FCC.gov poised for an overdue overhaul

FCC managing director Steven VanRoekel on participation and building platforms.

Gov 2.0 Summit, 2010For an agency that is charged with regulating communications, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) has been a bit behind the curve in evolving its online presence. FCC.gov was launched in June 1995, redesigned in 1999, and relaunched again in September 2001. Since then, it has remained a largely static repository for public notices and information about the agency’s action.

According to FCC officials, that’s going to change, and soon. There was already some insight offered into redesigning the FCC website back in January on the agency blog, informed at least in part by discussions with Sunlight Labs on redesigning the government.

Yesterday, I interviewed FCC managing director ‪Steven VanRoekel at FCC headquarters about what rebooting FCC.gov‬ will mean for the agency, businesses and the American people. “The new site will embrace open government principles around communication and participation,” said VanRoekel. “Consider OpenInternet.gov, where over 30,000 ideas were generated, or Broadband.gov. Comments there go into the official record and are uploaded to the Library of Congress. You will see that in a much more pervasive way in the new FCC.gov.”

Our short video interview is below. An extended interview follows.

Redesigning FCC websites for public comment

In January, the FCC launched Reboot.gov and asked for public input on improving citizen interaction. The site, which was touted as the first website to solicit citizen interaction with the FCC, followed the launch of Broadband.gov and OpenInternet.gov last year. All three websites are notable for their clean design and integration of new media components (blogs, Twitter, etc). Chairman Julius Genachowski’s introduction to the site is embedded below:

Improving public access to the FCC’s operation is part of a new mentality, according to VanRoekel: “Last year, the chairman talked about entrepreneurs taking a rotation through government. We think a lot about bringing in great leadership and managing people around leadership. We were third from the bottom last year in rankings for the best places to work in federal government. We hired a new team to bring in a new culture, which means looking at citizens as shareholders.”

One of the stated aims of Reboot.gov was to gather feedback on how FCC.gov itself can be redesigned, a project that, as noted above, is long overdue. The announcement of the new site, for instance, showed up in email but was not posted in plain text on FCC.gov. Like other releases, it showed up as a Word doc and PDF on the site. That said, the FCC has picked up the pace of its communications over the past year, as anyone who has followed the @FCC on Twitter knows.

Aside from the cleaner design of the new microsites and an embrace of social media, open government geeks and advocates took note of FCC.gov/data, which is meant to be “an online clearinghouse for the Commission’s public data.” The FCC has posted XML feeds and search tools for its documents that allow users to sort data by type and bureau.

Under the Media Bureau, for instance, visitors can explore DTV Station Coverage Maps, a key issue to many given the transition to digital TV earlier this year. But the maps are on the old FCC.gov. For those who don’t enjoy good public DTV reception, they’d have to find the tiny icon for DTV.gov below the fold and click through to get more information.

FCC's clunky clickstream
Navigation on FCC.gov is still a work in progress. In this example, a user who clicks a link for “DTV Station Coverage Maps” is taken to the old FCC site. From there, they need to find and click on a DTV icon to receive deeper information.

That kind of reciprocal citizen-to government interaction is precisely where the potential for these sites can be best realized, and where good design matters. So-called Web 1.0 tools like static websites, email and SMS used to share information about the quality of services. Web 2.0 services like blog comments and social media have, in turn, been deployed to gather feedback from citizens about the delivery of said services.
The FCC began to pursue that potential in earnest in March, when the FCC went mobile and launched iPhone and Android apps for crowdsourced broadband speed testing.

The potential for empowering citizens and developers with open data s where VanRoekel focused first when we talked.

“We’ll be announcing a couple of things next week at the Gov 2.0 Summit,” he said. “Since we launched the speed test, we’ve gathered over a million data points. That continues to grow each day. We’re going to launch a web services API where people can write apps against the speed test data. You’ll be able to send us a GPS coordinate and we’ll give you data against it.”

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and Managing Director Steven VanRoekel will discuss their experiences turning FCC.gov into a 21st-century consumer resource at the Gov 2.0 Summit in Washington, D.C. (Sept. 7-8). Request an invitation.

If incorporated into Zillow.com or the thousands of online real estate brokerages, that kind of interaction has the potential to give people what they need to make more informed rental or buying decisions. “When I click on a house on a real estate site, why don’t I see what broadband capabilities are there?” asked VanRoekel. “We’re approaching .gov like .com. We’re not only setting up data services and wrapping the API, but we’re building apps as well, and utilizing the same APIs we expect developers to use.”

A consistent challenge across government for releasing open data has been validation and accuracy. The FCC may employ crowdsourcing to address the quality issue. “Think about a map of broadband speeds,” VanRoekel explained. “I would love the ability for users to show us what’s valid.”

Balancing transparency and open government

As a regulatory body, the FCC has both great power and great responsibility, to put it in terms that Stan Lee might appreciate. Despite the arcane nature of telecommunications law, the agency’s decisions have the potential to affect every citizen in the nation. As VanRoekel pointed out, the FCC must follow administrative procedures and publish drafts of rulemaking for public comment, followed by a vote by the commissioners. In the age of the Internet and the open government directive, that process is due for the same reboot the FCC.gov will receive.

“Once approved, language in the APA [Administrative Procedure Act] says government will open up the notice of draft rules to enlighten public decision-making,” said VanRoekel. “In the past, what that’s meant is us putting it up on a website, in PDFs. Law firms would send clerks, who would photocopy folders and come back with comments at the draft rule. There was no way for an educator or an affected family to get involved. It’s our vision that every rule that’s up for decision in this agency will be opened for public input.”

The first draft of that effort has been on display at OpenInternet.gov. “We made it so that an idea entered into our engines was entered into the public record,” VanRoekel said. “An interesting fact there is that you, as a citizen or industry body, can see the comments and hold us legally liable.”

The FCC is faced with difficulties that derive from handling the explosion of online feedback that contentious issues like net neutrality generate. “The volume of comments becomes our problem,” he said. “When you have 30,000 ideas coming in and comments on top of them on the record, and we have a limited number of people that oversee the effort, that’s our biggest challenge.”

While the FCC has touted new tools for openness and transparency, it’s also taken a beating about a lack of transparency in close- door meetings on Internet rules.

“There’s a role to play on certain meetings where ex parte comes into play,” said VanRoekel. “We tend to use ex parte as a mechanism for understanding. We ask vendors specific questions. Many times there are questions that involve their intellectual property.”

The agency has since ended closed-door meetings, but the episode highlights the complexity of enacting new regulations in the current media climate.

Yesterday, in fact, as the New York Times reported, the FCC agency released a public notice seeking more input on open Internet rules, which the agency duly tweeted out as a PDF. The document is embedded below.

Ars Technica and others criticized the agency for asking more questions instead of taking action.

Will the FCC get net neutrality right?. Hard to say. The Center for Democracy and Technology, by way of contrast, endorsed the FCC focusing in on key issues in the net neutrality debate “as a good sign that the FCC is rolling up its sleeves to grapple with the most contentious issues.” As my colleague Andy Oram pointed out this week, the net neutrality debate depends upon what you fear. The only safe bet here is that OpenInternet.gov is likely to get a fresh batch of public comment to take into the record.

Addressing the digital divide

Online debates over net neutrality or the proposed broadband plan leave out a key constituency: the citizens who do not have access to the Internet. The information needs of communities in a democracy were the focus of the recent report by the Knight Commission.

To that point, VanRoekel spoke with the Sunlight Foundation’s executive director, Ellen Miller, earlier this year about how everyone is changing everything. Their conversation is embedded below:

In our interview, VanRoekel focused on how mechanisms of community activation can be used to include disconnected people.

VanRoekel pointed to the growth of mobile access and social media uptake in communities that have been traditionally less connected. That’s a focus that is substantiated by Pew Research that shows citizens turning to the Internet for government data, policy and services, particularly minority communities.

Traditional outreach is still viable as well. Community organizers can reach people on the ground and involve key constituencies. “We also can go back to 800 numbers,” he said. “Using voice to offer access and adding the ability to enter into the public record.”


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