A Morning of eGov

Notes on the Obama administration’s ambassadors to the Personal Democracy Forum

This morning, attendees of the Personal Democracy Forum Conference, an annual event for people interested in the intersection of politics, government, and online technology, were treated to discussions with three of the Obama administration’s biggest lights in government information and communication policy.

Just before nine o’clock, Macon Phillips, the White House’s chief of new media, took the stage with Vivek Kundra, whom conference host Micah Sifry accurately and enthusiastically introduced, to hoots and applause, as “The United States’s first chief information officer.”

Kundra wasted no time in breaking some news, introducing the beta version of the federal government’s new IT Dashboard, it.usaspending.gov, a Web site designed to track and evaluate about $72 billion in information technology spending. The idea is that with more eyes on the spending, accountability will follow—sections of the Web site even display the names and photos of the federal employees responsible for a given IT project.

It’s not hard to see how something like the dashboard could become a template for monitoring other types of government spending outside the technological sphere, and Kundra promised that the government was “exploring” ways to scale the dashboard beyond IT spending. As Kundra sat at the end of his presentation, more than a few members of the audience rose in a standing ovation.

“I nearly fell out of my chair watching that. I’m incredibly impressed, and I think everyone is,” Sifry said of the site.

Kundra explained that feedback on projects displayed on the site goes back to the CIO responsible for the project; copies also go to Kundra’s office. The office is working on ways to take feedback in social media, starting with something akin to a developer’s blog within a week.

“This is a beta, we’re going to find some kinks,” warned Phillips.

But Kundra says the point is to let the experiment develop in public, as many online innovators do, “rather than close up in an echo chamber and reveal it in some magical way.” The idea is to bring citizens in as collaborators, pointing out ways that the site can be better just after its basic framework is built.

Next, Beth Noveck, the administration’s deputy chief technology officer, joined Sifry on stage to discuss the White House’s open government initiative, a process set in motion by an executive memorandum—designed to foster increased transparency, participation, and collaboration—that Obama signed on his first full day in office.

“Instead of just throwing it open and saying ‘Hey, what do you think about open government,’ we tried to frame that discussion with some categories,” says Noveck, who before coming to the White House was a law professor at New York Law School who had written and taught on democracy, technology, and internet law.

Noveck acknowledged that the directive’s process had attracted people who wanted to talk about things that were wildly off topic—like UFOs, or their theories that Obama was not born in America. She called those latter folks, on the suggestion of Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, “noisy idiots”. But Noveck said she was inspired that other users used the features of the site to vote those comments as unpopular or off topic.

“The community rallied,” she said.

Noveck stressed that the blog was supplementing, not replacing, older methods of soliciting comment and input, like the Federal Register. But she said that the blog was a powerfu tool.

“When we put it up here, techPresident writes about it, and you all read it, and then it gets Twittered,” she said, leading to greater public involvement, especially from the heavily interested tech policy community.

“Get involved. We need you,” says Noveck. “We do somehing successful here that works, we send a message to anyone to do health care policy or energy policy.”

“This is Wiki Government in practice,” concluded Sifry, holding aloft Noveck’s serendipitously just-published book of the same name.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.