Open Government - Issues


The Obama Adminstration is committed to an open and transparent government, leveraging current technology and principles of business and public sector collaboration that are revolutionizing the way we work and live.  This generation is writing their own encyclopedia (, spreading information virally (,, blogs), and is constantly connected to their friends and colleagues through cell-phone texting and other social media. 

This is not only about technology, but behaviors.  Books such as Shirky’s “Here Comes Everybody,” Covey’s “Speed of Trust,” Barabasi’s “Linked,” Surowiecki’s “The Wisdom of Crowds” and Tapscott’s “Wikinomics” point to the power of networked minds to sense, attend, and act.  What we are seeing is a convergence of technology and networked social behaviors and the effect on organizations.  In science, we see the convergence of network science and complexity.  The hallmark of globalization is simply the unparalleled depth and breadth of our universal connections.

We have come a long way from the “CNN effect” noted during the 1990 Gulf War, when private industry connected citizens to government information on a (then) unprecedented scale.  Technologies and citizen expectations continue to evolve, such that it is now time for government to become proactive and thoughtful regarding a potential transformation in how we govern, coordinate, and collaborate in the world's oldest Democracy.

The “seat at the table” initiative during the Transition marked an extraordinary step away from previous transitions and policy deliberations.  Washington has a history of boardroom politics combined with a “culture of leaks;” leading to many off-the-record “non-meetings” to consider policy options. This allows interest groups to advance their agenda in a closed market of ideas, where the citizen and long-term innovation are not well served.  We wish to explore the vastly increased opportunity for disseminating government information, coordinating across “the interagency,” and opening up decision-making to allow for broader participation in addressing the many challenges in the nation’s inbox.

One critical aspect of mass collaboration is the serendipitous connections that can be made.  One value of the Twitter concept is the persistent presence application – an ongoing party line conversation that includes shared links, observations, and general information.  The UK Prime Minister has 5,000 followers, which doesn’t sound like much until you realize that information of broad interest is likely to be re-broadcast across the networks each of those followers joins.  This is a network standing by to provide loose connections across international information networks.  If the Prime Minister sends a note of import, it will quickly spread as a virus.  It will appear on the 5,000 followers, some of whom will re-transmit it as a repeater network. In addition, people who have RSS feeds set against specific search terms that occur across the Twitter conversations will receive the information.

We need to stop thinking of collaboration as only associated with a specific team or problem.  We may want to establish connections with people in order to anticipate trust networks we may need in the future.  

Some Issues

  • What constitutes a Government Record?  Recently, the Obama team learned that they could not use Instant Messenging software on White House networks.  This is akin to banning hallway conversations.  We need to revisit the idea that everything digitized is a Record, just because it can be recorded.  (Hallway conversations can also be recorded, cf. Nixon.)
  • Access - One significant caveat – while the embedding of internet technologies and networked behaviors are changing how we live and work, one unintended consequence is a widening gap between the connected and the disconnected. The obligation to national broadband is therefore vital to maintaining the socio-economic mobility that defines the American dream.  Access to internet technologies is the latest national obligation to connect our people that began with the railroad, and continued with the telephone and the national highway system.
  • Citizen Trust - Simply put: Data accuracy must be assured, and individual privacy must be protected.
  • Authentication -  While there are significant political obstacles, without a common way for citizens to authenticate against federal online resources – we will proliferate user credentialing information across multiple servers and data centers.  Current policy prohibits federal web pages from storing any information about citizens (e-commerce sites use persistent 'cookies,' but federal systems are prohibited from doing so).  In practice, when it comes to citizens, federal web sites are stateless.  Increasingly, people are used to the sites they visit storing information about them, and many even use their browser client applications to store passwords.  Nevertheless, Government web sites present a significant challenge because they cannot “remember” citizens or interactions, even when facing the same needs regarding ‘constituent relationship management’ as these e-commerce sites.  The technical challenges are significant, but identity management on a large scale has been achieved in industry and in environments such as Army Knowledge Online and the Navy Marine Corps Intranet. Privacy advocates will point up the dangers of a citizen authentication process, the challenge here will be protecting individual information while helping the citizenry understand that this is the 21st century version of a “government-issued photo ID.” Americans are used to the need for driver’s license or other “government-issued photo ID” to gain access to automobiles or commercial aircraft; or while using a credit card.  While the connected nature of online authentication increases vulnerability to mischief, this is the next step in accessing public goods for a citizenry who already accepts the need for driver’s licenses, passports, etc. 
  • Cyber Security - In early December 2008, the web address (URL) for CheckFree – one of the largest online bill payment companies – was hijacked.  Specifically, the web address redirected users to a website in Ukraine for several hours, a website that attempted to install password-stealing software. A Gartner analyst estimates that CheckFree controls between 70 and 80 percent of the U.S. online bill pay market.  There are initial indications that the attack was aimed at the registrar for the CheckFree site, Network Solutions.  In other words, CheckFree’s customers were put at risk by a vendor whose security procedures were entirely outside the control of the target for the attack.  In the value network that connects the customer to the good, there are multiple vulnerabilities that are exploited daily. A significant challenge facing the Obama Administration will be to secure this value network against this threat to individual wealth and national security.