Filtering Government 2.0 - InformationWeek

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Commentary
9/14/2009
04:09 PM
Michael Hickins
Michael Hickins
Commentary
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Filtering Government 2.0

We're apparently not quite sure if too much citizen intervention in our government's life is a good thing or not, to judge by Anand Giridharadas's piece in this weekend's New York Times Week In Review.

We're apparently not quite sure if too much citizen intervention in our government's life is a good thing or not, to judge by Anand Giridharadas's piece in this weekend's New York Times Week In Review.Alexander Hamilton, probably the last American statesman to openly doubt our capacity for self-governance, would have had a field day with the emergence of Web 2.0, an ostensibly democratizing force that also makes us seem like the crazed mob that our first Secretary of the Treasury so feared.

But the real impediment to the advent of Government 2.0 is technological in nature, not socio-political.

As I've noted in earlier posts, the Obama Administration has stutter-stepped when it comes to advancing our digital cause. It has put more information online than has ever been accessible before and has even created a portal, Data.gov, that provides APIs so citizens can create their own applications to crunch government numbers.

But the information is still flowing just one way, and the promise of Web 2.0, and implicitly the promise of a more tech-savvy Presidency, is interactivity -- citizens providing government with useful feedback.

The problem government now faces is the same faced by companies using social networks to take the pulse of their customers. With 250 million Americans all demanding their Eggos, it's hard to tell the difference between a serious issue and a publicity campaign orchestrated by the competition.

Giridharadas notes the failure of the Administration's initial efforts at crowd-sourcing, laying the blame not on technology, but on our seeming idiocy:

In the middle of two wars and an economic meltdown, the highest-ranking idea was to legalize marijuana, an idea nearly twice as popular as repealing the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy. Legalizing online poker topped the technology ideas, twice as popular as nationwide wi-fi. Revoking the Church of Scientology's tax-exempt status garnered three times more votes than raising funding for childhood cancer.

Does that represent the priorities of most people you know, or does it sound more like the campaigns attended by the same people who forward you email from the Reverend Doctor Crazy?

According to Giridharadas, Stanford political scientist James Fishkin worries that

the Internet's openness allows well-organized groups to simulate support, to "capture and impersonate the public voice."

But Fishkin is a political scientist, not a technologist. Maybe his anti-Jeffersonian worldview has some merit, but the scenario he describes isn't inevitable.

Giridharadas snidely repurposes Obama's campaign slogan that "we're the ones we're waiting for" to ask:

what, indeed, is the new role for us -- the ones we've been waiting for?

The answer is that our role is no different than it was before, but the tools are different. Barring a Constitutional amendment, we're still a representative democracy, and the governed give their consent at regular intervals. Politicians have also regularly consulted their constituents, if only for form's sake; what's changed is that we've recovered a capacity for expressing ourselves that seemed forever lost to population explosion, suburban sprawl, and the rise of a professional political class.

When I was growing up, the major threat to our political system wasn't the Soviet Union, global warming or higher taxes. It was voter apathy, that there was no such thing as a town -- much less a town hall -- and that politicians were disconnected from the concerns of their constituents.

That much has changed. The Internet has brought us all much closer. We've organized so many marches, meet-ups and demonstrations in the past twelve months, we're almost France (in a good way). The problem isn't us. The problem is that the proper acoustic tools aren't in place yet to support our new-found political voices.

What's needed is the kind of data mining applications used by the government's own intelligence services -- technology from outfits like Agent Logic (recently acquired by Informatica) -- appended to Web 2.0.

The Obama Administration's stumbles with crowd-sourcing and other Web 2.0 initiatives are understandable and well-documented. Obama's CTO, Aneesh Chopra, has been in place for only five months. But the new Administration shouldn't abandon its efforts at grassroots politics just because initial results haven't been good -- or the voices to its liking. More to the point, better data quality and filtering could help it hear our actual voices more precisely.

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