By Robert Brodsky
June 29, 2009NEW YORK CITY-- Technology enthusiasts on Monday gathered at a jazz concert hall in Manhattan to plot ways to increase government transparency and accountability.
The young and technocratic audience at the sixth annual Personal Democracy Forum -- virtually every participant was working on a laptop or iPhone or Tweeting -- generally gave the Obama administration credit for moving the transparency ball forward with sites such as Recovery.gov and Data.gov.
The speakers, however, agreed that the new platforms are only the first step in a revolutionary change that will sweep across government in much the same way Craigslist and Wikipedia changed the private sector.
"We need for transparency to be the default government," said Jeff Jarvis, a columnist and blogger and the author of What Would Google Do? (Collins Business, 2009). "We need a government that is searchable, clickable and linkable."
But, to serve its purpose, Jarvis suggested the government needs to operate honestly, offer greater specialization and take more risks. The Freedom of Information Act should not be necessary because data should already be readily available to all citizens, he said.
"We must give the government permission to fail," he said. "And, that needs to come from us."
The nonprofit government transparency group Sunlight Foundation recently began an online series where it critiqued federal Web sites and created mockups of an alternative version. Many of the redesigns included cleaner content, more consolidated links and greater use of mapping.
In general, the group found that federal Web sites should be more responsive to users, cost less and look better.
"But, it's not always about aesthetics," said Ali Felski, Sunlight's senior designer. "It's about the user experience."
One of the problems for federal agencies, Felski said, is private sector Web sites such as ESPN.com have improved so rapidly in terms of organization, linking and garnering citizen feedback that federal sites appear outdated in comparison.
"Industry is racing ahead and the gap is widening for government," she said.
Government attendees did not dispute the criticism, but stressed that progress is being made, despite budgetary and regulatory constraints.
"The key is for government not to be defensive and for this not to be a gotcha moment," said Sheila Campbell, the team leader for the USA.gov government Web best practices team.
Campbell pointed to the Transportation Security Administration's TSA Blog, which is known not only for its interactivity but also for welcoming complaints, as a good example of the direction government Web sites should be heading.
On May 21, Obama began the first phase of his participatory government initiative with the launch of Data.gov, a free site that provides raw federal statistics in formats that can be downloaded and analyzed.
While the site has a limited data available, administration officials have said additional data feeds will be posted in the coming months.
Vivek Kundra, the administration's chief information officer, and Beth Noveck, deputy chief technology officer, will address the conference on Tuesday. According to the administration, Kundra will announce the launch of an information technology dashboard on USASpending.gov that would provide citizens with access to federal technology spending information, project status updates and evaluation reports.
By Robert Brodsky
June 29, 2009