What Would Always-On-The-Record Government Look Like?

Recently, I wrote a post about Government 2.0 predictions for 2010-12, and one of them was that government would “always be on-the-record.”

By that I meant that the combination of (1) the proliferation of tech-savvy citizens with mobile camera/video devices, (2) the prevalence of wi-fi or other Web connections, (3) the massive number of people using social networks like MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter, and (4) the great interest that people have right now in a number of controversial issues like our current wars, health care, and climate change that people could and probably would start documenting everything that government officials do and say, where they go, who they meet with, for how long, what their staffers eat for lunch and with whom, and so on.

And you don’t need to be a professional journalist to do this, or even to do it well. An entire site along the lines of Gawker.com could be started around this, in fact. GovernmentGawker.com, anyone?

Well, I was doing some research to look at planes versus trains to get home for the holidays (in light of the recent blizzard that’s affected transport in the DC-NY-Boston corridor), and I came across a fantastic video that essentially puts the Amtrak Acela First Class service on the record for the trip between New York and Boston (7 min edited clip). Check it out.

Now, imagine if someone did the same thing, but wanted to document a day in the life of Senator Ben Nelson, currently in the middle of heated debate about health care legislation. It’s not hard. You check the general schedules of his committees and such beforehand, research powerful, under-the-radar staff and other relevant people on the Washington Post‘s WhoRunsGov.com, go through simple security at the Capitol (far easier than an airport), find Nelson’s office in the Hart building, camp out in his waiting area, maybe ask the person at the front desk some questions, find some press in the hallways and ask some questions (maybe visit the Russell rotunda, where the television crews do their spots), stalk the cafeteria (there’s a great coffee shop called Cups in the basement) and listen for people saying “Nelson,” go back to his office and see him leaving to walk down the hall to a committee hearing, take photos of the staff with him on your Samsung ST-1000 with wi-fi and geo-tagging and upload the pics to Bing Maps and Facebook, go to the sub-committee hearing and tape it from a Flip in your coat pocket while you tweet live notes, upload your Flip video to YouTube while you follow Nelson to his next meeting, and so forth.

(Note: This post has nothing to do with Sen. Nelson or health care, it’s just an example “ripped from the headlines” – I’ve even met and chatted with him when he spoke about energy at the Defense Department, he’s a nice person.)

You can surely imagine at this point many variations on this for political appointees you don’t like, lobbyists you’re interested in, principal deputy assistant secretaries that make important decisions but don’t necessarily travel in armored vehicles with bodyguards, various members of the press who might be meeting with sources at Capitol Hill bars, etc. Trust me, this isn’t hard. If you live in Washington, DC, you probably realize how very easy this is, in fact, when combined with some good traditional news sources like the Post, Times, The Hill, and Politico. (If you live in Washington, DC, you also know that it’s incredibly common to know where various officials live, eat, and so forth – I used to live about two blocks from Senator Obama’s pad.)

But why would someone want to create an “ambient stream” of Senator Nelson or anybody else’s life? (Besides it being fascinating in a lowbrow Gossip Girl kind of way, of course.) Well, most people wouldn’t. But so what? It’s just like Wikipedia – only about 1% of people who use Wikipedia actively edit it; about 9% do sometimes, and 90% just read it. Twitter is not unlike that either – only about 10% of users contribute 90% of the tweets.

So what if 1% of U.S. citizens started doing this? Roughly there are 300 million people in the U.S., say half of them are adults, so we have 1% of 150 million as 1.5 million. Now, if everyone just did this at the state, local, or federal level one day a year, and generated one “amateur journalism piece” from that day, that’s about 4,100 videos/blog posts/tweet sets generated PER DAY. That’s a lot of government on-the-record.

  • Frank Ch. Eigler

    “Now, imagine if someone did the same thing, but wanted to document a day in the life of Senator Ben Nelson, currently in the middle of heated debate about health care legislation. It’s not hard.”

    The public portions of such a person’s agenda may be interesting, at least to the extent that anyone’s routine calendar activities are interesting when twittered. OTOH, isn’t the most dramatic / meaningful stuff that part which is kept secret? In this “new era of open and transparent government”, there is no shortage of back-room goings-on that they will never want you to record.

    “So what if 1% of U.S. citizens started doing this?”

    Always be skeptical when imaginary fractions are multiplied by large numbers.

  • Openworld

    I do hope Shaffi Mather – featured in a recent TED talk on innovative transparency initiatives – reads your post.

    He’s launching a for-profit “bribe-busters” venture to fight corruption as described at http://tinyurl.com/yduzy74 .


    Mark Frazier
    “Awakening assets for good”

  • Greg Wilson

    I suspect it would mean that even fewer competent people would enter government service — I certainly wouldn’t want to work under constant scrutiny, especially if corporate executives and lobbyists were not similarly hamstrung.

  • Mark Drapeau

    I don’t know, Greg – don’t you think people like (say) Alec Baldwin would run for Senate? Would that truly be worse than many people who are Senators now?

  • Scott

    As a journalist, I agree that while most of it wouldn’t be necessarily informative, the *idea* of being reported on incessantly would hopefully make politicians think twice about their actions.

  • Dan

    Nice idea! But it will only work if we can get Oprah to spin John Barrasso or Tom Coburn off into the Dr ??? show. We could try a one titled “America’s Funniest Legislative Proposals”, or maybe “Monday Night Sub-committee Debates” sponsored by Budweiser Light. CSI-DC might have a chance, but I don’t think you could find 150M people in the US who can write a complete sentence.

  • Wilbur

    Didn’t we have that already with vigilante border patrol citizenry? How great was that?

    What would it look like with total, always-on-the-record visibility? It would look like the U.S. Senate, giving yet higher priority to form over the substance. More piling on, more of Parkinson’s Law of triviality, more incomplete arguments founded on disputing “the facts”. A near absence of wisdom. Triumphs of tactical rhetoric would ensue, echoing raw politics until and unless the visibility ultimately becomes ineffectual. Corruption would be out in the open, yet unseen by observers (sound familiar?).

    I think a good first step would be to try it first in the U.K., which already has a massive surveillance infrastructure. All the feeds and databases should be made open and available to all, and let’s see what happens!

  • bex

    If government was always on the record, great moments in government would be impossible. The Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, and the Magna Carta were accomplished mostly because of off-the-record horse trading.

    There are always going to be warring factions, who place politics ahead of everything else, and will twist and manipulate everything to achieve their goals.

    These people do not desire good government; they desire power, and the adoration of the public. They are demagogues. The easiest way to do that is be a cynic; maniacally attack all that is being done, while never offering any constructive criticism or substantial alternatives.

    These people also LOVE calls for “more transparency,” because then thy can destroy political coalitions before they are formed.

    That being said, I believe government should be almost entirely on the record… but there is no reason why it should be on the record as political dealings are happening. A one-year delay would be perfectly reasonable.

  • Mark Drapeau

    Wilbur – I’m not convinced that vigilante border patrol citizenry was “bad” nor that it was worse than what the government does. Nor am I convinced that it didn’t help/compliment the government.

  • realist

    and the point of generating such data would be?

  • seth

    The problem with this is: it actually seems to be driving them more underground.

    Senators are more and more (especially bill opposing senators) not even being given the bill they want them to vote on, or it’s minimally being delivered to them at the very last minute allowed by the rules.

    As party leadership doesn’t want the contents of the bill ‘leaked’ to such nefarious ‘reporters’, and view die-hard opponents to their legislation a kind of ‘security threat.’

    So, what we’re ending up with is more and more a government that looks pretty on facebook and less and less one that we know what they are actually doing.