“U.S. prosecutors and defense attorneys for five defendants in the September 11 attacks dug in on Sunday for a long legal battle that one lawyer said may never be resolved.” - Reuters, 5/6/12
In our last post regarding Transparency Camp 2012 — a gathering of open data/open government activists hosted by the Sunlight Foundation — we touched on the concept that each of us has a role to play in the push for a better, more accountable government.
The initiative is a complex one. Just like the popular aphorism that “beauty is in the eye of a beholder,” to what extent “better government” looks like is visualized in many different ways by many different people. No single parameter defines what a better government means to every American.
The process itself is not easy, either. There are layers upon layers to our government, and all need improvement in not only how government serves citizens, but how it is held accountable as well. But, the multiple layers, divisions, sections, agencies, bureaucracies, and outside entities (such as government contractors) make government — from federal level down to local municipalities — too large, and too expansive, to be tackled in a single front.
And, that’s where we all have a role to play.
A Functioning Government
A better government won’t come from one place. It will originate from multiple initiatives through the cooperation of groups across the civic space. In the Gov 2.0 and open government movement, this is happening.
However, there appears to be one aspect absent. This missing element can be encapsulated in a tweet by Code for America Executive Director Jennifer Pahlka:
@pahlkadot:…technologists are more interested in getting the government to function than they are in getting their guy elected http://bit.ly/JQ5Iuf
The article Pahlka references in her Tweet is here. It largely discusses how open data and open government technologists are pushing Gov 2.0 forward. And, skimmerhat couldn’t be happier about this. But, the troubling part of Pahlka’s quote is that she seems to minimize the value of government policy and representation. This theme — we can help the government function through our ingenuity, sans politics – is inherent in Code for America’s overall branding.
Even more troubling is the trend to distance oneself from politics or political motivation, which seems to be pervasive throughout the Gov 2.0, open data and open government movements in the civic space.
It’s not that this separation isn’t understandable. Politics is complicated, divisive and in many cases, downright hideous. Politics has become such a “dirty word” that it is often avoided in conversation with family and friends.
But, we can’t afford to ignore politics, no matter how messy it may be. If we do, things will only worsen.
A recent Politico article titled “Congress: It’s going to get worse” sums up the state of our nation:
As it stands, Congress is more polarized than at any time since Reconstruction, according to data compiled by Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal, political scientists who study congressional voting.
And getting more polarized, they correctly argue.
When presented with such a bleak picture, it makes sense that many technologists, hackers, and developers are reluctant to take a political stand when they can be effective in other areas that lack the divisiveness. They may also believe that they must first make an impact in other areas of government before tackling the political process or that too much emphasis is traditionally put on politics.
Unfortunately, this approach is much like trying to fix the engine on a car with a flat tire. It may run better, but you’re still not going to go real far.
Using the “Force”
Having an app for uncovering fire hydrants, or a platform to take a picture and report a problem with traffic lights are great examples of making government more efficient through civic hacking. And, creating APIs for data that previously were buried deep into a filing cabinet is indispensable for making government more transparent.
These endeavors compare to policy work on issues on civil liberties, tax reform and regulation — which are policy areas necessary to the lives of Americans across the country. And, this policy work is just as needed as the work of new APIs (as was discussed in the Hacking Society conversation a couple weeks ago).
Here’s why: In another recent Politico article, a Pew survey showed that it’s been 15 years since Americans haven been as disgusted with the Federal government as they are today:
Today, just one in three has a favorable view of the federal government — the lowest level in 15 years, according to a Pew survey. The majority of Americans remain satisfied with their local and state governments — 61 percent and 52 percent, respectively — but only 33 percent feel likewise about the federal government.
Voices aren’t being heard. People aren’t being represented.
It’s the car with a new engine, but a flat tire. Government may begin to run more efficiently — which benefits all citizens. But, if government isn’t listening to those citizens, we’re still not moving in a positive direction as a country.
Now, imagine applying the strength of Gov 2.0 — which already promotes engagement, transparency and accountability — to make better sense of the “p” word, and make sense of candidates involved in politics. And, not just on the “backend,” after candidates are in office, but on the frontend, too — when candidates are competing for votes in the electoral process.
Skimmerhat envisions this ideal in a system that allows Americans to find the candidates they want to believe in before they are given the limited slate of options on a general election ballot. And, to sidestep the current polarization of politics, we want to build a non-partisan way of finding these candidates.
Our idea uses the momentum of Gov 2.0 as a way for individuals and small donors to unite behind ideas, allowing individual citizens to directly influence the direction of the country — even in the age of PACs and Super PACs.
Imagine lowering the barrier to entry for citizens and candidates alike.
Then imagine this working in tandem with all of the other aspects of Gov 2.0, where data is more accessible and transparent, and where government is more accountable.
Would our government improve?
We think so, made possible through the power of citizen engagement — a core tenet of organizations like Code for America.
A Goal to Pursue Consistently
It won’t be easy. It will be infinitely more difficult than writing about it in a blog entry. After all, there is no utopia where Americans will be in 100 percent approval of the federal government.
However, just because it’s a challenge doesn’t mean we should avoid it, or ignore the problem altogether.
In a post by David Eaves — where he addresses Tom Slee’s post about the open data movement being a joke — he writes:
Open data is not the solution for Open Government (I don’t believe there is a single solution, or that Open Government is an achievable state of being - just a goal to pursue consistently), and I don’t believe anyone has made the case that it is. I know I haven’t. But I do believe open data can help. Like many others, I believe access to government information can lead to better informed public policy debates and hopefully some improved services for citizens (such as access to transit information). I’m not deluded into thinking that open data is going to provide a steady stream of obvious “gotcha moments” where government malfeasance is discovered, but I am hopeful that government data can arm citizens with information that the government is using to inform its decisions so that they can better challenge, and ultimately help hold accountable, said government.
As we mentioned at the outset of this post: there is no one approach to solving this problem. The solution combines multiple approaches that, when working together, can create a real plan for change.
Advocates of open data, open government and Gov 2.0 are creating the tools to arm Americans with more power, and creating them under the umbrella of a better, more accountable government. We’re building a process of finding and funding our representatives motivated by the same goal.
We’re all under the same umbrella.