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War of Words


Can a federal agency be transformed through "openness" and "transparency"? If so, then these abstract new buzzwords would gain significance among those charged with making Obama administration directives a reality in many corners of the federal establishment.

Allow me to offer a tentative answer to that question by describing the ambitious openness program developed during the past year by Blair Levin and his team as they designed a national broadband strategy at the Federal Communications Commission.

First it is worth noting that the Obama transparency initiatives build on a long history of government disclosure laws dating back more than 100 years. Transparency policies have surged in the information age, especially since the Internet has made gathering, analysis and transmission of data so much easier. The trend is described in Full Disclosure: The Perils and Promise of Transparency, (Cambridge University Press, 2007), by Archon Fung, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and two co-authors.

Full Disclosure asserts, "The emergence of targeted transparency as mainstream policy represents an unlikely political innovation [in light of] enduring values and political interests that usually favor secrecy." Obstacles notwithstanding, agencies have used programs to force transparency on such topics as nutrition labeling, school performance and tougher corporate financial reporting standards. In one case, Fung writes, the Transportation Department's development of a system for rating rollover probabilities in sport utility vehicles induced automakers to speed introduction of stability control technology.

If Fung is among leading theoreticians of the transparency movement, then Levin has emerged as a leading practitioner. His story centers on development of the National Broadband Plan, released in April, as a blueprint for a more wired and more productive nation.

Congress ordered the plan in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Levin, who served as FCC chief of staff under former chairman Reed Hundt, was chosen to lead the effort. With four of the 12 months allotted for the study already gone, one of Levin's key assistants, J. Erik Garr, swept aside cumbersome personnel practices and, using Recovery Act authority, managed to hire about 50 people in eight weeks. Most made enormous financial sacrifices to join the team, Levin said. "We benefited from a lot of public spiritedness," says Phoebe L. Yang, who signed on as chief counsel to the broadband task force.

According to Levin, the team of FCC rookies worked with veterans from the inside to assemble a lot of data and to devise public participation processes that would transform the agency. In recent years, FCC's agenda rarely had been announced in advance and its decision-making process seemed an inside game agency staff and corporate lobby- ists played behind closed doors. By contrast, Levin's team identified roughly 30 avenues of inquiry. It assembled data, some purchased, on which it proposed to base decisions, and invited critiques of these data collections. Then the broadband team held about three dozen open meetings on the issues. Modern videoconferencing technologies allowed some 10,000 people to participate, many of whom watched the proceedings online, e-mailing questions and comments to meeting organizers.

All along, transparency and public participation were key goals. At the turn of the year, the broadband team unveiled proposed solutions to issues and the factual basis for those solutions, and invited public comment. An active blog-and-comment culture rose up at, discussing how a better system could help improve health care, education, energy and the environment, economic opportunity, government performance, civic engagement and public safety.

"Connecting America: The National Broadband Plan," runs 360 pages in the printed version. As a technology of importance to the nation's future, it says, broadband compares with railroads, universal telephone, electric and television service, and the interstate highway system of earlier eras. But financing its infrastructure, and achieving its adoption, especially in low-income communities, has proved difficult. Using a telephone or television is intuitive, but not so with computers. So in part to serve the interests of social equity, the report proposes a "digital literacy corps" to bring people up to speed.

Broadband can serve many public purposes: building a smart grid to save energy, better interconnection of public safety personnel, growth in mobile and other technologies that companies can market in the United States and abroad, and improved techniques for educating students.

Levin likes to cite the school textbook as a dinosaur just waiting to be extinguished by online services that can update information easily, link to useful sources and offer rapid feedback on what techniques work best in disciplines like mathematics. But, as he notes, hidebound school boards and entrenched textbook publishers would have to be brought on board.

The broadband plan includes more than 200 recommendations for action by institutions in the private, nonprofit and public sectors. FCC has outlined 64 initiatives to define and regulate the Internet and its capabilities -- all of them more open and transparent than those of earlier times. The Twitter feed ranks behind only the White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in attracting followers. And by placing broadband at the center of its agenda for the next three to five years, the commission has for the first time offered a roadmap for citizens -- a transformative step for openness and change.

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