Monday, November 17, 2008

Why don't we have open government and what can we do about it?

In a world of perfect open government, the relationship between citizens and government would work a lot like the relationship between a manager and her employees. Not only does the manager get to see everything the employees are working on, she also expects them to take the responsibility to summarize the information and present it to her periodically in a useful way. And if anything is suspicious, she has the chance to ask questions and even examine the original data or source material for the project.

In an ideal world, the government should work for us, and we as citizens would set the expectation of frequent updates with real transparency - not just government reports so dense that an entire field of consulting has sprung up just to translate them. (Try making your way through the GAO's 166-page report on itself without any help)

The reason we are stuck with this situation is because we as citizens have been bad managers of our government. For many years, we had low standards of transparency, we were passive consumers of whatever the media feeds us, and we didn't make openness a priority when we had a chance to exercise our vote. In some ways, we are starting to turn that around: citizens participating in journalism (bloggers pat themselves on the back!), calling our congressional representatives to protest the non-transparent bailout, and voting for the candidate who ran the more open campaign.

Still, there is no sign that we are about to get off our collective asses and start a real movement for transparency and access. This is where the Obama team comes in - they want to do it for us! Can that work? Can the government be the driving force behind government transparency?

We're kidding ourselves if we believe that the government acting alone will become more transparent, but that's the beauty of what the Obama team is trying to do (or what I think they're trying to do). They are trying to kick-start the American public into demanding access and influence in the way government runs. And maybe, just maybe, once they get the ball rolling, we will start demanding more and more openness.

If Obama can spark a change in culture we could find ourselves on a path to truly open government. Technology will be a crucial tool in achieving this culture change, just as it was a major factor in his campaign. Posting a weekly address on YouTube isn't a sign of openness on its own, but if more than 700,000 people have watched it, that could be the beginning of something great. If the country starts paying attention and getting involved, that could be the change we need.

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