Beth Noveck on connecting the academy to open government R&D

Earlier this week, the White House convened an open government research and development summit at the National Archives. Columbia statistics professor Victoria Stodden captures some key themes from it at her blog, including smart disclosure of government data and open government at the VA. Stodden also documented the framing questions that federal CTO Aneesh Chopra asked for help answered from the academic community:

1. big data: how strengthen capacity to understand massive data?
2. new products: what constitutes high value data?
3. open platforms: what are the policy implications of enabling 3rd party apps?
4. international collaboration: what models translate to strengthen democracy internationally?
5. digital norms: what works and what doesn’t work in public engagement?

In the video below, former White House deputy CTO for open government, Beth Noveck, reflected on what the outcomes and results from the open government R&D summit at the end of the second day. If you’re interested in a report from one of the organizers, you’d be hard pressed to do any better.

The end of the beginning for open government?

The open government R&D summit has since come under criticism from one of its attendees, Expert Labs’ director of engagement Clay Johnson, for being formulaic, “self congratulatory” and not tackling the hard problems that face the country. He challenged the community to do better:

These events need to solicit public feedback from communities and organizations and we need to start telling the stories of Citizen X asked for Y to happen, we thought about it, produced it and the outcome was Z. This isn’t to say that these events aren’t helpful. It’s good to get the open government crowd together in the same room every once and awhile. But knowing the talents and brilliant minds in the room, and the energy that’s been put behind the Open Government Directive, I know we’re not tackling the problems that we could.

Noveck responded to his critique in a comment where she observed that “Hackathons don’t substitute for inviting researchers — who have never been addressed — to start studying what’s working and what’s not in order to free up people like you (and I hope me, too) to innovate and try great new experiments and to inform our work. But it’s not enough to have just the academics without the practitioners and vice versa.”

Justin Grimes, a Ph.D student who has been engaged in research in this space, was reflective after reading Johnson’s critique. “In the past few years, I’ve seen far more open gov events geared towards citizens, [developers], & industry than toward academics,” he tweeted. “Open gov is a new topic in academia; few people even know it’s out there; lot of potential there but we need more outreach. [The] purpose was to get more academics involved in conversation. Basically, government saying ‘Hey, look at our problems. Do research. Help us.'”

Johnson spoke with me earlier this year about what else he sees as the key trends of Gov 2.0 and open government, including transparency as infrastructure, smarter citizenship and better platforms. Given the focus he has put on doing, vs researching or, say, “blogging about it,” it will be interesting to see what comes out of Johnson and Expert Labs next.

Clay Johnson on key trends for Gov 2.0 and open government in 2011

As dozens of freshmen Representatives move into their second week of work as legislators here in the District of Columbia, they’re going to come up against a key truth that White House officials have long since discovered since the heady days of 2008: governing requires different strategies, skills and approaches than campaigning. “House 2.0” may include an e-transition but the political realities that existed before new media are still very much in session.

Clay Johnson
Clay Johnson, by Joi Ito

Few people have as much insight into the intersection of technology, campaigns, politics, open government and transparency as Clay Johnson, founder of Big Window Labs, former director of Sunlight Labs, co-founder of Blue State Digital and author of the InfoVegan blog.

This correspondent caught up with Johnson yesterday to talk about what he sees as the big trends for the intersection of technology, government, politics and citizens in 2011, along with his own plans for the future. On the latter, Johnson would only say on the record that he’s enjoying seeing how the work of the people within Big Window Labs is evolving, he waiting to hear back from the Knight Foundation on his proposal for a “community news kit,” and that he might have more to share about “what’s next” later this month. He was much more forthcoming about his perspective on key trends for 2011.

Transparency as Infrastructure

Given the sharp focus that Sunlight Labs puts on government transparency, it’s no surprise that Johnson sees the need and the movement towards smarter systems that “bake it in” to legislatures, the executive branch and the judiciary. He anticipates more built-in alarms for certain changes in drafted bills, regulations or meetings, with more intelligence that correlates how or who was responsible for that alteration.

Competition between the White House and the House on new media and open government

Yesterday, Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Foundation and webmaster of, wrote that the GOP can eclipse Obama on transparency. “House Republicans can quickly outshine Obama and the Democratic Senate,” wrote Harper. “It all depends on how they implement the watch phrase of their amendment package: “publicly available in electronic form.”

The GOP House leadership must make sure that this translates into real-time posting of bills, amendments and steps in the legislative process, in formats the Internet can work with. It’s not about documents anymore. It’s about data. Today’s Internet needs the data in these documents.

There are no technical impediments to a fully transparent Congress. Computers can handle this. The challenges, however, are institutional and practical.”

Johnson identified this moment in history as an important inflection point, and one that, if the White House rises to the challenge, could legitimately be seen as an open government win for the American people and a smarter, more accountable government. The White House may hold the considerable advantages of the bully pulpit and the largest followings of any federal entity or politician on Twitter, for now, but that has to be balanced against the considerable new media prowess that the GOP has built up over their Democratic counterparts in Congress. There are many early signs to watch and weigh as the year begins. Along with new rules, the House leadership support for the creation of open, online video archives, with Representative Issa solicit advice from the public on video platforms. Others projects cast some question on commitment in the rank and file to open government principles, as set out, with the GOP bending new House rules.

Investigations for accountability

Investigations will be significant in 2011 and 2012, says Johnson, and will go beyond simple political attacks or embarrassment for the administration. The new House Oversight Committee appears determined to play the role of inspector general for the federal government, not just White House programs. Considering the vast scale of potential waste, fraud and projects that are overdue, over budget or ineffective, that’s a legitimate big deal. It’s also in-line with the White House’s IT reform proposals, which have included cutting major IT projects. Keep an eye on how the tech that can make government better is applied to fraud detection, as efforts to apply open government data to dashboards and new technologies are coupled with oversight.

Federal CIO Vivek Kundra has said that the White House IT team is working with Congress on S.920, the Information Technology (IT) Investment Oversight Enhancement and Waste Prevention Act of 2009 introduced by Senator Carper (D-DE) that passed the Senate. The Obama administration will have to work with the incoming Republican majority to achieve similar legislation in the House. Given the emphasis on enhanced oversight and waste prevention, such legislation has at least a decent chance of being considered.

Given the scale of the federal government and the yawning budget deficit, investigations that actually identify waste and fraud would be timely. As a senator, President Truman saved the nation billions of dollars with hearings during war time. As 2011 begins, it’s still unclear whether the current Congress will able to follow his example.

Smart citizenship

There’s an ever increasing amount of data available to citizens, and applications to help them understand it, said Johnson. There are an emerging class of social entrepreneurs and civic hackers working to help citizens with the digital literacy they need for both. The information needs of citizens in a democracy are considerable. For open government and Gov 2.0 to go forward, this is a critical area, founded upon the a conception of smart citizenship that involves interaction with government on a weekly or even daily basis, not just on election day.

Rural broadband access

Internet access is fast becoming as important to citizens as other basic utilities, like water or electricity. According to the Pew Internet project, 79% of Americans are now online. Simply put, not being online in 2011 is a substantial impediment to the smart citizenship that Johnson describes. “It’s about data and information literacy, rather than just access,” said Johnson. “What you want is for people to be able to use the Internet at will, to tell fact from fiction, and find source data.”

The success of the FCC’s broadband plan will be critical to watch here. The digital divide that Johnson describes goes beyond broadband or dial up access. It’s between the digitally literate and those who are unable to benefit from full access to an Internet increasingly populated with bandwidth-intensive applications, is a crucial issue for governments everywhere, not just in the United States. The FCC’s new open Internet rules and their bearing on mobile broadband access will be important to watch in this area is well.

The future of government platforms

The White House is currently taking public feedback on designing democracy with “ExpertNet,” a proposed citizen consultation platform. Citizen engagement platforms grew in 2010. There will be more coming from top, through open government, and from the bottom, as citizens create and use their own communities.

Below, Clay Johnson talks with the GSA’s Sonny Bhagowalia at the 2010 Gov 2.0 Summit about “the future of the government platform.”