Election 2010: A refresh for Gov 2.0?

A new GOP majority in the U.S. House and open government elections in state government shift the Gov 2.0 landscape.

Sweeping election gains for Republicans in the 2010 midterm elections will shape how Gov 2.0 initiatives and open government move ahead in the next two years at the state and federal level.

At the state level, limited resources will mean other states may follow in California’s footsteps, where budget woes meant connecting citizens to e-services through social media during the downturn was critical. In Washington, the Obama administration’s open government programs could receive more scrutiny from House committees, though it’s more likely that challenging the implementation of healthcare or financial legislation will be a priority.

That does not mean, however, that open government initiatives are going to be scuttled. In fact, the agenda put forward by leading Republicans, like presumptive Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) and Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA), has the potential to increase the use of technology in transparency in Congress.

“Let Americans read bills before they are brought to a vote,” wrote Boehner in a Wall Street Journal op-ed this weekend focused on “priorities for the next Speaker.”The speaker of the House should not allow any bill to come to a vote that has not been posted publicly online for at least three days. Members of Congress and the American people must have the opportunity to read it.”

There’s bi-partisan support to read the bill first online, before it’s put up for vote. If the new House establishes that benchmark for transparency, it would be a win for open government in Congress.

Open standards may also play a part in the new Congress, given the signals that Issa and others have sent in recent weeks. Issa made an extended argument that technology is key to achieving 21st Century transparency in government:

… information technologies already in use throughout the private sector can make it possible for Americans to track federal spending, regulation, and legislation. Better transparency will enable voters, media, and watchdog groups to hold the bureaucracy accountable. Currently, however, federal agencies do not use consistent, compatible electronic data formats for financial, regulatory, and legislative information. If they did — and made it all public, searchable, sortable, and downloadable — anyone with web access could scrutinize the federal budget, second-guess federal regulators, or navigate proposed laws and the U.S. Code with ease.

Rep. Issa indicated on election night that he intends to help the president do his job better, not bring down the office. Supporting the transparency that the White House has talked about with extended use of XBRL and other open data standards would be exactly such a move, as opposed to identifying waste, fraud and inefficiency, which of often been Rep. Issa’s rallying cry. On that count, cost cutting around IT programs may well be a point of focus. Under federal CIO Vivek Kundra, that won’t be a new emphasis. It’s in these areas that the administration and House Republicans may find the most common ground, if the White House and Congressional leadership can find a way to cooperate.

House Republicans are also moving forward with YouCut, a platform where users can suggest and vote for government programs they wish to be cut from the federal budget. Mashable’s post on social media and politics shed more light on the progress of the initiative to date:

“For the first time, the public is able to have direct impact on what their representatives vote upon on the House floor,” said [Matt] Lira about the YouCut initiative. “The public’s response to this program validates that they will engage with Congress when given the opportunity to do so.”

Lira said that more than 2 million votes have been cast on the YouCut website so far, and every week that the House is in session, the item that receives the most social media votes is brought to the floor for debate (typically 45 minutes) and an actual legislative vote. “To date, no cuts have passed the House, but all we can do in the minority is force the debate and the vote,” said Lira. “The full voting records are available online, so people can know where their representative stood.”

As the dust settles after the election, the White House and Congress are still faced with the same problems that existed at the beginning of the week: high unemployment, wars abroad, rising costs for healthcare and energy, aging infrastructure, lagging STEM skills in education, and historic lows in trust for government institutions themselves. The election of Tea Party candidates that campaigned on deficit issues and smaller government platforms shows that there is a hunger for finding ways to halt the growth of spending and doing more with less.

UPDATE: As Nancy Scola pointed out in her analysis at techPresident, the coming House GOP majority wants to talk about structure. While she’s absolutely right to observe that history encourages skepticism when it comes to bold talk of technology-fueled government reform, there’s also good reason to think that if House Republicans want to do something about it, they can.

“Boehner and crew actually have a far easier task ahead of them, if they’re serious,” wries Scola, comparing the challenge the GOP faces in the House to the Obama administration’s challenges with implementing the Open Government Directive. “All they have to rework is one body, not an entire sprawling branch of government made up of more than a dozen strong-headed agencies. And it’s one institution that runs operationally more or less like a dictatorship, or at least an oligarchy. There’s much that a new House Republican majority can do there.”

Open government enters more state houses

The story of Gov 2.0 going local is as important as changes at the federal level. The election of candidates who explicitly supported open government agendas in their campaigns bear special notice.

In New York, Governor-Elect Andrew Cuomo supported an “Open NY” program in the months before the election. As noted on the Sunlight Foundation’s blog, Cuomo’s record also includes the launch of the well-regarded transparency website, Project Sunlight. During the campaiign Open NY plan earned the support of open government pioneer Andrew Hoppin, the CIO of the New York State Senate:

I know of lot of people inside New York State government today, as well as a lot of cynical citizens outside of government, who would be inspired and re-engaged if these commitments were acted on seriously by the next governor. I further believe that, if done right, Open NY can help New York State improve government services while saving the state significant money in the bargain, by helping to modernize how the state manages its data, and by empowering citizens to take a more active hands-on role in their government, thus reducing the workload of government itself.

The extent to which Cuomo’s administration implements open government precepts in New York bears watching.

In California, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s successful campaign for Lieutenant Governor puts one an early adopters of social media and standards like Open311 into the executive branch of one of the world’s largest economies. California has already made notable moves toward open government, with respect to open data, enhancement of e-services and social media for citizen engagement. A key issue to watch will be who is tapped to replace outgoing California CIO Teri Takai as state CIO, as she’s slated to move on to the Department of Defense. Recently, Newsom introduced open data legislation to open city data, a measure that has passed the first test in the legislature. Earlier this year, Newsom made open source the software of choice in San Francisco.

Whether Newsom works with Governor-Elect Jerry Brown and the California legislature to enact similar policy state-wide remains to be seen.

In Rhode Island, Governor-Elect Lincoln Chafee campaigned on an open government platform that included working with SeeClickFix and joining Govloop, the government social network. While the nation’s smallest state may not have the population heft of California, under Chafee’s leadership it has the potential to be an incubator for state open government innovation.

On the whole, the 2010 midterm elections mean that more state houses will be experimenting with open government initiatives. Given the differing scale and the economic conditions that pertain in each jurisdiction, the adoption of certain technologies will have more urgency or potential, whether it’s cloud computing, data center consolidation, social media or open source platforms. What is clear is that the vision of the Founding Fathers will allow the different state governments to test and learn from different approaches to smarter governance. If they are able to learn from one another and iterate more rapidly, smarter government will be a win for citizens. On that count, time will offer a verdict for success.

Gov 2.0’s adolescence

Despite the grim picture that some analysts have painted of the state of Gov 2.0, the success of several major iniatives and quiet work by public servants outside of the media spotlight suggests that the progression toward smarter government is far from stalled. The Blue Button from the Veterans Administration and Department of Health and Human Services is on track to eclipse 100,000 electronic health record downloads this month. The Blue Button corrects a national shame, with respect to disabled veterans’ difficulties with repetitively filling out paperwork, and it is a notable example of a public-private partnership.

NASA’s open source cloud computing system, Nebula, is also set to enter production. If the simple test for government innovation is whether we’re “developing tech that society values”, as NASA CTO for IT Chris Kemp put it at Fedtalks this fall, the integration of Nebula into Openstack points to an open government success.

If the challenges that face the nation are, as President Obama has said, too big for government to solve alone, then newly elected public servants have a tall order before them. We’re in open government’s beta period, with new testers coming online to stress the system. In the end, the changes that are needed most will be the ones that lead to better outcomes for citizens. If Gov 2.0 is about people, culture and technology, all three will have to evolve further in January. The stakes are too high not to move forward.

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