Month: March 2010

UK Gov’s Digital Revolution: Digitise, Personalise, Economise

Gordon Brown’s speech last week on “Building Britain’s Digital Future”, covered a wide range of topics, but focused particularly how digital technologies such as the “semantic web” could drive a radical reshaping of government and its interactions with citizens.

He outlined his ambition for Britain to be the world leader not only in the digital economy, but also:

in public service delivery where we can give the greatest possible voice and choice to citizens, parents patients and consumers; and the world leader in the new politics where that voice for feedback and deliberative decisions can transform the way we make local and national policies and decisions.

Linked data

Mr. Brown explained how the concept of Linked data and the semantic web has ‘the potential to be just as revolutionary as the web’. He went on to say:

in both the content and delivery of public services the next stage of the web will transform the ability of citizens to tailor the services they need to their requirements, to feedback constantly on their success, to interact with the professionals who deliver them and to put the citizen not the public servant in control.

As part of this, he announced £30m in funding to support the creation of a new institute, the institute of web science – headed by Sir Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the world wide web) and Professor Nigel Shadbolt (expert in web science) – to realise the social and economic benefits of advances in the web. The idea is to ensure the UK is at the cutting edge of research on the semantic web and other internet technologies.

Digital revolution

Brown outlined three steps to ensure the UK realizes the ambition to become a leader in the next stage of the digital revolution: digitise and improve the digital communications infrastructure; personalise service delivery and government interactions; and harness the power of technology to economise .

  • Digitise – Make the UK a leader in the provision of “superfast broadband”.

The prime minister said access to broadband was a fundamental freedom in the modern world, and would save government billions of pounds while at the same time revolutionizing how people access public services.

Superfast broadband is the electricity of the digital age. And I believe it must be for all – not just for some.

[…] Faster broadband speeds will bring new, cheaper, more personalised and more effective public services to people; it will bring games and entertainment options with new levels of sophistication; it will make accessing goods and services immeasurably easier; it will enrich our democracy by giving people new ways of communicating complaining and challenging vested interests.

  • Personalise – Seize the opportunities for voice and choice in our public services by opening up data and digital technology to transform the way citizens interact with government.

He announced that from 1st April, ordnance survey information will be made freely available to the public and in the autumn the government will publish online an inventory of all non-personal datasets held by departments and arms-length bodies – a “domesday book” for the 21st century.

[..] we must use this technology to open up data with the aim of providing every citizen in Britain with true ownership and accountability over the services they demand from government.

And in doing so we can put in place the best most personalised but universally accessible digital public services in the world, and harness the power of technology to economise – shaking up Whitehall and making us the most efficient, open and responsive government in the world.

[…] The new domesday book will for the first time allow the public to access in one place information on each set of data including its size, source, format, content, timeliness, cost and quality. And there will be an expectation that departments will release each of these datasets, or account publicly for why they are not doing so.

Any business or individual will be free to embed this public data in their own websites, and to use it in creative ways within their own applications.

Along with opening up data Brown also set out a raft of measures to create personalised web pages for everyone to engage with government services. It’s called Mygov and is seen as a replacement to the first generation of online citizen interaction with government i.e. e-government:

Mygov will constitute a radical new model for how public services will be delivered and for how citizens engage with government – making interaction with government as easy as internet banking or online shopping. This open, personalised platform will allow us to deliver universal services that are also tailored to the needs of each individual; to move from top-down, monolithic websites broadcasting public service information in the hope that the people who need help will find it – to government on demand.

[…] Online, Mygov will give people a simple “dashboard” to manage their pensions, tax credits or child benefits; pay their council tax; fix their doctors or hospital appointment and control their own treatment; apply for the schools of their choice and communicate with their children’s teachers; or get a new passport or driving licence – all available when and where they need it.

[…] This bold new approach will transform the way services are delivered but, more importantly, it will be the vehicle through which citizens will come to control the services that are so important to their lives and communities. With Mygov, citizens will be in control – choosing the content relevant to them and determining their level of engagement.

  • Economise – The Pre-Budget Report we set out the government’s determination to find £11 billion of savings by driving up operational efficiency, much of it enabled by the increased transparency and reduced costs made available by new technology.

The prime minister explained how restructuring and reform government departments should provide for major savings on running costs – while providing better services to the citizen. This transformation will be driven through the use of new digital technologies which can enable the change from a “paternalistic, closed Whitehall to an open, interactive responsive enabler where citizens personalise shape and ultimately control their services.”

He explained how the government is committed to achieving £4bn of savings from back office functions by 2012-13. To drive this forward, the government intends to establish a number of business service companies that will handle the routine back office functions of Whitehall departments. The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) as held up as an example of how this could work:

The prototype for this new approach already exists – the shared services centre in the department for work and pensions, which already supports 140,000 staff in three departments and plans to take on four more in the next year. DWP also has plans to establish its shared services as a trading fund within the next twelve months, and will explore in parallel the scope for bringing further commercial expertise into its work.

Deliberative democracy

While the majority of Brown’s speech focused on harnessing new technology to refashion the structures and workings of government, he also envisaged how it could “open the door to a reinvention of the core policy-making processes and towards a renewal of politics itself.”

Digital government can open new ways of enabling people to influence and even decide public policy (check San Francisco’s recent example of such Policy consultations).

[…] Since it was established at the end of 2006, the number 10 e-petitions service has received more than 70 thousand petitions. There have been more than 12 million signatures placed and the Government has replied with more than 8 million e-mail responses.

Each week I record a podcast and use twitter most days. Number10.gov.uk carries out daily conversations with more than 1.7 million followers. There have been almost 2 million views of our images on flickr and 4.3 million views of our films and videos on YouTube.

Perhaps, as a reference to the US government’s recent citizen engagement initiative – as part of the Open Government Directive – he explained how he was inviting people to directly share in the task of government that is there to serve them.

And I am today tasking every department to identify the far wider scope for deliberative engagements with the public, specifiying the outcome expected from such engagement.

It’ll be interesting to see how departments gather together the scope for such an exercise, and whether they go to the same lengths as US government agencies in crowdsourcing ideas.

Future

Gordon Brown has signaled his determination to harness new digital technology to reshape government and create a new generation platform upon which citizens can engage more efficiently. However, with an election expected to be announced next week, it’s unsure whether he will still be in office to see these ideas implemented.

Nevertheless, many aspects of the speech above are also contained in the Conservative’s recent Technology manifesto e.g. the release of more government data, improving broadband speeds and utilising more ‘Open Source’ software to reduce IT costs. Whoever wins the next election it looks like the central tenets of Open Government – transparency, participation, and collaboration – will become more and more integral to the delivery of public services and the efficacy of government departments.

Related

Changing government standards and ‘Common Look and Feel’

Most western governments have in the last decade developed an accessibility strategy for their websites, often based on WCAG 1.0. At the end of 2008, the WC3 announced the final version of WCAG 2.0 and the public sector is now struggling to keep up. In Canada there was a recent announcement about a revised Common Look and Feel (CLF). In the USA the Section 508 is in its first of six revisions, part of which will be to adapt to the new approach to standards. I’m not sure that most citizens will notice the changes to government websites, however for both people with disabilities and the tax payers, it will be a very big deal.

Branding

In a recent search it seems that the Government of Canada is seen to be a leader in the global public sector because of our CLF implementation. One of the greatest successes has been the enforcement of a common branding across the public sector. I used to call the CLF 1.0 the Common ugly Look and Feel because it really was boxy and bland, however, it’s gotten a lot better.

Most government sites are looking better than they did a decade ago. Branding shouldn’t force sites to be identical, but it’s important that citizens are able to quickly identify a site as that of their government. This effort should allow some shared learning between departments about best practices for the usability of websites as well.

Accessibility

The Internet has changed dramatically since 1998 when the USA Government released it’s Section 508 guidelines. Canada began developing it’s CLF standards this year, but didn’t enforce them until 2002 so it had an opportunity to look at other approaches to accessibility. The most significant of which was produced by the WC3, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 1.0) in 1999. This was the leading accessibility standard for almost a decade. Understandably, governments need some time before adopting a finalized international standard into their own policies.

In the revision process for Section 508 the CLF they will be carefully looking at WCAG 2.0 guidelines, which were released in 2008. Governments & industry leaders around the world are embracing the new standard, but there are also draft guidelines like the Authoring Tool (ATAG) 2.0 and WAI-ARIA which will respectively improve content authoring for people with disabilities and work to keep up with the rapidly changing web technology.

As more information from government is served through the Internet the more important it is that all of it is accessible to citizens with all levels of ability. This is not a light undertaking and this is critical to being a modern democratic country. Both federal governments have ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, have made a more serious commitment to serving all of their citizens.

There are a whole lot of government web pages, today Google indexed 414 million .gov and 102 million .gc.ca web pages. I’m sure that there are inaccuracies in this and duplicated web pages. I’m also not sure how Canada has just ¼ of the web pages that the USA in this very simple comparison. There are probably many pages that aren’t listed with that domain or that simply have a policy of instructing search engines not to index. Regardless, it’s a huge responsibility to maintain this amount of content.

As governments try to keep up with citizen expectations they will be adding new technology like AJAX scripting to provide a more responsive interface for their users. This type of approach ultimately makes a web site more like a desktop application. Interactive applications are more complex for both security and accessibility issues as well.

The Internet is rapidly evolving and International standards will continue to rush to keep up with them. Whether it is WAI-ARIA adoption or HTML5, government agencies will need to adapt over time. Stricter regulations around web accessibility are in the works and accessibility approaches will be rushing to keep pace. All of this requires that governments begin to anticipate change and incorporate solutions that allow them to evolve with it to improve accessibility & reduce costs. As we’ve tried to outline in our Accessibility White Paper having a proactive approach to accessibility is key to success.

Government Is opening

The Internet has also given citizens an increased expectation for better access to their government. People want better access to the data that the government has collected on their behalf. Initiatives in the UK and USA to promote open data in government have clearly set a precedent, as have municipalities around the globe. The tools and standards for open data are established, but meaningful adoption has yet to be embraced across the board. Adoption of new standards like RDFa as is starting in the UK, needs to be applied in more pilots. For both internal and external audiences there are considerable cost savings to be made in providing machine readable versions of content.

Citizens are also looking for ways to participate with their government. People are now used to being able to leave comments, login to sites to interact with personalized content and even have sites remember what they are interested in. It can often be difficult to find information in government sites, but dynamic tools like this can be useful to ensure that citizens get the information they need quickly. This will require some significant re-thinking of how government manages, security, privacy & membership. It is very encouraging to hear that the US federal government has adopted an OpenID framework.

The blogosphere has also been very active in reviewing and critiquing the revised plans. Two designers have now contributed branding options for the CLF. Many people have offered critiques of the first revision of Section 508. Reactions and evaluations are often immediate on the Web and it is critical that governments learn to be responsive to this. David Eaves said it well: “A digital citizenry isn’t interested in talking to an analogue government.”

Change Isn’t Cheap

This is going to be a huge task. Simply keeping up with the legal responsibilities for governments to deliver hundreds of millions of webpages to all of it’s citizens is an enormous undertaking. However, it can be made much more manageable if government agencies embrace open source and open standards as they have in the United Kingdom. Several agencies in the USA have taken a lead on this including the US military. Openly supporting collaboration between government departments as well as organizations and individuals outside of government sector is surely the only way to keep up with the changing pace of technology.

Adoption of good free software tools like Drupal and WordPress that already have a huge user base to leverage is going to be key to ensuring that the government’s web pages are able to keep up with the changing demands. Drupal 7 is already implementing many WCAG 2.0 requirements in the core and also now has built-in RDFa support.

Whatever the new standards are adopted, it will need to be rolled out and evaluated on millions of web pages. The closer those standards are to the current WCAG 2.0 framework the easier it will be to use automated tools to evaluate it’s accessibility. New government standards should not just be a list of rules and examples, but there is a huge need to be interactive and provide as much access to re-usable code as they can. To be cost effective governments need to be investing heavily in setting up sample content management tools that they have permission to distribute and enhance between departments. It doesn’t need to favour open source solutions, but any solution which cannot be freely distributed, used and modified at least between government departments, is not worth investing in.

The best solutions within government need to be actively shared as widely as possible so tax payers aren’t having to be paying for every department to recreate the wheel.

Conclusion

Any implementation of government web standards needs to take into consideration the evolving nature of the web. Any solution for department sites that don’t easily allow for site wide changes to incorporated needs to be rejected. In the last few years the Canadian government has spent many millions adopting the CLF 2.0 guidelines. If in doing so they had incorporated forward thinking free software solutions future upgrades to their sites to make them more open and accessible would be much more affordable.

Transparency and the digital divide

As I start this post, I’m on the Orange line of the Metro heading home from Transparency Camp 2010. I timed my arrival almost exactly with that of the train using an iPhone app. Now I’m typing on a super-powerful laptop with a huge display. Many Metro stations have 3G access and even though I don’t tether my phone to my computer to use 3G on my laptop, I’m sure it can be done. I have nearly all of the comforts of the digital age at my disposal nearly all of the time.

I often use these tools to stay in touch with what is happening in and around my community, my local and state governments, and the federal government. I use access to Web sites, data, and social networks to stay informed and engaged. These tools offer me many choices of how much info I want to consume and how much I feel like engaging.

But what can people who don’t have these resources do to be informed and participate? What choices do they have for receiving information and offering feedback? So much of Gov 2.0 and open government relates to the Web that we must be careful not to exclude those who lack digital resources.

This topic came up in multiple sessions at Transparency Camp, and we generated some good ideas (we think) on how to address this issue responsibly. One idea in particular that resonated was placing LED message boards around town to broadcast key indicators, initiatives and citizen feedback.

The basic idea is to place LED signs at heavily trafficked locations. These signs would display information about the city in which people are most interested. Some of this content would be generated the city and some of the content would be generated by citizens. Information, especially that generated by citizens, would vary somewhat by neighborhood.

On the participation side of the conversation the minimum barrier to entry would be a mobile phone. Anyone who can send a text message can contribute. Of course, there would be other ways to contribute. On the information side of the equation would be these message boards. This would be a way for people to simultaneously tell their city what they want and to see what the city is getting by way of feedback.

There is plenty of reason to think this can be effective, too.

But before I go on, I need to add some context. This all came up during a session I facilitated called “Local Government Transparency.” In the beginning of the session I gave several examples of transparency happening at the local level. One example was Localocracy. Hart Rossman quickly pointed out that, while I’m able to easily cite these examples, most people hardly know what I’m even talking about. The point being: we need to make this relevant to the vast majority of people who aren’t aware of what’s going on in this space.

Keying on that, Bryan Sivak, CTO of Washington, D.C., shared with us his concerns about the “digital divide” in his city. In the poorest wards in D.C., broadband Internet access is about 30%. The point being: we can make all the cool open data and participation websites we want, but we won’t be serving key constituencies in his city if those people can’t access these online resources.

After some back and forth a gentlemen, whose name regrettably escapes me at the moment made a reference that reminded me very much of “The Blackboard Blogger of Monrovia,” Alfred Sirleaf. Alfred is not just dealing with a digital divide. He has customers who are not literate. Still, he manages to provide useful information about what matters around them.

At lesser extremes we see other examples of this idea already working. Metro transit signs are one great example.

What else do people want to know about their city that can be easily provided on on a billboard in the public square?

It’s worth noting that we don’t necessarily need government to provide (and maintain) the billboard. Alfred Sirleaf makes a living doing what he does. People who visit his blackboard buy goods from him. We probably need government to issue permits for signs in public spaces. Then again, What if food vendors in D.C. hung LEDs on their carts?

We do need from government data that is open and accessible so that it can be easily used by anyone at low or no cost. Given this and a touch of inspiration from Alfred Sirleaf, maybe we can succeed at engaging citizens in their own government in ways that are widely accessible.

Post Script:

Gwynne Kostin pointed out the next day, that the digital divide is as much cultural as it is economical. There are plenty of people who aren’t resource constrained who are nonetheless struggling with relevance of transparency and open government in their lives.

Does Congress care about open government?

I was honored this week to be invited to testify before the Senate Government Affairs Sub Committee hearing entitled, “Removing the Shroud of Secrecy: Making Government More Transparent and Accountable“. A first panel of government leaders including Vivek Kundra, Aneesh Chopra and US Archivist David Ferriero were invited to discuss progress on Open Government. A second panel of industry and advocacy experts including representatives from the Sunlight Foundation, the National Security Archive and Meritalk Online (and Adobe) were also invited, although our testimony was cut short by procedural maneuvers relevant to the health care debate occurring on the Senate Floor. For the two and half hours we were there, Senators Carper and Coburn participated fully. The hearing may be rescheduled to complete the witness testimony, but in the interim, two things were very clear to me: we have come a long way in recent years but the Open Government movement is still missing critical agents of change in government.

My how things have changed

I worked in the Senate from 1995-99 and got my first real introduction to the intersection of technology and government during the Microsoft anti-trust oversight hearing in March, 1998. That hearing was a major Washington spectacle including the CEOs of the major tech titans of the time. And my distinct memory was the anxiety that Senators and staff had about publicly discussing technology – which most Senators at the time didn’t use or particularly understand. The hearing itself questioned whether Microsoft violated anti-trust law by bundling its IE browser on the Windows desktop. And I remember explaining to my 96 year-old boss that the words ‘Browser’ and ‘Bundling’ were actually words despite the fact that his copy of Webster’s failed to corroborate my claim. And that the word ‘Desktop’ was actually a homonym and not a physical part of furniture. I have no doubt that the Senate staffers preparing for this week’s hearing had very different discussions with their Senators who were clearly knowledgeable and passionate on the promise that technology brings to government. This may seem like an obvious observation – of course this value is clear 12 years later. But while measuring the distance of how far we have come is positive and, perhaps, humorous, the distance we have to go is more daunting. Which leads to my second observation that we need to get Congress more involved in Open Government.

Vision meets the Law

The most interesting and frictional piece of the hearing came from Senator Coburn who wanted to know when Vivek and Aneesh planned to comply with the Federal Funding and Transparency Act of 2006 (FFTA) authored by Coburn and then-Senator Obama. Coburn applauded the Administration’s open government efforts, but questioned why so many initiatives had been undertaken by executive order when the one transparency law that was a fully codified law on the books had been ignored. He claimed we would be much further along if Vivek and Aneesh put their efforts towards fedspending.gov than towards the OGD and evangelism and “everything else.” He was referring specifically to OMB’s responsibility to publish a report to Congress on Federal sub-award and sub-contract spending. But generally he was referring to the very basic constitutional principal that the law of the land is established by Congress, not the Executive branch. And if we want to progress through openness and technology, we should focus on the Law because agencies and citizens have to follow it. It’s a remarkably simple commentary but one that doesn’t seem to have much energy in the Open Government movement. (Although I would love to know if I’m missing something). Most of the efforts have been about vision and possibility (marketing) or about data propagation (developer enablement). But I have not seen much in the way of true institutional incentive change – funding, organizational restructuring, program creation and requirements and economic incentives – the things that really do mean ‘change.’ Bills that become laws. Take a look at the Healthcare debate and ask yourself ‘when does change occur?’ It’s when Congress passes legislation. Now you may counter my comment with my own post – Sen. Coburn says himself the one transparency law – FFTA – is not enacting change. But he furthered that sentiment by inviting Vivek back every month to discuss the issue until he gets a suitable answer. A polite reminder of the inherent checks and balances in our system required to make change happen.

Congress is the most powerful branch of government in my opinion – but at least equally as powerful as the Executive branch- yet there is not the same level of energy coming from Capitol Hill equivalent to what is coming from the Administration. Which will make it hard for Open Government to progress at the rate we’d like to see it progress. I think this is something that needs to change, and I’m interested in your thoughts to who on Capitol Hill might feel that way as well.

You can read a transcript of my testimony here (pdf).

Video thoughts:

‘Design for America’ contest aims to make government data more accessible

Sunlight Labs is holding a civic design contest, Design for America, in an effort to “make government data more accessible and comprehensible to the American public.” Categories are Data Visualization, Process Transparency and Redesigning the Government.

From Sunlight:

This 10 week long design and data visualization extravaganza is focused on connecting the talents of art and design communities throughout the country to the wealth of government data now available through bulk data access and APIs, and to help nurture the field of information visualization.

Top prize is $5,000 for each of these categories:

  • Data Visualization of Sunlight Community Data
  • Visualization of Data from the Federal Budget and/or USASpending.gov
  • Visualization of Recovery.gov Data
  • Visualization of How a Bill Becomes a Law
  • Visualization of Congressional Rules/Floor Procedures
  • Redesign of a Government Form
  • Redesign of a .Gov website

Submissions are due May 17, and winners will be announced May 27 at Gov 2.0 Expo. Sponsors include Adobe, Google, O’Reilly Media, TechWeb, Gov 2.0 Expo and Palantir.

TrackDC opens up DC government operations to the public

TrackDC is an open government effort by the District of Columbia to make budget, data, contact and other government information accessible to citizens and the media.

The site offers:

A. Agency description, supervisor info.
B. Agency contact information, including social media accounts.
C. Performance plans and reports.
D. Budget & Operational Information
E. Customer Service (includes Agency Responsiveness Quality Assurance Results & Website traffic)
F. Performance indicators.
G. Data sets available in XML, CSV, KML and other formats.

Full image

GovFresh Q&A with DC CTO Brian Sivak:

Why was TrackDC important for DC to create?

In 2007, Mayor Fenty made a promise to the residents of the District of Columbia that the “District Government must become accountable to the people of our city…”

TrackDC is part of the follow through on this promise and a great testament to the mayor’s ongoing effort to make the District a leader in government transparency. It is the world’s first real-time dashboard for Government operations.

How was it developed? How long did it take to implement?

The public version of TrackDC only took two months to develop as we re-used components from a similar application that is used internally to track agencies and their progress towards their goals.

Track DC is an ASP.NET web-application that interacts with the back-end tier retrieving and transferring data to the client through AJAX calls. The Report/Data Engine Service is a schedule based service that extracts information from various data sources (Oracle, QuickBase, Google Analytics, Google Data Feeds, etc.).

How can media or the average citizen use it?

Track DC is the one central location where all agency accountability information is presented. It’s easier for the media or the average citizen to visit one location rather than search the agency site, the CapStat site, the Data Catalog, and other sites just to find the same information. Additionally, Track DC provides a set of visualizations which presents agency operational information in a straightforward manner that anyone can use for analysis and oversight.

Both the media and residents can use Track DC to track the performance of specific DC government agencies, learn more about agencies ‘ Key Performance Indicators, budget, spending, agency news, access agency Data, and connect to the agency.

The media may be interested in a quick view of the agency’s budget, in downloading data specific to that agency, how that agency has performed in past years or is tracking in the current year with respect to its Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), or any other operational measure.

A resident may be more interested in a service or an issue and therefore may be seeking a way to connect with the agency or to validate how their dollars are being budgeted and spent. Or, a person may think, “wow, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) has over 4,000 employees; why isn’t there a copy on my corner at all times?” TrackDC will however illustrate specifically how the personnel is allocated, which will give users a clearer picture of how their tax dollars are being used.

What feedback have you received? What features will be available in the future?

In the initial feedback users requested better help files that will explain what is shown. The financial section include some terms that are understood by some but not all so the District needs to add to this feature of the site. In addition, more customer service data has been requested. We are still gathering feedback and new features and launch dates have not yet been determined.

11 ways government can better spread its tech, open government efforts

I’ve talked with a number of government CTOs, CIOs and staff members about their technology and open government initiatives, and most seem disappointed that their efforts aren’t getting as much media visibility as they’d like. While everyone complains about not getting enough press, it is a little surprising some of these stories aren’t getting as much attention as they should.

These won’t land you on Oprah, but here’s a few ways you can make it easier to get on GovFresh and other local, niche news sites.

And before you ask yourself, ‘Who cares about getting on niche blogs or some hyper-local news site?,’ here’s why you should:

  • They will report it more accurately, because they get the beat, and their credibility within the niche community is important to them.
  • Because it’s important to them, they will report it more often.
  • Seeing how your initiative is filtered helps you understand what points resonate most and how to best refine your message to go mainstream.
  • Their passion will energize your own work. Talking shop with others about what you’re doing will re-enforce you’re doing great work, even when no one else seems to care.
  • The pitch is easier because the driver is passion and not news ROI.
  • News travels uphill. Mainstream media outlets follow what’s happening at a local level. By the time a story goes mainstream, it’s most likely been covered and filtered by a number of local media outlets, which essentially deliver the story idea on a silver platter.
  • Old media is on its last leg.

Here’s 11 ways government can better spread its tech and open government initiatives:

Blog

Setting up a blog is the foundation of your outreach effort. Levering free Website/blogging platforms such as WordPress allows you to quickly create an outbound ‘push’ eco-system, making it easy to post latest news and allow users to easily stay abreast of what you’re working on. A blog also creates a timeline of your story or past work that effectively gives them an easy way to get up to get up to speed and get the bigger picture.

Establish regular communications

Create a regular forum with bloggers and niche reporters to discuss what’s happening within your department, answer questions or get a temperature reading on ideas you’re considering. This can be a monthly conference call, coffee shop conversation or Skype call. You might even get some great (free) advice.

Leverage social media video sites

Video is a powerful way to share your message. It doesn’t have to be the next ‘Avatar.’ It could be a short, 30-second Flip interview with the CIO explaining the importance of the initiative. Once you’ve created a video, upload it to YouTube, Vimeo or other service that makes it easy to embed. Posting video in a non-embedable format is a lost opportunity and waste of your time. I’ve often discovered local and federal government videos, only to find they’re in a non-embedable format. So close yet so far away.

Make it easy to subscribe

Using WordPress automatically makes it easier for citizens to keep updated via RSS. Setting up email alerts via Feedburner is easy and free. Create a Twitter account and tie your blog posts into Twitterfeed that can automatically post to your Twitter account.

Guest post

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom has written several times on Mashable and TechCrunch. While you may not have access to that opportunity, bloggers and local media are more than willing to feature guest posts, whether it’s from the mayor or a junior staff member.

Add contact info

Making the email address or contact form prominent so that bloggers and reporters can connect with the right person quickly is key. The quickest way to lose a story is to make it difficult to find how to contact you.

Follow back

By this, I don’t mean following in the Twitter sense. I mean follow what they’re writing and talking about. Establish a give-and-take relationship.

Respond quickly and follow through

I’ve had thorough background discussions on new initiatives that have helped me frame questions to a CTO or CIO only to hear nothing back on my emailed questions. While I understand written answers take time and may seem like wasted effort, you can pretty much guarantee your message is accurately delivered. Despite the craving bloggers have for content, an outdated story is worthless even to them. Not responding at all is worse. It completely discredits you’re supposed ‘open’ government mantra.

Invite them to press events

The questions niche media will ask can help more mainstream reporters better understand the questions to ask or help frame the angle in a more mainstream context, especially if you’re not executing these last two points. This should be no-brainer, but most still only invite local news television or major city newspaper reporters.

Personalize it

Yeah, there’s an app for that, but explaining what the app does is one thing. Showing how it makes citizens’ lives easier is the best way to build an angle. Not every story is as simple as a SeeClickFix pothole story, but if you think creatively enough, you can put a face on any initiative.

Simplify the message

Lose the tech jargon. Even if you think your target demographic is under the age of 30 with a MacBook Pro and iPhone, it doesn’t mean they get the significance of you building your site with open source code or made data available in a machine-readable format. Describe the story as if you were explaining it to your parents.

Some of this will take upfront time to set up, but will pay off in the long run and, who knows, maybe Oprah will call.

Today’s Ada Lovelace

For Ada Lovelace Day I wanted to promote the amazing work of Jennifer Pahlka and Code for America. I first met Jennifer at the Gov 2.0 Summit last year after following her for a while on Twitter and reading her blog PahlkaDot. Jennifer has always impressed me with her passion for making the world a better place and her brilliant mind. I can’t think of anyone better for drawing attention to the achievements of women in technology and science.

Jennifer transitioned from her role as co-chair and general manager of the Web 2.0 Expos for TechWeb, working with O’Reilly Media, to become Executive Director of Code for America. Previously she chaired Enterprise 2.0, and before that was the director of the Game Group at CMP. During her tenure in the games business, she oversaw the dramatic growth of the Game Developers Conference (GDC) from 1995 to 2003 and launched a number of notable programs, including the Independent Games Festival, known as the Sundance of the game industry, and the Game Developers Choice Awards. Her roles included publisher of Game Developer magazine and Gamasutra.com, the premiere web site for game developers, and executive director of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), an independent non-profit association serving game developers around the world. She has served on the advisory boards of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) and the GDC and held a board of directors position on the IGDA for three years. She graduated cum laude from Yale University. Besides this quite impressive history, Jennifer is a mother and truly wants to have an impact and leave this world in better shape for her daughter’s generation.

Being a mom seems to have had a profound impact on Jennifer. She said, “Being a parent makes me realize that time on this planet is precious and should be well spent.” As any parent knows balancing the responsibilities of family, work and social activities can be a challenge. But Jennifer believes, “Being a mom actually helps me focus my work efforts. If I’m going to spend time away from my daughter every second is precious. You can’t do everything so you make choices on what’s important.”

Code for America began as an idea inspired in part by Teach for America. CFA wants to connect Web developers with city officials who want to improve connectivity and transparency then be shared and rolled out more broadly to cities across America. At the Gov 2.0 Summit Tim O’Reilly had mentioned to Jennifer that it would be great for an action oriented program to spring from from the event. Then Jennifer and her friend Andrew Greenhill, a CFA Board Member and the Mayor’s Chief of Staff for the City of Tucson, were chatting and she said “There should be a kind of Teach for America for the web industry.” And thus was born Code for America…

Eleven cities and agencies have applied for web-project help from CFA. The applicants each proposed up to three projects that the Code for America fellows would build for them if their city is chosen. “After we choose which cities and projects, then we can begin effective fellow recruitment,” Jennifer said. Over the next six weeks is going to be a busy time at CFA as they choose cities and projects and then there will be a time of intensive fellow recruitment. If you have a desire and interest in helping, email Jennifer at jen@codeforamerica.org.

Here is a great interview from GovFresh.tv which will help you get to know Jennifer better:

Drupal: The New Gov 2.0 Site Builder?

Last month I wrote about how Drupal supports five of the most effective open government sites in Five Government Sites Using Drupal Effectively for Open Government Initiatives. This month, I discuss how Drupal is close to being the perfect Gov 2.0 solution for savvy agencies – and soon, perhaps, a default solution for open government web initiatives.

Drupal excels in the very qualities we are seeking to improve with open government, namely: transparency, accountability, efficiency participation and collaboration. In that sense, it is both a practical tool and a great cultural fit. Its open source roots, transparent community and natively social approach to content management make it a very appropriate choice for open government sites. Most of these five attributes are missing from many government web efforts. Instilling government with these qualities is what the gov 2.0 movement is all about. Here is how Drupal addresses each of them.

Transparency

Imagine if a commercial software executive speaking at the company’s annual conference titled a presentation, “Why I hate our product.” Wouldn’t it be refreshing? Wouldn’t it be a growth opportunity for the platform to look honestly at what it doesn’t do well? At last year’s Drupalcon conference in DC, Drupal developer and community contributor James Walker (walkah) gave a gutsy and well-attended session entitled “Why I hate Drupal”.

That is what I love most about open source platforms. Free of corporate-speak, the community spontaneously examines its strengths and weaknesses, making course corrections in the open – in real-time. Here’s the activity sidebar today at Drupal.org:

Notice how issues and bugs are dealt with publicly and placed prominently in a place where they will receive attention. This self-correcting and open process produces better software and better implementers, who are more responsive to the unique needs of Drupal’s user base.

Accountability

Drupal is highly accountable for what it is and what it not as a technology because it is out there for all to use and there are no barriers to trying it out – you can download it today and find out if it will meet your agency’s needs. Yes, there is marketing and propaganda out there about Drupal just as there is for commercial solutions, but the community and technology itself are accountable in a very tangible way – you either decide to use it and find a way to work around (or fix) what you don’t like or you do not.

That seems fairly simple, but has not always been the case for software. Social publishing, while required to satisfy any agency’s stakeholders, is a profoundly more difficult challenge than say back office integration. That’s because you can’t hide your platform’s shortcomings from your users once you open it up. Until now, a glitch in your back office platform has been the agency’s problem, invisible to your stakeholders. But if your social publishing platform allows trolls and zealots to hijack your system in its comments and discussion forums, the repercussions can get public, partisan and nasty – overnight.

Efficiency

Efficiency can have many dimensions, but for government IT projects, the two that matter most are: cost and time. Certainly free software is cost efficient on the surface, but many have argued there are hidden costs. While no software is free to implement, Drupal certainly out benchmarks commercial alternatives and custom proprietary options. A whitepaper entitled “TCO for Open Source Social Publishing: Going Beyond Social Business Software” released earlier this year by Drupal commercial support vendor Acquia, provides a wealth of evidence of the cost advantages. In this budget-conscious era of bank bailouts and exploding federal debt, it is hard to argue for our government’s use of more expensive solutions.

The strength of Drupal’s efficiency can also be witnessed through its rapid implementations – performed in weeks or months, not years. This does require experience and expertise with the platform, but learning curve is nothing new for government. Both government staff and contractors flock to classes to learn Oracle, Sharepoint, .NET, and dozens of other commercial technologies. Why not do the same with Drupal? As the pool of implementers and consultants within the government space increases, the familiarity to develop and support will increase and the learning curve decrease. The 3-year implementations for government IT projects could soon be a thing of the past with Drupal use.

Collaboration

In the Drupal community, we’ve seen robust development of modules and industry solutions for publishing, higher education, non-profits and corporate sites. As Drupal is used increasingly in government, the platform will adapt more rapidly to the unique needs of this marketplace relative to its commercial counterparts because it draws on natural collaboration to solve problems. It also means that this dynamic community will rally around the unique obstacles the government marketplace requires. The implications for government are huge because unlike proprietary software, the Drupal community self corrects to meet a market’s needs.

Drupal was initially developed as a collaboration tool and as such, its architecture is developed around the concept of an individual’s profile on the site – allowing for content contribution, commenting, and linking of users. This model allowed Drupal to be a leader in the web2.0 movement rather than a follower, like many commercial CMS products struggling to backfill user engagement into their publishing platforms. Naturally, the tools promoting user engagement rarely manage the counter-forces, which have particularly impact on government sites – transparency at odds with security, participation competing with privacy, etc. This means that out of the box Drupal may not be appropriate for all government sites, but certainly the concepts are more by design and less afterthought – though it may take skill to strike the right balance in their use.

Participation

Participation as a goal of open government means many things from a technology perspective, but mainly the obstacles are about process and culture. Open source communities have a lot to teach all of us about participation. Drupal is far from the largest open source community yet at the end of 2009, the project boasted 611,000 members on drupal.org with over 250,000 downloads per month, 400,000 Drupal sites and over 4500 contributed modules. Community participation has produced 7 major versions (1 per year since 2003) more predictably and efficiently than most of the world’s largest software companies.

So when we plan to seek out ways to instill greater participation from citizens in government online, surely this is a tool and a project where such spirit exists.

Why We Need a Better Tool

I started with an assumption that we needed a better tool to develop government sites because there is nothing to show us how to do it correctly at this time. Other common tools used to build such sites are focused on making the constructs of web pages easier to develop and maintain – that is web 1.0 mentality.

We talk about the principles of open government in the context of websites because this is a major interface point for citizens to their government. Today there is a disproportionate amount of bad online examples of how not to do government online. Sites with too much text, poor collaborative and participatory features for citizens and very little functionality to make them anything more than the only sanctioned places to find a particular piece of official information. Otherwise, these sites would never be visited or used by citizens.

A platform like Drupal can actually help correct this by providing a “how to” close to already setup framework to do things correctly like:

  • standards based templates to help with SEO and accessibility
  • user profile and engagement frameworks to gather public comment and feedback
  • modular features to extend sites with new functionality without re-contracting
  • social media and network integration to encourage involvement and sharing
  • semantic web standards to connect to other authoritative data sources

So let’s start our new government sites with a platform that is working now, inexpensive, flexible and natively embraces the qualities and characteristics we claim to be pursuing under the open government directive.