CIO Seeks Open Government In Brawling New York State Senate - InformationWeek

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6/29/2009
10:31 AM
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
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CIO Seeks Open Government In Brawling New York State Senate

Andrew Hoppin, CIO of the New York State Senate, is working to leverage information technology to get more people involved in politics. Politics needs more voices from the left, right, and center, he said. "Not just professional voices, the people paid to be there, but the people who are interested and have a concern about the workings of the legislators," he said.

Andrew Hoppin, CIO of the New York State Senate, is working to leverage information technology to get more people involved in politics. Politics needs more voices from the left, right, and center, he said. "Not just professional voices, the people paid to be there, but the people who are interested and have a concern about the workings of the legislators," he said."One of the reasons there has been this perception that there aren't a lot of voices involved in government isn't just because there's money involved - that's part of it - but also because there are extreme demands on your time as an elected official, and you can only talk to so many people a day," Hoppin said during a public interview on Virtually Speaking, a progressive political interview program in Second Life, available as an audio podcast on BlogTalkRadio.

Hoppin joined New York State Senate staff as CIO in January, with a mandate to open up the legislative process to the public. The Senate was has been highly partisan and closed - law gets made by three people operating in back rooms, said Virtually Speaking host Jay Ayckroyd (Second Life name: Jimbo Hoyer. Hoppin's Second Life name is Drew Frobozz.) "It's fair to say that Albany and the capital there don't have a sterling reputation for transparency," Ayckroyd said. As an additional source of division, the state has New York City in the south, while the rest is largely rural.

Divisions are tearing the state Senate apart currently, as Republicans fight to grab control of the body from Democrats. While the Democrats have the numerical majority, two Dems allied themselves with the GOP, giving the Republicans control:

The revolt has thrown Albany into an almost surreal scene of confusion; on Tuesday, both Mr. Smith and the Republican Senate leader, Dean G. Skelos, were claiming to be the majority leader. Democrats locked the doors of the Senate chamber, preventing Republicans from gathering there, and refused to turn over the keys, prompting Republicans to threaten to hold a legislative session in the park outside.

With the political brawling in the foreground, Hoppin is working in the background to open government.

Hoppin made a goal of implementing open government tools for all state senators and their staff, and training people on using those tools, without regard to party affiliation. "That seemed like a no-brainer to me, but it seemed like a surprise to some that that was the way we were going to go about it," Hoppin said.

He added, "We've been trying to move the needle in the direction of having a professional lawmaking institution that has elected officials that are political, but that also has a professional staff," he said.

Early on, Hoppin set out to upgrade the state senate's Web site' to bring it up to present-day standards - nothing fancy, just adding some basic features including giving each senator a Web site of their own, and giving committees their own Web sites for the first time. "We've made this a citizens' portal to the government, rather than just a place to put up press releases," Hoppin said.

As part of the effort to upgrade, New York has released code in open source, and is sharing lessons learned, in an effort to collaborate with other states on improving government openness.

The Senate frequently struggles with what behavior is appropriate and legal on their site, which operates in the .gov domain, overseen by the federal General Services Administration. For example, political campaigning is prohibited using the state's Internet resources, but discussion of the issues is essential activity, and it's often difficult to tell the difference between the two.

Also, Hoppin's office had to reconcile "franking privileges" and e-mail. Franking privileges allow elected officials to send bulk streetmail to constituents at taxpayer expense; the service is supposed to be used for policy purposes but not for campaigning. Franking privilege is regulated because it costs money to send streetmail, but not so much to send e-mail, Ayckroyd said.

Hoppin responded, "The flip side of that is that e-mail isn't free, and if it's perceived to be free it creates its own problems. You have people who want to spam every day. [E-mail] is certainly an order of magnitude less expensive than the cost of paper mail, but it's an order of magnitude easier to send out an e-mail in terms of the production of it." So Hoppin's office has to educate officials to moderate their use of e-mail.

Hoppin's previous experience included working for NASA and in Second Life, both of which had relatively small communities compared with the community he now serves - the entire population of the state of New York. Ayckroyd asked him whether the experience with the smaller communities scaled. Hoppin responded, "Yes, it's the same. You have to empower people and make people feel like it's worthwhile to participate when they're not getting paid. That's the same whether you're talking about 10 people at a meetup or 100,000 people." Prior to coming to New York, Hoppin worked on Wesley Clark's 2004 Democratic presidential campaign.

Digital tools can help elected officials ask citizens questions, and make meaningful sense out of tens of thousands of responses, Hoppin said. He praised crowdsourcing tools that allow users to vote thumbs-up and thumbs-down on each others' proposals and comments, which allows the best contributions to rise to the top, to be easily found by policy-makers.

Examples of those kinds of crowdsourcing tools include the news site Digg, which lets users vote on articles around the Web and articles receiving the most votes go on the front page. Also, the White House recently crowdsourced an online Town Hall meeting.

Crowdsourcing represents a much more efficient means of gauging public opinion than the current standard tools, tallying the number of letters and phone calls elected officials received from advocacy groups, Hoppin said.

Hoppin also talked about his past experience at NASA, when led bringing the agency into Second Life. He was part of a team brought to NASA Ames Research Center in 2006, with a mandate to make the center better known to its neighbors in Silicon Valley. At first, he led the agency building a Web 2.0 site using Drupal - the same platform the New York Senate is now using. Then, he sought to bring NASA people and neighbors face-to-face. They looked into options in the Bay Area but ran into obstacles: For example, they found it would be legally difficult for the government agency to open co-working facilities outside of government land. "Co-working" is a practice where people who work for unrelated companies share office space for networking and to casually cross-fertilize ideas.

Second Life emerged as an alternative to co-working. It worked well. "We built a community of interest with a number of passionate space advocates, a number of people who worked for NASA, and had fantastic unexpected results. We built a community of practice across NASA for people interested in virtual worlds, and maybe dissatisfied with the cultural status quo," Hoppin said. "We wouldn't have been able to find each other without virtual worlds."

Second Life was a good fit for NASA because its technology is extremely visual and hands-on.

NASA started out hoping to use Second Life as a tool for real-life engineering projects, and it ended up being more of a social tool, although some engineering work did get done in SL. For example, users collaborated building a mockup of a large habitat that might be built on Mars or the Moon. "That was a didactic process for them and for the visitors who went through there," Hoppin said.

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