May 11, 2010

‘Open Government’ review: Big & beautiful ideas

open-government-jacket

 

Book chronicles how the Gov 2.0 movement is slowly becoming a reality

JD LasicaWe’ve known for years how social media and Web 2.0 have been transforming the way political campaigns are run, the way we interact with big institutions, the way news is reported and distributed — indeed, practically all facets of modern society. So it comes as no surprise that social technologies are slowly transforming the way government works.

What is surprising is that editors Daniel Lathrop and Laurel Ruma and O’Reilly Media have managed to make a potentially wonky topic like Government 2.0 accessible, fresh and actually interesting. Open Government: Collaboration, Transparency, and Participation in Practice is a big (432 pages), beautiful book, from the gorgeous, sumptuous cover to the breadth of ideas and angles inside. In its collection of 34 essays written by thought leaders and practitioners in government reform, the book offers dozens of examples of a new approach to government: open, democratic, distributed, bottom-up, shareable, data-driven and focused on making “we the people” a reality again.

Tim O’Reilly, CEO of O’Reilly Media — the best computer book publisher in the world — carried the same message in a webcast today that proved so popular my browser crashed four times. O’Reilly has been at the forefront of the open government movement and contributes the key second chapter, “Government as Platform.” O’Reilly Media co-produces the Gov 2.0 Expo, coming May 25-27, and Gov 2.0 Summit on Sept. 9-10, both in Washington, D.C.

In today’s “The Power of Platforms” webcast, O’Reilly touched on Apple’s iTunes Store, saying that Apple programmers had written only 15-20 apps for the launch of the iPhone but by opening up the platform (relatively speaking) to third-party developers, there are upwards of 200,000 apps in the store. “That’s the magic of the platform,” he said. He said governments need to take a similar approach, creating emergent platforms “instead of building finished solutions.”

O’Reilly cited a number of great examples (and the live chat contributed a few), ranging from Ushahidi in Haiti to the U.S. State Department on Twitter to the local businesses in Hawaii that decided to fix a key road themselves instead of waiting two years for government contractors. (I had already included a few of these examples in my upcoming Mobilize Your Cause Bootcamp at Personal Democracy Forum on June 2.) The webcast should be live soon — it’s worth a look Continue reading

August 17, 2009

Citizens as government watchdogs

open secrets

JD LasicaYou don’t need to be a card-carrying member of the press corps to serve as a public watchdog over the government and elected officials.

First, the Freedom of Information Act applies to U.S. citizens and foreign nationals, not just members of the Fourth Estate. Since its passage, countless examples of government waste, fraud and mismanagement have been brought to light by citizens, activists and journalists.

In addition, a number of organizations now empower citizens to hold the government accountable. Sites like the Sunlight Foundation, Maplight.org, Opensecrets.org, Follow the Money and OpenCongress are increasingly giving ordinary citizens the ability to easily document the flow of special-interest money and how it influences the legislature. Some of the top government watchdogs:

Sunlight Foundation: The foundation says on its site: “Through our projects and grant-making, Sunlight serves as a catalyst for greater political transparency and to foster more openness and accountability in government. Sunlight’s ultimate goal is to strengthen the relationship between citizens and their elected officials and to foster public trust in government. We are unique in that technology and the power of the Internet are at the core of every one of our efforts. Our work is committed to helping citizens, bloggers and journalists be their own best government watchdogs, by improving access to existing information and digitizing new information, and by creating new tools and Web sites to enable all of us to collaborate in fostering greater transparency.”

Opensecrets.org: From the Center for Responsive Politics, Opensecrets.org helps the public follow the money, such as donations made to legislators and their votes on related issues. A 2007 survey conducted by Opensecrets found that 59 percent of its users said they use the site for personal — not professional — reasons.

Maplight.org: “MapLight.org’s open-data initiative epitomizes a technique known as ‘database journalism,’ a new reporting paradigm that allows citizens to act as consumers, custodians and contributors to vast wells of information stored in web databases,” writes Wired.com.

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July 30, 2009

California’s Secretary of State: Come and collaborate!

Debra Bowen

JD LasicaSpent Wednesday night at SocialVoter, a special event featuring California Secretary of State Debra Bowen and presented by CitizenSpace and the Social Media Club. You can follow the tweets on Twitter — for the next two weeks, anyway, when they disappear. So I thought a blog recap would be in order.

Here, too, is a Flickr photo set of the gathering.

For readers who don’t know Debra Bowen, she’s one of the most forward-looking public officials in the land, with a presence on Twitter (@DBowen) and Facebook and, more importantly, a commitment to bringing the public into public policy discussions.

The conversation between Bowen and the 35 participants in the room was free-flowing and wide-ranging, with suggestions about how to provide voters with critical information about candidates and ballot initiatives, how to crowdsource ballot explanations, how to increase transparency in the election process, et al.

Instant runoffs and crowdsourcing ballot arguments

Some highlights:

• Debra Bowen: “The most important resource we have in the Secretary of State’s Office is that I’m there and I want to make this happen. I want people to tell me about how they think this should work. … That’s your job, to figure out where this might go” and to help her and her staff work in a highly collaborative way. “What if people actually worked at the front of the policy chain instead of reacting to it?”

Echoes of President Obama’s call for bottom-up civic participation.

• One practical reason Bowen is looking to democratize some of the work that might traditionally fall to her office: The Secretary of State’s office has 470 employees. 80% of them are doing corporate and business filings and document processing. The elections staff has fewer than 30 employees. The voter education “staff” consists of one full-time and two part-time workers.

• I’ve long been among those who support a system of “instant runoff voting,” which San Francisco has done in the past and Alameda County and other districts are now seriously considering.

In an instant runoff, voters get to vote for not just their favorite candidate but their second and third choices, allowing citizens to vote for their preferred candidate rather than the lesser of two evils. If your candidate finishes out of the running, your vote goes to your second choice, allowing races with multiple candidates to be decided instantly without a runoff. Brilliant.

Said Bowen: “One of the conditions will be a voter education program so we don’t lose a big chunk of voters for an election or two while they figure out how it works.”

• For decades, California voters have been presented with two sides of every ballot proposition, pro and con. “East of the Mississippi, no one does this,” Bowen said. They’re either flummoxed or amazed. But some states are looking to California to emulate the practice.

Meantime, Bowen is taking the pro and con idea one step further. What if we crowdsourced the ballot arguments? she asked us. How would that look? Who polices it? How could people contribute, and should the arguments be limited to just two?

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