FCC.gov reboots as an open government platform

The FCC's site taps into open source, the cloud, and collective intelligence.

A decade ago, the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) website received an award for the best website in federal government, but the largely static repository has steadily fallen over the years to become one of the worst. Today, the bar has been raised for federal government website reboots with the relaunch of the new FCC.gov, now available in beta at beta.FCC.gov.

FCC.gov home page

The new site is organized around the three primary activities: file a public comment, file a complaint, and search for information. The insight for that redesign came through a combination of online traffic analysis, requests for information through the call center, and conversations with FCC employees.

Some changes that go along with the new FCC.gov are literally tiny, like the newly launched FCC.us URL shortener. Others look small but are a big deal, like secure HTTPS web browsing across FCC.gov. Other upgrades work on small devices, enabling interested parties to watch proceedings wherever they are: the fcc.gov/live livestream now includes the ability to sense the device that someone is using and convert on the fly to HTML5 or Flash. That livestream can also be embedded on other websites.

All of those upgrades add up to a greater whole. Broadly speaking, FCC managing director Steve Van Roekel and his team of software developers, designers, new media and IT security staff have worked hard to bring Web 2.0 principles into the FCC’s online operations. Those principles include elements of open data, platform thinking, collective intelligence, and lightweight social software. What remains to be seen in the years ahead is how much incorporating Web 2.0 into operations will change how the FCC operates as a regulator.

Nearly two years ago, Tim O’Reilly and John Battelle asked how Web 2.0 technologies could transform the actual practice of governing. The FCC has made a big step toward that vision, at a cost of approximately $1.35 million in total development costs. “Everything should be an API,” said Van Roekel, speaking in a briefing on Monday. “The experiences that live outside of FCC.gov should interact back into it. In a perfect world, no one should have to visit the FCC website.” Instead, he said, you’d go to your favorite search engine or favorite app and open data from the FCC’s platform would be baked into it.

The overhaul of FCC.gov has been underway since last September. “We’re approaching .gov like .com,” Van Roekel said at the time. Seven months later, FCC.gov is the next iteration of what an open government platform can be — at least with respect to the digital architecture for a regulatory agency.

“It is our intention that every proceeding before the agency will be available for public comment,” Van Roekel said at the briefing. “If we think of citizens as shareholders, we can do a lot better. Under the Administrative Procedure Act, agencies will get public comments that enlighten decisions. When citizens care, they should be able to give government feedback, and government should be able to take action. We want to enable better feedback loops to enable that to happen.”

Following are five ways the new FCC.gov improves on the previous version, followed by an analysis of how some of these changes relate to open government.

1. FCC.gov runs on open source

Specifically, theFCC.gov open source redesign runs on Drupal, like Energy.gov, House.gov and WhiteHouse.gov. The FCC also considered Sharepoint, Documentum, WordPress and Ruby on Rails before ultimately going with Drupal. The use of Drupal at the White House was a “strong validator” for that choice, said Van Roekel. As the White House has done, Van Roekel said that the FCC will contribute code back to the Drupal community.

2. FCC.gov is hosted in the cloud

Federal cloud computing is no longer on the horizon. It’s now a reality. Last May, the White House moved Recovery.gov to Amazon’s cloud. The new Treasury.gov is hosted on Amazon’s cloud. Today, the new FCC.gov is hosted in Terremark’s cloud, according to Van Roekel. As with Treasury.gov, FCC.gov content is accelerated by the Akamai Content Delivery Network.

This Terremark implementation has been certified at a higher level of security required for compliance with the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA). FCC.gov, in fact, is one of the first federal websites in the cloud at the FISMA moderate level. Van Roekel, however, cautioned that only information that the agency deems “read-only” will be hosted externally. Transactional implementations in the cloud will follow later. “Everything that the government allows us to shift to the cloud, we will shift to the cloud,” he said.

The move to the cloud is being driven, as with so many aspects of government, by costs. As with much of industry, the FCC’s servers have been underutilized. Moving to the cloud will enable the agency to more closely track actual usage and adjust capacity. “My goal is to move everything from a capital expense to an operating expense,” said Van Roekel.

3. FCC.gov incorporates collective intelligence

Over time, the new FCC.gov will begin to show the most popular pages, official documents, and comments on the site.

Last year, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) updated rules for cookies on federal websites. Among other changes, the new guidance allowed federal agencies to use data analytics to monitor website traffic, interact and engage with citizens online, deliver e-services, and provide information.

Van Roekel also pointed to the use of FCC broadband speed testing apps to collect more than 2 million tests across the United States as a precedent for looking to citizens as sensors. The testing data was integrated into the FCC’s national broadband map. Van Roekel said that he has hopes for other uses of collective intelligence in the future, like crowdsourcing cellular tower locations.

4. FCC.gov has significantly improved search

The less that’s said about the ability of visitors to find information on the old FCC.gov, the better. The new FCC.gov uses Solr, an open source enterprise search platform from the Apache Lucene project. The new functionality is built upon a topic-based “FCC encyclopedia” that provides dynamically generated results for each search. “It’s not breakthrough stuff, but it’s breakthrough for government,” said Van Roekel, who indicated that further improvements and fine tuning are coming within a week.

5. FCC.gov is a platform for open data

“The whole website is built on RESTful services by itself,” said Van Roekel. “What I saw when I came in is that we had amazing data locked up in silos that were inaccessible to companies and citizens. There were all these roadblocks to getting and using data.”

The new site makes the data for public comments accessible with an associated API. There are also now now chief data officers for wireline, wireless, consumer, media, enforcement, international, engineering and legislative affairs. Each data officer is personally accountable for getting data out to the public.

The roadblocks are far from gone, but due to the efforts of the FCC’s first chief data officer, Greg Elin, some are being removed. The agency launched FCC.gov/data, worked to share more APIs at FCC.gov/developer and hosted its first open developer day. Van Roekel says the agency is working to get standardization of data, with the general direction of standardizing to XML. If the future he described is near, FCC is increasingly going to ask companies to file regulatory information in electronic, machine-readable formats.

Open government, inside and out

There are three different lenses to look at what open government means for a federal agency, at least as defined by the Open Government Directive: transparency, participation and collaboration.

Open data, online video and collective intelligence applied to governance will help with transparency. Collective intelligence may help to surface key documents or comments. Participation and collaboration in open government have proven to be a harder nut to crack.

The role that a regulator plays matters here. For example, comments from Broadband.gov or OpenInternet.gov were entered into the public record. “Today, you can take us to court with one of the blog comments from Broadband.gov,” said Van Roekel. “More than 300,000 citizens gave comment on the Open Internet proceeding.” Whether those comments lead to positive or negative public policy changes is both an open and contentious question, as this analysis of those who win and lose under FCC net neutrality rules suggests.

That doesn’t mean improving the capacity of the FCC to conduct more open rulemaking online wasn’t worth the effort. It means that to make those processes truly open, the regulators themselves must shift to being more open.

Embracing the spirit of open government will require all agencies to move beyond what information technology by itself can accomplish or empower. That’s a tall order. It requires a cultural change. To put it another way, open government is a mindset.

That’s particularly true when applying an open government mandate to an institution with around 1,900 workers, where the dynamics that MIT research professor Andrew McAfee aptly described in “Gov 2.0 vs the beast of bureaucracy” are in play.

Van Roekel said that the FCC launched Reboot.gov internally first, including an anonymous comment box and blog. They’re working on “bringing Web 2.0 culture into the building,” where possible. The agency is also approaching internal collaborative innovation in several others ways. “We’re using ThinkUpApp for social media monitoring and engagement,” said Dan McSwain, senior new media fellow at the FCC. “We’re running a pilot with MeasuredVoice, developed by Jed Sundwall at the Captura Group. That’s where we’re collaborating inside the building on social media messages.”

For other agencies to succeed in a similar refresh, Van Roekel shared a key point of advice: “Get someone on the executive team who can get resources and own the mandate. That the chairman cares about this and that I care about this is why it’s happening.”

Whether those internal and external efforts will lead to a 21st century regulatory agency isn’t clear yet. That’s a judgment that historians are better suited to render, rather than those chronicling the rough draft of history. What is indisputable is that today, there’s a new FCC.gov for the world to explore.


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