House of Representatives

Is the Facebook “citizen cosponsor” app open government 2.0 or clever e-partisanship?

Yesterday, the Office of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VI) launched a new Facebook application, “Citizen Co-sponsor.” Rep. Cantor introduces it in the video below:

Since its introduction, I’ve been mulling over what to write about the new app. Here’s what I’ve read to date:

First, excellent reporting from TechPresident, where Sara Lai Stirland writes that the new Facebook open graph app makes lawmaking social:

The app enables people to use Facebook to track the progress of House legislation as it makes its way through the chamber, but also provides the majority leader’s office with an interesting new grassroots marketing tool for the Republican party’s ideas.

The new app makes use of Facebook’s Open Graph protocol, which means that once installed, updates to legislation that a user has expressed support for can be automatically posted to their Facebook profiles. It also means that these updates show up in users’ timelines, newsfeeds and tickers, giving the legislation more exposure to users’ networks of friends.

For now, the list of legislation that citizens can choose to support is controlled, of course, by Cantor’s office and is listed on a section of his web site. Citizens can click to “co-sponsor” legislation that they support, and see all the other citizen co-sponsors who’ve expressed their support. Each widget for each piece of legislation also shows a visual storyline of that legislation’s progress through the House.

Second, a post by Alex Fitzpatrick at Mashable on the Facebook citizen cosponsor app , in which he interviewed Matt Lira, the director of digital for the House Majority Leader.

“We have a startup mentality to it,” says Lira. “When Twitter first started, it was just going to be for cell phones, now it is what it is today. It’s evolutionary, so you want to see how users use it and if the engagement justifies it, we’ll expand it out.”

The new media team at Cantor’s office is drawing inspiration from both sides of the aisle. Lira says he’s a fan of Rep. Issa’s (R-Calif.) Madison Project as well as the White House’s “We the People” online petitions. He talked about online bill markups, hearings and expert roundtables as possibilites for ways to expand the Citizen Cosponsor in the future.

“We want the program to give more to users than is asks of them,” says Lira. “The only way this stuff works is if you have a tolerance for experimentation and a certain level of patience. I’ve been impressed with We the People and that’s very experimental — it’s in the spirit of ‘let’s throw something out there and see if it works.’ Otherwise, there’s the alternative: a conference room of ideas that never happen.”

Over at the Huffington Post, POPVOX founder Marci Harris published a long post with substantive concerns about the citizens cosponsors app. (Disclosure: Tim O’Reilly was an early angel investor in POPVOX.) Harris wanted to know more about who the sponsors of the app are (it’s funded by the Office of the Majority Leader), whether feedback will go to a citizen’s Member of Congress, whether “updates” will be neutral or partisan, who will have access to the list of constituents that is generated by the app, the capability to only express support for a bill, versus opposition, and the privacy policy.

In late 2007 when I, as a staffer, shopped an idea around within Congress to create a public platform for constituent engagement, I discovered that it was nearly impossible to build something like that within the institution of Congress outside of the partisan caucus system. You could either build a Democratic-sponsored tool or a Republican-sponsored tool, but there was no structure for building a nonpartisan CONGRESSIONAL tool (and don’t even get me started on how impossible integration between House and Senate was/is.)* My experience does not mean that nonpartisan strides are impossible — just challenging, and that any effort should be viewed with a critical eye.

Dave Copeland published a more critical take on the enterprise this afternoon at ReadWriteWeb, writing that the House Majority leader missed the mark with the Facebook app, asking a key question:

…why not use the publicly available data on all pending legislation and allow citizens to “co-sponsor” any bill currently being weighed by the legislature?

No matter how we feel about Facebook’s privacy provisions, we’ll be the first to admit that it is the default way to connect with people these ways. We’re not poo-poohing any initiative that harnesses social media that makes it easier for people to get involved in the political process, and we’re not bashing this from a partisan point of view. We’re bashing it from a point of view that cares about transparency.

Cantor’s ploy reeks of partisanship disguised as bipartisanship (nowhere on the main page of the site are the words “Democrat” or “Republican” used). And while the Cosponsor Project may be more participatory, it’s certainly not the “open, visible” platform he promises in his introduction.

That all adds up to a strong critique. As the app stands, however, it’s an important first step into the water for integration of Facebook’s social graph into legislation.

That said, there are some flaws, from an unclear Terms of Service to permissive data usage to a quite limited selection of bills that citizens can follow or support.

In addition, as a commenter on Mashable notes, “Unless there’s a way to show how many people are *against* proposed bills, this will not provide a clear picture as to the support they actually have. You might have a significant number of citizen cosponsors (say 25k), but that number loses its significance if the number of people against is, say 125k. You need both measures in order to get an idea as to whether or not a proposed bill is truly supported.”

I’ve asked Lira a number of followup questions and will file something for Radar if he responds. In the meantime, what do you think of the app and the initiative? Please let us know in the comments, keeping the following perspective  from Harris in mind:

As with any startup, the first iteration is never perfect. Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, famously said, “if you are not embarrassed by your first release, you’ve launched too late.” In that sense, maybe the Majority Leader is learning from the startup world. In an email response to my questions, Matt Lira, Director of New Media for Majority Leader Cantor, seemed to indicate that there were iterations to come: “As was the case when I publicly defended We the People, this is an evolutionary step – there will be continual progress, as with all these things, towards the desired end of a modernized Congress.”

Update: “We’ve always characterized both MADISON and Citizen CoSponsors as digital experiments that we are both admittedly excited about and that I personally believe have great potential to grow,” responded Matt Lira, director of digital for the House Majority Leader’s office, via email.

“These are the type of projects that will modernize our country’s legislative institutions for the social media age,” he wrote. “We are trying really new things like MADISON and Citizens. We are successfully driving institutional reforms on a structural basis. We are the same people who created docs.House.gov, require a public posting period for legislation, and established a machine-readable document standard. In short, people who have done more to open the House of Representatives than anyone in history.”

With respect to “e-partisanship,” Lira noted that “from the moment it launched, the app included a bill sponsored by a Democratic Representative. Some of the other bills – like the JOBS Act – have widespread support on both sides. I launched with six bills, because I wanted to see how the app works in the field, before making any choices about its wider deployment, should that even be justified.”

This post has updated to include a disclosure about Tim O’Reilly’s early investment in POPVOX.

Laptops, smartphones and social media allowed in U.S. House press gallery

The C-SPAN coverage of the resignation of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) and tributes to her in the United States House of Representatives included something new: the House-controlled cameras provided an unusual display of extra TV camera shots in the House chamber, including the Giffords family in the House gallery.

In general, the viewing public does not get to see what’s happening elsewhere in the House. “These additional angles added much to the public’s appreciation for this Congressional action,” said Howard Mortman, communications director for C-SPAN, “and might lead one to ask, why not permit such camera shots every day?”

Mortman also alerted me to another interesting development: According to a new Roll Call story, journalists now can bring their laptops into the press gallery and use them to report on what’s happening. Reporters have to ask to do it — and they’ll need to have fully charged laptop batteries — but Superintendent Jerry Gallegos told Roll Call that he will allow laptops in for special events.

“It won’t be something that at this point we’ll be doing on a daily basis, just because power is an issue out there,” he said. “But because the House changed their rules allowing BlackBerrys on the floor … it didn’t make sense for Members to be able to tweet and not be able to have reporters get the tweets.”

It’s not the first time computers have graced the gallery, Gallegos said. The decision to allow laptops goes back to then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). But the gallery staff tired of arguing with testy writers about why plugging multiple power cords into limited outlets and running wires across the floor is a fire hazard.

“Early on, they weren’t going to be able to operate without plugging in,” he said. “It was very obvious that was going to create a safety hazard.”

Thankfully, battery technology has evolved since the 1990s and the House Chief Administrative Office equipped the chamber with Wi-Fi in August. So, Gallegos said, “It just seemed like now was the time.”

Even if the laptops run out of battery power or have connectivity issues, however, reporters will now have another option: Mortman tells me that iPhones, iPads, BlackBerrys and other smartphones will also be allowed into the press gallery of the U.S. House on a “trial basis.”

As a result, we should expect to see more livetweeting and Facebook updates from journalists on-site. That said, there’s a major caveat: Mortman said that the trial will be monitored to ensure that no photos or video are recorded.

Given the role that smartphones now play in the professional lives of journalists of all beats, political, tech or otherwise, the limitation on pictures and video is notable. There’s a good chance that the trial could be tested, as soon as a newsworthy event occurs off the C-SPAN camera. Late last year, during a debate over the payroll tax, House staff shut down C-SPAN cameras. Government staff acting to limit the capacity of a journalist to record a debate between elected representatives in the People’s House might raise valid First Amendment questions.

“One day, hopefully, the House (and U.S. Senate) will also allow in independent media TV cameras,” said Mortman.

As SOPA comes to a vote, O.E.C.D. calls on members to defend Internet freedom

On Wednesday, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development called on its members to defend Internet freedoms. “It’s really a milestone in terms of making a statement about openness,” said Karen Kornbluh, the U.S. ambassador to the O.E.C.D., quoted by Eric Pfanner in the New York Times. “You can’t really get the innovation you need in terms of creating jobs unless we work together to protect the openness of the Internet.”

China and Russia come under some scrutiny for recent actions regarding their citizens and the Internet. For instance, distributed denial of service attacks were recently used in Russia in attempts to squelch online speech after the elections.

The United States of America, however, also has a serious Internet freedom issue on its collective hands, as people following the progress of the ‘Stop Online Piracy Act’ (SOPA) through Congress know. If you’re unclear about the issues raised by the Stop Online Piracy Act, read my feature, “Congress considers anti-piracy bills that could cripple Internet industries,” or watch the video below, from the Cato Institute:

Cato Institute research fellow Sanchez asserts “that internet censorship won’t effectively address the problem of piracy and will threaten innovation and the liberties of Americans by engaging in unconstitutional prior restraint.” The video was produced by Caleb Brown, Austin Bragg and Julian Sanchez.

The key O.E.C.D. recommendation relevant to SOPA is the one that urges policy makers to “limit Internet intermediary liability.” If you don’t know what intermediary liability is, watch White House deputy CTO for Internet policy Danny Weitzner explain it at Radar. As Pfanner observed, President Barack Obama has yet to take a public position on SOPA or the PROTECT IP Act.

The House Judiciary Committee addressed some of the concerns raised about SOPA in the manager’s amendment of SOPA. Markup of the bill is scheduled for a hearing this Thursday morning. While some of the most controversial elements in the original bill have been edited (removal of a private right of actor, narrowed range of targets) the use of DNS and filtering as enforcement mechanisms remain. The EFF is not satisfied, stating that the manager’s amendment is “still a disaster.” <Public Knowledge and the Center for Democracy and Technology welcomes the revisions but retained serious concerns.

As Google anti-spam lead Matt Cutts recently pointed out, “some guy” also recently pointed out that SOPA is unconstitutional. The fellow in question happens to be Lawrence Tribe, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School, who released his opinion on SOPA online. “Under standard First Amendment scrutiny, both PROTECT IP & SOPA are clearly unconstitutional,” concurred Marvin Ammori.

What happens next is less clear. It’s unlikely that Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, would have brought SOPA up for markup unless he thought he had the votes to pass it on to the full House of Representatives.

The SOPA “manager’s amendment retains the fundamental flaws of its predecessor,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. . Issa told CNET that SOPA won’t be approved unless fixed.

Former Internet entrepreneur Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) went further, telling CNET that SOPA will “destroy the Internet as we know it.” According to Polis, his staffers haven’t received a single call asking them to pass SOPA, but had “hundreds against” it.”

Many prominent members of the Internet community have come out against SOPA. Thousands of people have added their faces to IWorkForTheInternet.org this week. Notably, earlier this week, Jimmy Wales asked Wikipedia if it should “strike” over SOPA. As of Monday night, about 75% of those responding to his straw poll supported the action. Wikimedia general counsel Geoff Brigham advised the Wikipedia community that SOPA will hurt the free Web and Wikipedia. As of today, we still don’t know whether the world’s biggest encyclopedia will protest tomorrow.

Will any of it make a difference to the eventual legislation or its passage? Stay tuned.

Make Thomas.gov a platform, suggests House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer

Rep Steny Honey at the Congressional Hackathon

How governments deal with social media has been a focal point of friction, fantasy and fierce real-time discussion around the globe in 2011. Tonight in Washington, the first “Congressional hackathon” convened Members of the House of Representatives, staffers, media, developers and citizens at the Capitol Building in Washington to talk about how social media, open government and technology could make the “people’s house” work better for those it represents. I embedded a Storify below that collects tweets and pictures from the event, plan to file a full report at Radar tomorrow and will share video when it becomes available.

In his remarks, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer addressed how social media is affected Congress and his caucus and open government in the Executive branch. He also cited the growth of open data in cities as a model that Congress should consider for the future of Thomas.gov:

“For Congress, there is still a lot of work to be done, and we have a duty to make the legislative process as open and accessible as possible. One thing we could do is make thomas.gov – where people go to research legislation from current and previous Congresses – easier to use, and accessible by social media. Imagine if a bill in Congress could tweet its own status.

“The data available on thomas.gov should be expanded and made easily accessible by third party systems. Once this happens, developers, like many of you here today, could use legislative data in innovative ways. This will usher in new public-private partnerships that will empower new entrepreneurs who will, in turn, yield benefits to the public sector. One successful example is how cities have made public transit data accessible so developers can use it in apps and websites. The end result has been commuters saving time everyday and seeing more punctual trains and buses as a result of the transparency. Legislative data is far more complex, but the same principles apply. If we make the information available, I am confident that smart people like you will use it in inventive ways.”

If Hoyer and the House leadership would like to see that happen, several attendees at the hackathon suggested to me that Congress could take a specific action: collaborate with the Senate and send the Library of Congress a letter instructing it to provide bulk legislative data access to THOMAS.gov in structured formats so that the developers, designers and citizens around the nation can co-create a better civic experience for everyone.

Here’s the story of the rest of the event, as told in tweets and pictures:

Can a Congressional hackathon make the House of Representatives more social?

It’s time to think different about hacking in Congress. Later this afternoon, I’ll be strolling over to Capitol Hill to participate in what I believe is an unprecedented event: developers working with a bipartisan group of lawmakers and staffers to figure out how to “hack Congress” to make it work better for citizens. Details on the Facebook hackathon are over at the House Majority Leader’s website.

There are a number of reasons that I’m optimistic that we’ll see useful results from today’s efforts.

First, the Republicans have been invested in this area on this since before last year’s election, when the GOP leadership put embracing innovation on the agenda. In April, they sent a letter to the House Clerk regarding legislative data release. Then, in September, a live XML feed for the House floor went online. Yes, there’s a long way to go on open legislative data quality in Congress but there’s support for open government data on both sides of the aisle. Dan Schuman, blogging about what the Sunlight Foundation hopes to see from what he calls a “wonk-a-thon,” lists the many other ways the House has yet to catch up with 21st century technology:

We have yet to see bulk access to THOMAS or public access to CRS reports, important legislative and ethics documents are still unavailable in digital format, many committee hearings still are not online, and so on.

As Schuman highlights there, the Sunlight Foundation has been focused on opening up Congress through technology since, well, there was a Sunlight Foundation. To whit: “There have been several previous collaborative efforts by members of the transparency community to outline how the House of Representatives can be more open and accountable, of which an enduring touchstone is the Open House Project Report, issued in May 2007,” writes Schuman.

Second, the people coming to Congress for some civic coding today aren’t your average group of developers: they’re from Facebook. If you’ve been following technology news, you know that there’s been a fierce competition for development talent in Silicon Valley for years now, with Google and Facebook specifically focused on attracting the best and brightest. It’s fair to say that the world’s largest social network, predicted to go public next year, has had some success on that front. These developers are, naturally, likely to be looking for ways to integrate legislative data, video and RSS into Facebook’s Open Graph Protocol and Facebook’s platform.

Third, I here that there are some new tools for making the process of forming legislation more open to the people set to go online. I’m looking forward to reporting that out to the country.

Will talent, vision and opportunity combine to make the People’s House a more social, open place? Stay tuned.


HouseLive.gov embraces open format to bring live video to mobile devices

Congress may be one of the most unpopular institutions in the land but some of its staffers are continuing to work towards bringing its communications infrastructure into the 21st century.

The United States House of Representatives has begun beta testing streaming video from the House floor directly to mobile devices via HouseLive.gov — and they’re doing it using an open format that will work on iPads, iPhones Android devices or whatever else a citizen is using.

“Streaming the House floor to mobile devices through HouseLive.gov is just one more way the House is innovating and keeping its pledge to make Congress more open and accessible to the American people,” wrote Don Seymour in a blog post on Speaker.gov.

“The Office of the Clerk began beta testing this new H.264 live streaming feed for mobile devices last week,” wrote Seymour.

At present, supported video resolution is 480×360 and the bit rate is 650 kbps, so you’ll need to have a fast mobile connection to tune in. The bottom line, however, is that the video stream should work across ALL platforms now, desktop or mobile.

Seymour explained a bit more via email “The site now works like this: 1) when someone visits HouseLive.gov, the site first defaults to Silverlight. If Silverlight is not installed, then, 2) it defaults to Flash. If Flash is not installed/available, then, 3) it defaults to HTML5.”

He also used a key term that’s familiar to the Web world: “beta,” referring to a feature that’s still not finalized. Given that open government is in beta, and looks set to remain in that phase for a long time to come, it feels apt. Seymour asks in his blog post that citizens send feedback to the Clerk’s office: “…since this feature is still in beta, please leave a comment below if you experience any difficulties. Be sure to note your device (iPhone? Blackberry?), operating system (iOS? Android?), and connection speed (Wi-fi? 3G?); we’ll pass your note along to the Clerk’s office.”

Radhika Marya covered the news about mobile video over at Mashable, adding a few bytes of context for the addition.

While we’re moving closer to House 2.0, there’s still a long way to go. Nick Judd suggests on direction at techPresident, this move puts the floor of the U.S. House in your hand:

The House Republicans have their share of tech-savvy staffers who have brought their side of the Hill out of the Stone Age when it comes to things like what a member’s website can do, for instance, encouraging lawmakers to adopt Drupal, a popular open-source content management system. They’ve also come up with new ways to interact with voters, such as YouCut and a project to solicit tales of regulatory woe from business owners. That said, in August, after Congress squeaked a debt-ceiling deal through both houses, Politifact reported that House Republicans have had trouble making good on another 21st-century promise: to post all legislation online 72 hours in advance of a vote.

Live video from the House floor on a mobile device isn’t likely to stimulate movement on the issues that matter to many citizens, including jobs, education, energy costs or healthcare, to name the hot buttons that will be discussed at tonight’s Republican primary debate. It will, however, give citizens a direct window to watch debates from wherever they are, however, and that’s a step forward. Speaking as someone who has suffered through abysmal streamed video of committee meetings many times — or not seen them online at all — here’s hoping that the next step for Congressional staff is to bring those proceedings into the 21st century soon too.

Update: Commenting on my post about this news on Google Plus, software architect David Bucci questions just how “open” the format in question is: “This gets an “interesting use of the word ‘open'” alert – first it tries SilverLight, then falls back to Flash, and then HTML5 using the patent-encumbered H.264. Umm … I’m looking for the “open” in there … ubiquitous != open. Instead of “open format”, it must mean “open access” (which I applaud).”

Skype your Congressman? House adds VoIP for citizen-to-legislator communications

We the people can now add “Skype me” to the list of phrases your representative may utter in a commercial, town hall or stump speech. This morning, the leadership of the United States House of Representatives approved the use of low-cost video conferencing tools like Skype and ooVoo.

“This is another example of the new Republican majority using digital tools to better engage with and listen to the American people,” said Speaker Boehner in a prepared statement. “We’re committed to keeping our pledge to lead a House that is more open and that gives Americans a real-time voice in their government.”

On this count, the Speaker has firm ground to stand upon. The GOP has been steadily adopted new technologies into the House since the 2010 midterm elections. From livestreaming the transition to moving House.gov to Drupal, the Republican leadership has followed through on many of its commitments to innovation and transparency. Beyond new media adoption, structural changes through opening legislative data have the potential to permanently bake in open government to the People’s House.

Adopting the same low cost Voice over IP tools for videoconferencing that are in use all around the world makes sense on many levels, despite security concerns. Congressmen and their staff will be able to easily communicate with one another at a lower cost now. Daniel Lungren, chairman of House Administration, offered more context for the upgrade to VoIP in a “Dear Colleague” letter this week:

Improving constituent communications and increasing transparency has been a top priority for me as Chairman of House Administration and a member of the House Technology Operations Team. That’s why I am pleased to announce that the House’s Public Wi-Fi network has been enabled to allow Members and staff to conduct Skype and ooVoo video teleconference (VTC) calls.

To maintain the necessary level of IT security within the House network, the House has negotiated modified license agreements with Skype and ooVoo that will require Members, Officers, Committee Chairs, Officials and staff to accept House-specific agreements that comply with House Rules and maximize protection for Members and staff. Detailed requirements on how to comply with these agreements have been posted to HouseNet at http://housenet.house.gov/keywords/VTC. Please note that Skype users will be limited to conducting VTC sessions on the House’s public Wi-Fi to minimize security risks associated with peer-to-peer networking.

During a time when Congress must do more with less, utilizing low-cost, real-time communication tools is an effective way to inform and solicit feedback from your constituents. In addition to Skype and ooVoo, we are searching for additional means to help enhance constituent communications.

“Citizen-to-legislator” communications using VoIP will hold some challenges. Skype and ooVoo both allow conference calls between more than one party but neither will is ideal for one-to-many communications without some tweaking. If a representative’s staff can set up a projector and sound system, however, we may well see new kinds of virtual town halls spring up, whether someone calls back from Washington or from the campaign trail.

Less clear is how constituent queueing might be handled. If hundreds of citizens, activists or lobbyists are all trying to Skype a Congressman, how will priority be assigned? How will identity be handled, in terms of determining constituents from a home district? As I wrote this post, two other questions posed to the Speaker’s office also remained unanswered: will video chats be archived and, if so, how? And will Skype’s file transfer capabilities be allowed?

On the latter count, given the difficult past relationship of the House and P2P filesharing software, learning that file sharing capabilities were disabled would be in line with expectations. UPDATE: Salley Wood from the House Administrative Committee confirms that the current configuration does include file sharing. “Today’s announcement is simply that lawmakers can now take advantage of these platforms using official resources,” she related via email.

Archiving of constituent video chat is another issue, and one that will be added to the growing list of 21st century new media conundrums for politics, like the questions of whether lawmakers’ texts during public meetings become public documents.

What is clear is that one more domino in the adoption of Web 2.0 tools in government has fallen. What happens next is up for debate — except this time, the conversations will span hundreds of new Web connections. This will be, literally, fun to watch.

UPDATE: As Nick Judd blogs over at techPresident, the Hill was the first to report that the House enables use of Skype for members, basing its reporting off of “Dear Colleague” letter above. There’s no shortage of detail in the Hill’s piece, nor good linkage from Judd. So, you know, go read them.

Open government scrutinized before the House Oversight Committee

This morning, the Oversight Committee in the United States House of Representatives held a hearing on the Obama administration’s open government efforts. The “Transparency Through Technology: Evaluating Federal Open-Government Initiatives hearing was streamed live online at oversight.house.gov.

House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) asked his Twitter followers before the hearing a simple question “Have you tried to get facts on how gov’t spends your $ on USASpending.gov?” He received no answers.

The oversight committee did, however, hear extensive testimony from government IT executives and open government watchdogs. As Representative Issa probes how agencies balance their books, such insight will be crucial, particularly with respect to improving accountability mechanism and data. Poor data has been a reoccurring theme in these assessments over the years. Whether the federal government can effectively and pervasively apply open data principles appears itself to be open question.

The first half of the hearing featured testimony from Dr. Danny Harris, chief information officer for the Department of Education, Chris Smith, chief information officer for the Department of Agriculture, Jerry Brito, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and Ellen Miller, co-founder and executive director of the Sunlight Foundation.

Alice Lipowicz of Federal Computer Week tweeted out a few data points from the hearing.

  • A Sunlight Foundation audit found that the USDA spent $12.7B on school lunches but only reported $250,000 on USASpending.gov
  • According to Brito, “half of 3000 datasets on Data.gov are on EPA toxic releases, with only 200 to 300 datasets are on fed gov activity.” Lipowicz also tweeted that Brito testified that federal agencies need outside auditors and “ought to report ‘earnings’ similar to private sector.”
  • USDA CIO Chris Smith said that the agency did not report school lunch payments below $25,000 to USASpending.gov; will report in FY2012

In her testimony before the House committee on clearspending, Miller reiterated the position of the Sunlight Foundation that the efforts of the administration to make government spending data open, accurate and available have been insufficient, particularly when the data is wrong.

The Sunlight Foundation has been excited about the new promises of data transparency, but sometimes the results are nowhere near the accuracy and completeness necessary for the data to be useful for the public.

Sunlight’s Clearspending analysis found that nearly $1.3 trillion of federal spending as reported on USASpending.gov was inaccurate. While there have been some improvements, little to no progress has been made to address the fundamental flaws in the data quality. Correcting the very complicated system of federal reporting for government spending is an enormous task. It has to be done because without it there is no hope for accountability.

Miller made several recommendations to the committee to improve the situation, including:

  • unique identifiers for government contracts and grants
  • publicly available hierarchical identifiers for recipients to follow interconnected entities
  • timely bulk access to all data.

Her remarks ultimately reflect the assessment that she made at last year’s Gov 2.0 Summit, where she made it clear that open government remains in beta. Our interview is below:

Tracking the progress of the Open Government Directive requires better data, more auditors and improved performance metrics. That said, this looks like the year when many of the projects at agencies will move forward towards implementation.

Last month, the U.S. moved forward into the pilot phase of an open source model for health data systems as the fruits of the Direct Project came to Minnesota and Rhode Island. The Direct Project allows for the secure transmission of health care data over a network. Some observers have dubbed it the Health Internet, and the technology has the potential to save government hundreds of millions of dollars, along with supporting the growth of new electronic health records systems .Open source and open government have also come together to create OpenStack, an open cloud computing platform that’s a collaboration between NASA, Rackspace, Cisco and a growing group of partners.

It’s too early to judge the overall effort open government as ultimately a success or failure. That said, the administration clearly needs to do more. In 2011, the open question is whether “We the people” will use these new participatory platforms to help government work better.

Video of the hearing will be posted here when available. Testimony from today’s hearing is linked to PDFs below.

Dr. Danny Harris

Chris Smith

Jerry Brito

Ellen Miller

The Honorable Danny Werfel

Note: Video of the hearing was provided through the efforts of citizen archivist Carl Malamud at house.resource.org, the open government video website that he set up in collaboration with Speaker Boehner and Congressman Issa. While the open government efforts of the federal government have a long way to go, in this particular regard, a public-private collaboration is making the proceedings of the House Oversight committee available to the world 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.

House 2.0: Building out the House.gov platform with Drupal and social media

As I reported for the O’Reilly Radar yesterday, when the House chose Drupal as the preferred web content management system for House.gov, it made the “People’s House” one of the largest government institutions to move to the open source web content management platform.

The House.gov platform is moving to Drupal but House.gov itself is not on Drupal quite yet. That will probably happen in the next several months, according to Dan Weiser, communications director of the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer in the United States House of Representatives.

In the meantime, the incoming Congressmen and Congresswomen do appear to have adopted Drupal as the platform for their official websites. For instance, Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa‘s site, below, uses one of several templates on the Drupal platform. Notably, each of the new sites includes default modules for the leaders in the respective verticals in the social media world: Flickr, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.

Some questions remain about the cost and choices that representatives have as they choose their online Web presences. As NextGov reported today, while House websites can move to the open source platform – they don’t have to do so.

Given the context of citizens turning to the Internet for government information, data and services in increasing numbers, however, a well-designed Congressional website with clear connections to the various digital outposts has moved from a “nice to have” to a “must have” in the eyes of the digitally connected. (For citizens on the other side of the digital divide, the House switchboards are still available via phone call at (202) 224-3121 or TTY: (202) 225-1904).

If that’s a given, then the question is then why Drupal is now the preferred web hosting environment for the House. On that count, “Drupal was chosen because it is open source and widely accepted, therefore allows Members to leverage a large community of programmers which gives them more choices and innovation,” wrote Weiser in an email. “It should also be noted that Members still will have the option to use other platforms.”

Weiser told NextGov that, because, Drupal developers are in every member’s district, “that hopefully means expanded choice and more innovation for our members.”

The current content management system limits the choice of site programmer as well as innovation, said Dan Weiser, communications director for the chief administrative officer, in an e-mail. Drupal, which uses a common framework and code that can be customized, will allow members to leverage a large community of programmers, providing more opportunities for innovation, he added.

The House expects to save some money with the transition to Drupal, since the chief administrative officer will manage the infrastructure and members pay vendors only for development time, Weiser said.

The inclusion of social media is also no longer a novelty in the beginning of 2011. “We expected there would be interest by the incoming freshmen to have social media on their sites; it just seemed natural to offer the option,” wrote Weiser.

[Disclosure: One of the vendors involved in the House’s Drupal effort is Acquia. O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures is an investor in Acquia.]