Etech session liveblogging: Mr Hacker Goes to Washington (Greg Elin of Sunlight Foundation)

(Came in a few minutes late)

Greg was a firehose, forgive my errors and omissions.

DC is like a university with a really massive ROTC program. If the internet is ethernet, congress is token ring. One person speaks at a time, for instance. Once Greg saw more than 10 minutes for a roll call vote–no electronic anything. Congress paper based–so it’s not exactly version managable the way people want to stick bills in Subversion, that kind of thing.

Important to realize that Legal code != Software code
Legal is intentionally fuzzy rather than rigorously logical–it’s good that way.

It’s really not like what programmers are used to. One of the bills going through the Senate during the banking crisis changed a medical benefits bill, turned it into the Emergency Economic Stabilization bill. It would be like a quick patch of your word processor that turned it into a database.

Government doesn’t have legacy systems, it *is* a legacy system. It’s an application designed for one user at a time–the elected official is that one user. Each rep represents around 600k people.

The Executive branch does most of the heavy lifting of government.

Think of every agency as its own enterprise. There’s a total $71 billion IT for the Executive.
More then 30% of the civilian work force in the Exec are retiring–real opportunities for change there.

The US Government suffers from being a first adopter, which is why it is so outdated–like the NY subway, suffers from all the first mover problems. Things are strange and falling apart and patched together because so many things came online before the current situation.

Greg shows us Procurement for the DOD–ridiculously complex graph. Ridiculously complex is the overwhelming theme here.

This is a pre hoc world in gov–the commitments are long term, and logistics are *hard*. You can’t fork a highway. For instance, GSA is working on their 2011 budgets.

There are lots of not government but related people in DC–think tanks, non-profits, lobbyists, FACA advisors (the formal advice channel- 75k individuals with expertise that interact with the 1300 gov agencies.) You don’t actually want to let people provide advise for free, in order to prevent the conflicts of interest, hence FACA.

Sunlight tracks contributions, example on the repealers of the Glass Steagall act on how much they got from financial sector (but correlation is not causation).

The initial bailout was 3 pages, asked for 700 billion, and asked for no review or oversight. (This is actually not uncommon, in order to prevent congressional micromanagement. Obviously it was not a good idea in this case.)

Gred shows a map dotted with blue–they are earmarks from a particular bill can stretch everywhere, sweetening the deal gets people to play together. In this case reps in congress.

Government actually works, an example:

1970s: The External Financial Reporting Act comes into being and congress sets up Congressional Budget Office. (Under Nixon)

1980s: We get Federal Managers Financial Integrity Act and consolidated reporting.

1990: Chief Financial Officer Act & Government Manage Reform Act (Both under Bush 1)
We get FAADS, FDS – every government contract for more than 25K has to be reported into the FPDS- nice, but a cobol data file, and every transaction has 120 field associated. Ouch!

2000: Bush passes the E-Gov act and the FFATA act–required an end user searchable interface on FPDS: usspending.gov
Also check out et.gov: emerging technology . gov.

This isn’t bad for a system that only gets new ideas every four to eight years.

Why mr hacker went to Washington: 9/11
The tools we are used to for information sharing didn’t exist back then. He was in NY and trying to help out. We had no ad hoc systems we could stand up to track anything, requests social networks, etc.

By 2008 there’s a new form of mass participation. Huge number of Obama house parties mapped on google earth.
Recovery.gov, all the other agencies has to do .gov/recovery. firct time there’s webpage interagency communication. all happened in one month.

Even GOP has an rfp out

Sunlight is building a data commons, check out the Apps for America Contest, 15k price by march 31, just build things with their apis

Things Greg is seeing:
* Creating alternatives that force government to adopt another model
* Public means online
* Human *and* machine readable
* Timeliness

Greg ends with a picture: “the arrival of transparency” graphic from the New York Times. (Hint: it goes up recently :)

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