There are still many questions that remain in terms of how this is going to work or how it’s going to fit into a 21st century e-democracy. As Phillips recognized, the United States isn’t the first to try this: the United Kingdom offers e-petitions, and according to Phillips, “this work was very helpful as we developed our own.”

The sticky e-widget there is that the UK dropped e-petitions late last year as the new prime minister came into office, due to negative publicity and other issues. Reasonably, we can expect there to be similar challenges with the White House version. The UK has since relaunched its e-petitions site, as Phillips points out, and sharedplans to release the e-petitions code on Github.While it’s not clear yet who built the White House version, it’s possible that they used this code, given the support for open source that Philips has demonstrated over the past three years. The White House built the system in house, according to Phillips.

The initial response online ranges from celebration, including a “high five from PopVox,” to extreme skepticism.

Open government godfather Carl Malamud the long view: “Nice job on We The People,” he tweeted. “Treading in the footsteps of the Founders, petitions have a long and honorable history in our republic!”

“What difference do they make?” tweeted FutureGov Dominic Campbell. “None. Just a distraction technique to pacify the masses. Need new politics not gimmicks. Backbenchers are generally as influential over govt policy as my gran. And she’s dead. Petition / precise tech tool is irrelevant, it’s all about political culture. Petitions are lame. All power is in the hands of govt. Not game changing. More make u feel better/doing *something*.” While the UK petitions have come back, “You’d be hard pushed to find anyone in UK speak +vely of them. Waste of space… think they just reinforce status quo and reward loudest/best organised. Not democracy. ”

Former Sunlight Foundationer Jake Brewer dug into some of the structural issues that exist with this approach. The “only reason “We the People” would [be] useful vs other tools is if @WhiteHouse can convince all they are listening & meaningfully responding,” he tweeted.

“It strikes me though that “giving people a voice” is not at all the problem in gov. Many ways to talk AT gov. Few ways to do so usefully.We simply don’t need more ways to send petitions or gather ideas. We need better ways to listen & operationalize good ideas. What will be an agency’s incentive to take any action based on a petition? Will Whitehouse pressure? Petitions to Congress (theoretically) work because Reps want to be responsive/re-elected. Exec not the same, so how to handle? Guess I’m having a hard time seeing “We the People” as anything more than gov 2.0 theater, and I’d like to be wrong. We simply don’t need more ways to send petitions or gather ideas. We need better ways to listen and operationalize good ideas.”

Questions for We the People

The White House is taking questions on We the People using the feedback form at White House.gov and on Twitter, using the hashtag #WHWeb, where Phillips is listening as @macon44.

Why do petitions at all? “Online petitions are commonly understood, and petitions have been part of our democracy since the beginning,” he tweeted.

When asked by Nancy Scola whether the thinking with We the People is to “have @whitehouse act as [a] clearinghouse for petitions directed towards agencies,” Phillips replied: “People shouldn’t have to decipher how the executive branch is organized in order to speak out about an issue. Processing incoming petitions handled by WH, but relevant petitions will be coordinated w/others as needed, including Agencies.”

In response to a question by @abc4all, Phillips tweeted that “participation in We the People is open to the general public (13yrs+) & requires a valid email address.”

When Alex Rose asked if “WH have a profile of citizens based on petitions we support on We the People? Who can access aggregated data?,” Phillips replied that “only a small group of wh staff will have access to administrative data We the People will be subject to a public privacy policy.”

Here are the questions I’ve tweeted out and their answers:

Who built the e-petitions function? Is it the the same code as the UK tool?

Answer: “System design and development of We the People was developed in house,” tweeted Phillips.

How will identity be handled? How will the White House authenticate citizens to e-petitions government?

Answer: “Lightweight – participation will require an email verification step,” tweeted Phillips. “For now we are using first party WH accounts that verify an email address. Plan to incorporate NSTIC rec’s in future http://1.usa.gov/p7n8HR ”

Do you have to be a citizen?

Answer: “Right now the system only requires valid email and does not verify citizenship,” tweeted Phillips.

How will social media be integrated? 

Answer: “when you create a petition you get a unique link. How you share that is up to you. Will have @facebook & @twitter share [buttons],” tweeted Phillips. yes, just like other content on wh.gov

Can citizens ask questions using We The People on whatever topic they wish or will these be predefined? The screenshot below implies the latter categorization: taxonomy, not folksonomy.

Answer: “there will be a defined set of topic people can choose from but its a wide range, and there will also be ad hoc tags,” tweeted Phillips.

Will there be an API so that civic developers can visualize and analyze them to see if there are duplicates or emerging themes?

Answer: “Not now; API’s for analysis & extending petition functionality on a long list of features we we are considering for future. With [federal CIO] Steve upstairs now, thinking through how that can best work is both a priority & more informed.”

Why build this when services like PopVox, Votizen and Change exist to create social e-petitions?

Answer: “Developing We the People ourselves [...] offers the flexibility to adapt to the public response to improve engagement,” tweeted Phillips. “It’s a false choice to say _either_ We the People _or_ others – there’s lots of collaboration ahead, this space is still young.”

There’s another key detail: these e-petitions would go to the executive branch, whereas Votizen and PopVox are targeted at Congress and constituent communications.

The creator of act.ly, Jim Gilliam, offered some of his own perspective and questions. “I built a petition/priority tool White House 2 back in 2008. I learned a lot, happy to share,” he tweeted to Phillips, linking to his post on White House 2.0. On this count, the White House was listening: Phillips asked Gilliam to “dm him his email address.” Here’s a look back at “imagining White House 2.0″ from the 2009 Personal Democracy Forum:

“I figured out all the problems, except for one. getting the white house to pay attention. (or maybe it just took 3yrs),” tweeted Gilliam.

He highlighted two issues, one for advocates and one for White House technologists: “”How will the white house use all the email addresses it collects with new petition tool? Advocacy groups will have to decide whether to send their people to whitehouse.gov at the expense of their own list building,” he tweeted. “White house will need some serious anti-spam jujitsu to knock back the tools that scrape congressional forms.”

Perhaps most important, how will citizens know that they’re being heard by the White House, that these e-petitions matter, and that this will not be a public relations exercise that ends with a thank you letter from staff?

This goes to the issue of connecting e-petition action to results. “OpenGov has the equivalent of a “last mile” problem: a culture+digital-infrastructure gap at the workgroup level,” tweeted Dan Latorre, leader of Digital Placemaking and creator ofFixCity.org.

For instance, if enough people sign e-petitions on withdrawing from Afghanistan, supporting gay marriage, legalizing marijuana or opposing ICE takedowns of websites without judicial review, will the White House change its policy?

Stay tuned for answers [See above] and upon launch, outcomes.

New reports on citizen participation and rulemaking offer open government guidance

Earlier today, AmericaSpeaks released a new report, “Assessing Public Participation in an Open Government Era: A Review of Federal Agency Plans.” This represents the most comprehensive review of the public participation aspects of the federal open government initiative to date.

The Obama Administration’s Open Government Directive required Federal Agencies to publish Open Government Plans describing how they would become more transparent, participatory, and collaborative. Before this research, the public participation elements of the plans had not been subject to an in-depth analysis.  We reviewed the more than 1,000 pages contained in the plans of the 29 Agencies that were included in the White House Open Government Dashboard and compared them to the standards used often by practitioners in the field of public engagement that we believe are most important.

The report, embedded below, highlights best practices for public participation and suggests ways to enhance the role the public has in shaping federal policy, including implementing the ExpertNet open government platform.

Overall, the administration received mixed marks. While the AmericaSpeaks found that agencies “display an admirable willingness to experiment with new tools and techniques to involve citizens with their decision-making processes,” the “Open Government Initiative and most Federal Agency plans have failed to offer standards for what constitutes high-quality public participation.”

On the one hand, agencies are increasing the number of people devoted to public engagement and using a range of online and offline forums. On the other, “deliberative processes, in which citizens learn, express points of view, and have a chance to find common ground, are rarely incorporated.”

New guidance on rulemaking

Separately, University of Pennsylvania professor Cary Coglianese prepared a report to the Administrative Conference of the United States on the use of electronic media in the rulemaking process. Here’s the short version: agencies should use social media more, involve the millions of non-English speaking members of the public and significantly upgrade, streamline and optimize agency websites. For the long way, read on:

Federal Agency Use of Electronic Media in the Rulemaking Process

Notes from the third White House Open Government Partnership consultation

In July 2011, the State Department hosted an historic gathering in Washington to announce an Open Government Partnership with Brazil and six other nations. For background on the initiative, read this digest on Open Government Partnership analysis for context.

This new new open government partnership could drive U.S. commitments, according to OMB Watch.

What those commitments will be is still unclear. Given that they’re due by September’s Open Government Summit at the United Nations in New York City, the timeline for drafting them is quite limited.

Last week, when the White House asked for ideas on the National Plan for open government, the community learned a bit more about what’s on the table: improving public services and increasing public integrity.

Clay Johnson has since offered the White House a deep set of recommendations for open government in response to the three questions it posed, including better ways to use open data, social media, improving regulations, public comment, and the developer community better. If you’re interested in open government, it’s a must-read.

Those are not the limit of potential commitments on the table, at least as evidenced by what we know about the series of three consultations with open government stakeholders in Washington that the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs held this July, on the 22nd, 25th and 29th. These consultations were not livestreamed or otherwise recorded, however, nor have OIRA’s notes been released to the public yet. That said, we have at least two accounts of what happened in July, from:

I attended the July 29th consultation and, while I did not record video or audio, can share the following written notes.

Attendees

As with the previous meetings, OIRA administrator Cass Sunstein led the discussion. White House OSTP deputy CTO for public sector innovation Chris Vein was also there, along with half a dozen OIRA staff and a representative of the National Security Archive.

Seated around the table were representatives from America Speaks, OMB Watch, the Center for Technology in Government at the University of Albany, Sunshine in Government. University of Pennsylvania professor Cary Coglionese and a board member from the International Association for Public Participation, Leanne Nurse, dialed into a conference speaker phone line.

Past meetings included representatives from the Revenue Watch Institute, Code for America, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Open Plans, Civic Commons, the Sunlight Foundation, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and the Project for Government Oversight, in addition to Open the Government and NCDD.

Open Government Consultation

Sunstein started the meeting by offering high level context for the OGP and thanks to the organizations around the table.

When the OGP was devised, he said, it was done with background experience from the Open Government Directive that came President Barack Obama and the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Many of your organizations were “indispensable” during that process, Sunstein said, and even though what happened with the open government directive “wasn’t perfect,” there has been “tremendous progress.” He thought from the beginning, with regard to the OMB open government project, that it would be a work in progress, with plans scrutinized and improved over time.

Sunstein laid out the reason for the consultation: the White House has national action plan due in September, with an event at the UN as the president promised. The White House wants the national action plan to be as good as possible, “improving on what we’ve got so far as we can.” Reflecting his comments at the previous two consultations, Sunstein said that one way to think of the meeting is generating ideas through three stages, given the temporal and feasibility constraints posed by the short deadline for UN recommendations. He observed that where would be opportunities moving forward in the medium term, over a 3-5 month time period to do more.

Katherine McFate, the executive director of OMB Watch, asked a question about the parameters for the consultation, noting that if you go back and look at the open government partnership, there are five different challenges for countries. If you only have to pick one or two, she suggested, improving public services is one, and may be improving public integrity is another. Increasing accountability, likely to be three. (Given the recent White House blog post, OIRA may have taken that suggestion.)

In response, Sunstein replied that there are surely things that have budgetary repercussions, which you then have to answer for, although in open government, sometimes it’s possible to improve public services without stretching the budget.

Theresa Pardo, director of the CTG at Albany, after thanking OIRA for the opportunity to speak and to listen, focused on the some of the issues that have arisen during implementation of the open government directive, including the role of citizen engagement. One tension is how to think about citizen participation, versus accountability imperatives.

One of the things that we hear quite regularly when we talk to practitioners at federal, local, and state level, along with academics, is a lot of confusion about concepts underlying open government directive. There’s pressure towards clarity, and still a lot of ambiguity. One of the ways to push through in creating that clarity, she suggested, would be to focus a bit more on the conversation, on figuring out what the problems that citizens are seeking open government to solve. Pardo said that in their experience, in various jurisdictions in US and outside of the US, it’s a challenge to connect what’s happening in government agencies with what citizens are talking about in public. Over the long term, the opportunity for open government, she explained, is to move towards deeper engagement with citizens themselves about what problems are they experiencing.

Professor Coglianese, speaking over the phone, agreed with Pardo and McFate. He also suggested that the White House clearly take stock of where open government is currently. We’re seeing great things, in taking stock of regulations, he said. It would make sense to something similar with taking stock of public participation now, defining a better baseline of where to assess what kinds of reform are making changes.

The point, about defining a baseline for public participation, was taken up and emphasized by many of those invited to the July 29 consultation. One of our major tools is the public participation spectrum, said Douglas Sarno of IAP2 USA. No systematic approach to what we’re trying to do or what’s been achieved has been defined by the White House, he said, and no way of qualifying bonafide public participation versus hackneyed participation defined. There are good challenges in finding metrics.

Sunstein agreed that the regulatory process requires significant public participation. This week, the Regulations.gov team acknowledged the need to do more in that regard.

In response, Pardo cited a number of studies in which communications scholars and computer scientists are using machine language processing to analyze online rulemaking to see if it results in changing in deliberation or positive social interaction. Such studies can be expensive but useful. Part of the issue in integrated such work, however, is getting real movement in processes in partnership with academics, she said.

Pardo focused further upon the role of citizen engagement, both around rulemaking and the large context of open government. Nowhere, until just recently, she said, do we teach our public managers about how to look, engage, and use citizen participation tools. “There’s a capability gap at all levels of government. How do public managers in local governments and cities, think about their jobs in different ways?”

The National Association of State CIOs and others are looking at building capability to understand how to use data and engagement tools better, said Pardo, but across the board there’s lack of ability in these core competencies. Maybe building ability as with cybersecurity skills would make sense, she suggested, including professional standards for citizen participation.

Coglianese similary focused more on baseline assessments for public participation. There are some political scientists who have tried to assess the actual impact of public comment and proposed rulemaking, he said. In terms of what to look to as baseline, what is it you want to accomplish with this national action plan? Is the goal to increase public participation? What is the level right now? We don’t have a way of saying what the volume of interaction is across the federal government, he asserted.

We do know, however, that rulemaking tends to be more something that organizations participated in more than individual citizens, Coglionese said, citing a recent article on public participation that he’d authored law journal. “We need a baseline of who’s participating and at what level,” he said. “Is the goal of participation to increase the quality of public decision making? That’s hard to assess. To enhance public virtue? That’s much harder to assess. Until it’s clear exactly what it is you would want to do, you can’t answer these questions.”

David Stern, director on online engagement at America Speaks, validated Coglionese’s words, observing that his organization had recently looked at all open government plans by agencies and came to the same conclusion. There’s a lack of consistency in metrics used to evaluate projects, said Stern, and no standards about what defines good participation. Number of people, diversity, number of instances policy influenced? Standards and best practices, in this area, would be helpful coming from White House and OMB. Every open government project contains response to the most popular proposals, he said, which means that every public engagement initiative has a public engagement component.

Rick Blum of Sunshine in Government raised another issue: FOIA exemptions, including agencies proposing them independently. The Department of Defense is overclassifying, said Blum, and it’s very hard to track what’s happening. The Department of Justice has put up a FOIA dashboard but it’s “plagued with tech glitches and bad data,” he said. This has become a public debate about secrecy or disclosure, with some half a billion dollars being spent annually fulfilling FOIA requests, said Blum. There’s also concern about the impact of the recent Supreme Court decision in Milner vs the Navy.

On my part, I offered feedback that I’d collected from the broader open government community ahead of time and over the previous year.

First, the White House has not explicitly separated open government innovation, in terms of open data about the business of government, from “good government” initiatives that transparency advocates expect and demand, in terms of accountability to the people. Misset expectations around the goals the White House has set out have created widespread dissatisfaction and harsh criticisms of an administration that promised to be “most transparent ever.” The open government initiative in the province of British Columbia offers a potential model for the White House to consider, in terms of this separation.

Second, as the federal government moves forward with its ongoing review of .gov websites, there are opportunities to work with civil society and civic developers to co-create better e-services.

Third, opportunities exist for the White House to partner with entrepreneurs, media or nonprofits that are making government data open, useful and searchable. For instance, BrightScope has made financial advisor data from the SEC and FINRA available to the public. The work of Code for America and others on farmers market open data is another example.

Finally, there continue to be serious issues raised by developers about the quality of open government data on Data.gov. In general, public servants continue to release PDFs, as opposed to machine-readable structured data, and cite the language in the Open Government Directive for support. If government wishes developers and businesses to use its data for accountability, civic utility or economic value, then releasing data in the open formats that these communities find most useful makes logical sense.

Pardo took up the issues raised with good government versus open innovation, noting that the two aren’t necessarily against each other. The idea of high value data wasn’t well defined, she said. For instance, the calendars of public officials are nothing more than a dataset.

Sunstein asked after the data issues and the one of his deputies specifically asked about the language in the OGD. He brought up the work that the federal government has done on regulations.gov – which was a persistent focus from the OIRA administrator – and asked whether it was good enough, and over what time limit? And for whom?

The general answer there was clear enough: “we the people.”

Coglianese offered more feedback on regulations.gov: it’s not enough. There are data fields are not filled in, missing information, and things remain incomprehensible, he said. “Imagine how it is for many others coming for first time?” Coglianese endorsed the recommendations of ADA blue ribbon commission for a dedicated overseer of data quality, although such a role would require congressional authorization.

There are some really important opportunities to leverage data in regulations.gov, he emphasized. Leverage that data to extract it automatically, display the data on websites. For instance, many members of congress have a button on their websites forlegislation they’re sponsoring, which then takes visitors to data automatically etxtracted from Thomas.gov. Imagine a similar system for agencies and regulators, he suggested, or consider the EPA, which is trying to display every rule that the agency is working on., which is being developed in addition to regulations.gov.

Agencies right now are building websites around current uses, said Coglionese. That makes a lot of senses, and it’s what one would hope, but doesn’t go to the “separate question of who do they want their users to be.” He criticized the design of the new FCC.gov, although I pointed out that the process that preceded the FCC relaunch was focused on the most common purposes of the site’ visitors.

What was left unsaid in these open government partnership consultations? A great deal, due to the length of time allowed. The voices that were heard around this table were also those of advocates, policy, experts, academics, and technologists: not citizens, and by and large not those of the media, whose function in representative democracies been to hold government accountable on behalf of the public.

As the White House considers its commitments in advance of the September meeting at the United Nations, the people will have a window of opportunity to tell their elected officials what open government means to them and how they woud like their federal government to be more transparent, participatory or collaborative.

If you have feedback on any of those accounts, send it to opengov@omb.gov.

Al Gore, Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee on Internet freedom and democracy [VIDEO]

Last month, Cory Doctorow talked with Al Gore, Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee in Mexico City about privacy, freedom, neutrality and democracy in the context of the Internet and the Web. Shaky handheld video is embedded below — the audio is worth tuning in, however, even if the video is a bit jumpy.

Hat tip to Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing, who writes:

We had a wide-ranging discussion, but kept circling back to the threats and promises for the net — copyright wars, privacy wars, government and grassroots. It was a lot of fun, and quite an honor, and I’m happy to see they’ve got the video online.

Question Time 2.0: GOP Leader on Quora, Rep. John Garamendi on Reddit

Last month, Matt Lira, a member of House GOP Leader Eric Cantor’s staff, asked how the United States Congress should use social media to enhance the legislative process on Quora, the hot question and answer website of the moment. To date, he’s received 19 answers, many quite substantive.

Today, Representative John Garamendi (D-CA) asked the Reddit community for “as many questions as he could get through” when he returned to the page at 8 PM tonight.

My name is John Garamendi, and I am a Member of Congress representing the 10th Congressional District in Northern California. Ask Me Anything. I will be back at 8 PM EST/5 PM PST today (Wednesday, March 2) to answer as many questions as I can get through.

I previously served as California Lieutenant Governor, California Insurance Commissioner, Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Interior Department under President Clinton, a state legislator, and a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer.

Garameni offered his House.gov website, YouTube channel and @RepGaramendi Twitter handle and Facebook page for Redditors to find him. When a member of the community expressed skepticism that it was “really him,” he tweeted that “Today I will join @reddit at 8PM EST for an #AMA Ask Me Anything. Thread will appear here: http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA.”

As of 6:40 PM EST, there were more than 1400 comments on the thread, with many substantive questions voted to the top. The online public will see how frank he’s willing to be in that context.

Whether this is a success or not, it’s good to see representatives exploring new platforms for participatory democracy. They may be far from perfect but the moderation mechanisms on Reddit and Quora, along with their associated communities, hint at the ways that the next generation of e-democracy platforms will evolve. Tune in at 8 PM EST to see if Representative Garamendi takes the top questions on the forum.

UPDATE: The Congressman did, in fact, log in to Reddit and answered questions for nearly an hour. Here’s the the top-voted question, by “anexanhume”:

John,
I am curious as to whether or not you believe that it is possible to be a politician that reaches any major political office (say for instance, state legislator or large city mayor as the least important office) without owing either a person, political organization or corporation some sort of favor for reaching your office. Moreover, is it ever actually possible to vote on your principles consistently without the fear of losing reelection or angering someone who helped you get where you are?

Representative Garamendi answered:

Thank you for the question. It’s a good one. I believe I vote consistently with my principles. Obviously there are some political interests who align with me more than others, and that will be somewhat reflected in whom they choose to support. And like everyone, there are personal opinions about individuals that I sometimes keep to myself for the sake of congeniality and relationships.

So the answer to your question is I honestly don’t think I “owe” any group my allegiance. I’ve been in public policy enough that I doubt there’s a single group left in America that has given me a 100% report card every year I’ve been in office.
Ultimately, public policy is about choices and compromise. When I’m on the House floor, after all the debate is done, after all the deals have been struck, I’m left with a choice: Yes or No. This means I’ve voted for bills that had elements I didn’t like (I was disappointed the public option wasn’t in the Patient’s Bill of Rights for example) and voted against bills that had some good policy (I voted against tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires even though the bill contained an important extension of assistance for people looking for work). It’s clichéd at this point, but we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

He answered two anonymous questions as well: Do you think a representative is elected to execute his own moral compass? Do you think a representative is elected to reflect the opinion of the constituency?

Good questions without an easy answer, but I’ll try. I fight tirelessly for the people of the 10th Congressional District, and luckily, priorities like transportation investments, job creation, Delta protection, health care access, fighting for veterans, ending the war in Afghanistan, and equal rights are both popular in the district and at the core of my policy goals.

My constituents have chosen me to be their voice in Washington, and that literally means making hundreds of decisions every week. I don’t expect anyone to agree with every decision, and there are times when I have access to more information than the public. Have I taken positions that a majority of my constituents disagree with at one point or another? Probably, but that’s the beauty of democracy. Every two years, the people have a chance to reevaluate who they’ve chosen to represent them.

There’s more on the Reddit thread, including answers on the budget, unions, entitlement reform, the financial crisis and more.

Themes to watch in 2011: E-democracy in Brazil

As Nat Torkington put it this morning at O’Reilly Radar, “people who consider tech trends without considering social trends are betting on the atom bomb without considering the Summer of Love.” Torkington was annotating a link to 2011 predictions and prognostications at venture capitalist Fred Wilson’s blog which center on the following presentation that Paul Kedrosky sent him from JWT, a marketing agency.

JWT’s thirteenth prediction will be of particular interest to readers of this blog: “Brazil as E-Leader.”

This digitally savvy, economically vibrant country will prove to be an e-leader. Social media is more popular here than in developed markets, and Brazil has the highest Twitter penetration (23 percent, as of October ComScore figures). PC penetration has reached 32 percent, and many Internet cafes further broaden access. Mobile subscriptions have 86% penetration. Already Brazil is ahead in electronic democracy (with innovations like online town halls and crowd-sourced legislative consulting), and its 2010 census was paperless, conducted electronically.

There are many other themes that will matter to the Gov 2.0 world in 2011 in there, including smart infrastructure investment, scanning everything, home energy monitors, and mHealth. Heck, seemingly mobile everything. Of course, as Mike Loukelides pointed out in his own watchlist of 2011 themes to track, “you don’t get any points for predicting ‘Mobile is going to be big in 2011.'” He thinks that Hadoop, real-time data, the rise of the GPU, the return of P2P, social ubiquity and a new definition for privacy will all play important roles in 2011. Good bets.

JWT does get points for this set of trends, however, and that prediction about e-democracy in Brazil strikes me as apt. Last year at the International Open Government Data Conference, I met Cristiano Ferri Faria, project manager in e-democracy and legislative intelligence at the Brazilian House of Representatives. Faria talked about his work on e-Democracia, a major electronic lawmaking program in Brazil since 2008. As the 112th United States House of Representatives goes back to work today, there are definitely a few things its legislators, aides and staffers might learn from far south of the border. You can download his presentation as a PDF from Data.gov or view it below, with an added bonus: reflections on open government data in New Zealand and Australia.

One caution: Faria concluded that “this kind of practice is too complex” and that e-Democracia “needs a long-term approach.”

Looks like they’re still in an e-government in beta down there too.

Iogdc 2010 Day1 Plenary