Friday, January 23, 2009

Obama - Communication, Transparency and Participation

The George W. Bush debacle finally has ended (although we'll be feeling the hangover for years, I'm sure). President Obama already has taken many important symbolic steps to restoring the honor and integrity of our nation, including promising to close the Guantanamo Bay "detention center." One other announcement that should be celebrated is this blog posting by Macon Phillips, the Director of New Media for the White House:

Change has come to the White House

In that missive, Obama promises a government in the future that offers timely and in-depth information about legislation and administration of our country. Through modern technology, he also commits to creating a new level of participation through such devices and the most open and transparent administration in history. Hurray!

I also read recently Wired magazine's piece on Obama and the ways in which he embraces technology (Wired magazine's piece on Obama), which raised many insights into the challenges Obama faces in implementing this grand plan of openness.

That starts with the federal government's 24,000 independent web sites, many of which are out of date or abandoned, the do-nothing bureaucrats that generally inhabit many of our public institutions and the red tape (even if that initially was well-intentioned) that has become obsolete as the Internet has evolved and rules of public discourse have changed. In short, this is going to be as daunting of a task as turning around the economy, especially after eight years of driving hard the opposite direction. It's a bit like looking up at the peak of Mount Everest. But, especially from my perspective as a journalist, this is a critical and fundamental shift that will be difficult at first but pay massive dividends to democracy in the long run.

If the country's true goal was autocracy or disenchantment of everyone but the wealthy and elite, as it appeared to be the past eight years, this would not be a priority. If the goal is to become the world's beacon of democracy -- what we claim we want -- there is no higher calling than doing public business in the public's eye and letting the will of the people dictate our direction and let an open-source form of government blossom. It will be messy, of course, but fantastically worthwhile. Can you imagine this idea Obama has that the public could go online and comment on public legislation before it goes through the political pipeline? Wow!

That said, I'm not sure exactly how this Web. 2.0 approach will work with government. It's tedious enough with our representatives trying to get things done, let alone someone having to sift through in that process 14,000 variations of "ths law totlly suks!!!" It still will be just a slice of the population engaged. But that slice is bigger than what was involved before. Once the growing pains are overcome, I think we will be much better off with this approach.

One key statement I heard from Obama recently was that even though public disclosure of information may legally be withheld, by technicalities in the law, even under the Freedom of Information Act, he wants public servants to instead err on the side of disclosure and only keep things confidential that absolutely must be protected, say in the name of national security. This is a major mind shift for most of the public servants I have interacted with over the years, who seem to protect public information like it's a form of job security.

If only the newspaper industry wasn't imploding right now, I'd forecast a renaissance of investigative journalism under such a mandate. As it is, I'm afraid this new window might just open (and maybe close) without people reaping the many benefits ... or even noticing. Certainly those with pet issues will take advantage of these opportunities, and if the government kept closing down its information pipelines, I fear that democracy in this country might exist only in name. But maybe with this new approach by the government, new media can take advantage and go beyond the current state of celebrity gossip and weather coverage and establish that watchdog journalism can live in the 21st century. For the sake of us all, I hope so.

Questions I have: Will this new push by Obama for transparency and an open government get support and be well-received? Or will this extremely important philosophical shift in our federal government get lost amid the bailouts and gas prices and wars and collapsing economy? Is transparency an attainable goal at the federal level? All it takes is one insecure bureaucrat somewhere in the line to shut things down. I'd make it a termination-level offense for failure to properly administer a FOIA request. That might get some attention.

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