Pulling Back the Veil

Craig Newmark of Craigslist champions efforts to get the word out on transparency.

The Obama administration's open government initiative is discussed regularly in some circles inside the Beltway, but travel just a few miles west and it's rarely, if ever, a topic of conversation.

That's unfortunate, says Craig Newmark, creator of the online classifieds site Craigslist.org and a champion of transparency. That was his message in July at the Aspen Institute's Ideas Festival, where experts in politics, science, arts and other fields discussed big trends.

On a panel with federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra addressing transparency, the Craigslist founder lamented that the White House's open government initiative hasn't received much attention. This is a strange outcome given that "a lot of things are being made to work in Washington" because the Obama administration has pushed making more public data accessible, Newmark said.

Since President Obama took office, Newmark has spent a lot of time in Washington meeting with agency officials and Capitol Hill staffers to talk about transparency. He works with nonprofits and watchdog groups, for example sitting on the board of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and providing advice on how to use the Internet. He also is on the board of the Sunlight Foundation, an open government advocacy group in Washington.

Newmark insists progress is being made in transparency, although not at the pace some would like.

Newmark recently talked with Nextgov Executive Editor Allan Holmes about the open government initiative and his next big project, the Immune System of Democracy. Following are edited excerpts.

Getting the word out about the Obama administration's transparency initiative:

Right now with Recovery.gov and a whole bunch of related efforts, for the most part the mainstream media has just ignored it. There's lots of good stuff. It's far from perfect, but I saw a report earlier that mentions flaws in the IT Dashboard, [a website the White House created to disclose agency spending on technology projects]. But they keep missing the point that it's a tremendous reversal from prior years. For example, in prior years, any kind of evidence was hidden. Now this administration is telling the public what is going on and the mainstream media doesn't talk about that.

Consistently, the good stuff going on is either not reported, or it is praised with faint damnation. That's a phrase most people may not get, so I'll say, if something is mentioned at all, which is rare, it's mentioned in a way to undermine it.

On the other hand, we will see people quoted in the press who are, let's say, not being honest about things, criticizing good things happening, and then they are never fact checked. What's frustrating for a guy like me is that I speak a lot to the reporters who do this and they know they have someone on the air or they're quoting someone, and know they are repeating something that is not true and they keep doing it.

How the Immune System for Democracy initiative relates to transparency:

For a democracy to survive it needs a relatively informed citizenry. Historically in any republic, starting with the Romans, it's only a small minority of people who get involved. Most people just want things to work. Like me: I'm a couch potato. But the deal is this decade in human history is too important for you to stay on the couch.

People need trustworthy information to know whom to vote for and issues to deal with. Traditionally in the United States, the press, the mainstream media, fulfilled the role of providing information to people and beyond that to keep politicians honest. The press has always had some sort of success with that.

There are a lot of price pressures on media. And you read reports and you see people trust the media less and less. Nevertheless, the press continues to provide a really valuable function when they do things like fact checking and maintaining a high standard relative to journalistic ethics.

In addition to traditional journalism, I'm seeing an informal network of fact checkers evolving. You may have heard a lot about FactCheck.org, and now we've got PolitiFact.com coming on board doing a pretty good job. Maybe some things you can question, but it's a really good start.

Meanwhile, we have the Center for Media and Democracy, which is exposing disinformation gangs. These are lobbyist types who deliberately deceive people. And the references there are SourceWatch and PR Watch.org. And there's always the Sunlight Foundation, which does a great job, and groups loosely connected like Consumer Reports and AARP.

Whenever I talk about this, there seems to be a tremendous hunger for the restoration of fact checking because people want to see news that they trust. That seems to be very true among millennials.

The role that technology, social media and government transparency play in providing trustworthy information:

The Net doesn't change what people do, but it allows more people to connect and do more of it together.

People in the grass roots can work together with the professionals to do some good stuff and make it much more visible. And the Net, too, is good for research because people can put stuff online that others can find. If lots more people from the grass roots can be involved, what might have been a casual observation in the newspaper, which comes one day and leaves the next, could be an issue that has legs.

The Immune System also means that if a disinformation gang tries to create a falsehood and spread it, it's possible that people of good will could replace that with a more positive and constructive message that tells the truth.

I have spoken about this as it relates to transparency and accountability. I'm speaking to a lot of people on the Hill on both sides of the aisle. People there don't mind a fight. In fact they kind of like it, but the deal is they want to do it fairly, and they want to do it in a more civil atmosphere.

If you are 30 years old and looking forward to a long career, you don't want to spend another 30 or 40 years in a toxic atmosphere. It's better than open warfare, like that which used to happen in the past, but still it's not fun and it's taking a lot out of people. Meanwhile, even among groups that have good will, doing a lot of good work for people, they're being attacked by disinformation gangs, and there are a lot of people talking about what to do about this.

Criticism that government isn't serious about transparency and agencies can improve the way they engage with the public:

That is more of a failure of reporting, because I have spoken to a lot of people at a lot of agencies and they are very interested in it, and they are trying to change their internal cultures. That would be difficult in any period in modern U.S. history, but it is even worse now because prior to the last couple of years people in agencies were told, "Government is the problem," and in terms of their jobs, "Don't bother."

And that's problematic when you tell that to people who work in financial regulation or in the Minerals Management Service. There are a lot of great people at a lot of great agencies who are getting this stuff done, but they are turning around a battleship that almost ran aground. The idea is the people doing this work need to be recognized. Again, a lot of good people are turning the battleship around and let's give them some credit. I bear witness to what they are doing, and I go out of my way to bear witness for what they are doing instead of undermining them.

Engaging citizens more through online communities:

People at the Federal Webmasters Council are working on that. There's progress in that direction. There are federal laws and regulations that slow that down and they are trying to fix that, but it's a long, hard slog.

How transparent and open government needs to be:

A government needs to tell people what is going on and disclose everything except that which would be stupid to disclose. You don't disclose how to build a nuclear weapon. You don't disclose personal information. That is just common sense. The deal is you need to do this to provide the best return on the taxpayer dollar.

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