Social Congress and the 21st century legislator

Brad Fitch, Congressional Management Foundation

Brad Fitch, Congressional Management Foundation

How is it possible, in the 21st century, that I can Skype with friends in China, keep up with my friends across the country via Facebook and exchange messages with the CEO of a startup I admire on Twitter, but yet when I try to communicate with my members of Congress, it seems like everything I do is swallowed up by the black abyss?

What? Maybe I should try tweeting to Senator Boxer, commenting on Rep. Nancy Pelosi‘s Facebook page or emailing Assemblymember Tom Ammiano? Come on, you’re joking, right? Doesn’t everyone in Congress think the Internet is a series of tubes?

Well, turns out I’m wrong. Not only is Congress up on their social media skills, but according to Brad Fitch, president of the Congressional Management Foundation:

Nearly 2/3 of staff surveyed (64%) think Facebook is an important way to understand constituents’ views and nearly 3/4 (74%) think it is important for communicating their Members’ views.

Fitch talked about how Capitol Hill perceives and uses social media at a #SocialCongress meetup Monday in San Francisco. He had some good news, bad news and interesting perspectives. (The full report will be released on July 26th.)

Bad news first: staffers agree that email and the Internet have made it easier for citizens to take part in public policy, but nearly 2/3 feel like they’ve reduced the quality of the messages they send, and less than half think that email and the Internet have increased citizen understanding of what actually happens in D.C. In other words, to quote Popvox CEO Marci Harris, “The internet has increased civic participation and lawmaker accountability but has not necessarily led to a more informed constituency.”

Great, now we have uninformed people writing to Congress. How does that possibly help our democracy? Well, as Thomas Jefferson said, “We in America do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate.” In 2005, CMF found that “Congress received four times more communications in 2004 than in 1995 – all of the increase from Internet-based communications,” and a 2008 survey by CMF and Zogby found that “43 percent of Americans who had contacted Congress used online methods to do so, more than twice the percentage that had used postal mail or the telephone.”

In this case, the good news and the bad news is kind of a mobius strip: more people are communicating with their elected officials. Those people may not be as well-informed as said elected officials hope them to be, however, the saying “the medium is the message” is more appropriate than ever when talking about the Internet. Senior managers and communications staffers on the Hill across the board said social media tools like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were vital to both communicating the Member’s views and understanding what constituents want. The key is doing more than just liking a status update, or leaving one-word comments on a link. To make an impact on your member of Congress, you have to discuss the impact of a bill on your state or district, give a reason for your support or opposition, or tell a story.

Gov 2.0 champion Tim O’Reilly asked the question that was on the minds of all the technologists in the room:

“It’s not just about reaching Congress,” he said, “but can we use technology to make Congress smarter? People in government are ready, they want to figure it out. We have to help them be more responsive, to be the government we wish we had.”

How developers can win Congress

House of RepresentativesIn a recent post from Coder-in-Chief Clay Johnson, Clay outlines several reasons why developers should run for Congress. Among them:

  • They’re under-represented as a profession.
  • Government’s problems are becoming increasingly technical.
  • Great developers are systems fixers and systems hackers.
  • Developers are great digital communicators.

Despite the argument we should keep developers out of politics, Microsoft’s Howard Dierking’s Engineering Good Government suggests the Constitutional framers were in fact the nation’s first patriot programmers:

Modern software design deals with the complexities of creating systems composed of innumerable components that must be stable, reliable, efficient, and adaptable over time. A language has emerged over the past several years to capture and describe both practices to follow and practices to avoid when designing software. These are known as patterns and antipatterns. This chapter will explore known software design patterns and antipatterns in context of the U.S. Constitution and will hopefully encourage further application of software design principles as a metaphor for describing and modeling the complex dynamics of government in the future.

If the developer community is serious about building a more concerted effort around changing the way Washington works, here are some recommendations:

Find the founders

It’s not enough to say ‘if you’re a developer ‘” consider a run!’ Developers with civic passion need to step up and show it can be done. The movement needs real faces, real leaders that will walk the walk. Tech leaders already at the intersection of government and technology like Clay Johnson (yes you, Clay), Jim Gilliam or tech publisher Tim O’Reilly, can show firsthand you can change government from the inside.

Build a coalition

Create a sense of unity. A well-labeled coalition would allow candidates to better affiliate themselves with a movement and simplify their message. It doesn’t have to be a new iParty, just something that unifies the platform, much the way the Blue Dog Democrats have done. Ultimately, when these candidates are elected, they could build their own official caucus with a more formal, long-standing impact.

Build an ‘Operating System for America’ platform

Much like Newt Gingrich did with ‘Contract for America,’ developers need to present their case in a concise manner. Create specific objectives as to how the work on Congress needs to change and tie in the spirit of innovation, technology so that it will resonate with citizens. More importantly, the objectives need to be defined outside of standard political issues.

Establish a support network

Most professions have a supporting political organization that provides resources, networking and fundraising opportunities for members running for office. A ‘Coders for America’ organization doesn’t have to be a formal 501c organization, but there does need to be a foundational support network that can help developers better understand the campaign process and better access resources.

Make geek chic

We’re all too familiar with the stereotype that developers are introverts or think they’re smarter than everyone else. The iParty needs to be more iPhone, less Android, so to speak. Love him or hate him, Steve Jobs has perfected the art of making geek chic. Tech-centric political candidates would do well to take a page from his book (or iPad).

As the dynamics of government and politics increasingly shift to the Web, and citizens adopt tools and technology that make it easier to access elected officials, developers are well-suited to best understand how to tap into this opportunity.

The next step is to do something about it.

Will Tim O’Reilly dance for Code for America?

Earlier this week, we announced the Code for America t-shirt contest. Here’s the gist of the contest rules:

From now until August 1, we’ll feature our favorite CFA t-shirt photos on GovFresh. We’ll feature you on the home page of GovFreshTV for the month of August if you do a video dance routine wearing one.

In an effort to get CFA board members fired up, we challenged Gov 2.0 Guru Tim O’Reilly to step up to the plate:

@timoreilly If you danced for @codeforamerica we might just convert GovFresh to a 1-page video site for the day. #gov20

This morning, we received an anonymous tip that Tim actually CAN dance (see video below), so we’d like to make him a formal offer:

@timoreilly If you dance for @codeforamerica we will feature nothing but your video on the GovFresh home page for one full day. If you and fellow board members @cjoh @corbett3000 do a boy-band-New-Kids-on-the-Block style dance together, we will keep it up for a whole MONTH.

Now that we all know Tim O’Reilly is as passionate about Gov 2.0 as he is about dancing, will he inspire alpha geeks across America to join with him and dance for a great cause?

Kundra, SF officials promote Open311 API

Here’s video from yesterday’s Open311 press conference in San Francisco, including Vivek Kundra, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, SF CIO Chris Vein and O’Reilly Media’s Tim O’Reilly.

Kundra’s Open311 comments from the White House blog:

This is a great approach that ties together efforts in San Francisco, Boston, the District of Columbia, Portland, and Los Angeles to open more services to citizens, and to use data to drive progress in people’s lives. Too often, people grumble that their complaints about government – be it city, county, state, or federal – get swallowed by the bureaucracy. Open 311 is an answer to that problem, placing the role of service evaluator and service dispatcher in the power of citizens’ hands. Through this approach, new web applications can mash publicly available, real-time data from the cities to allow people to track the status of repairs or improvements, while also allowing them to make new requests for services. For instance, I can use the same application to report a broken parking meter when I’m home in the District of Columbia or traveling to cities like Portland, Los Angeles, Boston, or San Francisco. This is the perfect example of how government is simplifying access to citizen services. Open 311 is an innovation that will improve people’s lives and make better use of taxpayer dollars.

Video:

5 government sites using Drupal effectively for open government initiatives

By now, most people in the Gov 2.0 community have heard of Drupal, the popular open source social publishing system powering close to 500,000 websites ranging from big government to Britney Spears. Drupal has seen steady growth from its inception as a Belgian grad student’s experiment in 2001 to one of the most heavily used open source content management systems in the world, downloaded by a quarter million people per month. A growing trend the Drupal community is following closely this year is government interest in the platform to further open government initiatives and broaden adoption across government.

Why is Drupal important to the the Federal government? That is the main topic I will cover in a 3-part series here on GovFresh. I’ll start with some high-profile examples of who is using Drupal effectively in government and why Drupal is a great fit for what these sites are trying to achieve. My second post will focus on the unique aspects of providing web content management for government that are relevant for Drupal (i.e. what can Drupal learn from Government?). My final post will provide ideas and predictions for the future of Drupal within the Federal government.

Who is using Drupal effectively now at the federal level? Not as many agencies as we’d like. While open source provides a great return on investment for Federal CIOs under budgetary pressure, open source adoption on U.S. government websites has not yet hit critical mass. I believe this will change in 2010 due in no small part to the success of early adopters in demonstrating cost savings, time to market and features critical to government to citizen outreach. So while growing in popularity with CIOs, it is New Media Directors that have found the tool most useful because of its ease of implementation and flexibility to extend sites to include the best of social media, user participation and collaboration and data integration.

Here are five sites using Drupal effectively to achieve the objectives of the open government directive and promoting the use of open concepts to improve the business of government.

Recovery at Commerce

The Department of Commerce loves Drupal, and for good reason: a site like this can be developed and launched quickly and inexpensively. Being on the front lines of the economic recovery efforts, Commerce has a lot to share with the public and good reason to do that quickly and efficiently. Unlike its better known federal-wide parent site, Recovery.gov, this agency transparency initiative is still running on Drupal. Regrettably, Recovery.gov which was running on Drupal was replaced by SharePoint when a re-compete to the contract famously switched platforms and vendors. It will probably be known to Drupalers as “the one that got away” for a while to come. The Commerce department’s recovery site makes use of Drupal’s ease of integration with mashups. Data and reports are easy to find and download in original .xls formats and I can get an RSS feed of major communications and activities. While still a fairly simple site, it’s simplicity makes it accessible and easy for the common citizen to find what they are looking for. It is easy to see how this site could blossom into a model destination for Commerce communications, collaboration and participation on all things recovery.

Federal IT Spending Dashboard

Launched in July of last year by Vivek Kundra, the Federal Chief Information Officer, the dashboard was created to allow CIOs of various government agencies to show the effectiveness with which they have managed government IT spending. As such, this site has been featured very prominently as an open gov example for its transparency, its use of open data and a very strong sense of government accountability. Kundra explains the site as a place that “… allows you to see what IT projects are working and on-schedule (and which are not), offer alternative approaches, and provide direct feedback to the chief information officers at federal agencies – in effect, keeping tabs on the people who are responsible for taxpayer dollars for technology.” Ultimately, that hits on all three tenets of the directive and does it in a visually appealing and useful way that does not get the user bogged down in text. The graphing techniques are unique and unconventional like the budget year tree map (well okay that one still confuses me a bit, but it still proves that transparency can be fun to browse and explore).

Federal Labor Relations Authority

This is a simple, effective example of a government site that can be easily stood up with Drupal. It is a great example of how government agency sites don’t have to be overly complex to achieve their mission. The FLRA is an independent administrative federal agency. As such, the FLRA mission is fairly straight forward: carry out five (5) primary statutory responsibilities as efficiently as possible. This site provides good direction on what the agency does and how the agency can help a citizen worker. What caught my attention is that it promotes the /open aspect of the open government directive (OGD) prominently on its homepage (though technically I believe the FLRA would be exempt from this requirement) and links to 3 (albeit incredibly light) data sets in XML format. This is what the OGD is asking all cabinet level agencies do and someone here read the memo.

Data.gov.uk

This new UK government site is a shining example of the merger of open source, open data and the semantic web. This is my second favorite government site running on Drupal. It illustrates that Europe has a lot to teach us about open government. The site is the product of Sir Tim Berners-Lee (most notably the guy who created the World Wide Web) and Professor Nigel Shadbolt as a project for the UK’s efforts to make data more open and accessible on the web. This site is the UK’s answer to our data.gov project. Reportedly they selected Drupal for both its flexibility as a CMS and its native integration with semantic web concepts and technology. With an Apps download section, idea galleries, forums, a blog, a wiki, and the ability to search, browse and query against the data sets, this was done in the spirit of try it all and see what sticks. I admire the pragmatic goals of the site.

The White House

Currently a shining star of Drupal in government, the conversion of this site in October of last year sparked a lively and interesting debate on the use of open source in government (Disclaimer: my firm was the developer on this effort) While it served to squelch much of the criticism over the scalability and performance of Drupal as a platform for very high traffic sites, it also forced people to question whether the security of open source was ready for prime time. Many critics cited the openness and availability of open source code to be a weakness, while others claimed it as a benefit. Tim O’Reilly’s post did a good job of refocusing the discussion to the benefits of choosing Drupal for the White House site:

“More than just security, though, the White House saw the opportunity to increase their flexibility. Drupal has a huge library of user-contributed modules that will provide functionality the White House can use to expand its social media capabilities, with everything from super-scalable live chats to multi-lingual support. In many ways, this is the complement to the Government as Platform mantra I’ve been chanting in Washington.”

In addition to these attributes, the site features a robust blog, multimedia delivery and is the home to many micro-sites that can be quickly stood up to address various initiatives, councils and committees that fall under the purview of the Administration, including the king of all /open sites, whitehouse.gov/open, home to the open government directive itself.

There are many great examples of Drupal use for the betterment and opening of government. For more about the use of Drupal in government, stay tuned for my next post. Also, for those interested in a more comprehensive list of known government sites using Drupal both in the U.S. and at large throughout the world, check out the Drupal in Government group on Drupal.org.

‘Open Gov the Movie’

Open Gov the Movie is a 14-minute compilation of interviews with prominent open gov advocates, including U.S. Deputy CTO Beth Noveck, Sunlight Foundation’s Jake Brewer, City of Manor’s Dustin Haisler, Tim O’Reilly, EPA’s Jeffrey Levy, Deloitte’s Steve Lunceford and National Academy of Public Administration’s Lena Trudeau. The film was created by Delib.

Gov 2.0 guide to Sunlight Foundation

Sunlight Foundation is a Washington, DC-based 501c(3) non-profit organization founded in 2006 to focus on “making government transparent and accountable.” Its name comes from a quote by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

Sunlight was co-founded by Michael Klein and Ellen Miller. Miller serves as its executive director.

Ellen Miller GovFreshTV interview:

Ellen Miller CSPAN interview:

Ellen Miller Web 2.0 Expo interview with Tim O’Reilly:

Projects

  • OpenCongress.org: Brings together official government data with news and blog coverage, social networking, public participation tools, and more. Free, open-source, not-for-profit, and non-partisan web resource with a mission to make Congress more transparent and to encourage civic engagement.
  • Foreign Lobbying: Foreign Lobbyist Influence Tracker, a joint project of ProPublica and Sunlight, digitizes information that representatives of foreign governments, political parties and government-controlled entities must disclose to the U.S. Justice Department when they seek to influence U.S. policy.
  • Congrelate: Lets users view, sort, filter and share information about members of Congress and their districts.
  • Transparency Corps: Lets anyone, anywhere have a positive impact on making our government more transparent by aggregating small actions that require human intelligence but not specialized political knowledge.
  • Party Time: Documents the Congressional fundraising circuit.
  • Transparency Jobs: Features jobs from both the US Federal Government and non-government organizations.
  • LouisDB: The Library Of Unified Information Sources, an effort, to paraphrase Justice Louis Brandeis, to illuminate the workings of the federal government.

Sunlight Labs

Sunlight Foundation also includes Sunlight Labs, a “community of open source developers and designers dedicated to opening up our government to make it more transparent, accountable and responsible.” Sunlight Labs has an online community and a Google Group. Clay Johnson is its director.

Clay Johnson GovFreshTV interview:

Clay Johnson Gov 2.0 Radio interview:

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Blogs

Connect

More Sunlight Foundation

SF mayor Newsom addresses open government plan to department heads

San Francisco public officials, including Mayor Gavin Newsom, discuss the launch of launch of DataSF.org and the city’s open government initiative at a meeting with city department heads. Highlights include Newsom’s overview of why the effort is important and Tim O’Reilly’s talk on government as a platform.

Quotable:

Gavin Newsom (Mayor, San Francisco):

“This is transformational. This is real. This is not insignificant from my perspective. This is not just incidental. This is fundamental … We have got to unleash the creative talent, not just inside all of us physically here, and within all of our city departments, but within the city and county of San Francisco, the region, the state, the nation. By giving people information you empower them, and with that information and empowerment comes innovation and new ideas at a scale and scope and speed that puts everything we’re doing in perspective. “

Ed Reiskin (Director, San Francisco Department of Public Works):

“All of this data that we use to run the government. This data is not our data. The data is for the public, for the people. The systems we use are not our systems. They’re the public’s systems. They’re for the people.”

San Francisco’s DataSF launch

Here’s video from the August 2009 news conference announcing the launch of DataSF.org, San Francisco’s open data site, which provides “structured, raw and machine-readable government data to the public in an easily downloadable format.”

The press conference is attended by SF officials and technology entrepreneurs, including SF Mayor Gavin Newsom, SF CIO Chris Vein, SF Dept of Public Works Director Ed Reiskin, SF Director of Innovation Jay Nath, Tim O’Reilly and WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg. There’s a general Q&A that includes examples of how citizens and entrepreneurs are leveraging the newly-opened data.

For those working in local governments, this is a great overview of how citizens, local businesses and government officials are working together to make government more efficient and create economic opportunities for businesses simply by opening up public data.

Frankly, after watching this, I don’t see how more locales wouldn’t follow suit.

New book ‘State of the eUnion: Government 2.0 and Onwards’ available free for download

State of the eUnion: Government 2.0 and Onwards

A new book, State of the eUnion: Government 2.0 and Onwards, is now available free for download. The book, a compilation of essays from 34 Gov 2.0 thought leaders, will soon be available in print through Amazon and elsewhere.

From the publisher:

“In many ways, eGovernment has come of age. The use of IT and digital media is today part of everything government does, so the ‘e’ is becoming obsolete. ‘eGovernment is just Government,’ as the saying goes, but it is important to realise that the ‘e’ has changed government forever, and will keep doing so, and hence we now talk about Government 2.0, ” said John Gotze.

The book’s contributors touch on a number of different subjects, all related to making government work better. Some deal with getting government data out into the open, breaking down data silos. Others focus on how to interact with the public through interactive websites. Still others discuss how to facilitate organizational change that will open up government.

Contributors:

  • Richard Allan, Facebook
  • Kim Normann Andersen, Copenhagen Business School
  • Tony Bovaird, Birmingham
 University
  • Lee Bryant, HeadShift
  • Joanne Caddy, OECD
  • Stephen Collins, AcidLabs
  • Dan Doney, US 
Office 
of 
the 
Director 
of 
National
 Intelligence
  • James Downe, Cardiff 
University
  • Mark Drapeau, National
 Defense
 University
  • Bengt Feil, TuTech
 Innovation
  • Dave Fletcher, State of Utah
  • Michael Friis, Folkets
 Ting
  • Matt Leighninger, Deliberative
 Democracy
 Consortium
  • Lawrence Lessig, Harvard
 Law
 School
  • Rolf Lührs, TuTech
 Innovation
  • Elke Löffler, Governance 
International
  • Rony Medaglia, Copenhagen Business School
  • Philipp S. Müller, Center
 for
 Public
 Management
 and 
Governance
  • David Osimo, Tech4i2
  • Tim O’Reilly, O’Reilly Inc.
  • Tommy Dejbjerg Pedersen, Geekhouse
  • Chris Potts, Dominic Barrow
  • Steve Radick, Booz
 Allen
 Hamilton
  • Harald Rathmann, TuTech
 Innovation
  • Steve Ressler, GovLoop
  • Alexandra Samuel, Social
Signal
  • W. David Stephenson, Stephenson Strategies
  • Hanne Sørum, The
 Norwegian
 School
 of
 Information
 Technology
  • Ariel Waldman, Spacehack.org
  • David Weinberger, Harvard
 Berkman
 Center
 for
 Internet
 & Society
  • Olov Östberg, Mid
 Sweden
 University