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Request for ideas: Crowdsourcing the Evolution of Congressional Websites

Guest blogger Rep. Mike Honda, D-San Jose, serves in the U.S. Congress
on the House Appropriations subcommittee on the Legislative Branch.

Tim recently asked readers of this blog to help provide me
with guidance on the best way to make
official legislative databases available
to the developer community. The
question, which also made its way onto Slashdot,
led to a wealth of proposals, some of which I am considering developing into
new legislation. Following on the success of that initial conversation, I’d
like to ask for your guidance once again.

How
can Congress take advantage of web 2.0 technologies to transform the
relationship between citizens and government?
Instead of viewing the public as a customer for services, I believe
that we should empower citizens to become our partners in shaping the future of
our nation.

Sites like stimuluswatch.org,
for example, have shown how the public can advise officials on which elements
of the economic recovery program are most effective in creating jobs and
resuscitating our struggling economy. Together we can identify and cut
ineffective government programs and simultaneously support cost effective
initiatives that maximize Return On Investment.

Websites like these only become possible when government
data (in this case a list of project requests from the US Council of Mayors) is
repurposed to enable public participation. Until more government databases
become available, however, the full potential of web 2.0 technologies will
remain unfulfilled. A dramatic shift in perspective is needed before that need
can be met. Instead of databases becoming available as a result of Freedom Of
Information Act requests, government officials should be required to justify
why any public data should not be freely available to the taxpayers who paid
for its creation.

As one leading
e-government expert recently advised
:

Free your data, especially maps and other geographic
information, plus the non-personal data that drives the police, health and
social services, for starters. Introduce a ‘presumption of innovation’ –
if someone has asked for something … give them what they want: it’s probably a
sign that they understand the value of your data when you don’t.

My constituents in Silicon Valley understand how opening up data can
catalyze dramatic innovation, and I recently enacted legislation
to provide free public access to legislative databases
with that goal in
mind. It is my hope that this information can foster the development of
initiatives to empower the public to collaborate with and provide advice to
Members of Congress. No longer will individuals simply petition their
representatives – instead you should be our most valued advisors.

Government 2.0 is an achievable goal, and together we can make it a
reality. In fact, I recently began a comprehensive redesign of my website with
the goal of developing new and unprecedented ways of collaborating with my
constituents.

To solicit ideas for the new website, I sent my Online Communications
Director to a conference to lead a website brainstorming session. That
conversation resulted in several intriguing proposals, including the suggestion
that I post my hearing schedule for the week so that my constituents could
propose questions for me to ask of witnesses.

The success of that session, and the quality of your answers
to the last question I posted here, gives just a hint of the possibilities that
can result from greater partnership between elected officials and the public.
While I may not be able to implement every idea that is suggested, I do plan on
providing a list of the most innovative ideas to my fellow Members of Congress.

What features could I implement on my website to tap
into the wisdom of the crowds?

With your help we can empower the public to partner with
Representatives in improving the policies of our nation. Let’s begin making Gov
2.0 a reality.

- Mike

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  • http://www.mymeemz.com Alex Tolley

    While I think it is a fine idea for my representative to reach out to the citizens, I think this is a distraction from the real needs of government reform. Are we to believe that public voices will trump those of the campaign contributors? How does access to some government databases balance the increasing state intrusion and control of individual liberty?

    Congress doesn’t need a shiny new toy to respond to the voters, it needs to change the incentives as to whom it should listen to.

  • http://www.gottahavacuppamocha.com Michael H

    The times I have gone to congressional websites, they have always been very slow to load, even though I am on broadband. I don’t know how congressional websites are setup, but if Congress is having a difficult time with Web 1.0 technology, will they have similar problems with Web 2.0 technology?

  • http://basiscraft.com Thomas Lord

    Dear Representative Honda,

    Thank you for this display of leadership. I think that many of us “in the industry” are proud of the fine work our colleagues in the Open Government Movement are doing. Thoughtful, enthusiastic uptake and action from the House is a hopeful development. I think it helps to counter the widespread cynicism that many people share about the opaqueness and unapproachable nature of “inside the beltway” government.

    I have a strategy suggestion for you and for others in Congress and in the Executive.

    Please consider that there are two issues which are usefully considered apart from one another: One issue is the freeing up of data – the liberation of, for example, Congressional databases. The other issue is the solicitation of feedback and the social processes of consuming and reacting to the data. There is “output” and “input”, so to speak.

    The “output” side is conceptually simple and is just as you say: presume the data should be public; the burden of proof is on those who would hold a given piece of data back. Your writing sounds like that of someone who thoroughly “gets” that strategic principle so I won’t dwell on it.

    The “input” side, though, is perilous. It is easy to get wrong and badly lost in the unintended consequences, as I’ll briefly explain. My advice will be to (a) keep it exceedingly simple within “.gov”; (b) use your campaign offices and work with other unofficial organizations to experiment with the “input” side in the private sector – in “.org”, so to speak.

    In particular, while I am not of your district, I would not like to see my government spending money to host “wikis” or discussion forums. I wouldn’t like to see my government hosting a web site where people click to vote for or against topics or proposals. A large part (not all, but a large part) of the Web 2.0 bag of tricks is made up of ways for people to contribute explicitly to some form of discussion: writing a book review for a firm like Amazon, say, or “voting up” a blog post on digg – that kind of thing. By no means should the government be hosting such a service.

    The reasons why are many but here are some highlights:

    First, recognize that every single service like that in the private sector has, once it became popular, faced a complex problem of governance. Ask your friend Tim O’Reilly about the story of his idea, from a ways back, of a universal “Code of Conduct”.

    Next, recognize that not a single service like that has found a “Code of Conduct” that is unproblematic. No system of “voting” on Web 2.0 content is without its biases. No set of rules or terms of service fail to oppress some and favor others even when the winners and losers are equally civil.

    The whole “on-line community” space is nice, and does good things – but it is a minefield of discrimination and power imbalances redeemed only partially and only because there is competition! If – and this is a fictional example but just to illustrate – if Facebook sufficiently offends the community, people will stop using it or switch to a different service. Yet, what of an imagined “.gov” service?

    That redemption would not be available to “.gov” instances of such services. “.gov” on-line communities would enjoy a monopoly and every consequence of their necessarily imperfect governance policies would be beyond challenge except of the most unfortunate variety.

    Finally, please realize the impossibility of governing such forums fairly raises Constitutional questions. For example, if citizens are allowed to post comments to a Congressional web site it is certain that some comments are posted which have to be taken down – censored. A comment containing thoroughly indecent (say, pornographic) speech would be a fine example.

    And yet, who is to adjudicate what shall be censored and what not? You see the problem, I hope: it is a quagmire and not a good use of federal employee time to worry about such things.

    Fortunately, the solution is quite simple:

    I propose that “.gov” sites for members of both houses, and all such similar sites in “.gov”, maintain little more by way of “input” than a journal of formal correspondence received. Members and other elected or appointed officials can, of course, fish from that journal and highlight items they find particularly important yet:

    The critical thing is to keep the rough and tumble “community stuff” off of the government’s plate. Let the private sector (“.org” and “.com”, so to speak) take on the impossible-to-get-right community governance problem. Let them compete about the best ways to consume and analyze government data and generate feedback. Simply give them, and forgive my jargon here, a simple “API” for submitting their work-product to the journal of formal correspondence.

    You, yourself, and other elected officials might do very well to work with your campaign offices and other independently funded, outside organizations to help “seed” the internet with Web 2.0 style forums for generating formal correspondence to Congress. Please do, though, consider drawing a bright line of separation between those things and the official (and taxpayer funded) actions of our government.

    Regards

    “-t” aka:

    Thomas Lord (lord@emf.net), Berkeley, CA.

  • http://basiscraft.com Thomas Lord

    p.s.

    In a separate matter, the arrangement between Congress and YouTube was unnecessary and is legally problematic. Following principles of universal access and low cost, Congress should choose an open standard video format (e.g., “OGG Vorbis”) and simply post video to a generic, ordinary “FTP” site or analogous web site, for anyone to copy and host where they like. Had Congress taken that technical approach I am nearly certain that YouTube would have created a Congressional channel on their own, without the need to spend hundreds of hours of taxpayer-funded staff time striking a deal with them. Perhaps more importantly, YouTube’s channel would be on a level playing field with others and not have an exclusive grip on the private gains to be had from those videos.

    The irony is that I doubt YouTube would even have any objection to such an alternative arrangement. The current malconfiguration appears to be an accident of habit by the tech industry!

    My understanding is that Carl Malamud, who quite a few of us endorse for Government Printer, has a clear enough idea about how to fix that glitch and avoid similar problems in the future.

    -t

  • Harald Groven

    An early success story. My country, Norway, has offered free access on the Internet to all laws enacted since 1997. It has been a huge success and greatly empowered non-lawyers.

    As early in 1994, a group of volunteers lead by Håkon Wium Lie started scanning all Norwegian laws and publish the acts for free on the net. The project was called “Norges Lowwwer”, i.e. “Norwegian LaWWWs”). The CD-rom version of legal databases was then only available for paying subscribers. Public pressure and competition from Nowegian LaWWWs lead to removal of pay-walls and subscription fees on the official web owned by the Ministry of Justice in 1997 (www.lovdata.no/info/lawdata.html).

  • http://blog.layer8.net Benjamin Black

    The most transparency-enabling system needed is version control of legislation with strong identity to show how and when bills and other documents are changed and by whom. Many of us depend on both the technology and community of sites like github. We need govhub.

    bb

  • http://collaborationninja.com Rebecca Petzel

    One opportunity of ‘web 2.0′ is to help connect people to the issues they care about, as well as connect solutions to problems. I would encourage you to focus on a simple, easy to understand interface with logical, clean engagement to help connect your constituents to the issues you are working on, and their opportunities to provide help on specific issues.

    Focus on being a connector- providing a platform for constituents engaging with the issues they care about. I think if you try to crowdsource things like your agenda, and your priorities- you lose the expertise you have worked hard at gaining during your years as a public servant. But if your constituents use your site to connect with each other and connect with their areas of concern- you will be able to keep track of their pulse as well.

  • http://blog.russnelson.com/ Russell Nelson

    I think that given the stupid laws that congressmen pass in response to public pressure (as opposed to sane public policy) (e.g. the 90% tax on Certain People — which is immoral even if it isn’t illegal to pass retroactive laws — who knows, if they knew they were only working for 10% of their expected income, maybe they would have flushed AIG down the toilet and taken a vacation? NOW, anybody promised anything in return for continuing on at a company with no future is going to discount that by at least 90%), I think that we need LESS communication from constituents. Remember when the two senators from each state were elected by the state and not directly? That was a good thing, because it reduced the pressure from the stupids.

  • http://MatchesMalone.wordpress.com/ Matches Malone

    Congress should understand that we’re on our way to Web 4.0, so adapting to what is almost a legacy technology is a loser move. I find it interesting that most Congressmen at this point, are on Twitter, but haven’t fully grasped the significance of this infant technology. That would be the first logical step.

  • Noble

    Government and thus the players are relative dinosaurs when it comes to technology – and for a reason. I looked for 4 of my local congress and senate representatives on facebook and twitter …. and found 1 on twitter – Judy Biggert.
    Average citizens just need the same transparency with those in government as we now get with CEO’s, pop stars, tech guru’s and Diddy. Maybe it is manufactured somewhat – we all put on a persona from time to time, but to hide behind a filtered government email address is cowardly.

  • http://www.acm.org/usacm/ Gene Spafford

    The US Public Policy Committee of the ACM, the world’s largest technical & scientific society for computing, recently approved a policy on open government and making information available to the public.

    That policy includes a set of principles for how to supply information to the public. We don’t specify formats, because the underlying systems may not provide them, and we don’t know what new formats may be used in a few years. Instead, we recommend some simply principles to ensure maximum flexibility and value.

    You can find the statement at http://www.acm.org/public-policy/open-government

    This may not have the detail you are seeking, but in our experience having guidance that is neutral of specific technologies is valuable.

  • http://macmudgeon.wordpress.com Jack Repenning

    As one of your constituents, I want to thank you for the work you have done, and for your openness to new ideas and new technologies. But I also want to reinforce something implicit in Tom Lord’s comments, just above: freeing the information and gathering the input need to be the goals. When, for example, he suggests the open-source Ogg Vorbis format, or use of FTP servers, he’s emphasizing (among other points) a sort of “low tech high tech”: do what works, do what is itself open and communitarian.

    It’s an important and dramatic contrast to many of the recent attempts to become “open” in government. As but one example, the number of new whitehouse.gov sites thrown up lately is becoming an actual hinderance to openness, approaching a sort of “hide in plain sight” situation.

    So also, at your level, it would very likely be a mistake to specify particular technologies. Technology moves so fast, while law is for the ages. Again, your work to date has shown wisdom in this area, encouraging access while leaving details to be worked out at the day-to-day level.

    Possibly the most crucial lesson of the Social Networking “clue train” is that image management impedes information flow. Please, while continuing your work to open the flow, work also to avoid letting it be clogged up again.

  • Dan Overholtzer

    Honorable Representative Honda:

    Thank you for this opportunity.

    As a past proponent of Instant Runoff Voting, I am interested in the ways that voting methods affect the functioning of a system.

    I have come to believe that Range Voting offers advantages, both terms of the quality of feedback and in terms of constituent-satisfaction, over the more common, binary approaches.

    Used at the Olympics and, curiously, used by honeybees in hive selection, I suspect that nature chooses it because degree of enthusiasm is important in the decision-making process. Up or down, yes or no decisions demonstrate mere compliance and can foster a sense of mere compliance within the voter.

    In my dreams bills under consideration would be posted on line, with each element of the bill having its own satisfaction barometer and its own area for discussion. This could lead to very rapid targeting of problem areas.

    The absence of nuance, when asked for feedback, is a continuing web frustration for me and hope that you will consider this option early in the design of constituent feedback efforts.

  • http://leagueoftechnicalvoters.org Silona

    Please consider making your site so that is can be used for Web Citations.

    This means keeping all versions available on the net. You can document who and why you changed it but still document the change so that when it is used as a web citation it is valid.

    Also give permalinks preferable for every paragraph and version so the links can be more issue oriented.

  • Susan F

    * Be protective of citizen privacy when exposing data to the public.

    * Make it easier to contact Congress by not constraining the permissible topics or the kinds of people who can email you.

    * Manage that citizen mail as if it mattered a lot.

    * Use open and standard technologies that don’t limit access to those with one or two manufacturer’s proprietary systems.

    *** As Benjamin Black suggests, change control systems on legislation would be the most important improvement because then you could see who added what and when. We just can’t have laws passed that nobody has read and understood anymore. That’s the kind of transparency that matters.

    * Hire people who understand computer security to make .gov data and systems safer.

  • http://basiscraft.com Thomas Lord

    Russ Nelson, what’s with the misanthropy?

    This seems to be a kind of theme with you e.g. in your work with OSI. I’ve seen you, again and again, dismiss actually thoughtful contributors (not just me) as being, in your judgment, one of the “stupids”. In the case at hand you could have said simply that Congress should be careful not to be swayed by transient populist sentiments and that the proposed tax is bogus — but you had to go and frame that as an insult against the bulk of humanity and an assertion of your own superiority. At OSI you do that kind of thing but then combine it with your official authority over things that actually materially matter. And that might even be just an eccentric strangeness except that, as we know, OSI hasn’t even managed to run itself competently in recent years (e.g., tax filings and questions about the propriety of travel expenditures).

    Please drop that attitude. “Check yourself,” as people say. It’s conduct unbecoming….

    And, yes, the tax-based claw-back proposal is goofy and hopefully won’t become law but it’s a politically astute gesture, if you ask me. It’s a fine thing (if it doesn’t go too far, and it seems likely it won’t as the basically rational process of legislation unfolds). Hoi poloi is a lot more sophisticated about these things than you even come close to contemplating giving them credit for, judging by your writings and work.

    -t

  • http://richbug.blogspot.com/ Rich Pitts

    This is a wider general comment but I hope as value…

    Its Interesting to see your trying to generate via crowd sourcing input into the democratic process. Here in the UK in small town politics (Marlborough is a town of 8000 people http://www.marlboroughtowncouncil.gov.uk/) I find it really hard to motivate input in any web form, as a local councillor, its a rural community, perhaps Saying local taxes are going up, that gets people going but trying canvas for original thought into the right level of UK gov is something I have not yet sorted for my area. (Hence my interest in whats being said here for the US.)

    Quite a useful tool in the UK for National input is http://www.theyworkforyou.com/ that gets me straight to County Councillor, my MP etc , and emails to me what my MP says says in parliament…

    We can Petition the prime minister for example one to prevent the closure of a local hospital ( http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/Savernake/?ref=savernake ), it made a statement 1,942 people signed it was not acted on.

    Engaging the wider crowd is going to take a while if ever to happen…

  • Tana Brinnand

    Democracy is messy, and that is its strength. This note is just to encourage you to go ahead with this investigation of the power of the internet for fostering communication between our elected representatives and those that voted them in to office.

    There will always be surprises, but there were unexpected results when folks began using telephones and freeways.

    I acknowledge that some are of the opinion that open communication can be dangerous, unwieldy and unworkable. I say, however, that the powerful tool of the internet, can and should be used by our government to leverage our democracy, and bring more voices into the discussion.

  • Steve

    Susan F hits on a key point and struggle. While opening up data for developers and those who find added value in it, you have to at the same time keep citizen privacy as a top objective. I tend to my personal responsibility for data privacy using the information I found on This digital security site.

  • http://www.neutech.co.in Manigandan K

    intelligently managing user views/participation in a crowdsouring gov 2.0 is nicely acknowledgable.
    thanks

  • http://pdxdog.com Andrea Schneider

    Hi Mike,
    I definitely have some ideas for you that are practical, simple and meet your request. Your interest in spending the dollar once is attainable now more than ever if we think before we act, provide some tangible demonstrations and use continuous improvement as a way to refine the various applications available.

    They all don’t do the same thing. Choosing applications depends a lot on the goal in mind. Even in the world of web 2.0 and social media. I have been doing a lot of thinking about this subject and how to use it to implement the new paradigm of transparency, accountability, community building and collaboration, communication, leveraging resources, etc.

    I could go on and on…I recently visited one major company in Palo Alto to talk about using their social networking capability in government. Where we get stuck is explaining to business the difference between the various sectors and how they don’t all work in the same way.

    One of the issues emerging is that many of the web 2.0 applications are ‘ground-up’. To use them well in government it would have to be “top down’ to introduce it with credibility and use it as a program or communication tool. Different mind-set. Ultimately the same goals, just a very different orientation.

    I’d love to help you out and check in.

    Your friend and colleague,

    Andrea Schneider
    andrea@pdxdog.com