Brownie points, or results?

Posted: May 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Metrics, Open Government | Tags: | 1 Comment »

Using the Gulf oil spill to get clear about measuring Open Government

Measure “Open Government”? Yes, but …

I think that the success of the Obama Administration’s Open Government effort is critical, but I’m put off, even bored, by the measurement discussions to date. Imagine that you’ve got good reason to believe that your nephew is the next Jackson Pollock, your niece the next Maya Lin, and then the first report back from their studios is” “he’s painted more than 500 square feet of canvas! she’s created two and a half tons of sculpture!” and you’ll know how I feel.

It’s as if someone brought a speedometer to a sunset.

In December, Beth Noveck, the leader of the Administration’s Open Government efforts, wrote that measures of Open Government would be useful as a way to hold the Administration’s “feet to the fire” and to ensure that proposed changes were implemented. She suggested a variety of measures, including:

  • The year to year percentage change of information published online in open, machine-readable formats;
  • The number of FOIA requests processed and percentage change in backlog
  • The creation of “data platforms” for sharing data across government
  • The successful posting of data that increases accountability and responsiveness, public knowledge of agency operations, mission effectiveness, or economic opportunity

(I’ve left the link in, but alas the page has disappeared.)

To be fair, it’s a tough problem. As the “Measuring Success” group from one of the Open Government Directive workshops noted, seemingly reasonable measures may be difficult to interpret, for instance: the time spent on a website might signal popular use … or that users were confused.

So let’s start again, this time from the bottom, up: if you were managing an Open Government effort, what would you want to measure? For instance…

Virtual USA

In Feb, 2009 , Homeland Security rolled out Virtual USA (vUSA) for the sharing of geospatial data between emergency response agencies, , “a national system of systems … so that disparate systems can communicate with each other”.  It will allow responders in multiple locations to coordinate their efforts with a common set of images and thereby reduce confusion and shift at least some activity away from phone calls. It is a bottoms-up collaboration between DHS, first responder groups, and eight southeastern states. The system is dependent in part on states and localities to provide data, and is locally controlled: The agency providing the data owns it, controls how and when and with whom it is shared, and can use its existing software to do so.

vUSA seems impressive:

Two more pilots are starting, covering eleven more states. And the user community at has about 150 members.

The nearest level of management

Continuing with our exercise, imagine that you’re in charge of vUSA. You face decisions about which additional GIS standards and technologies to incorporate, how to divide resources between technology vs. additional outreach or training for participating states, and whether to reach out to additional Federal agencies, for instance, the Minerals Management Service, which had primary regulatory authority over the BP oil well.

To guide these decisions, you’d ask your staff these quantitative questions:
  • How much staff time in participating states has shifted from coordination via telephone to coordination via vUSA?
  • For what issues and data needs are participating states still using the phone?

and these qualitative ones:

  • What would have changed in the oil spill response if vUSA didn’t exist?
  • How does adoption and involvement differ between various agencies in the participating states and the various components of each agency?
  • Are response sites still using fax, couriers, or other workarounds to share information?

Big picture managers

Now zoom out a bit: imagine that you’re a senior manager at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), with ultimate responsibility for vUSA but also many other programs.

Given your agency’s recent history with Katrina on the Gulf Coast, among other things, you’ll monitor how smoothly local, state, regional, and federal actors work together in dealing with emergencies and wonder whether staff increases (e.g. for liaison officers), training, or incentives would be more likely than technology (such as vUSA) to improve coordination. And you’d consider whether coordination should be addressed more broadly than geospatial information sharing, for instance to include the development of shared goals among the coordinating agencies or agreement on division of roles and responsibilities.

You’d ask the questions we’ve already considered, but you’ve got a broader range of responsibilities. The vUSA manager’s career will live or die by the success of that effort, but you’re worried about DHS’s success in general. Maybe there are better ideas and more worthwhile efforts than vUSA.

To assess this, you’d ask your staff to research these issues:

  • how eager are other states are to join the vUSA effort? (So the two additional pilots would be a good sign.)
  • How has vUSA affected the formulation of shared goals for the oil spill clean-up effort?
  • Is each agency involved playing the role that it is best suited for in the clean-up?
  • how has emergency response to the flooding in Tennessee, a participant in vUSA, differed from the response to flooding earlier this year in Minnesota and and North Dakota, states that don’t participate in vUSA?

The last question is an example of a “natural experiment”, a situation arising out of current events that allows you to compare crisis management and response assisted by vUSA vs. crisis management and response handled without vUSA, almost as well as you could with a controlled experiment.

You’d also have some quantitative questions for your staff, for instance: how have the FEMA regions participating in vUSA performed on FEMA’s overall FY 2009 Baseline Metrics from the agency’s Strategic Plan?

And back to “measuring open government”

Note how much more compelling these “close to the ground” measures are than the generic “Open Government” metrics. If you were told, this morning, that a seemingly minor vUSA glitch had forced the oil spill command center to put in extra phone lines, no one would have to interpret that measure for you: you’d already know what you’re going to focus on today. And if, as a senior manager, you had a report in front of you demonstrating that none of the dozen hiccups in the response to North Dakota’s flooding were repeated in the vUSA-assisted response to the Tennessee disaster, you might actually look forward to a Congressional hearing.

Two of the Open Government measures are relevant:

  1. vUSA is a new platform for sharing data across government.
  2. It’s certainly intended to increase DHS’s responsiveness and its effectiveness in carrying out its mission, though it appears that only some vUSA data are publicly available.

But these considerations would hardly be useful to the line manager, and they’d be useful to the agency’s senior managers mostly as checkboxes or brownie points when big Kahunas from OMB or the White House came to call.


Of course, if we had picked other Open Government efforts, we would have identified different measures, but there are some general lessons for the problem of developing Open Government metrics.

Get your hands dirty

Reviewing an actual program, rather than “Open Government” in the abstract, makes it easier to get a handle on what we might measure.

Decision requirements drive measurement needs

The line manager, about to decide whether to reach out first to EPA or MMS in expanding vUSA’s Federal footprint, will be eager to know how much back channels have been used to bring these two agencies into the oil spill cleanup. The GIS guru will want to know whether there’s something about mapping ocean currents that can’t be handled by vUSA’s existing standards.

Different decision-makers require different metrics

In contrast, DHS senior manager better not get lost in the weeds of GIS interoperability, but ought to be ever alert for signs that the whole vUSA effort misses the point.

In other words, when someone asks “what’s the right way to measure the success of this open government effort?”, the appropriate answer is “who wants to know?”.

Seek out natural experiments

Even with great measures, Open Government champions will always be confronted by the challenge of demonstrating that their project truly caused the successful result. A “natural experiment”, if you can find one, will go a long way towards addressing that challenge.

Yell at your Senator, or listen to your neighbors? Another use for Govluv and Twitter.

Posted: November 13th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Govluv, Twitter | Tags: | 1 Comment »

Govluv, a new Twitter-based tool, provides a geographically-organized directory of political and governmental leaders along with their Twitter handles. It also allows politicians to identify tweets from their constituents. It is billed as a way for “connecting government representatives and citizens”, for a “more productive two-way dialogue”.

However, I had an experience yesterday that suggests it may have another important use.

I was reviewing my Govluv home page, headed up by President Obama, and I noticed this tweet:
Not rhetorical: cld some1 plz giv me an example of when @BarackObama has apologized 4 a mistake he's personally made? Gates&Crowley? #tcot
I did a quick search and replied to @chosen7stone:
@chosen7stone Obama: 'I screwed up' on Daschle appointment CNN 090204
She graciously retweeted the information and thanked me.

A minor interaction all around, and certainly not one that will find any deep resonance or response in the White House. Yet I think that the dynamics highlight what may be one of the more important uses of tools such as Govluv.

Obama was not part of the conversation, not part of the two way dialogue. Instead, he served as context, and the important, indeed the only, interaction was between two citizens. What if this became a primary use of Govluv?

For instance, it’s not surprising that Senator Harry Reid, the Majority Leader, is getting a lot of tweets from his constituents regarding Health Care Reform. Instead of waiting for his office to reply, what if constituents discussed the issues with one another, e.g by providing facts on how a particular bill would affect Nevada? Or what if supporters of a particular position, e.g. the Public Option, used the tweetstream Govluv provides to find one another and organize further?

Our fascination with our political leaders should not keep us from talking, or tweeting, with one another on the issues. Think of @BarackObama and @SenatorReid as hashtags convening conversations, not just handles.

A better question than “what’s the business case for Gov2.0?”

Posted: October 30th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Civic engagement, Government, Social networking, Technology | Tags: | 2 Comments »

Don’t ask “how do I make the business case for Gov2.0?”; tell us about your agency’s relationships, and the case will become obvious.

Imagine that you’re a savvy Federal staffer in US Defense Military Health System Program. You’re excited by what the US Patent Office accomplished with its Peer to Patent program, eager to copy the success of Twestival 2008 which used Twitter to kick off events in 200 cities across the globe and raise $250,000 for water charities, and inspired by OSTP’s open government initiatives. So on Govloop, or on your blog, you pose the question: “what’s the business case for Gov2.0 (or social media or Web2.0 or Twitter)?”

and … crickets – a kiss of death for the conversation. You may get some well-meaning feedback from others who have confronted the same challenge, but the thread runs out pretty quickly. It seems that no on can help you.

What happened? You’ve focused your readers towards technology (Twitter? Youtube? Maybe a wiki?) and generalities (“communication is good”; “crowdsourcing rocks!”), and away from the relationships, mission, history, and other specifics of your organization that would give you and your readers the raw materials to create the business case.

Worse, we’ve all become distracted from your unique role in this conversation: you know the agency’s goals, its current challenges, what keeps senior management awake at night, what appropriations they’re looking forward to, and what headlines they’re dreading. You know that, or ought to. The rest of us don’t.

So, consider, instead, this conversation opener:

I work for the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs. As you may remember, one of my boss’s predecessors was featured in the Washington Post’s 2007 expose of poor conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and we’re still working to rebuild trust with injured soldiers and their families. We’re also trying to strengthen our relationships with medical researchers. And, by the way, we run TRICARE, the military’s HMO, and we’re working hard to keep the program affordable, with low deductibles and co-pays. What Web2.0 tools would be useful to us and how should we measure results?***

Imagine the roaring conversation this would inspire:

  • Your readers from the Centers for Disease Control, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services will be typing their suggestions before they’ve finished reading your post.
  • Someone might point you in the direction of OrganizedWisdom — an aggregator of health expertise — and suggest that you to explore how you can engage your customers in becoming guides to military health issues
  • The success of PatientsLikeMe will be mentioned as a model for supporting the wounded warriors you serve.
  • Someone else might point you to Healing in Community Online, a sort of Second Life for patients and their families.

The question of metrics would become easier as well: TRICARE already surveys its beneficiaries regularly to determine how they perceive the accessibility and quality of care (and if you didn’t already know that, rest assured someone would tell you). Surely you could work some questions into that to evaluate your Gov2.0 initiative?

Now, with your help, your readers are brainstorming how your agency can accomplish its mission and deal with its challenges.

So, tell us about your agency’s key relationships, inside and outside government, and the ones that are most troubled, and watch the conversation explode.

(***Background on USDOD – Health Affairs is drawn from NAPA’s description of top “prune” jobs in the Federal Government. It might be an eye-opening exercise to review the other positions listed and brainstorm how Gov2.0 could, specifically, help each of these appointees.)

(Cross-posted from Govloop.)

Lessig: control transparency? No way!

Posted: October 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Ethics, Government, Transparency | Tags: , | 2 Comments »

I doubt that Lawrence Lessig or his editors meant to set a trap when they titled his article “Against Transparency”. Nonetheless, they’ve bagged some prominent bloggers, who all assume that the piece argues that transparency can and should be controlled:

  • “Larry supplies a very cogent argument against the disclosure of too much data from Congressional members.” (Brian Drake)
  • “Naked transparency, the thinking goes, is really a push for Congress to talk its coat off…. In other words, an extremist position has the effect of simply tugging the political center closer towards openness” (Nancy Scola)
  • “He’s against transparency as the sole requirement for political reform, and he’s against the transparent dumping of data without tools for making sense of it.” (David Weinberger)

Drake, Scola, and Weinberger make broader arguments that are well worth reading, but in these sections, they miss Lessig’s point. As I read him, arguing for restrictions on transparency make as little sense as arguing that hurricanes and earthquakes should spare larger cities. And”naked transparency” is no mere rhetorical ploy, just as a tsunami warning is a rather more than suggestion that sunbathers move their towels a few feet up the shore.

(Weinberger has written at least three posts in response to Lessig. In his first piece, a careful walkthrough, he catches Lessig’s point precisely, when he writes “We can’t fight the Net’s lessening of control over info…. We need solutions that accept the Net’s effect.” In a second piece, Weinberger both gets and misses this point . He’s correct in noting that, in warning of the catastrophe of cynicism transparency may create, Lessig is no Internet triumphalist. But, contra Weinberger, Lessig is in a sense a determinist when he argues that transparency can’t be stopped.)

Lessig’s point is that transparency is inexorable. Just as newspapers have failed to restrict Google News and Craigslist, and as the recording industry has largely failed in its legal and technological efforts to restrict file-sharing, efforts to restrict transparency will fail as well:

In all these cases, the response to the problem is to attack the source of the problem: the freedom secured by the network. In all these cases, the response presumes that we can return to a world where the network did not disable control.

But the network is not going away.

He has serious concerns about transparency, but he spends not a word arguing that it should be restricted. Instead, he seeks

a solution … that accepts that transparency is here to stay–indeed, that it will become ever more lasting and ever more clear–but that avoids the harms that transparency creates…

More about this later, but puh-leeze note that Lessig’s point is that transparency is inexorable, not that it can be restriced.

Lessig: “Anti-corruption transparency” is inexorable; cynicism is not.

Posted: October 13th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Civic engagement, Ethics, Transparency | Tags: , | 1 Comment »

Lawrence Lessig’s recent “Against Transparency: The perils of openness in government” in the New Republic, has generated controversy and comment, in part because it has been misread as an argument that information on political and financial influence should be restricted rather than released.

This post summarizes the parts of his article that pertain to the current government transparency movement and his cautions, criticisms, and remedies. Later posts will summarize some reactions from Carl Malamud, Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation, and others, and then offer my take.

Focus: “Anti-corruption transparency”, which …

Lessig is concerned with one one specific kind of transparency: projects intended to reveal improper influence or outright corruption, e.g. by correlating incentives provided to legislators, such as campaign contributions, with the their votes.
Transparency is good when information is provided in usable form to those who are able to use it wisely, e.g. the miles per gallon ratings which guide individuals as they buy automobiles.   Consumers can benefit from “mpg transparency” without much effort.

… misleads us because we don’t pay enough attention.

In contrast, benefitting from what one might term “anti-corruption transparency” requires a long attention span.
But people, often quite rationally, limit the attention they devote to interpreting information. Indeed, politics has become the art of exploiting short attention spans, “tagging your opponent with barbs that no one has time to understand, let alone analyze”.

So, in too many cases, we jump to the conclusion that money has bought a vote…

Unfortunately, what others call “connecting the dots” is the path of least resistance.. For instance, a journalist or an opponent highlights that First Lady Clinton opposed the Bankruptcy Bill in 2000, that soon to be Senator Clinton received $140,000 in campaign contributions from credit card and financial services firms later that year, and that she voted for the bill in 2001.  Although there are many reasons why she might have switched her position, “[e]veryone … ‘knows’ just why she switched, don’t they?” We connect the dots.
Lessig argues, in contrast, that “[a]ll the data in the world will not tell us whether a particular contribution bent a result by securing a vote … that otherwise would not have occurred.”
Anti-corruption transparency is problematic because of “its structural insinuations–its constant suggestions of a sin that is present sometimes but not always”.

… and become cynical about government, and that’s bad.

It is already the “opinion of the vast majority of the American people, [that Congress] sells its results to the highest bidder”, and anti-corruption transparency, “unqualified or unrestrained by other considerations”, will just make this worse. He wants to to reduce this cynicism.

But this transparency can’t be stopped.

But we will not find the answer to our problems in a Luddite counterattack: “The network is not going away…. [T]ransparency is here to stay–indeed, … it will become ever more lasting and ever more clear….”

Instead, let’s restructure campaign finance.

Instead, the solution is “[a] system of publicly funded elections [which] would make it impossible to suggest that the reason some member of Congress voted the way he voted was because of money…”. “Qualified candidates” would be provided with a publicly funded “grubstake”, then permitted to raise additional funds from citizens up to a low cap. $100 per person per cycle.
This will increase people’s trust in Congress “by establishing a system in which no one could believe that money was buying results”.


See also these noteworthy reactions from around the web:

CAP’s great Twitter 101 – and ways to make it even better

Posted: September 25th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Civic engagement, Social networking | Tags: | No Comments »

What was good.

Returned earlier today from a useful Twitter 101 session hosted by CAP’s Alan Rosenblatt at the Internet Advocacy Roundtable.  It was great. The next one could be even better, if we could learn more about what the presenters knew in their bones (see bottom).

Like many discussions on how to get started with social media, the conversation bounced around.

Tech: twazzup,  übertwitter for blackberry , and hootsuite were new to me and look interesting. Much more on Twtter resources here, courtesy of Shaun Dakin.

Stories: AAUW is drawn out of silent lurkerdom when they respond to a tweet from a disappointed soon to be ex-member who has misinterpreted a local chapter’s action; conversation results, the member is mollified and AAUW managers see the value. Dakin’s carefully nurtured network of robocall sleuths identifies the first (known) robo-sex-call one night, and the next day, the news hits the Rachel Maddow show.(I realized Dakin is, in effect, the real-time web’s ombudsperson for robocalls. )

Tips: Twitter is a tool, not a strategy. When you start, decide what your voice is going to be. Keep your twitter stream focused  – eclectic is ok, but beware that if you veer from months of all business to throwing in your sports enthusiasms, you’ll lose followers. (Via @epolitics)  Why would you want to hear only from people who agree with you? (Via @digitalsista)

Get senior manager’s buy-in by getting him/her on the rostrum for a new media conference, and let the infectious energy work its magic (Via @GloPan)

Conservatives tend to cluster around a few hashtags, e.g. #tcot, while progressives tend to use specific hashtags for specific issues. (This seems important, perhaps because it demonstrates degree of focus.)  (Via  @digitalsista)

Effectiveness requires listening, which amounts to research, and it’s hard, time consuming work.  (Via @henrim)

What would have made today’s session even better?

One of the presenters crystallized this for me when he insisted that the social – non-technical – aspects of using twitter could only be discovered in practice, not taught, and that it was more art than science.  But there are more than a few art schools, and though you can’t teach inspiration, you can teach craft.

I suspect that today’s presenters (and more than a few audience members) knew in their bones more than they could say about how to do it well. These questions might have helped:

  • How do you insert yourself in conversations and get heard?
  • What are your rules of thumb for getting started on a new campaign?
  • When you “listen” to Twitter, how do you do it, what do you listen for, and when and how do you respond?
  • When you’ve “fallen off the horse” in your use of Twitter, how do you get back on?

I’m sure that the presenters did their best to tell us all they knew how to say, but I doubt they told us all they knew how to do. I’m hungry for more.

Realize that the IT National Dialogue is not Digg, and take it to the next level

Posted: May 1st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Civic engagement | Tags: | No Comments »

The Recovery Accountability And Transparency Board (RATB) is sponsoring a public, web-based dialogue on promising IT to support transparency and accountability of the Administration’s Recovery Act spending. It is groundbreaking. However, seeming parallels with Digg, Slashdot, and other social media sites are misleading. Indeed, they obscure steps that could still be taken to make this effort, and future efforts, highly effective models of citizen engagement and transparency. Clay Shirky is a wise observer of the rise of easy online collaboration processes for large groups. His work provides us with a framework to clarify the ways in which the effort is fundamentally unlike many more familiar social networks and to suggest tweaks that would help it realize its unique potential.

Shirky’s Promise, Tool, Bargain

In Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky argues that successful web-based coordination communities meet three challenges:

  1. A plausible promise – not too mundane, not too sweeping – that persuades would be participants to join the group
  2. A useful tool that supports the desired coordination, and
  3. A bargain that develops through interaction and over time, often implicitly, which specifies what participants can expect and what is expected of them

For instance,’s promise is that it provides personal value – storing your bookmarks and making them accessible from anywhere – from the get go. The tagging component of Flickr provides a tool that makes it easier for members to connect with other participants who have posted similar photos, famously, of the Coney Island mermaid parade. And the bargain for Flickr’s “Black and White Maniacs” group requires that participants who have posted a photo immediately comment on at least two other photos, in order to keep an interaction going.

How does the National Dialogue website fare on Shirky’s criteria?

Promise: the good stuff is vague

The introduction bills the Dialogue as an opportunity to help the Administration keep its commitment to make Recovery spending transparent and accountable:

Your ideas can directly impact how operates and ensure that
our economic recovery is the most transparent and accountable in history….

Participants can refine these ideas in open discussion, and vote the best ones to the top.

The call for participation email message from 4/23 notes

The results of the dialogue will be reviewed for the most innovative suggestions around making a more effective portal for transparency.

The “about” page makes a commitment:

Upon the close of this dialogue on May 3rd, 2009, the President’s Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board will review the results of this discussion.

The promise is vague, but might be glossed as “you can put your proposal in front of us – the government – and we will review it carefully”.

Unlike the first promise of Delicious, does not promise to serve the participant in a direct or tangible way, nor to connect him or her with other participants.
Further, the central part of the promise – “we will review it carefully” – in fact happens mostly outside of the tool, indeed, out of sight.

(More on apparent listening/reviews already underway.]

Tool: the payoff happens offline and out of sight

The website seems adequate for the first part of the promise – participants can submit proposals quite easily and there is a tutorial as well. There is little to go on to determine how well the tool serves the review process. Since proposals can be sorted by average user rating and number of comments and the invitation states that participants can vote the best ideas to the top, we can infer that these criteria will be used to select the proposals for review. But, again, it’s vague – the top 10 ideas? The top 10%?

An even bigger question is whether voting and commenting by fellow participants are appropriate features, given the promise and purpose. Digg and Slashdot are misleading models for they support lateral communication between participants. For Digg or Slashdot, the reading audience is also the voting audience. supports, instead, vertical and asymmetric communication – from participants up to RATB IT staff. These ultimate “idea consumers” are as far as we know not the voters or commentators on the site. Thus, it’s plausible and even reasonable that Federal IT staff will evaluate and adopt ideas with low ratings or few comments. So, how will participant ratings of ideas be helpful to them?

Further, one could imagine situations where voting is actively counterproductive – if a small company or one person firm proposes an idea that is feasible and valuable but contrary to the interests of a large IT company whose employees are participating in force on the site, the behemoth could easily and conclusively vote down the dangerous (to them) idea. It is to the credit of the participants that this doesn’t appear to be happening, but it does raise the question of why voting is a feature on this site.

(In a future post, I’ll examine ways in which the RATB could create future events that explicitly supported participant to participant interaction as an appropriate part of the promise, tool, and bargain, but for this post I’ll focus solely on the Dialogue as an event for suggesting IT ideas for Federal review and adoption.)

Bargain: “Wham, bam, thank you, citizens” is not the way to go

The core of the Shirky’s notion of bargain is that it evolves over time and that it is as much or more a matter of participants’ understanding, assumptions, and expectations as it is of any “fine print” or “terms of use”. Kevin Rose of Digg discovered in 2007 this when his users revolted against his efforts to complete with legal demands from MPAA to remove information from Digg that could be used to crack HD DVD encryption. Digg users’ expectation was that they controlled what was voted up and Rose quickly realized that his community would disintegrate unless he bowed to their wishes.

With only one week allotted for the current discussion, is not yet in a position to benefit from an evolving bargain – there’s no time for it to develop.

Inches from greatness: Suggested improvements

I’ve worked with the Federal Government, notably on an early web-conference in support of then Vice President Gore’s Reinventing Government initiative – similar in some respects to this effort – , and I’m fully aware that the perfect can be the enemy of the good.

It is remarkable that this site exists, and I think it provides a great foundation for future efforts. It also makes sense to view this event in a broader context and consider additions and changes that build relationships not only for this event, but also for similar events in the future. So I’d like to focus on where RATB could take it from here.

Clarify and bolster the promise of careful review

RATB should recognize that some of the lessons from Digg, Slashdot, and similar social media sites do not apply, to the extent that this site is for asymmetrical communication between developers and idea-mongers on one side and Federal IT staff on the other and tune the explicit promise with this in mind.

RATB should clarify whether each idea will be reviewed and, if not, how comments and ratings will be used to prioritize ideas for review, and announce this clarified promise on the site and in email in the coming days.

At this point, it seems likely that the total number of ideas will come to less than 600.
It would not be unreasonable for participants to expect that each idea will get at least one thoughtful comment. In any case, RATB should be explicit, transparent even, about this.

Align the tool with the promise – make the review transparent

To fulfill the promise of careful review for ideas, RATB could require that its IT reviewers use this site for comments and votes on the ideas, rather than doing the review offline and out of view. Comments and votes could be anonymous, if necessary. But thoughtful feedback, on the substance of the ideas, their feasibility in the ARRA context, and on the way participants presented them, could be a huge win for participants. And it would be a tangible fulfillment of this site’s promise.

For future events, RATB and others in the Administration should consider whether voting and rating is appropriate, given the differences in social context between Digg and these events.

Build the bargain for the future: there will be more dialogues

Shirky reminds us that the bargain develops, organically and implicitly, over time.

If you look carefully, you’ll see that the content of the earlier Health IT dialogue from October 2008 is still present on From what I can tell, the profiles and userids of the previous event are entirely disjunct with this event.

I’d suggest that future dialogues break the precedent of discontinuity and, instead, build explicitly from this event. RATB should invite current participants to continue to follow the development of via a specific feed (email, twitter, blog). People arriving in a week or a month or a year should of course also be invited to join, but current participants should be treated, welcomed, and celebrated as “early adopters” and pioneers.

In addition to using the site to present Federal IT staff comments and ratings, it could also be used for new ideas, initiated either by RATB or by ordinary participants. The need for new ideas and the inevitable generation of new ideas surely won’t stop on May 3rd.

Keeping the site “hot” would jumpstart subsequent dialogues and build a base of participants who are wise both in the use of the tool itself, and in the issues and constraints involved in Federal IT issues.

RATB might also draw on its interagency relationships to bring promising ideas to the attention of IT staff in other Departments and Agencies. Minimally, it could send email showing other IT managers how to use the tags and the search engine for a quick review of ideas that may be of interest to them. (Imagine a headline highlighting a small business that used this Dialogue to grow its relationship not only with RATB but with another Federal agency, with great benefits to transparency and efficiency.)

More on listening efforts [back]
It is too soon to tell whether the promise will be fulfilled, but two things suggest that some amount of review is already happening:

First, as of 3pm ET on Friday afternoon, Google reveals that 13 of the roughly 400 ideas have received comments from participants who are designated “dialogue catalysts”, notably one person from the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board. A tweet from @Natldialogue describes the catalysts’ role as trying “to ask focusing [questions and ] add detail [to] discussions; they promote further exploration w/o a particular POV”. A review of the catalysts’ comments suggests that they are meeting their goal, typically encouraging the author of the idea and asking in specific ways for more information. But why for only 3% of the ideas?

Second, mass email from the organizers to the participants on the morning of the fifth day noted:

The Dialogue has brought forth lively discussion on how to make a place where the public can monitor the expenditure and use of recovery funds. The growing number of users and ideas posted on the site in just a few days illustrate how interested the IT community is in impacting the operation of….

Now with three days left in this week-long Recovery Dialogue, we are receiving some interesting and thoughtful submissions. However, there are a few key concepts around which we need your ideas and approaches.

This could be read as a direct reaction to the ideas posted, but given its vagueness, it’s equally plausible that this email was drafted before the Dialogue began.

You can’t “own” a social network, but maybe you can teach it.

Posted: December 5th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Democratic businesses, Social networking | Tags: | No Comments »

Craig Stoltz writes that it’s a mistake for Obama or anyone else to look for ways to use his extensive social network to govern. Instead, the instigator (for lack of a better word) should/can use the social network as a place to listen to the community and, respectfully, to join the conversation.

So far, so good. But there’s another opportunity: if you’re part of the conversation, you can also teach people. That’s a lesson from democratic businesses, such as Jack Stack’s Springfield Remanufacturing. Stack committed a long time ago to an employee-run business, and found that training is crucial:

Nobody can think and act like an owner without understanding the basic rules of business….
We start with the idea that there are two things every company must do to stay in business: make money and generate cash…. [E]mployees learn about all the subtle and not-so-subtle challenges of doing these two things in the various industries in which we compete.

How could the Obama Administration encourage the development
of primers on key issues? On any contentious issue, various parties would want to have their say — I can’t imagine the conservative Club for Growth letting the Service Employees International Union frame the issue of labor organizing rules, or vice-versa, and neither organization would want to leave the framing to the Administration. Or perhaps the Administration could make available the information they’re considering as they come to policy decisions. Jack Stack relies on Open Book management. What’s the equivalent here?

Links: search Citizentools resource links for more information on open book management.

User stories for open government?

Posted: December 1st, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Design, Transparency | Tags: | No Comments »

As we build tools that make government more accessible, are we addressing the actual needs and wants of citizens, or the needs and wants we wish they had?

In Sunlight Foundation’s Open House/Open Senate Project discussion, Clay Shirky wrote:

Without a middle step that helps large, disorganized groups take advantage of the newly transparent information, transparency may in fact further increase the net asymmetry betwee ‘interest group with lobbyists’ vs. ‘interest groups without lobbyists’ in getting the Government to craft the needed bargains their way.

The extreme programming technique of defining “user stories” to be
handled by the software could be useful here. One format is

As a (role) I want (something) so that (benefit).

Possible user stories:

  1. As a voter wondering whether to respond to Politician X’s
    fundraising appeal, I want a summary of his track record on Issue Y so
    that I can decide quickly whether to send him $25.

  2. As an “Issue Y” voter, I want to know whether today is the day I
    should spend the four hours a year I have budgeted for calls and email
    to my Senator, and what I should say to him, so that my four hours
    have as much impact as possible on the Federal Government.

  3. As a policy analyst, I want to identify the Senator who has been
    most vocal and consistent with my position on Issue Y, so can I get a
    Senatorial hold placed on a bad bill. (e.g. )

  4. As an investigative reporter, I want to know what changed in seven
    months, so that I can explain why FISA legislation that failed in
    December 2007 then passed in July 2008.

  5. As a mash-up programmer, I want access to the geographical
    locations of all the sites earmarked for funding in Bill Z, so I can
    place them on a Google Map.

More on user stories:

The power of shared awareness, pt 1 of many …

Posted: December 1st, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Ethics, Shared awareness | Tags: | No Comments »

Steven Clift:

the honest truth is that people have more influence when they generate new public opinion online. I saw this in E-Democracy.Org’s MN-POLITICS e-mail forum way back in 1994 and even more so in our local forums – . Why do these spaces work? They have real voters within political jurisdictions communicating in public. This freaks out many elected officials because they can see it and they know the media does too.

Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody, p. 163:

The military often talks about “shared awareness,” which is the ability of many different people and groups to understand a situation, and to understand who else has the same understanding. If I see a firebreak out, and I see that you see it as well, we may more easily coordinate our actions – you call 911, I grab a fire extinguisher…. This kind of social awareness has three levels: when everybody knows somehting, when everybody knows that everybody knows, and when everybody knows that everybody knows that everybody knows.

I’d add: when I know that you know that I know, I also know that you’ll be able to hold me to account – you know that I saw the fire, and can judge my action or inaction in that light. (I read recently that participation in social networking regarding politics also increases people’s propensity to write letters to the editor – one civic version of helping to “put out the fire”.)