Mr Gruen goes to Washington
Being flat out on other duties has prevented me from providing you with a ‘write up’ of my time in Washington D.C. at the Government 2.0 Summit. To picture yourself there, just picture Kate Lundy’s Sphere Camp and then soup it up by making the speakers the most energetic and powerful movers and shakers in the largest most tech savvy country in world – bring on the CIO and CTO of the United States, don’t give them all that long to talk, so they have to be succinct (we’ve got so much other stuff we need to listen to), have the Twitter feed live on stage and off you go.
So there you have it, a hall of hundreds of people from all around the world, most massively ‘multi-tasking’ away, looking, listening, emailing, twittering, reading the twitter feed, meeting, setting up deals and on it went. Very energising I must say. I won’t give you a blow by blow description, but there were some terrific presentations. On the downside, I think those who have been great at thinking about Web 2.0 – like Clay Shirky and Tim O’Reilly didn’t really excel in explicating the potential of Govt 2.0 but plenty of others who have been working in the area – like Beth Noveck, Vivek Kudra and Aneesh Chopra and Andrew McNaugten did. You can watch virtually the whole thing on line here.
But the most significant impression I left with was not only about the Summit itself which was terrific, but about the US and us in comparison with it. As an Australian public policy practitioner Australia is at the forefront of many if not most areas of public policy. We’ve been major innovators in public policy since Europeans got going on these shores (the First Fleet was a contracting out job – and a successful one! – Trouble set in with the second fleet but I digress . . .). However I’ve got bad news in this area. I’m afraid the US has such structural advantages that it’s way ahead of us. And other countries like the UK have been at it for longer, and they’re ahead too.
This paper by Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation provides an inventory of some of the initiatives underway in the US but also offers it in historical perspective. What is striking is that virtually all the progress in openness in government in the US over the years has not come directly from the government. It’s been prompted and fought for by civil society. The insiders are being dragged along by the work of the outsiders.
Here’s a great example Miller gives. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) maintains a database of the financial reports companies are required to file with them. This database (EDGAR) was always available…to the right kind of people…for a fee. They resisted the idea that this information should be available on the internet. In the 90s however a public domain advocate, Carl Malamud (with a little help from benefactors) purchased access to the data and put it online in an accessible format. The SEC was stunned by the site’s popularity and within two years had put EDGAR online themselves. They managed to do this quickly with the eager assistance of Malamud.
At the same time he put EDGAR online, Malamud created an online database of US patents. He noticed high traffic to the site from the Patent Office, from patent examiners frustrated by their own database. He wasn’t just making government information more easily available to the public, he was making it available to the government themselves! Eventually the Patent Office, like the SEC, relented and created their own database
Public.Resource.Org, founded by Malamud, is continuing work like this. For instance, on their siteFedFlix is a joint venture with the government to make the vast amount of movies and footage owned by the National Technical Information Service available to the public. The NTIS lendsPublic.Resource.Org the tapes, and Public.Resource.Org puts them on YouTube. The efforts of outsiders have led to a new resource for the public.
Miller provides other examples. For instance, FedSpending is a non government site that provides all the available data on US Federal Government expenditure and allows users to examine and compare it by department or by state or even whether contracts were competitively bid or not.
This episode is interesting because the information made available was politically sensitive, particularly to one Ted Stevens. Miller mentions several projects to promote transparency. These includeMapLightand Fundrace, both highlighting political donations, and OpenCongress (run by Sunlight), which allows you to compare donations to politicians to their voting records and legislation.
Of course Australia is not without its equivalents. Open Australia stands out for me, but there are plenty of others beavering away. I salute them. But if we’re going to match the world leader in this area (and there’s no reason why we couldn’t have a crack) we’re going to have to get quite a wriggle on.